China stirs up nationalistic sentiment against US amid trade war

‘All trade wars are paper tigers’: Chinese media use Chairman Mao’s quotes and propaganda posters to stir up nationalistic sentiment against the US amid escalating tensions

  • China is rallying public support around its position in the trade dispute with US 
  • ‘If you want a trade war, we’ll fight you until the end,’ a CCTV anchor said
  • Harder line comes after days of muted responses to President Trump’s decision
  • Trump said on May 5 that he would hike tariffs on $200b worth of Chinese goods
  • He said on Tuesday that he is not backing off from his ‘squabble’ with China

China is rallying public support around its position in a trade dispute with the United States – with the help of Chairman Mao’s quotes and Chinese revolutionary poster art.

The ruling Communist Party is taking a more aggressive approach amid escalating tensions with the US – projecting stability and stirring up nationalistic sentiment in the process.

‘All trade wars are paper tigers,’ said a riff on a Communist propaganda poster showing People’s Liberation Army soldiers stamping on a pile of skulls. 

The poster alludes to Mao Zedong’s famous pronouncement in 1956 that ‘All reactionaries are paper tigers’ – a derogatory term which he also applied to American imperialism. 

‘All trade wars are paper tigers,’ said a riff on a Communist propaganda poster showing People’s Liberation Army soldiers stamping on a pile of skulls. The poster alludes to Mao Zedong’s famous pronouncement that ‘All reactionaries are paper tigers’ – a derogatory term which he also applied to American imperialism

China is rallying public support around its position in a trade dispute with the United States – enlisting Chairman Mao’s (left) quotes, tilapia, and Chinese revolutionary poster art 

‘If you want to negotiate, the door is open,’ anchor Kang Hui said Monday on state broadcaster CCTV. ‘If you want a trade war,’ however, he added, ‘we’ll fight you until the end.’

‘After 5,000 years of wind and rain, what hasn’t the Chinese nation weathered?’ Kang said.

The toughly-worded monologue on the banner evening news program followed days of muted official responses to President Donald Trump’s decision to hike tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese imports. 

Trump startled financial markets with his May 5 announcement that US tariffs would rise to 25 per cent from 10 per cent as of Friday.

After negotiations in Washington ended last week with no agreement, China retaliated Monday with higher tariffs on US$60 billion worth of American goods, raising duties of 5 per cent to 25 per cent.

President Donald Trump (right) expanded his tariff regime to include practically everything China exports to the US; Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) retaliated Monday but said his own tariffs won’t go into effect until June. The pair are pictured in November 2017

A social media post exhorting Chinese consumers to buy more tilapia to offset the effects of China’s ongoing economic dispute with the United States is published on WeChat

Then came the government’s public relations onslaught.

‘Overnight, we saw official media – in the People’s Daily, China Daily, CCTV – all run spots about the United States as being a problematic negotiating partner,’ said Jake Parker, vice president of China operations for the US-China Business Council.

President Xi Jinping, the ruling party’s most powerful leader in decades, has made China’s foreign policy more assertive while nurturing the growth of a red-blooded but tightly controlled nationalism.

The approach reflects a new willingness to allow a shift in domestic public opinion where the trade war is concerned, Parker said.

Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform which generally censors political discourse, has featured an unusual amount of tariff-related content since Monday. The site’s ranking of ‘trending topics,’ usually dominated by celebrity news, highlighted Kang’s monologue and the subject ‘American stock market plunges.’

President Donald Trump is not backing off from his ‘squabble’ with China over trade, regardless of the toll the dispute takes on the stock market and the US economy

Chinese President Xi Jinping is emerging as Trump’s most potent economic adversary on the world stage as he works to protect China’s trade advantages – which Trump claims are the result of former presidents’ mishandling 

 China announced Monday it would raise tariffs on $60 billion in US exports by next month, responding in kind to President Donald Trump’s decision last week to hike duties on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese merchandise

Internet users shared patriotic memes expressing confidence in China’s economy and contempt for the US The commentary echoes earlier times when the US and China were adversaries in the Korean War and for decades afterward.

Still, the nationalistic bent of social media comment is a poor measure of Chinese public opinion. 

In the past, the government has paid people to publish posts supporting party policies, and any expression of dissent faces strict censorship. 

One Weibo post simply asked what impact the trade war will have on ordinary people. A counter at the bottom of the post indicated that it had 1,290 comments, but none were viewable, and further comments were ‘prohibited.’

A number of Chinese exporters contacted by The Associated Press refused to comment on the record because they fear government retribution.

‘Let’s unite and buy, buy, buy’, reads a Chinese revolutionary poster art circulating on WeChat

A Chinese worker adjusts a hydraulic lift at a factory which produces construction machinery for export to many countries, including the US, in Jinan, in east China’s Shandong province

Beijing is trying to reassure worried Chinese businesses and consumers that the country is strong enough to withstand the trade conflict.

‘I think this administration is different from previous ones in its diplomatic policies,’ said Li Chanjuan, a manager at an insurance company. ‘People expect the government to make a tougher gesture.’

There are limits to how far the party will go in pushing public sentiment.

David Bandurski, a co-director of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, said the country’s current aim is to promote stability rather than foment patriotic fervor.

‘China is keen to project calm,’ he said. ‘The last thing it needs or wants is to whip up popular anger, which can turn quickly,’ sometimes in ways that the party can neither predict nor control.

People’s Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece, called the trade war ‘no big deal.’ 

China’s imports of soybeans from the US, once its biggest supplier, have dropped massively during Trump’s trade war; the president said Tuesday that he’s prepared to make up the gap through subsidies paid for with money from his anti-China tariffs

It also paid tribute to Jane Austen’s famed novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in a tongue-in-cheek critique of the Trump administration.

‘Pride makes it impossible for other people to love me, while prejudice makes it impossible for me to love others. Today a few American politicians are just like the characters that Austen assailed,’ the paper said.

CCTV on Wednesday aired interviews with both Chinese and American economists who condemned the US’s approach. The state broadcaster also emphasised how the tariffs will hurt American consumers.

Meanwhile, the Hainan Tilapia Sustainability Alliance, an industry group on the southern island province, is appealing to Chinese taste buds.

China’s exports of the popular fish are a target of Trump’s tariffs.

In an article calling for Chinese consumers to eat more tilapia to help the industry survive, the group said: ‘There’s no problem that eating cannot solve.’

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