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As trade war grinds on, Chinese authorities ready the populace for a long fight

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves as he arrives for a news conference in Beijing on April 27. The tariff war between Washington and Beijing poses one of the biggest challenges for Xi. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

BEIJING — China’s government looks to be settling in for a long trade war with the United States, with President Xi Jinping invoking one of the Communist Party’s most epic — and ultimately successful — battles.

The Chinese leader, accompanied by his top trade negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, on Monday placed a floral basket at a monument in Jiangxi province commemorating the start of the Long March in 1934. In the 4,000-mile, year-long trek, the Communists broke through Nationalist lines, eventually ousting them and installing Mao Zedong as leader of China.

Meanwhile, China’s main movie channel, CCTV-6, has scrapped its regular programming in favor of films about the Korean War, which ended in a draw after China intervened to push back the Americans.

“We are echoing the present times using the art form of film,” the channel said, explaining its sudden schedule changes.

In the game of "Trade Wars," perhaps the winning move is not to play. (Video: Daron Taylor, Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

The planned coverage of the Asian Film Awards was ditched Friday for the classic war movie “Heroic Sons and Daughters,” the story of Chinese “volunteer troops” who helped North Korea fight the Americans in the 1950s.

Then, over the weekend, came three more movies about resisting the United States: “Battle on Shangganling Mountain” and “Surprise Attack.” Another classic, the 1960 film “Guards on the Railway Line,” about Chinese scouts rooting out spies who work for the Americans, was due to screen Monday night.

The trade war reminds many Chinese of the 1950-1953 Korean War, when the two sides talked about a cease-fire for two years while continuing to fight, Xu Hailin, a commentator for the provocative nationalist tabloid the Global Times, wrote in a column published Monday.

China's retail sales growth falls to a 16-year low and industrial output slows as well, according to new data. (Video: Reuters)

“The Chinese people’s memories of engaging in talks and fights at [the] same time remains fresh,” he wrote. “It [lets] Chinese people realize that the trade frictions between China and the U.S. will not end very soon.” 

Are the U.S. and China heading for a deal — or a divorce?

Earlier this year, the state-run People’s Publishing House printed “Rereading On Protracted War,” an updated collection of speeches that Mao gave in 1938 amid a Japanese invasion that would take eight years for China to repel. It appeared to be a sign that authorities were preparing the people for a long and difficult trade war.

All this propaganda has a purpose, said Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “The psychological aspect cannot be overestimated. The Chinese side wants to be seen as standing up to the U.S.,” he said. “They have to put on a strong face.”

Yang recalled that in the 1990s, CCTV-6 had been playing movies about its old ally, Yugoslavia, and that these had infused the social atmosphere. After the U.S. bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999, “the students had been primed for action by these movies that had been playing,” he said, noting that it was entirely coincidental but nonetheless extremely effective.

Tens of thousands of Chinese, including students, took to the streets to protest the United States, pelting its embassy in Beijing with eggs and bricks. Even 20 years on, many Chinese say the bombing was not an accident, as the United States and NATO insisted.

The Communist Party does, however, have to strike a careful balance. It apparently wants to unify the populace against the United States, but not so much that students pour back out onto the streets. It’s only two weeks until the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, and authorities have already clamped down on movement in Beijing and commentary online.

Graphic: The first round of China tariffs already stifled U.S. exports

Still, over the past week, anti-American propaganda has intensified in Chinese state media. The slogan “Want to talk? Let’s talk. Want to fight? Let’s do it. Want to bully us? Dream on!” went viral on Chinese social media, according to What's on Weibo, a website that monitors China’s answer to Twitter.

All of this is a sharp turnaround from the days after President Trump tweeted that he would raise tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods from 10 to 25 percent in response to China “reneging” on commitments made to seal a trade deal and end the year-long tariff war.

Then, the state media was slow to report on the U.S. tariffs, waiting more than 24 hours to mention the threats — and reporting them only once the Chinese authorities were ready to respond.

Now, the Chinese media is full of fighting talk.

When the news broke that Washington was hiking tariffs again, Chinese netizens overwhelmingly agreed with authorities: “If you want to talk, the door is open; if you want to fight, we will fight to the end,” Xinhua reported.

A former vice minister of commerce, Wei Jianguo, had previously said that China had not only the determination but also the willingness to fight a prolonged war. “China will not only act as a kung fu master in response to U.S. tricks, but also as an experienced boxer and can deliver a deadly punch at the end,” he told the South China Morning Post.

In a sign that nerves are running high, news websites appeared to accidentally resend a Xinhua alert from May 20, 2018, declaring: “China-U. S. trade war ceasefire! The war has ended!” 

The official news agency said it condemned the distribution of “false news” and would investigate how it had happened.

Wang Yuan contributed to this report.

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