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A despatch from the Trade War front line: the music is getting ominous

Imagine, if you will, a baroque concert hall and next to you sits a young lady, with impeccable taste and poise. She leans over to you and whispers into your ear with a slight Parisian accent: “c’est le ton qui fait de la musique.”

Your columnist melted inside. But since he is so obsessed with his work as your diligent Trade War Correspondent, he couldn’t help himself and think about work. It is true that the tone sets the music. And the tone has become shrill, on both sides.

Xi Jinping Donald Trump

President Donald J. Trump and President Xi Jinping meet children waving Chinese and U.S. flags at welcoming ceremonies outside the Great Hall of the People, Thursday, November 9, 2017, in Beijing, People’s Republic of China. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

The music that is playing on both sides of the Pacific Ocean is now a strange mixture of ominous, dark retro-punk and the delightful drums and trumpets of a high school marching band. It is, in short, dear reader, the next stage of the Trade War, the war of words unheard and promises unkept. And some of it has actually been.

When it comes to rhetoric nobody can outshout – or outsing – the Chinese Party media, whose commissars have been hard at work whipping up nationalism and Socialist agitprop from the dustbins of history. There has been much talk about how the Chinese system is superior and that it can withstand the fickle short-termism of democratic systems, how Xi Jinping will lead the people on a new Long March and that China would never again accept an “unequal treaty” forced upon it by hostile foreign nations.

Just last month, your columnist had to sit through a speech in which he was told, in no uncertain terms, how Socialist collective action is always superior to the bullying of evil capitalist and imperialist forces. It is hard to gauge how seriously the audience in the room took this, just as it is impossible to survey the Chinese on how they digest the Party’s media fare.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping. Photo: CCTV screenshot.

Some western observers wave their hands and dismiss it as “just” propaganda, but anyone who has ever spent time with Mainland Chinese knows that jingoistic nationalism is never far from the surface. Rhetoric often appeals to nationalistic, tribal instincts, on any side of any conflict.

It is, after all, as Plato opined, the art of ruling the minds of men. The messages coming out of Beijing have made it clear that the conflict has shifted into a higher gear. Jay Jacobs, the Beijing-based Head of Research & Strategy of Global X Management said recently that the rhetoric is worrying and that dynamics now are looking pretty bleak.

When China decided to use its rare earths deposits as a weapon in the conflict, an Op-Ed (link in Chinese) in the otherwise fairly staid People’s Daily used the term 勿谓言之不预也 or ‘don’t say I didn’t warn you’, a turn of phrase that the Party mouthpiece has used before on several important occasions, most notably right before military attacks against India and Vietnam.

On the other side of the dispute are various voices in a cacophony that drives China mad. They were already befuddled in 2016 when Trump won the election, which went against their own cynical – but often correct – view that the candidate with the most money and Wall Street backing always wins US Presidential elections.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump. File photo: GovUS.

Then they had a hard time figuring out where Trump stood and who had his ear. In the past few weeks, they have been hearing some opposition from the Democrats to Trump’s tariffs, but most candidates eager to push Trump out of office are not necessarily friends of Beijing.

Unofficial advisors to both the Democrats and President Trump, who are miles apart on almost everything, actually agree on the current administration’s reasons for going after China.

There is enthusiasm in Beijing for Joe Biden, who has said in public that China is not a competing power. In general, Beijing is hoping for, what a Chinese friend called ‘a President like Obama, who embraces managed decline of an ageing superpower’.

I met my friend in the trendy Sanlitun District in Beijing where he drew a comparison with the decline of the British Empire after World War II. “What were Democrats talking about the most? Health care! The Brits gave up their Empire and introduced the NHS. That’s why I like Bernie!”

He raised a glass of baijiu to Bernie and then chuckled “and because he’s a Socialist, of course!”

bernie sanders

Bernie Sanders. Photo: Flickr.

My friend conveniently ignored that during the 2016 primaries Bernie Sanders accused Hillary Clinton of being too soft on China. Indeed, Donald Trump was so enamoured with Sanders on China that then-candidate Trump gave the independent Senator from Vermont a shout-out during the campaign in 2015: “I was watching him and he talked about trade and he was talking about how we’re getting ripped off left and right on trade, and I [said], you know, I think I can take that paragraph and just use it in my speeches.”

Perhaps cognizant of the dubious praise from the man all Democrats love to hate, Bernie Sanders has had to come out in recent weeks to say that he is not anti-China.

The fact that this kind of statement was necessary gives at least a little credence to China’s favourite counterattack, that alleged unfair trade practices are just a racist excuse to keep China down by abusing a Cold War mentality and plain old racism.

It would be very hard to paint Sanders as being in Cold War mode, since this is the Senator who has in the past praised Communist regimes by saying their breadlines are a good thing: “in other countries, people don’t line up for food, the rich get the food and the poor starve to death.”

china chinese emblem document folder

File photo: EU.

At least when he proclaimed that he was not anti-China he didn’t take off his shirt to sing ‘This Land is Your Land, this Land is My Land’, as he did in China’s one-time ideological friend, the USSR.

Indeed, it is not the “back to the 70s” rambling of the independent Senator from Vermont that is the most disturbing – and possibly disturbed – voice on the US side, or that of the equally ancient frontrunner in de Democratic race. It is the always entertaining and slightly frightening Trump ideologue Steve Bannon.

He has been shouting about China to whoever wanted to listen for a long time. He has urged the President he helped put in office to go all-in on the trade war. He continually repeats the claim that this is the last, best moment to stand up to China, that kicking Huawei out of the western hemisphere is more important than any deal, that the conflict may take decades and that China’s policies pose an existential threat, not just to the US, but to the entire west.

Huawei Canada

Huawei, Canada. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

He is the only person in the US who can make the Chinese Party media seem restrained. Fortunately, markets largely seem to ignore Bannon, but his rants have not gone unnoticed and the Chinese equivalent of Bannon’s own Breitbart News, the Global Times, has accused him of advocating ‘economic fascism’. Perhaps the adjective economic is unnecessary if one listens to Bannon in his more unhinged moments.

All this is enough to make anyone feel gloomy about the prospects for an end to the trade war. Nevertheless, there is one bright spot. Both Trump and the plethora of Democrats eager to replace him agree that the US should refrain from military adventurism.

The policy hawks in Trump’s White House seem too concerned with Iran and those advocating restraining China are perfectly aware of what a disaster a military conflict would be. The chance for some terrible miscalculation, especially in the South China Sea, remains, but for now, the bullets in the trade war have been tariffs and onerous regulations from the American side and refitted agitprop and Socialist policies from the Chinese side. And a lot of bombast.

A despatch from the Trade War front line: the music is getting ominous