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China toning down its bombasts in heat of trade war
China is swaying back to the principle of "hiding capacities and biding time" indoctrinated by its late leader Deng xiaoping by toning down its high-flying propaganda. Such dribs and drabs’ gestures may not be convincing enough for Trump to back down but it will help snub the ethnocentric or xenophobic sentiments at home.

As the China-US trade war was officially set in motion on Friday, the nationalistic sentiment and belligerent rhetoric used to be adopted by the government's mouthpiece has taken a U turn, with the People's Daily lately releasing three editorials in succession lashing out at such a style of writing.

According to the editorials, the arrogant style of writing will, to a large extent, distort public mentalities and misinterpret the mainstream values. One character of such writing style is touting China's status as the world's superpower overtaking the US in technology or economic strength which is at odds with reality. The editorial said the illusion of being the number one in the world will stoke harmful populist sentiments while alerting the US and other western powers which take China as a strategic competitor.

A recent speech given by Editor-in-chief of Science and Technology Daily, a major state-owned media outlet, also warned against blind hubris by pointing out the big gap between China and the US or other developed countries, he said any exaggeration of China's technological or economic prowess will only feed into the "China threat" theory.

Earlier this week, a document entitled "propaganda notice" was purportedly published to instruct Chinese media to stay calm and rational in reporting on the trade war with the US and to wait for instructions from the Ministry of Commerce before reporting comments from President Trump, U.S. government spokespersons or U.S. officials.

The document listed various approaches that Chinese media should follow in a trade war. "Don't attack Trump's vulgarity; don't make this a war of insults," the document says. "Each department should strengthen its contribution to the stabilization of market expectations. We stop negotiation for now, acting tit for tat, roll out corresponding policies, hold public opinion at a good level without escalating it, limit scope, and strike accurately and carefully, splitting apart different domestic groups in the U.S."

The document also warned against using the phrase, "Made in China 2025", attempting to play it down by ordering state media to minimize their coverage of the industrial modernization program, as the US and Europe see it as indisputable evidence of China’s aim to dominate hi-tech sectors via state-sponsored activities.

Consequentially, mentions of the program on the website of China’s Ministry of Commerce have sharply fallen, so does the website of the People’s Daily.

In another move to play down its ambition and ease the tension, China is reported to be considering further reduction of electric vehicle subsidy program by as much as 30% in 2018, which is worth noting since electric vehicles are a key industry of "Made in China 2025". The government said it wanted to push the automakers to rely more on technological innovation rather than financial subsidies, whereas some insiders familiar with the matter said China may want to make the move to show some good will by reining in state support. Earlier report also indicated China is willing to involve the US companies in "Made in China 2025". Such piecemeal concessions are aimed at appeasing the US concerns that China is unfairly sponsoring its hi-tech industry and eventually thwarting the US technological dominance through the program.

Why softening the tone now?

China used to uphold the principle of "hiding capacities and biding time" indoctrinated by Deng xiaoping. But since Xi came into power, the doctrine has been somewhat sidelined and China has become more assertive on the strategic front in recent years. Now it needs to adjust its priorities.

As a matter of fact, China is in a process of restructuring its economy which needs strong economic growth and financial power to create a favorable environment. If the trade war is fought on a broad scale and lasts for long, China’s economy and finances will surely suffer, ultimately putting the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, or Chinese dream, in jeopardy. Faced with mounting risks and pressure, China may need to make necessary concessions. So, toning down the assertive stance now will help pave the way for making such concessions without offending public opinions.

Clearly, the high-flying propaganda itself shall not be blamed for providing ammunition for outsiders to criticize China. As a matter of fact, the US strategic pivot moving toward Asia and containing China has begun from the Obama administration. And when Trump decided to run for the US president in June 2015, he made China his primary trade opponent. It can be said that the trajectory of the US strategy towards China is of its own making. And the rationale behind the hardline shift is the rise of China itself rather than its propaganda. It happened to the Soviet Union and Japan before, the US just can't live at ease with another superpower.

Taking an assertive tone or not may have more relevance when taking into account its impact on domestic nationalist sentiment. Ethnocentrism holds great appeal to the young and confident population in China. The typical characteristic of ethnocentrism is to strengthen national unity and social cohesion through means of xenophobia or opposition to foreign powers. That may work in favor of Chinese government when dealing with foreign pressure. However, this may come with collateral damages of self-isolation and creating unhealthy tension in the social atmosphere, especially, it may make the government look weak and vulnerable when it has to make necessary concessions. And in the worst scenario, if China did suffer a lot in the trade war, such toxic sentiment can back fire, bringing trouble to the government.

Thus, the intention of toning down assertiveness by Chinese government is two-layered. It may look like a flinch in the heat of a trade row, but the most pragmatic motive may have to do with its domestic agenda. 

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