Understanding Great Power China and Confrontation with the US

At this point, we are no longer seeing a trade war between China and the US; instead, it has developed into a ‘war’ that will define the international order in the future. Slightly more than a year ago, I wrote an articleindicating that Chinese government showed a courage and determination that has been rarely seen after its economic reform since 1978, and the Sino-US trade war (which some people would argue the term is problematic, exaggerated and invented back then) could be more complicated and lasting then one expected. The past year has witnessed such development, along with an arguably more conservative US and a more authoritarian China. Updating from the last one, this article not only attempt to provide Chinese official understanding of the situation through propaganda, but to show the problems such propaganda reveals.

(Image courtesy of St Andrews Foreign Affair Review, © 2018, some rights reserved)


After the US government decided to increase the tariff of 200 billion US dollars (158 billion GBP) of Chinese exports to the US from 10% to 25% on May 9, China Daily and Xinhua News, the major state media, published an editorialtitled as ‘Negotiate as you wish, but fight if it is necessary’(要谈则谈,要打便打). Four days later, a similar declaration, named ‘China has been fully prepared for a comrephensive response’, was made in the official daily news report Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播). In the declaration, the state reemphasized that it will ‘fight to the end at all costs’ (奉陪到底). On May 17, Chinese Central Bank confirmed that price in the soon future will face uncertainty in its first seasonal report of currency policy in 2019. These messages, sent from the highest official media, show little room for negotiation between China and the US but a strong sense of confrontation, and responcese from financial sectors usually prove that grand policies are changing to adapt to the new situation. With speeches, articles and policy documents like these made on daily basis, the public has gradually realized that the situation is not the anti-imperialist rhetoric that they have seen in the past; instead, they are witnessing and participanting in a historical moment that could have enormous impacts on the nation and the international society in general. Surely people have different responces to this sentiment depending on their attitudes towards the government. As some claim that decision makers would not be affected by the trade war and protest against the fact that ordinary people have to sacrifice to the state interets, many of the public are united under nationalism. Through the nationalist lens, weak economic performances and social injustice are not entirely because of the Chinese government’s inability. It is the US and this ‘war’ to blame.

I am not saying that China deserves this economic confrontation and every Chinese person has been fooled by the government propaganda. However, I do think the fact that using nationalism and hightly provocative propaganda to win public support reveals China’s weaknesses. First, China has an ego that is inappropriate to its strength. Achivements accomplished by the state since the reform in the 70’s pride Chinese and fuel the ambition of becoming a great power. However, it is important to understand that the engine of these achivements is not primarily reliant on technology but rather a large market and cheap labour. Furthermore, one should realize that all the achivements are made within a global financial system based on the dollar. Therefore, China should be modest in order to sustain its achievements by reforming economic structure and updating itself with globalization. In order to do this, the state needs to learn from other countries, among which the US is definitely an important one. Second, China lacks systematic studies of the US. In the limited public discussion of the ‘war’, voices from academia are mainly made by economists. The absence of diverse opinions produce a narrow and biased understanding of the US and in turn, a narrow and biased relationship with the US. This means that there are few counterarguments against the nationalist propaganda, making it easier for the government to indoctrinate the public. In contrast, the US has developed Chinese studies in all disciplines in academia and politics. Although it does not always guide its foreign policy in the right track, these studies provide the US government with more policy choices and theories for justifying the choices it makes.

The spillover effacts of the ‘war’ has surfaced but has been downplayed, like the normalizaiton of US-Taiwan relations. Internationally speaking, it is a moment of reshuffling for the internaitonal order. For China as a great power, it is a nearly existential challenge. At this point, it is appropriate to say we are witnessing a historical moment of the clash of the great powers.