EPeak Daily

For the Chinese Media, Trump’s Visit Was the Easiest Since Nixon

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Last week, on the anniversary of his election victory, Donald Trump
touched down in Beijing for a state visit. As a candidate, Trump talked
tough on China, describing it as an economic enemy and declaring, at one
point, that “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.” As
President, he has softened that rhetoric. “Who can blame a country for
taking advantage of another country for the benefit of its own
citizens?” Trump said on Thursday, while speaking to a crowd of business
executives in the Great Hall of the People. “I give China great credit.”

Since Richard Nixon’s ice-breaking visit to Beijing, in 1972, the
People’s Republic of China has viewed the United States through the
prism of the Presidency. China’s leaders—and its citizens, too—regard
the institution with wary esteem and occasional incomprehension. Nixon
made his visit
over objections from Congress, the State Department, the military, regional allies, and the Soviet Union. Two
years later, when Nixon found himself swamped by Watergate and under
attack in Congress, Mao Zedong responded with bafflement. “Too much
freedom of expression,” the Chairman said.

Any Presidential visit to China comes with a risk for the hosts. U.S.
Presidents, historically, have been prone to raising the plight of
dissidents, and making other unwelcome gestures toward liberal
democracy. For China’s government and official media, managing
Presidential visits has meant tipping the weight of the American
Presidency away from discussions of values and toward realpolitik
interests. By tradition, the President’s travel planners, with direction
from the Oval Office, push back. In 2005, George W. Bush attended a
Sunday church service in Beijing. “My hope is that the government of
China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly,” he said.
In 2009, during Barack Obama’s first visit to China—at a time when his
Administration was seeking Chinese coöperation on climate change, Iran,
and North Korea—he nonetheless held an open town-hall forum with Chinese
students in Shanghai. (Obama and his staff were embarrassed when the
questioners turned out to be pre-screened and coverage of the event was
smothered by censorship.) In 2014, Obama demanded a joint press
conference with President Xi Jinping. The Times, given the rare opportunity to
question a Chinese leader in an unscripted setting, asked Xi about
China’s refusal to grant visas to news organizations whose reporting
offended the Chinese leadership.

The Chinese media, meanwhile, operates as a buffer during these visits,
ready to airbrush or explain away inharmonious remarks and rebut
arguments. State-run newspapers prepare editorials defending China as a
developing country with its own civilization and mores, unsuited to
“Western”-style human rights. Discussing “universal values,” they
imply, is an imperialist conspiracy to humiliate China. Every issue is
turned to bolster the political primacy of the Communist Party.

This defensive posture was not necessary during Trump’s visit last week.
The censors may have braced for an errant tweet about the trade deficit,
or North Korea, but none seemed anxious that Trump would raise the case
of Liu Xia, the widow of the Nobel Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo, who has been detained incommunicado, without charges, since her
husband’s death in detention, in July. State media covered Trump with an
eerie bonhomie. During a military march put on in Tiananmen Square for
Trump’s visit, a state-television anchor hailed the schoolchildren who
had turned out to cheer Te-lang-pu Yeye—Grandpa Trump. In state
media, such an avuncular title is unconventional for a foreign leader,
as it conveys a forbearing kind of affection. Trump, apparently oblivious to all this, drank in the pomp and flattery at the parade.

Trump is surprisingly popular among the Chinese public. They recognize
his posture as a clan patriarch, with many children by multiple wives,
who blends family and business into politics. His brash artifice,
transactional worldview, and blood-and-soil nativism are all familiar
archetypes in China, whose own gilded economic boom has bolstered
nationalist pride and a renewed interest in the roots of Chinese
civilization. Like their leaders, average Chinese citizens view America
ambivalently, with a blend of admiration, envy, and disdain. America’s
companies, universities, and military are considered world-class, yet
the U.S. is also known as a land of mass shootings, racial strife, and
callow capitalism. Trump’s election neatly fit the Chinese-propaganda
narrative that American democracy, while it may have had its moment, is
a fluke, and will ultimately end in corruption and dysfunction.

Trump’s cynical remark in the Great Hall of the People—“who can blame a
country for taking advantage of another country?”—confirmed the Chinese
view of him as a misguided yet unthreatening figure. The Global Times,
the xenophobic id of China’s ruling élites, ran an editorial offering a
polite rejoinder to the comment, dropping its customary Breitbart-esque
tone in favor of gentle chiding. “His castigating of China has softened
greatly in comparison to what he said before,” the editorial said. “But,
in fact, China has not ‘taken advantage of America’; China does not have
the ability to selfishly control the global trade system. China does not
make global trade rules, and can’t enforce its agenda over global

In 1971, while negotiating Nixon’s trip to China, Henry Kissinger—a
disciple of realpolitik—understood that publicly advancing American
values would serve American interests. He fought with his negotiating
counterpart, Premier Zhou Enlai, for control of protocols and political
stagecraft that would project the prestige and the moral force of the
Presidency. “We recognize that the People’s Republic does not trade in
principles,” Kissinger told Zhou. “Neither do we.” Since those years,
the job of the Chinese state media during Presidential visits has been
to subtly undercut the visiting American leader’s efforts to project the moral
power of his office. Last week, Trump made the job easier.

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