As relations with U.S. sink, China tones down ‘hotheaded’ nationalism

By Javier C. Hernández

For weeks, China fanned nationalist sentiment in its escalating war of words with the Trump administration. Now, it is toning down its message and calling for a truce, as President Donald Trump increasingly makes Beijing a target in his bid for reelection in November.

One after another, top Chinese diplomats have called for “peaceful coexistence” with the United States, forgoing their previous assertions that Beijing’s authoritarian system is superior. Hawkish scholars are now emphasizing prospects for defusing tensions, instead of urging China to challenge U.S. military might. Journalists at state-run news outlets are limiting their direct attacks on Trump, under instructions to take a more conciliatory approach.

“There’s a reflection that we should not let nationalism or hotheadedness somehow kidnap our foreign policy,” Xu Qinduo, a commentator for China Radio International, a state-run broadcaster, said in an interview. “Tough rhetoric should not replace rational diplomacy.”

In toning down the rhetoric, the ruling Communist Party hopes to reduce the risk that excessive nationalism will hurt Beijing’s global image or cause tensions between the superpowers to accelerate uncontrollably. China’s ties with the United States are at a perilous juncture now that Trump has made assailing Beijing a focal point of his election campaign, with his administration taking a series of actions against China in rapid succession.

Just in recent weeks, the Trump administration has shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston; imposed sanctions on Communist Party officials; said it would cancel the visas of some students and tech company employees; and proposed restrictions on two popular Chinese social media networks. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has traveled abroad urging countries to band together to fight China’s “tyranny.”

Unwilling to concede or look weak, China has responded in kind to most of the measures, closing a consulate in Chengdu and sanctioning U.S. politicians. But in rejecting Pompeo’s criticisms, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, also presented an olive branch, saying the government was ready to discuss all of Washington’s concerns “at any level, in any area and at any time.”

Wang avoided the scathing denunciations that have come to characterize China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, named after an ultrapatriotic Chinese film franchise. Only three weeks earlier, Wang had told his counterpart in Russia that the United States had “lost its mind, morals and credibility.”

The call for dialogue was repeated by several prominent officials, including Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, and Cui Tiankai, the ambassador to the United States, in recent days. On Wednesday, Le Yucheng, another senior Chinese diplomat, accused U.S. politicians of telling lies to smear China. But he also said the two countries should work to prevent relations from “spiraling out of control” over the next several months.

“The change is that the United States keeps attacking, and if China keeps countering, and also stops communicating while simply following along irrationally, it will probably only make the relationship worse,” said Song Guoyou, an American studies expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, describing the shift in diplomatic strategy.

“China may be indeed sending this kind of signal intensively to the United States, saying it hopes to work with it the U.S. on issues calmly,” Song said.

The campaign for restraint also appears to be aimed, in part, at signaling to Trump’s Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, and others in the United States that China still sees a friendly path forward. While Chinese officials believe Biden is less volatile and caustic than Trump, many also worry that he would continue to push for harsh action against China on human rights, technology and other issues, analysts said.

“There’s still a possibility that tensions could become even more profound, and more severe, in the future under a Democratic administration,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University.

Despite the softer tone, China’s underlying view that the United States is a strategic and ideological rival bent on suppressing its rise has not changed. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, continues to push a forceful agenda, including a crackdown on free speech and activism in Hong Kong, even in the face of punishments by the United States. Xi’s government still routinely denounces America as a bully and hypocrite.

But China’s aggressive moves have also triggered disputes with other countries including India, Britain, Canada and Australia. Xi may now be seeking to project a less confrontational image as China finds itself increasingly isolated.

“Beijing’s rhetoric appears aimed at defusing the global backlash that its brash diplomacy and harsh policies have provoked,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor of government at Cornell University.

As Trump has escalated his punitive campaign against China, Beijing’s propaganda apparatus has worked to avoid stoking anger at home by instructing state media outlets to play down unfavorable news and limit talk of war, according to interviews with Chinese journalists.

News of the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu last month, a visceral symbol of the erosion of ties between the two countries, was buried in a two-sentence brief at the bottom of page three of People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper.

Trump’s signing last week of two executive orders meant to restrict the use of Chinese social media apps in the United States did not even make the evening news, one of the most widely watched television programs in China.

Even as China shifts tactics, its success could be limited. The Trump administration shows no signs of easing its efforts to dismantle decades of political, economic and social engagement with China. The State Department on Thursday said it was designating the U.S. headquarters of the Confucius Institutes, a Chinese government educational organization, as a diplomatic mission, a move China denounced as “totally unacceptable.”

The Trump administration is also unlikely to heed calls for a cease-fire unless Chinese officials go beyond promises of reconciliation. Beijing may need to offer concrete proposals on issues such as military tensions in the South China Sea or Xi’s crackdown in Hong Kong.

“There’s no way to maintain the avoidance of major conflict without concrete trade-offs,” said Shi, the American studies expert at Renmin University.

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