As Americans debate the implications of a potential trade war with China, they tend to overlook an important factor: the perspective of regular Chinese people. The Communist regime’s obsessive control of its image, not to mention the language barrier, make it difficult to gain access to authentic public opinion. Yet even a few samples of reactions from the grass roots will tell you far more than those highly polished statements from the Chinese leadership and its state-controlled media. Now that China is “on probation” — as Chinese are calling the 90-day trade war “ceasefire” following President Trump’s meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping this past weekend in Argentina — this is an especially good moment to listen in on what ordinary Chinese citizens think.
For those in China who can evade the Great Firewall, used by the regime to control and monitor online information, the Internet is a lively marketplace of ideas about the nation and its leaders. Dry humor is ubiquitous. A few months ago, for instance, a joke began circulating on the Chinese Internet: at 8 a.m., Xi hears of a new round of tariffs from Trump; at 9 a.m., Xi is publicly threatening harsh retaliation; and by 4 p.m., he is quietly ordering quick compliance with U.S. demands behind the scenes.
The joke surfaced at a moment when Chinese leadership was still threatening the U.S. with retaliation, prompting fear among experts and ordinary people alike about a full-fledged trade war. Yet the joke reveals the widespread sense that the regime seeks to project an image of strength and calm while, in reality, it is desperately trying to keep itself afloat (which necessarily includes maintaining the country’s most important trade relationship).
In fact, one could say the fragility of the current party-state is nowhere felt so strongly as within the Communist Party itself, which has a habit of taking defensive measures that magnify its insecurities. In September, Chinese authorities deleted 712 of 727 comments posted by Chinese people to the website of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in response to Trump’s announcement of $200 billion in tariffs against China. The remaining 15 posts were — not surprisingly — either critical of the United States or supportive of the Communist regime. The embassy’s website has long been an island of relatively low interference from Chinese censors, and the authorities’ actions inspired yet more online criticism, mocking the regime for its attempts at petty micromanagement of public opinion.
For months, netizens have been unleashing their contempt of the party through the lens of the trade war. When the party urged Chinese citizens to rally together in what it called “a time of collective perseverance,” netizens quickly rearranged the wording of the phrase to read, “a time to persevere against the Communists.” Comments such as “Trump, don’t be so stingy!” and “Why not $500 billion? Democratic countries might think $200 billion is a pretty big number, but to the Party it’s just pocket change,” are not uncommon.
It might seem counterintuitive to many Americans that people in China would call for more tariffs, as though welcoming economic damage at home. But most ordinary Chinese people don’t see it that way. They commonly believe tariffs will hurt the Communist Party far more than regular people, since it’s the party that manipulates trade to line its pockets and prop up the economy. If the regime runs low on funds because of the tariffs, the economic prosperity it relies on for its legitimacy could be destabilized.
Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people love their country, but many are also clear that love of country is not necessarily the same thing as love of the Communist Party. The crucial point is that the fate of the economy — and the nation — is currently entirely out of their hands: they cannot vote; the media and judiciary are controlled by the regime; alternative political parties are banned; and even modest criticism of the Party can lead to harsh treatment or imprisonment. Silenced for so long, many Chinese people see financial pain as the only language the regime will understand. Indeed, some netizens have even suggested that, if the United States used its Global Magnitsky Act to freeze the overseas assets of corrupt Chinese officials, all trade issues would be solved immediately.
Now that the Group of 20 summit is over, netizens are once more scoffing at the Party’s “editing” of the U.S. Embassy’s website, where key passages in the U.S. statement on the outcome of the Trump-Xi meeting — including the 90-day waiting period that could result in harsher U.S. tariffs if Beijing doesn’t change its policies on a range of issues — have been carefully excised.
The Chinese public understands much better than U.S. leaders that the regime in Beijing is extremely sensitive to what foreign leaders say and think — whether it’s regarding human rights, international agreements, business contracts or academic exchanges. Let the party define the terms, though, and you can expect always expect them to take a foot if given an inch. In other words, the West should stand by its democratic principles, demand fairness and openness, and steer its own course.