Who are China’s key opinion leaders on social media? What are their views on the trade war with the US, and how much influence do they have on government policy? Analysis of their early discussion offers insights into Beijing’s approach to the trade war.
Ahead of the vital meeting of Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump at the G20 summit on June 28-29, China has stepped up media censorship and blocked a significant number of financial analyst blogs across social media platforms. This nervousness shows that public opinion is a force that the party-state cannot ignore entirely and has to negotiate with when it comes to forming foreign and economic policy. With tensions rising in the talks with Washington, Beijing is deeply cautious of domestic sentiment.
In this blog post, we look at the early discussions on social media of a number of key opinion leaders (KOLs) who have large influence on the public opinion in China and, therefore, on Beijing’s approach to the dispute with the US.
Since the trade talks between the US and China broke down in early May, the two sides have had no contact. The conflict appeared to be at risk of escalating into a cold war when the US put Huawei and then Chinese supercomputer manufacture Sugon and its affiliates on its “entity list.” If this escalation continues, it will not only put more pressure on the world economy, but also risk creating a “global technological slump”. Whether Xi and Trump can get the negotiations back on a more constructive path depends fundamentally on how China interprets the US’s motivation.
Debate has been silenced since September
Online discussions about the trade war are currently being heavily censored. However, March to September 2018 was a relatively relaxed space in which discussion of this topic was tolerated, perhaps for the government to test the public sentiment and gather opinions. The discussion has been silenced since September, when China released its first position paper on the issue and entered negotiations with the US. Looking at the discussion from this earlier period helps to understand China’s perspective on the conflict.
Unfortunately, the outlook does not look bright, according to the views expressed in 104 articles written by five of the most influential voices on the most popular Chinese social media platform, WeChat (see Box for details). Four of these can be considered independent KOLs. The fifth is a public account affiliated with the People’s Daily, which is used as the benchmark here for the perspectives and opinions communicated by the government during this period.
Figure 1 shows how many arguments about the cause for the trade conflict fall into different categories. It reveals that since the early days of the trade conflict with the US, these KOLs see the major cause as political in nature. They believed that the US and China have entered “the Thucydides Trap,” when a rising power threatens to displace the current superpower. The US wants to remain the one superpower in the world and therefore the trade dispute is only used as an excuse to contain China’s rise, they argue. In an article from March 2018 published on Wuxiaobo Channel, guest commenter Guo Shiying, a financial analyst, succinctly argued: “Trade war is not just a trade war. China-US competition has entered deep water… 2018 should be the year marking the beginning of Sino-US conflict, which is likely to escalate. The uncertainties in the economic and trade relations and even regional security will be increasingly presented.”