Why China-U.S. Trade War is a Test for Autocratic and Democratic Regimes?

When the China-U.S. trade war started a year ago, China was apparently on the defensive. It promised astronomical amount of imports from the U.S. to show its willingness to reach a deal, in the hope of stabilizing its slowing economy. Now when the both parties returned to negotiating table after last-minute breakdown of trade talks in May and dramatic escalation of trade tensions between the world’s largest and second largest economies, it seems that Trump administration may be more anxious than the Chinese as the U.S. has been repeatedly urging China to resume purchasing of its agricultural products to show goodwill.

Among media, pundits and academics, the discussion runs high on which side may clinch victory in the ongoing rivalry. In the age of “going-global” authoritarianism, the trade war between an autocratic China and democratic America may become the real test for the survival of Western democracy. As the openness deep-rooted in democratic regime may become its weakness in confronting authoritarianism, the outcome may be pessimistically consequential.

First, the leadership in democracy continuously faces pressure from regular election cycle and constituents’ sentiment, while the decision-makers in authoritarian regime may seemingly care little about public opinion. During the protracted trade war, when China cancelled purchases of or imposed tariffs on agricultural products from the U.S., the farmers in the Mid-West agricultural states may suffer economic loss. As the farmers and middle-income families in those states were President Trump’s conservative base in 2016 presidential election, and thus their support is critical to his reelection in 2020, Trump administration has to take initiatives to alleviate their grievances, offering $16 billion bailout plan to compensate for their loss incurred from the trade war with China. That is also why the state-run newspaper China Daily inserted supplement in local newspaper, targeting local farmers, echoing their concerns, and telling them the story of mutual benefits of China-U.S. trade in an attempt to undermine the support for Republicans before mid-term election in 2018.

In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping may not have such concerns. In authoritarian states like China, the leadership doesn’t have to face reelection pressure as their counterparts in democracies. Furthermore, the scrap of presidential term limit in early 2018 theoretically makes Xi the “president-for-life” so that the leadership can make decisions that it believes are right for winning the rivalry with Washington and for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” even at short-term expense of the public. That is why the government-run People’s Daily carried a commentary urging the Chinese people to take temporary cost and give up their short-term personal interest to “stand with a responsible government at difficult times”. Therefore, thanks to China’s authoritarian characteristics, Chinese people may be more willing to and more capable of taking the cost from bilateral trade tensions than the American people, so China may be more resilient than the U.S. in this regard.

Second, while the discussion over China-U.S. competition is vibrant in democratic America where both dovish and hawkish voices are perceptible, the state-guided media created one-sided and monotonous narratives in authoritarian China. When an open letter to the White House calling “China is not an enemy” gathered around 200 China-friendly co-signatories from academic and business circles, President Trump may see strong opposition to his hostile China policy. Meanwhile, another open letter from China hawks urging Washington to continue its hostile foreign policy also gained momentum, collecting more than 100 signatures.

Instead, the discussion in China over the trade war tends to echo “national unity”. In decision-making circle, the pressure from Washington may have generated negative feedback that emboldened reform-opposing conservatives and marginalized reform-minded liberals. Since the breakdown of trade talks in May, Chinese media unleashed anti-U.S. nationalism that had been kept in control for a year. As state-run Xinhua news agency criticized dissenting voices as showing “weakness”, no official, pundit, intellectual or academic would like to be singled out and labelled as pro-U.S. “traitor” amid escalated trade war with America. Thus, liberal voices supportive of external pressure that may force China to embark on structural reform disappeared, and even the moderate voices in favor of China-U.S. cooperation were muted. Whereas this very example of “spiral of silence” may enable the Chinese leadership to take bolder initiatives, Trump administration may not be able to fully ignore the strong opposition to his China policy.

China usually takes pride in collectivism embedded in its political system, lauding its strength in pooling resources to solve major issues and improving efficiency in contrast to inefficient and slowly-functioning democratic regime. The trade war could become the watershed where China’s authoritarian model might prove superior to liberal democracy due to its autocratic resilience and collectivist political system. To compete with China, the U.S. may have to make fundamental reform to its system to become more autocratic in some ways. But ironically, that may herald the triumph of autocracy and real demise of liberal democracy.

Image credit: This image is a work of the Office of the U.S. trade representatives. As a work of the  the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

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.

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