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[Analytics] How Trump’s tweets outgunned China’s heavy media weapons in the trade war publicity battle

Tweets by US President Donald Trump have left China’s propaganda machine flat-footed. Photo: TNS. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Pan Pacific Agency | COMMUICATION AGENCY FOR PACIFICA REGIONS

Beijing’s tightly controlled propaganda apparatus has been no match for the US president’s information leaks. China’s decades-long preference for secrecy over transparency was not able to keep up as the US took the offensive and dictated the narrative. Jun Mai, William Zheng specially for the South China Morning Post.

China is losing the publicity battle in its trade war with the United States, as its propaganda apparatus fails to respond to information challenges, according to analysts.

Beijing’s decades-long preference for secrecy over transparency was not able to keep up as US officials including US President Donald Trump took the offensive and dictated the narrative, the analysts said.

While Chinese officials have kept a tight lid over what is discussed behind closed doors in the past 10 months, US officials, especially Trump, have constantly leaked details of the talks through public comments.

Wu Qiang, a Beijing-based political analyst and former university professor, said that if the “trade war is a war of publicity, Beijing has been on the losing side since the start”.

“For a long time, the Chinese government had almost no say over the narrative of the talks,” Wu added.

By far the loudest voice has belonged to Trump. He has turned up the rhetoric even higher since progress in the negotiations began to falter two weeks ago over claims by Washington that Beijing had reneged on several key commitments.

In a talk to a property agents’ association on Friday in Washington, Trump renewed charges that Chinese negotiators “broke” a deal that both sides had agreed to.

“I mean, I’m used to that, I’ve done it many times myself,” he said, appearing to refer to previous negotiations in the private sector. “But I try to do it a little bit nicer.”

“[China] took out a lot of the things that we negotiated that were done, and I said: ‘You can’t do that. You’ve been doing that too long to our poor presidents who had no clue what was happening.’”

In contrast to media in the US, Beijing has heavily censored news coverage and public discussion of the trade war since Trump first imposed punitive tariffs on Chinese goods last July.

So much so that the US-China trade war was one of the most censored topics last year on China’s widely popular WeChat app, according to WeChatscope, a research project by the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

Nevertheless, screenshots of Trump’s tweets and international media reports on the trade talks have been circulated widely on Chinese social media platforms.

News about the negotiations has also affected China’s share markets. For example, shares fell 5.6 per cent in Shanghai and 7.5 per cent in Shenzhen the day after Trump’s May 5 threat to impose extra tariffs on Chinese goods.

“Beijing has disclosed little information about the talks in the past year and has found no narrative [of its own] … so people are following Trump’s comments,” Wu said.

“Trump’s tweets can cause major reactions in China … on social media, the stock markets. They can even spook [People’s Daily sister tabloid] Global Times into responding with its own commentaries.”

When Trump tweeted about his plan to more than double tariffs on US$200 billion of Chinese goods, White House officials and advisers were quick to criticise Beijing for backtracking on its promises.

But for days, there was no line from the top in China and state media resorted to repeating statements that the trade talks would continue.

It was only after the tariffs went into effect five days later that Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He, Beijing’s top negotiator for the trade talks, gave the Chinese side of the story – and even then only to selected Chinese media.

Renmin University US affairs specialist Shi Yinhong said the delay highlighted China’s dilemma with revealing information.

“The story had been told by the US side, with their narrative and from their position, so Liu had to explain why a deal couldn’t be reached at the last moment,” Shi said.

“Obviously the Chinese side was not willing to disclose its own bottom line [for the talks].

“[It was concerned that] it would stir up further tension with the US if it revealed too much. Almost all governments face the same dilemma in dealing with Trump.”

A bureau chief with a Chinese state news service said staff were repeatedly warned against revealing developments in the trade talks.

“The developments are highly confidential,” the bureau chief said. “If information is leaked, people will be held responsible. No one dares to break the rule.”

But China is not alone in being tripped up by Trump’s tweets, according to Richard McGregor, a China specialist with the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank.

It was also not likely to come up with new ways to deal with their impact, he said.

“Nobody in the US has yet learned how to manage the impact of Trump’s tweets, so I am not surprised that China hasn’t either,” McGregor said.

“[Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] is obviously not going to start to tweet himself with any spontaneity … China will have to keep relying on the heavy weapons of its own state media, along with its skill in managing social media.”

Trump’s tweets might have succeeded in causing confusion in China, but two veteran China watchers in the US said the tactics did not necessarily give Washington the advantage in talks.

Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, said that releasing details of the negotiations would only make a deal less likely.

“China 101 teaches you that if you want to make a deal, you make your representations privately,” Orlins said in an interview with CNN. “When you put their backs to the wall, it decreases the odds of a deal.”

That caution was echoed by Ryan Hass, who directed China policy for the National Security Council during the administration of Barack Obama.

Hass said Trump was making it easier for Xi to deflect blame by accusing the US of unilateral brinkmanship.

In the meantime, Beijing has ramped up its nationalistic rhetoric, publishing a series of commentaries and editorials on state media blaming Washington for the latest escalation.

On Friday, People’s Daily ran a front-page commentary saying the trade war with the United States would not bring China to its knees.

Chinese state television has also had a war theme this week, airing three movies on the 1950-1953 Korean war in which Chinese troops came to the North’s aid while the United States supported the South.
“The change in language reflects their evolving views of the likelihood of a deal. In other words, they are getting more pessimistic,” McGregor said.

“If the two sides do settle in for a prolonged fight, Beijing needs public support and the best way to do that is to pump up the nationalistic rhetoric.”

Additional reporting by Owen Churchill in Washington

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