A billboard of Deng Xiaoping at the entrance of Lychee Park in Shenzhen in 2007. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Brücke-Osteuropa
A billboard featuring Deng Xiaoping at the entrance of Lychee Park in Shenzhen in 2007. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Brücke-Osteuropa

In their recent fiery rhetoric against the United States, China’s state-controlled media outlets have made several telling assertions, some of which contradict what they themselves and Chinese officials previously said.

A commentary by Xinhua on May 19 accused the US of resorting to bullying in its trade relations with China and asserted that Washington’s “trick of exerting extreme pressure to deter China won’t work.” Instead, it “will only make China stronger,” the official news agency stressed, adding that China’s “journey toward national rejuvenation is unstoppable.”

To demonstrate such “confidence [that] comes from the country’s solid economic foundation and huge development potential,” Xinhua wrote: “Over the past four decades, China has grown from scratch to the world’s second-largest economy. A country that struggled to make a single tractor has transformed into a manufacturing heavyweight in the world.”

What’s more, “China has 1.4 billion population and a 400-million middle-income group. It has the world’s most comprehensive industrial system, robust scientific and technological innovation capacity, rich human capital, and abundant land and resources,” the agency boasted.

Of course, there is nothing new and surprising in such boastful discourse. At the five-early congress of the Communist Party of China in October 2017 and the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, the rubber-stamp parliament of the People’s Republic of China, in March 2018, Xi Jinping already publicly bragged that his country “has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong.”

What’s more, Xi, who heads the CPC, the PRC, the People’s Liberation Army and many other influential party and state bodies and is thus dubbed China’s “Chairman of Everything, Everywhere and Everyone,” asserted that “with an entirely new posture,” China now not only “stands tall and firm in the East” but also strides forward “at the forefront of the world” and is moving “closer to the world’s center stage.”

Amazing China, a 90-minute documentary produced by state broadcaster China Central Television, likewise extolled the nation’s achievements in key areas, such as science, technology, infrastructure and military modernization, since Xi came to power in 2012.

But Xi’s past remarks, CCTV’s 2018 propaganda movie and Xinhua’s recent comments undermine or even contradict an assertion strongly held by Chinese leaders, such as Premier Li Keqiang, officials, experts and media that “China is still a developing country.”

Though there is no agreed definition of what constitutes a “developing” nation at the World Trade Organization, an economy with such a status at the Geneva-based body is accorded considerable tariff and subsidy advantages when trading with developed ones.

Since its admission to the WTO in 2001, China has enormously benefited from its category as a “developing” nation at the body, enabling it to become the world’s largest merchandise trader and second-biggest economy.

Since its admission to the WTO in 2001, China has enormously benefited from its category as a ‘developing’ nation at the body, enabling it to become the world’s largest merchandise trader and second-biggest economy. US President Donald Trump is not happy with all that

US President Donald Trump is not happy with all that. “China, which is a great economic power, is considered a Developing Nation within the World Trade Organization,” he tweeted in April last year. “They therefore get tremendous perks and advantages, especially over the U.S. Does anybody think this is fair?”

China still refuses to give up its special and differential treatment as a “developing” nation, arguing that it “still has a low per capita GDP” and a long way to go to become a developed economy or “to realize the goal of establishing a modern economic system and industrialized society.”

It’s true that, at less than US$9,000 (about 80% of the world average), China’s gross domestic product per capita is relatively low and that some other countries with similar – or even higher – personal incomes still consider themselves “developing” nations.

The problem for China is that, when it “is soberly aware of the fact that there is still a big gap between it and developed economies” and wants the US and other developed countries to treat it more favorably, it vehemently highlights its “many poor counties and villages” or other majors problems, such as weaknesses “in industrial competitiveness and technological innovation.”

But, on other occasions, and for other purposes, it often adopts an opposite spin. Its current nationalistic and bombastic rhetoric against the US is an example.

That said, it’s undeniable that, overall, China is now rich, developed and powerful. Accounting for 12% of the global billionaire wealth, the world’s second-largest economy also has the second-highest number of billionaires. With its high-tech giants, such as Huawei, China is also becoming a technologically advanced country.

For the United States, it clearly no longer makes sense for such an economically rich, technologically advanced country to receive special WTO privileges that were originally designed to assist poor developing nations. “After all, there is nothing special or differential when a member [that is, China] that has landed a rover on the dark side of the moon and leads the world with the largest number of the most powerful supercomputers insists on the same treatment as one of our poorest members,” America’s ambassador to the WTO, Dennis Shea, said at the Geneva headquarters in February.

Americans also find it unacceptable that China, which also has the world’s second-largest military, is still granted such a preferential status when the Asian nation is seeking to – or can and will soon – match, rival or even surpass their country in crucial areas.

What makes them even more resentful is that some of their past decisions and concessions have helped transform China, making it a formidable and fierce competitor – economically, technologically, militarily and geopolitically.

When signing his “memorandum targeting China’s economic aggression” in March last year, Donald Trump stressed that what he really wanted in US relations with China was reciprocity. “When they charge 25% for a car to go in, and we charge 2% for their car to come into the [US], that’s not good.  That’s how China rebuilt itself.  The tremendous money that we’ve paid since the founding of the [WTO] – which has actually been a disaster for us,” he said.

An opinion piece in the People’s Daily, the PRC’s official mouthpiece, on May 19 stated that “China is never rebuilt by the US.”

It’s correct that China is not rebuilt by the US or any other countries. But it’s also safe to say that without America’s concessions – or more precisely, its favorable relations with the communist country over the past 40 years – China couldn’t have “grown from scratch to the world’s second-largest economy.”

The Xinhua commentary made a notable observation and, indeed, a rare admission: Four decades ago, China even “struggled to make a single tractor.” That means, despite – or more correctly, because of – Mao Zedong’s ambitious and disastrous plans, such as the so-called “Great Leap Forward” of collectivized farming and rapid industrialization, the PRC achieved very little during the first three decades of its existence.

China’s remarkable transformation, from an impoverished nation under Mao into an economic powerhouse, is solely thanks to the reform and opening-up program that Deng Xiaoping initiated in 1979.

Last October, Sheng Hong, director of the Beijing-based Unirule Institute of Economics, one of the tightly controlled nation’s few independent economic think-tanks, wrote that Deng’s breakthrough policy was based on two principal and interrelated pillars, namely domestic reforms and good relations with the US.

In the same month, Zhang Weiying, another prominent Chinese economist, acknowledged that “China’s rapid growth over the past 40 years has come from marketization, entrepreneurship and technological [learning] from the West rather than the so-called ‘China model.’” He also lashed out at those who used the “China model” to explain China’s economic achievement, warning that such interpretation “inevitably leads to confrontation with the West.”

An opinion piece a few month ago in the South China Morning Post – the Hong Kong-based newspaper owned by Jack Ma, a Chinese billionaire and a CPC member – also rightly pointed out that “a very important, and often ignored, factor” behind China’s economic success was that it “developed in a non-hostile environment, one where the US and other Western countries supported it, and helped it grow.”

But “only very recently,” that piece continued, “the US has begun to feel China’s rise poses a threat. Now, the Western world’s focus has changed: to monitoring China. With China on the radar, every move it makes is subject to scrutiny.”

Indeed, the United States’ perception of China has radically shifted, becoming much more wary of the Asian behemoth. Many changes in the world’s largest authoritarian country, including the Xi Jinping regime’s nationalistic tone and overbearing posture, in recent years have been a key factor behind that shift.

All in all, while it may help galvanize support at home, Beijing’s nationalistic, hyperbolic and antagonistic rhetoric of late doesn’t help, but hinders China’s relations with the US. What’s more, it isn’t the US – but rather the PRC – that has suffered – and will suffer – more from a conflictual relationship between the world’s two superpowers.

When meeting with President Trump for the first time in April 2017, Xi told his American counterpart: “There are a thousand reasons to make the China-US relationship a success, and not a single reason to break it.” If he truly believes that, perhaps China’s “core leader” should take measures to better, not to worsen, it.

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