How China Controls the Trade War Message

How China Controls the Trade War Message
AP / 達志影像
What you need to know

The US-China trade war is destined to become a domestic public relations victory for the PRC.

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By Matt Schrader

During the past fortnight, a long-simmering trade dispute between the United States and China has burst into open recrimination, with the two sides threatening each other with US$250 billion worth of reciprocal tariffs. As of this writing, the situation remains fluid and fast moving.

One argument frequently advanced in the U.S. holds that Donald Trump’s administration is in a weaker political position than the PRC leadership in the event of a prolonged trade war, in part because of the ability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to shape domestic debate through censorship. While the outcome of any potential trade war is difficult to predict, it is true that in its ability to set the agenda domestically the CCP has at its disposal a political weapon that other governments can only envy.

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Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
Trump is portrayed as unpredictable by Chinese media, while US appetite for a trade war is labeled irrational.

Many in the U.S. view PRC censorship as a blunt tool, but it is actually a sophisticated system that relies heavily on what we might term "pre-suasion," a term coined by Robert Cialdini, a professor emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. In the event of any trade war, the CCP will seek to use this technique to shore up domestic support not only by suppressing criticisms of its policy, but by advancing a positive narrative. In the CCP version of events, China will be slow to anger. But once provoked, it will reluctantly respond – in a calm, stern fashion – to undeserved, irrational foreign bullying, as it seeks to protect the rules-based international trade regime from an erratic American president.

What Is Pre-suasion?

The CCP has a formidable range of coercive tools – from algorithmic censorship, to the instructions on “public opinion guidance” it provides newspaper editors on sensitive subjects – that it deploys to selectively advance or suppress certain facts or interpretations. Through these techniques, as well as imposing significant costs on prominent individuals who advance heterodox views, the CCP seeks to limit the range of available facts and interpretations present in China’s boisterous public discourse. The ultimate goal is to limit the range of conclusions at which a reasonable person could reasonably arrive.

This is the essence of pre-suasion. Chinese citizens are not empty, unthinking vessels for the information their government presents them; they evaluate and respond to it as critically as individuals anywhere. But it is difficult for someone to hold an opinion to which they have not been exposed, or critically evaluate an argument when important facts are not ready to hand.

Pre-suasion in Practice

Coverage of international disputes in PRC media reliably uses several important framing techniques. Together, these techniques constitute the pre-suasive framework the CCP uses to guide coverage and commentary on Sino-U.S. trade frictions, as well as other issues such as the South China Sea. The boundaries between these techniques are not sharp; they are meant to complement and reinforce one another.

Never explain the other side’s argument

The grievance most frequently expressed by U.S. business executives about China relate to market access, forced technology transfers, and government subsidies; these grievances were the focus of the United States Trade Representative’s recently-completed Section 301 investigation. Coverage of the 301 report in Chinese media does not repeat the substance of the USTR’s allegations; one searches in vain for quotes, anecdotes, or data from the American businesses affected. The top results of a Baidu search for “US 301 investigation” are articles from state media organs with titles like “The US 301 Investigation Doesn’t Have a Leg to Stand On” or “Legal Facts Underlying US 301 Investigation Called into Question.”

Never directly criticize central government policy

It would be absurd to expect that everyone in China’s commentariat believes that the U.S. has no grounds for complaint. But if such critics of CCP policy exist, they are not given a platform. Baidu searches using terms like “Sino-US trade war America is right” or “US 301 investigation is correct” yield no articles critical of Made in China 2025, or other aspects of PRC industrial policy. Articles arguing that China could lose a trade war are almost as scarce, although there is ample support for the idea that a trade war is a lose-lose proposition.

China is calm, rational, rule-abiding; the other side is irrational and self-defeating

The lose-lose framing is common in PRC media, with the caveat that a potential trade war would be more damaging to the United States. This framing is an elegant way to accomplish several objectives as once: portray the U.S. as irrational for taking a step that would damage itself (Donald Trump’s unpredictability is another frequent analytical theme); demonstrate that China is being forced into battle reluctantly; steel the Chinese public for adverse economic consequences; and show China’s preference for resolving trade disputes through existing World Trade Organization (WTO) mechanisms. This preference for WTO resolution is not because of any particular love for a rules-based order, but because the PRC is increasingly able to shape WTO outcomes in its favor.

Pre-suasion as practiced by the CCP is a powerful tool for building consensus, particularly where foreign policy is concerned. It allows the Party to privilege supportive voices, and channel debate away from a direct examination of the wisdom of central government decisions. It is a powerful weapon in any international dispute, and one of the biggest reasons that a genuine trade war with China could develop into a prolonged battle of attrition.

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Matt Schrader is the editor of China Brief.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief. China Brief is a primary source of timely information and cutting-edge analysis for policy-makers, intelligence and military personnel, academics, journalists, and business leaders.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston