Why Trump Treats Xi and China Differently
The Trump administration formally opposed granting China market economy status in a Nov. 30 statement to the World Trade Organization. Two days prior, the Commerce Department launched a probe into Chinese aluminum imports, a move which could result in tariffs. The shadow of a China-U.S. trade war—a subject which Donald Trump broached before becoming America’s 45th president—looms.
Contrasting with the Trump administration’s increasingly combative posture towards China is Trump’s cozy relationship with Xi Jinping. “You’re a very special man… My feeling toward you is an incredibly warm one,” he told Xi during their November summit in Beijing. In a press conference with Xi, Trump also blamed his predecessors, and not China, for causing the massive trade deficit between the two countries—a statement that gives face to Xi.
Some observers suggest that Trump is establishing a close friendship with Xi to resolve economic issues and the North Korean nuclear crisis. There is some merit in this explanation, but it does not fully account for why the Trump administration has consistently adopted contrasting attitudes towards China and its leader since Xi and Trump met in Florida in April.
The Florida meeting was the watershed when the Trump administration shifted from being hawkish on China to being selectively hawkish on the Chinese communist regime while being supportive of Xi. The shift in stance could be due to Trump being convinced that the Chinese president is not like earlier Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders; Xi has rolled out or tried to implement policies aimed at correcting the legal injustices of his predecessors. Indeed, the Trump administration’s seemingly bipolar treatment of China and Xi post-Florida meeting suggests that the U.S. is continuing to bet on the Xi leadership having a positive impact on China and the world.
Before meeting with Xi at Mar-a-Lago, Trump struck a bellicose attitude towards China. In 2010, he told Fox News that the artificially low value of the yuan and America’s huge trade deficit with China would “destroy” America. “I would love to have a trade war with China,” he added. On the presidential campaign trail in 2016, Trump called Chinese trade practices “the greatest theft in the history of the world” and said that China had “raped” the U.S. Trump also declared that he would label China a currency manipulator if he were elected. As president-elect, Trump angered Chinese officials by telephoning Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, a move which strayed from a longstanding diplomatic protocol. This March, Trump tweeted that North Korea had been “playing” America for years and China “has done little to help.”
Then April came, and Trump welcomed Xi in Florida. Day one showed a hint of what was to come: Despite having “gotten nothing, absolutely nothing” after a lengthy discussion with Xi, Trump said that both of them had “developed a friendship.” After day two, Trump announced that he and Xi had made “tremendous progress” in their talks and their relationship was “outstanding.” When asked about China in subsequent interviews, Trump frequently talked about the “great chemistry” between him and Xi. “People say we have the best relationship of any president-president,” Trump told Fox in October. “I happen to think he’s a very good person.”
The Xi-Trump friendship has led to some tangible results for both parties. Shortly after meeting Xi in person, Trump jettisoned his plans to declare China a currency manipulator because “they are working with us on the North Korean problem.” Xi appears to have returned the favor: In September, China backed the most stringent-ever United Nations sanctions against North Korea while the central bank ordered other Chinese banks to halt doing business with North Korea. And during their meeting in Beijing, both Xi and Trump stated their intention to denuclearize North Korea.
Trump’s friendliness with Xi, however, doesn’t appear to affect his administration’s tough stance on China. In June, the U.S. State Department placed China on its global list of the worst offenders in human trafficking and forced labor. In August, U.S Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer launched a year-long investigation of China’s intellectual property trade practices under Section 301 that could result in U.S. trade action against China. According to a Dec. 5 Politico report, the Trump administration could soon “release its conclusions and move into the remedy phase of the probe.”
A different Chinese leader
In September, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said at a forum in Hong Kong that isn’t a world leader that Trump respects more “than the president of China.” Some argue that Trump’s “great relationship” with Xi is due to his “attraction” to “strongmen” from authoritarian regimes. Yet a scrutiny of Xi’s policies and political challenges in office reveals another reason for Trump’s admiration.
Xi was in a hugely disadvantageous position when he became CCP General Secretary in 2012. Unlike previous CCP leaders, he had no power base or political faction. Meanwhile, many Chinese officials, especially those in CCP’s upper echelons, were Jiang Zemin loyalists or members of his influential faction. Jiang elites controlled key CCP organs like the military, propaganda, and the domestic security and law apparatus. In other words, Xi could have easily been another Jiang puppet like his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao. Worse, Xi could find himself ousted and his safety imperiled—U.S. officials learned of the Jiang faction’s coup plot against Xi from former Chongqing top cop Wang Lijun when Wang tried to defect in early 2012.
Despite having the odds stacked heavily against him, Xi managed to avoid Hu’s fate and regime change and instead more fully consolidated his control over the CCP. Through a grinding anti-corruption campaign and sweeping military reforms, he purged many Jiang supporters, including Jiang coup plotters Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang. Xi then steadily appointed his former colleagues or technocrats with fewer political connections to senior positions. Pushback from the Jiang faction was particularly intense: Jiang cronies in the financial sector collaborated with princelings to launch a “financial coup” through the 2015 China stock market crisis; the propaganda apparatus used “gaojihei” smear tactics against Xi; ex-internet czar Lu Wei cracked down on internet celebrities and heightened cyberspace censorship; and domestic security units increased social repression and targeted human rights lawyers for arrest and abuse. Xi has sought to reverse the situation by appointing trusted officials to the top propaganda positions and the Ministry of Public Security after the 19th Party Congress, while Lu Wei the former internet chief was purged in November
Xi’s critics may have a different view about his “strongman” tactics and his administration if his allies duly implement the policies he has been promoting in the past five years while the Jiang faction resistance withers. Take for example Xi’s push for instituting the “rule of law” and constitutionalism in China. Shortly after taking office, Xi talked about a “constitutional dream” in a speech and followed up by closing the abusive labor camp system. In a drive to make up for miscarriages of justice, the various People’s Courts paid nearly 700 million yuan ($105 million) in compensation to the victims of nearly 17,000 misjudged cases between 2013 and 2016. The courts also overturned 34 cases of gross miscarriages of justice, including the infamous Nie Shubin case where the Hebei authorities refused to clear Nie of murder charges for two decades even after the actual murderer had surrendered himself. And local courts, procuratorates, and police stations have released over 50 Falun Gong adherents in the first half of this year—an impossible development when Jiang Zemin was political dominant since the persecution of Falun Gong was his pet project. The Xi administration, however, hasn’t announced shifted the CCP’s stance on the persecution. It is also unclear if Xi can completely turn the CCP away from its proclivity to violence and repression while conditioning officials to be more law-abiding—the Beijing police’s heavy-handed mass evictions of the city’s migrant workers from substandard dwellings on the pretext of upholding the law is a case in point.
Trump is perhaps inclined to believe that Xi’s policies are well-intended. “He loves China, I can tell you. He loves China,” Trump said at a July press conference in Paris. Xi “wants to do what’s right for China.”
Xi Jinping’s aspirations to do right by China may not be the sole reason for the Trump administration’s accommodating attitude towards him.
Speaking to Bloomberg in October, Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo said that Xi’s power consolidation at the 19th Party Congress would lead to a positive outcome. “We think that President Xi will come out of [the 19th Congress] in a dominant position with incredible capacity to do good around the world.” Pompeo cited the Xi administration’s “real progress” in reining in North Korea as an example: “Frankly … if you had told the intelligence community that we could have expected the Chinese to do all the things that they have to date, there would have been great skepticism inside of our building, and there certainly would’ve been great skepticism around the world.”
The United States has likely been betting on Xi to turn things around in China since the Wang Lijun defection incident in 2012. Xi kept a low profile before coming to office, but his father Xi Zhongxun was known for adopting a reformist slant in the later part of his career. If the younger Xi was likewise accepting of reform, then he could shift China away from the corruption and persecution of the Jiang Zemin era (1989 to 2012), and further open up the Chinese economy.
The American gamble could already be paying off. Xi has cracked down heavily on the Jiang faction and is trying to change China’s toxic political culture with his anti-corruption campaign. And after Trump left Beijing in November, the Xi administration announced that foreign companies can now own controlling stakes in Chinese banks and other financial institutions. Meanwhile, the Obama administration and the Trump administration appear to have not strongly criticized Xi during times where it would normally be appropriate to, possibly to prevent Xi’s rivals from seizing U.S. criticism to strengthen their case to remove him. For instance, Vice President Joe Biden praised Xi’s handling of a disputed air defense zone dispute between China, Japan, and South Korea in 2013; the Jiang-controlled Chinese military had initiated the dispute, and Xi had yet to bring the military under his sway. This September, Trump criticized the ideologies of socialism and communism during a speech at the United Nations, and named North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela—but not China—as examples of communist dictatorships; Trump’s speech came about a month before the 19th Congress, a sensitive time for Xi.
If the U.S. indeed has a strategy on how to handle Xi, this would neatly explain why Trump appeared to have “flipped” on China after becoming president. As a presidential candidate, Trump would have no access to classified national intelligence. As president, Trump would have learned about Xi’s situation in intelligence briefings, but probably decided to hear from Xi himself before committing to the strategy (should it exist). Yet being friendly with Xi does not mean that the Trump administration cannot be tough on the Chinese communist regime in other areas, as we see with the ongoing U.S. trade investigations against China.
In sum, the Trump administration handles Xi Jinping and the Chinese regime differently because they believe that Xi’s rule will be good for China and the world. This approach is also consistent with Trump’s “America First’ policy and his anti-communist stance. To repay that faith, Xi will have to be successful in his reforms—a hugely complicated feat as the communist system is highly resistant to policies that would undermine its absolute power or change its character. Ultimately, only Xi himself knows which direction he will take China.
Don Tse is the CEO and co-founder of SinoInsider Consulting LLC, a consulting and research company based in New York City.
Larry Ong is a senior analyst with SinoInsider Consulting LLC.