After the dramatic breakdown of China-U.S. trade negotiation and Washington’s slapped tariffs on Chinese exports, China appears to be lifting restraint on nationalist sentiment. Chinese propaganda ramped up anti-America nationalism, publishing a barrage of critical editorials, depicting China as the victim of Washington’s bullying, vowing reciprocal countermeasures, and airing old anti-U.S. invasion war movies during prime evening slots. Meanwhile, despite strident rhetoric and shrill criticism from state-run media and foreign ministry spokespersons, it seems that China has found an unofficial messenger to cool down the tensions amid rising nationalism.
The founder and CEO of Huawei Technologies, Ren Zhengfei, broke silence after the telecommunications giant was blacklisted by Trump administration for national security concerns. In interview with China’s state-run media outlets, Ren’s tone was surprisingly soft and cautious. Whereas some urged Chinese consumers to shift from U.S. smartphone maker Apple to Chinese brand Huawei to demonstrate patriotism, or even pressed the Chinese government to place reciprocal and retaliatory ban on the American technological giants, the billionaire CEO exhorted not to boycott Apple and spoke against irrational nationalism and politicizing consumer behaviors.
Warning against “equating buying Huawei products to patriotism”, Ren believed narrow-mindedness is prone to produce nationalism, which does no good to China. Ren’s remarks come as a surprise at a time when his own firm is falling victim of U.S. sanctions, and even sound maverick in contrast to roaring rhetoric in media outlets previously. Given the airing of high-profile on state media, it’s highly-speculated that Ren may be mandated by some high-level Chinese authorities to send a softened message and thereby to tame down nationalism. Here is why.
First, extreme nationalism complicates trade talks. Whereas China’s leadership tends to fuel nationalism to gain short-term political benefits by diverting public focus from domestic economic slowdown and rallying public support around the leadership, the strategy might turn to be counter-productive. As anti-Americanism further consolidates the hostility among the American hawks towards China and even antagonizes the moderates in the U.S., unleashing nationalism may further derail trade negotiation and thus make a trade deal more impossible. Therefore, while fanning fervent patriotism among the populace, on the other hand, the CCP regime may want to prevent the fervor from spinning out of control.
Second, despite the regime’s intention to bring nationalism under control, it’s inconvenient for Chinese authorities to talk about rational patriotism at this moment. It was observed that Chinese foreign ministry was repeatedly playing the role of urging for “rational patriotism” in previous episodes of heightened nationalism during the spat with Japan over nationalization of Diaoyu/Senkuka Islands, and dispute with South Korea over deployment of THAAD. Even in the past year since the beginning of the trade war, the Chinese government continued to demonstrate restraint by suppressing hostility towards America. But this time, fierce rebukes and nationalistic hysteria in official discourse has raised the public sentiment. Changing the official rhetoric abruptly may indicate weakness in the eyes of extreme nationalists, which may help shift the blame to the CCP for being too weak in the face of foreign humiliation. Thus, an unofficial messenger has to step in.
Third, Ren might be the best person to play the nice guy while the Chinese authorities play the tough one. On the one hand, as the world’s second largest smartphone maker and a pioneer in construction of 5G network competing with foreign brands in global market, Huawei is a national pride in the eyes of ordinary Chinese. Furthermore, the “politicized ban” on Huawei provokes public outcry as it’s widely considered that the technological giant is bullied by foreign governmental organ only because of Huawei’s excellence and competiveness. Despite Ren’s refusal to accept the title of “national hero”, the Huawei’s boss is seen, at least among the Chinese, as a champion for Huawei’s achievements and made-in-China technologies. With his influence, now only Ren is capable of mollifying the public outrage by speaking of rationalism in a peaceful and detached manner.
Nonetheless, the risks remain. The first question is whether Washington can clearly understand the mixed, if not contradictory, message implied in the seemingly dual jointly played by Huawei’s Ren and Chinese authorities. If not, the efforts prove in vain and China may miss the opportunity to bring trade talks back on track. Second, if Trump administration is convinced that Ren represents the Chinese government unofficially, now the assumption on the link between Huawei and the CCP government is substantiated, which might be the most undesired thing for the Chinese government.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
Keyu Chen served as financial translator for Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank. He holds M.A. in international journalism and communication from Beijing Foreign Studies University. He’s interested in political communication, comparative politics and international relations.