Beijing tries to play down ‘Made in China 2025’ as Donald Trump escalates trade hostilities

State media agencies ordered to avoid mentioning the industrial modernisation plan as US president makes it a focus of looming trade war

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 10:20am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2018, 11:31am

Beijing is attempting to play down “Made in China 2025” by ordering state media to minimise their coverage of the industrial modernisation programme, as US President Donald Trump makes it a focus of his trade battle with China.

Three separate mainland media sources briefed about the directive told the South China Morning Post that the government has instructed Chinese state media agencies to avoid mentioning Made in China 2025 in their reports.

A reporter with a state-owned newspaper told the Post that an official affiliated with the Communist Youth League in Beijing recently made him aware of the demand.

Another source traced the clampdown back to early May, when an American delegation headed by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin flew to Beijing to begin trade negotiations with a Chinese team led by Vice-Premier Liu He.

The sources declined to be named because instructions from Chinese censors are often regarded as confidential information.

At a press conference in Beijing on Tuesday, there was no mention of Made in China 2025 by officials from the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology – even though their focus was a hi-tech “smart industry” exhibition in Chongqing.

When asked by the Post whether Beijing would withhold or adjust the controversial policy, industry and IT ministry chief economist Wang Xinzhe said arrangements were made at last year’s party congress to upgrade the manufacturing industry. Without mentioning Made in China 2025 at all, Wang said the ministry was following guidelines set during the congress.

Made in China 2025, an ambitious plan to give the country a leading edge on several hi-tech fronts, has become a thorny issue between China and its trading partners, including the US and the EU.

The plan aims to make China a tech superpower by calling for a dramatic increase in domestically made products in 10 sectors – from robotics to biopharmaceuticals – that the government hopes will accelerate an industrial upgrade as economic growth slows.

It seeks to advance the development of industries that in addition to semiconductors include artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals and electric vehicles.

Donald Trump’s US$50b tariffs target Beijing’s ‘Made in China 2025’ tech strategy

The US$50 billion of Chinese goods on which Trump plans to slap 25 per cent tariffs, starting on July 6, include items related to Made in China 2025, according to the White House.

Trump also is attempting to impede Beijing’s progress in its industrial development by blocking Chinese companies from investing in US tech firms, The Wall Street Journal reported.

While US media have boosted their efforts to explain the facts behind Made in China 2025 as the looming all-out trade war focuses attention on it, voices promoting the initiative in China’s official rhetoric have grown significantly fainter.

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Mentions of the programme on the website of China’s Ministry of Commerce have sharply fallen.

In the past 12 months, the ministry published close to 190 Made in China 2025 articles on its site, ranging from government documents that established national demonstration areas for the project, to promotional materials that lauded its benefits to the southern African country of Zambia.

But in the last three months, the number of articles published on the site plunged to nine, with just two in the last 30 days.

The most recent piece, published on June 19, recirculated an April document from the State Council, China’s cabinet, praising 14 Chinese cities for carrying out the programme effectively last year.

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A quick search on the website of People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, turned up references to dozens of Made in China 2025 articles that were published or shared this month, but the sources were mainly local governments, rather than Beijing.

For instance, an article published by Changzhou Daily last week said that Changzhou, an industrial centre in eastern Jiangsu province, took part in Made in China 2025 by speeding up its development of intelligent manufacturing – generally understood to mean deploying industrial robotics to enhance competitiveness.

Zhong Wei, a Beijing Normal University professor, has said that Beijing could play down the importance of Made in China 2025 if it wanted to ease other nations’ growing concerns about China’s global ambitions.

In an article published on his personal social media account this month, Zhong said Beijing should stop touting Made in China 2025 as a development strategy, which the US and Europe see as indisputable evidence of China’s aim to dominate hi-tech sectors via state-sponsored activities.

The EU’s business lobby, for example, has warned that China could use the plan to discriminate against foreign firms in favour of Chinese competitors.

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Instead, Zhong said, Beijing should present the programme as a simple guideline for upgrading its manufacturing sector.

“There is no evidence that Beijing has made any concrete arrangements for Made in China 2025 in terms of personnel, budgets or resource allocation,” Zhong wrote.

“It is a visionary and guiding document, and is completely different from China’s five-year plans on economic and social development.”

Additional reporting by Amanda Lee