Will Chinese Premier’s Soft Tone Work on the United States?

April 17, 2021 Updated: April 18, 2021


On April 13, Xinhua, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) mouthpiece, reported that Li Keqiang, the CCP’s premier, had a video conversation with U.S. business leaders and made a rare appearance using a soft tone, amidst an impasse between the Chinese regime and the United States. The CCP’s top brass has no choice but to put Li at the forefront of relations with the United States.

Although Li’s words were apparently much softer, they seem to be too different from the confrontational stance of the CCP in the previous period, and I wonder if such a message has made the U.S. government feel relieved or confused.

For many years, the CCP’s leader, in his capacity as chairman of the state, has been directly responsible for diplomacy with the United States, leaving the Chinese premier effectively out of the picture. Li is no exception, as he has been unable to be involved directly in U.S. relations during his eight-year tenure as premier, and has largely refrained from making speeches specifically aimed at the United States.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with former U.S. Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama on multiple occasions, proposing so-called head-of-state diplomacy, but Li had basically no direct involvement, and at most he may have been a sidekick. The sudden appearance of Li makes it difficult to confirm whether some kind of change has taken place within the CCP.

CCP Had No Choice But to Adopt a Gentle Manner

After Yang Jiechi, a member of the CCP’s Politburo and director of the Foreign Affairs Office, and Wang Yi, China’s state councilor and foreign minister, showed their wolf warrior diplomacy in March 2021 in Alaska, the CCP attacked on all fronts, repeatedly hardened its stance toward the United States, and increased its military provocation, to some extent pushing the new U.S. administration into a corner. President Joe Biden was not able to continue with his strategic patience, the U.S. government began to pick up a tough stance on the CCP, and was forced to revert to Trump’s sanctions strategy.

The CCP’s top brass messed up a potential opportunity to ease the China-U.S. tension. It tried to pressure the United States into concessions, only to have it backfire and the relationship deteriorate further. Now the CCP’s top members may finally realize that there has been a serious miscalculation, but apparently they are unwilling to admit it. At a time when they are in a difficult position, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has had to abandon its aggressive attitude, and the recent regular press conferences hosted by Zhao Lijian have temporarily stopped hurling abuses at the United States.

On April 10, the CCP held a commemorative event in Shanghai to mark the 50th year of its ping-pong diplomacy with the United States, with a video message from Cui Tiankai, the CCP’s ambassador to the United States, and though at last it was able to invite the U.S. consul general in Shanghai to be present, it was not able to invite the U.S. ambassador to China. The United States has only had a temporary chargé d’affaires in China since the last U.S. ambassador left in October 2020.

Epoch Times Photo
U.S. Consul General in Shanghai James Heller plays table tennis during a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of “ping-pong diplomacy,” at the International Table Tennis Federation museum in Shanghai on April 10, 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

The ping-pong diplomacy event was obviously not important enough for Wang Yi, the CCP’s foreign minister. He met with the Russian foreign minister, then visited the Middle East, and then met with the foreign ministers of Southeast Asian countries, apparently trying to forge an anti-U.S. coalition.

Xi Jinping himself cannot come out to express an attitude of softening his stance, otherwise he would be admitting to a major diplomatic blunder with the United States, which would make him look bad both internally and externally. Just three days ago, on April 7, Xi had a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in which he was still enticing the German leader to remain strategically independent and not to join the United States in the fight against the CCP.

Then Li Keqiang suddenly came out and used a softer tone toward the United States, which seemed to save face for Xi, but the signal he sent to the United States was rather confusing.

If Li were to take over diplomacy with the United States from now on, perhaps the United States would seriously consider what he says, but of course, the U.S. government knows that Li has no real power in diplomacy and that he is likely to retire in a year or so. Thus, Li’s words will hardly win much attention from the U.S. government.

If Xi is not willing to state his position directly, then he should remove Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, and designate other people for U.S. relations, so as to make it clear that the strategy of confrontation with the United States will be abandoned, which may bring some kind of change.

Li Keqiang Not Able to Make Breakthroughs

Wang Yi was also present at the video conversation with the U.S. business community that Li Keqiang participated in. Although Wang is nominally Li’s subordinate, Premier Li has no control over Wang, who is the foreign minister and a state councilor. It is more like Wang is supervising the situation to prevent Li from saying anything out of the ordinary.

Li was apparently instructed in advance, and a large number of speeches had been prepared for him, so he said the stereotype of upholding the principles of non-conflict and non-confrontation, mutual respect, cooperation, and win-win to push forward Sino-U.S. relations in the direction of overall stability.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attends the Third “1+6” Roundtable Dialogue at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on Nov. 6, 2018. (Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images)

Li also said that problems arising from cooperation should be solved in cooperation and that decoupling would not benefit anyone, and that he hoped to maintain the security and stability of the supply chain and the industrial chain.

The United States should have heard enough of these meaningless words.

Li also said that “the door to external opening will only get wider and wider,” but he had to explain the internal cycle, claiming that “on the one hand, the potential of the domestic market should be released continuously,” and “on the other hand, China’s large market of 1.4 billion people should be made more open, so that China will continue to be an important destination for foreign investment and a big market in the world,” and “to create a market environment where domestic and foreign enterprises are treated equally and compete fairly.”

I don’t know if Li believes these words himself. Xinhua surely would like to report what the U.S. representatives said, who echoed the rhetoric of avoiding conflict and confrontation and the disadvantages of decoupling, but I’m afraid such statements hardly represent what most people in the United States think.

The CCP’s top brass let Li talk with the United States with a softer tone, but Li had nothing new to say. The CCP is very unlikely to obtain a second chance of a high-level talk with the United States based on what Li said. The U.S. side should not be able to confirm whether Li’s words are just another play on words or whether they represent Xi’s real thoughts. What the U.S. government can do will probably be to continue to observe and not let down its guard easily.

Possible Changes Within the CCP

Li’s appearance may also mean that there are some subtle changes within the Politburo and its standing committee. Xi’s position of supremacy may be shaken, and some kind of compromise has been reached within the CCP for the time being. A second possibility is that the CCP has indeed walked into a blind alley in China-U.S. and international relations, which shows that the CCP is in fact very afraid of decoupling with the United States.

Whether Li was given the assignment or took the initiative in this difficult situation, Xi has not shown up for many days and has not made any important speeches. The CCP’s mouthpieces repeated its reports on the release of Xi’s books, Xi’s written instructions and letters, and Xi’s telephone conversations. Xi should still be in control of the military and able to direct the movement of the Liaoning aircraft carrier, but he seems unable to deploy more decisions, like he is trying to dodge internal questions as he is at his wits’ end.

I am afraid that Li Keqiang’s words will not resolve the stalemate in U.S.-China relations, but perhaps a major change in the CCP’s post-internal struggle could be of interest to the United States.

Yang Wei has been closely following China affairs for many years. He has been contributing political commentary on China for the Chinese language Epoch Times since 2019.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.