The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In China, talk of ‘progress’ and a ‘result,’ but no mention of any trade deal with U.S.

President Trump shakes hands with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office on Oct. 11. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

BEIJING — One word has been suspiciously absent from China’s media coverage of the trade talks with the United States over the past few days: deal. There has been a “result,” there has been “progress,” but there has been no “deal.”

Beijing’s version of recent events stands in sharp contrast to the way President Trump has described them. An agreement Friday was “the greatest and biggest deal ever,” the president said after negotiators struck a truce in which the United States would call off planned tariff increases in return for China buying $50 billion in U.S. agricultural products.

But none of this triumphalism was to be found in Beijing. 

“This outcome is in line with the expectations of all parties,” Xinhua, the official news agency, said in a tempered commentary published Monday. “It took a step in the direction of resolving China-U.S. economic and trade issues, serves the interests of the Chinese and American people and is generally welcomed by the international community.”

The commentary made clear that there is still much work to be done. 

“At the same time, it should be noted that solving the structural problems in bilateral economic and trade relations over the years cannot be achieved overnight, and we still need to make unremitting efforts,” it continued.

Trump announces partial trade deal with China, lifting hopes that tensions could ease

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that more tariffs on Chinese imports could be imposed if a trade deal with China has not been reached by December 15. (Video: Reuters)

In Washington on Monday, White House officials remained insistent that “Phase One” of the trade deal, as Trump has referred to it, would lead to major results in just a few weeks.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, speaking on CNBC, said the progress made last week was “quite substantial.”

“We made substantial progress last week in the negotiations,” Mnuchin said. “We have a fundamental agreement. It is subject to documentation, and there’s a lot of work to be done on that front.”

He said the two countries had reached an agreement related to intellectual property rights, financial services, currency rules and “structural issues in agriculture.” But the White House did not release a single fact sheet about any of those issues or how things would be changed. Mnuchin said the White House hopes that a formal agreement can be codified during a meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Chile next month.

The cautious tone from China, echoed in other official channels, reflected Beijing’s wariness of Trump’s willingness to stick to any agreement.

“The Chinese don’t trust the Americans to honor this mini-deal,” analysts at Trivium/China, an economics consultancy, wrote in a note Monday night. “So they don’t want to tout its importance just to have it blow up in their face.”

But the impetus for Beijing to continue with trade talks was underlined Monday by official statistics showing the pressures on its external sector.

China’s exports fell by 1.4 percent in September compared with last year, while imports were down 5.8 percent, according to data from the General Administration of Customs.

Both were driven overwhelmingly by a sharp slump in trade with the United States. Over the course of this year, Chinese imports of American goods have decreased by 26.4 percent, while exports to the United States are down 10.7 percent.

Li Kuiwen, a spokesman for the customs department, said the external environment is “complicated and severe” and that instability and uncertainty are increasing.

However, he tried to play down the effect of the trade war on China’s economy. While frictions with the United States “have caused considerable pressure on China’s foreign trade,” Li told reporters in Beijing on Monday, China’s overall trade volume in the first three quarters of this year continued to grow. 

“The world remains highly optimistic about China’s market potential,” he said.

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Li, echoing sentiments in the state media and from other government departments, emphasized the “progress” in the trade talks and the plans for continued consultations. “As for where this is going next, we have been keeping a close watch alongside relevant authorities.”

At the Foreign Ministry, spokesman Geng Shuang described “substantive progress.” 

“They discussed follow-up arrangements and agreed to work toward the direction of reaching a final agreement,” he said. “We hope the U.S. will work with China and meet each other half way and follow the principles and directions set by our leaders and on the basis of equality and mutual respect, properly solving each other’s concerns and ensuring the steady progress of bilateral economic and trade relations.”

After talks in Washington last week, Trump said that the United States and China had reached a “substantial phase one” pact. The White House agreed not to raise tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese goods from 25 percent to 30 percent this week, Trump said, and the Chinese side agreed to buy $40 billion to $50 billion in U.S. farm products.

But there were no details, and no formal arrangement was committed to paper, leading some analysts to wonder whether Trump was exaggerating the scope of the agreement.

Amid this commentary on the apparent differences in how the two sides were interpreting the talks, Taoran Notes, a social media site that Beijing has been using to send signals about the trade war, tried Monday night to play down the gaps.

The different versions of events were “only due to a difference in the culture and habits of expressions between China and America,” the account said.

It was a “promising sign” that Beijing and Washington are willing to call a truce, as both sides claimed to have gotten the upper hand in this round of consultations.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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