One of the reasons that China has been able to sustain its economic growth for so long is due to the fact that Chinese culture is among the most rational on the planet. The logic of the great philosophical movements that shape modern Chinese characteristics have tended to emphasise realism above fantasy, consistency over flippancy, discipline over rage and a work ethic that is prudent and unwavering. As such, China’s culture is not one prone to jealousy, scapegoating or gloating during times of glory and of course, there have been many glorious moments for China in recent decades.
This has meant that unlike in the US where Sinophobia is dangerously on the rise, today’s Chinese have not traditionally harboured any particular ire towards the United States and ordinary Americans. Many find the bombast of America’s political system somewhat odd and the aggressive military policy of the country worrying, but Chinese are also quick to point out the positive elements in American society, far more readily than less confident nations. A short survey of random Chinese on the streets of Shanghai, conducted by the media outlet Asian Boss, is generally reflective of wider urban Chinese public opinion of the United States. As one can see, attitudes among the young generations are split between seeing the US as a creative, entertainment filled place on the one hand, but also one that has more crime than China and is not always the most welcoming to Asians. The young people interviewed have mixed feelings about racism and violence in the US, while a slightly older gentleman interviewed tended to take a far more grim view of American society.
While during his announcement of new $60 billion tariffs on Chinese goods in additions to restrictions on Chinese technology in the US market, Donald Trump said that some of the nations on the receiving end of the tariffs would be grateful because ‘we’re standing up for ourselves’, the reality is very different, even among long-time US allies ranging from Germany and France to Japan and South Korea.
China has already responded by placing $3 billion worth of tariffs on American imports and if Trump refuses to climb down from his tariff pedestal, Beijing has assured the wider world that this is just the first of many possible retaliatory options.
China has always stated that it is happy to look at Trump’s concerns over trade and reach a win-win agreement. The fact that before negotiations, Trump has taken an economically aggressive measure, will mean that the traditional Chinese good will that is present in almost all bilateral discussions, has now been replaced with an atmosphere of provocation and mistrust. All of this is Trump’s doing as it is clear that the vast majority of American business people as well as the US Congress (Republicans and Democrats) remain opposed to Trump’s trade war. In this sense, while Trump’s executive decision is constitutional, it is deeply undemocratic. Furthermore, it may well be in violation of the WTO rules that Trump disparaged during his brief statement before singing the tariffs into law.
In an age where the phrase ‘soft people’ becomes ever more abundant, Trump acts like he has not considered the soft power implications of the tariffs when it comes to China-US relations. Trump should not underestimate how insulted China feels due to the fact that Trump has decided to bully China in the way that the US has in the past bullied Iraq, Libya, Syria and North Korea. China is soon to be the leading economy of the world with one of the top three armed forces in the world. China cannot and should not be talked down to. In a modern age, all nations should be treated with respect, but this is especially important when interacting with a nation that at minimum is an equal and in many ways is a superior, in objective economic terms.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. has reflected this attitude of bitter disappointment verging no anger in the following statement:
“The United States persisted in conducting the “301 investigation” and announced relevant trade measures, ignoring rational voices, and in disregard of the mutually-beneficial nature of China-U.S. trade relations and the consensus reached by the two countries of managing differences constructively through consultations. It is a typical unilateral trade protectionist action. China is strongly disappointed and firmly opposes such an action.
Bearing in mind the principles of mutual respect and win-win cooperation, China has demonstrated sincerity in making reasonable suggestions to the U.S., and has made great efforts to address the current trade imbalance between China and the U.S. China does not want a trade war with anyone. But China is not afraid of and will not recoil from a trade war. China is confident and capable of facing any challenge. If a trade war were initiated by the U.S., China would fight to the end to defend its own legitimate interests with all necessary measures.
The actions undertaken by the U.S. are self-defeating. They will directly harm the interests of U.S. consumers, companies, and financial markets. They also jeopardize international trade order and world economic stability.
We urge the U.S. to cease and desist, make cautious decisions, and avoid placing China-U.S. trade relations in danger with the purpose of hurting others that eventually end up hurting itself”.
Furthermore, an editorial in the influential Global Times has said, “The US leader’s tendency to tie economic interests and security together to exert pressure on China is becoming clearer. But China can deal with the US measures and the threat of a trade war in various ways”. A second Global Times editorial is even more frank in its assessment of Trump’s “failure”. The piece states,
“China is now being forced to fight back in this trade war. China’s society is highly united, and this will be reflected in its actions as the trade war comes into effect. China’s residents possess a level of endurance that the US cannot compete with.
Any trade war will only lead to a lose-lose situation. While both China and the US are economically resilient, one will invariably fail and that will result in political backlash. The Chinese people and American public will blame President Trump for the turmoil both countries will have experienced. Additionally, the Trump administration, along with the GOP, will suffer in the US’ future midterm and presidential elections. The trade war will be used as a major example of Trump’s failures if he seeks reelection.
China is a powerful nation and a force to be reckoned with, meaning that China will not abide deception and will not be taken advantage of. In other words, the US should not fool itself into thinking that China can be pressured to fold under such tactics.
Another important aspect to keep in mind is that China’s consumer market has surpassed that of the US and it is still expanding at a rapid pace. If a trade war were to take place, the two countries would be matched regarding the other’s strengths and capabilities”.
These are the views of official and semi-official channels. The word on the street will likely be even more damning. China as a nation and Chinese as people tend to value a respectful partner in spite of the ease or difficulty of any given circumstance. No one in China had any illusions about the difficulties of working with someone like Donald Trump, just as they came to learn the difficulties of working with Barack Obama, who in spite of his smooth rhetoric, exercised deeply aggressive military policies against China in the South China Sea and beyond. The difference is, because of Trump’s attitude and his patronising yet unmistakable Sinophobia, Chinese will be irate at the churlish, childish, bullying and irrational way Trump has approached the vital issue of trade, an issue where even more than war, things ought to be handled in a manner that prioritises objectivity over base emotions.
While the US is clearly the aggressor in this trade war, China is not the victim. China’s internal market which is the largest in the world, combined with increased trading relationships throughout the wider world, Europe’s forthcoming pivot to China, China’s launch of the game changing Petroyuan and the economic safety nets built into the market socialist system, mean that China is better placed than any country in modern history to handle a trade war, even with a major market like the US. China would have preferred not to take measures such as beginning the gradual process of ditching US Treasury bonds and taking steps to float the Yuan, but if anything, Trump has made such inevitable moves all the more forthcoming in the medium term, as Beijing now knows that the US is prepared to violate the gentleman’s agreement whereby China will hold US Treasury bonds in good faith, in return for a fair trading policy with the US.
As global stock markets dive on the news of Trump’s tariff gambit, so too is the good will of the Chinese people plummeting in a similar way. Chinese will still like things like the NBA and some American music, but overall, they will now be more willing to examine America’s hostile side, its exceptionalist (aka racist) side and its short-term zero-sum mentality, where before many Chinese graciously overlooked such qualities that ironically even many Canadians, Australians and Europeans often openly mock.
Donald Trump is clearly a man who wants to be loved and respected, but from the New York Stock Exchange to the US Chamber of Commerce, the US retail sector to the Chinese government, Trump is now seen as a bitter and irrational figure whose tariffs will not serve anyone but those who pretend that hostility is the way to make America great again.