How the US-China trade war became a lesson in 5,000 years of Chinese history

Once upon a time…
Once upon a time…
Image: Pool via Reuters/Nicolas Asfouri
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In a little over a week, China has gone from near silence on Donald Trump’s latest trade-war threats to going full-blown nationalistic. And campaigns of nationalism in China rarely come without a lesson in five millennia of the country’s history.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV on Monday (May 15) aired a 30-second segment on a prime TV slot that has gone viral on social network Weibo. The video called for Chinese people to remain steadfast in the current trade tumult, using the common refrain that as a great nation, China has experienced 5,000 years of “winds and rains.”

The CCTV broadcast came alongside a rousing call in an editorial (link in Chinese) published in state media outlets for Chinese citizens to rally behind what it called a “people’s war.”

“The US is fighting a trade war out of greed and because it wants to show off. They have to keep boasting while they fight it, if they don’t boast or make up stories, their morale will die down at any moment. China, on the other hand, is fighting back to protect itself. We know why we are negotiating, and why we need to keep on fighting even if we don’t reach a deal… China and its entire population are being coerced,” said the editorial which was originally published in nationalistic tabloid Global Times but re-published on other outlets such as Xinhua.

The nationalist exhortations in Chinese state media accompanied an announcement by Beijing that it planned to impose tariffs on $60 billion worth of US goods, in response to new tariffs by the US that came into effect last week. China’s state media outlets at first were mum on Trump’s threats on Twitter that he planned to raise tariffs on Chinese imports, even after the president’s pronouncements sent Chinese markets crashing on May 6. Some surmised that state media’s initial silence suggested that it wanted to avoid public discussion of the trade war that could affect negotiations with the US, which were set to continue in Washington, or that it was taking the time to formulate an appropriate and forceful response.

Beijing’s recent pronouncements have also been peppered with key historical markers deemed important to its narrative of China as a country with an ancient and proud past that has been humiliated at the hands of Western powers in its recent history—before it rose up to become the superpower that it is today.

Some commentators have used the trade war as an occasion to invoke the “unequal treaties” (paywall) that China was pressured to sign at the turn of the last century, as Western powers and Japan pounced on the Qing court’s weakness to carve out Chinese territory for themselves. Among these were the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895, which ceded Taiwan to Japan and forced China to open more ports to foreign trade.

An article published (link in Chinese) on May 9 in Xinhua on the trade war came alongside a key anniversary in Chinese people’s collective consciousness—the bombing by NATO forces of its embassy in Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia, 20 years ago.

The article, titled “If you want to talk, let’s talk; if you insist on a fight, let’s fight,” said that following the bombing in 1999—which the US has maintained was an accident—China embarked on a mission to strengthen its economy, military, and its national identity. “Twenty years later, was this the right decision? Time has given us the answer. And it will continue to give answers,” it said.

The article was originally posted on Taoran Notes (paywall), a mysterious account on chat app WeChat that some noticed was still able to freely publish on the trade war, seemingly unfettered by censorship. Bloomberg reported that the account is linked to a government-backed newspaper.

The article reminded readers that in the past few years, the US-China trade war has been fought and negotiated concurrently, and drew a comparison with the Korean War, which the Chinese army fought in and is known in China as the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.” Many observers of the trade war have used the Korean War as a comparison, wrote the anonymous author, arguing that fighting is the best way to deal with the US. The writer reminded readers that during the conflict, which lasted from 1950-1953, almost two years were spent “fighting and talking at the same time.”

On Monday, tabloid Global Times published a retrospective (link in Chinese) about China’s entry into the WTO in 2001 after a 15-year process, as a lesson for how the country should proceed in the current trade stand-off with the US.

The post recalled that the US was the main stumbling block for China’s accession to the bloc (paywall). At the start of the discussions, the article said, “the US was under the impression that China was eager to reach a deal, so it was being very tough.” Later, then foreign trade minister Wu Yi drew a line in the negotiations and said that under no circumstances would China “trade its fundamental interests” for entry to the WTO. The principle was adhered to during the rest of the negotiations, said the Global Times.

“China is fully prepared for the possible twists and turns in the negotiations,” said the Global Times. “This includes staying calm under extreme pressure from the US, instead of being like some people in China who wet themselves as soon as they see that the US is displeased.”