Beijing orders state media to soften criticism of Donald Trump as the US and China tone down their trade war rhetoric

Beijing has directed state media not to use ‘aggressive language’ against the US president, who has avoided flinging insults at Xi Jinping

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 July, 2018, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 July, 2018, 7:50pm

With a China-US trade war under way, both parties are adopting a no-insult strategy, choosing to remain muted in their rhetoric about the opposing side’s leader.

After answering Washington’s 25 per cent levy on US$34 billion of Chinese goods with equivalent tariffs on US products, Beijing has directed state media to watch how they report on US President Donald Trump, mainland media sources said.

“It’s been said that we should not use aggressive language for Trump,” said one of two sources who declined to be named because internal directions often are regarded as confidential information.

Even though Chinese officials and state media have attacked the trade policies of the Trump administration, so far they have not laid blame on the US president or his officials – a move seen as an attempt to avoid antagonising Trump and further complicating negotiations.

While the Beijing directive may not have been issued across the board – two other state media sources said they were not instructed how to write about Trump with regards to trade – it mirrored one of the guidelines on an official propaganda instruction widely circulated on social media.

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The edict called on media outlets not to make vulgar attacks on Trump to avoid “making this a war of insults”.

The South China Morning Post reported last month that state media agencies were instructed to play down mentions of Made in China 2025 – a strategic industrial policy aimed at transforming China into a high-tech powerhouse – in their reports.

Reporting at state-controlled outlets in the country is strictly overseen by government censors, who often issue instructions to ensure the coverage toes the party line.

On the US side, Trump has also avoided flinging insults directly at President Xi Jinping, instead reiterating in person and via Twitter that the two “will always be friends, no matter what happens with our dispute on trade”.

In a tweet in April, Trump even said he was “very thankful for President Xi of China’s kind words on tariffs and automobile barriers” and exclaimed that the two leaders “will make great progress together!”

Sow Keat Tok, a University of Melbourne lecturer on China’s foreign relations, said that since Trump’s rhetoric has focused on the trade war instead of Xi, the Chinese leader has in turn refrained from making statements about Trump.

“[Xi] allowed the Ministry of Commerce to send out messages instead, again framing the trade as a state-to-state interaction,” he said.

“Restraining the state media is important, lest some enthusiastic reporters mention Trump in their pieces. The message is not to antagonise Trump personally, but [to] keep the affair in the realm of state policy.”

That approach is a marked contrast from the name-calling in which Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un engaged during frostier times in the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang.

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At one point, Kim called Trump a “dotard” while the US president referred to the North Korean leader as “little rocket man”.

“Xi would not allow that to happen to himself,” Tok said. “It’s not just about face, but also preempting possible responses from the Chinese society, in case such personal animosity gets out of hand.”