With a China-US trade war now under way, China's natural impulse was to lash out against Trump, not only in the state-controlled media, but also in statements by top ranking officials, such as an angry diatribe by the Sinochem chairman, who quoted Michelle Obama, saying "when they go low, we go high." However, in what appears to be an attempt to tone down the rhetoric, the SCMP reports that 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 a SCMP source, who added that the edict called on media outlets not to make vulgar attacks on Trump to avoid "making this a war of insults", similar to angry back and forth between Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un last summer.
In an oddly demure move for China, even though local 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.
The decree echoes a similar move last month, when the South China Morning Post reported that state media agencies were instructed to play down mentions of Made in China 2025, China's strategic industrial policy aimed at transforming China into a high-tech powerhouse and one which Trump's trade advisor Peter Navarro has explicitly targeted, in their reports.
Reporting at state-controlled outlets in China is strictly overseen by government censors, who often issue instructions to ensure the coverage toes the party line. Meanwhile, Trump has so far 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”.
Very thankful for President Xi of China’s kind words on tariffs and automobile barriers...also, his enlightenment on intellectual property and technology transfers. We will make great progress together!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 10, 2018
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!”
Commenting on the decree, 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.”
The civil 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, which culminated with Kim calling 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.”