President Xi Jinping inspects vegetables in Jiangxi Province. Photo: Courtesy Xinhua / Xie Huanchi

President Xi Jinping compared China’s trade war with the United States to “The Long March” last month in a poignant moment before inspecting vegetables.

They were the common, garden variety in case critics thought he was heading off to another Politburo meeting.

But then, the supreme leader of the world’s second-largest economy and general secretary of the ruling Communist Party prides himself on being a man of the people.

He regularly turns up at villages that time forgot, popping in for a cup of tea and a chat about farming with the locals, despite being steeped in CCP dogma.

“Outside of policy, Xi has adopted a more informal, personal approach to the public,” Cheng Li, a director at the John L Thornton China Center, and Diana Liang, a foreign policy researcher, wrote in a commentary for the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

“In contrast to most previous Chinese leaders, Xi has been seen dining out at ordinary Beijing dumpling restaurants, donning casual windbreakers in official photos, and frequently visiting less developed areas,” they continued.

“In so doing, he has sought to recast himself as a populist leader and blur his princeling roots,” Li and Liang added in an article entitled Rule of the Rigid Compromiser.

Yet in the context of the breakdown in peace talks with Washington, it also illustrates the contrast between Xi’s public and political personas.

Commentators have been scratching their heads and poring over Chinese tea leaves for insight into why the opposing deal-makers turned into deal-breakers during the trade negotiations.

There have been media suggestions that Xi was overruled by the Politburo after the reported 150-page document outlining the Sino-US agreement finally dropped on their desks.

Power base

“This appears to be highly unlikely as he has steadily packed the Politburo Standing Committee with his staunch allies,” a Chinese source familiar with the inner workings of Beijing bureaucracy told Asia Times.

Indeed, back in 2017 at start of his second term in office, he shuffled the deck before appointing “friends of the president” in a move to consolidate his power base.

Discussion, not dissension, was the main order of business.

“Xi succeeded in further cementing his position by appointing personal allies to the Politburo. He retained some top talent while clearly establishing his own dominance over the various factions, which compete for power,” a white paper released by the European Council on Foreign Relations revealed at the time.

While it is possible a split exists in the top echelons of the Communist Party, it appears improbable.

A more plausible explanation for the trade talks deadlock is a “clash” of cultures and Beijing’s insistence that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

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Shang-Jin Wei, the former chief economist of the Asian Development Bank, highlighted that scenario in a commentary for Project Syndicate:

“Although it is hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the breakdown in talks, I suspect a clash of negotiating norms and styles may have played a role, in addition to differences on substance.

“Most American negotiators adopt a checklist approach: if they wish to cover nine topics, they would like to reach agreement on each one in turn. The Chinese, by contrast, are accustomed to taking a more holistic approach, and follow a norm of ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.

“Both the checklist approach and the norm of ‘nothing-is-agreed-until-everything-is-agreed’ are perfectly valid. The European Union took the latter approach in its Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom, for example.

“But a clash of expectations can result if the two sides are not aware of these different styles. Discussing how to negotiate before the talks start would reduce the chances of such a clash, and therefore save a great deal of disappointment and frustration further down the road.”

Frustration has since boiled over into a verbal slugfest of rhetorical right hooks and heated haymakers after President Donald Trump’s administration more than doubled duties on Chinese imports worth US$200 billion in May.

Beijing responded by increasing tariffs on US goods and products worth $60 billion as the war of words escalated.

Rabid editorials

Naturally, Xi has been slightly more circumspect compared to the rabid editorials in the country’s tightly controlled state-run media. At the same time, he has made it clear in two speeches that China will not back down on issues involving its state-capitalism model or curtail its high-tech ambitions.

The first came last month during a visit to Jiangxi province, a Communist Party shrine where Mao’s defeated Red Army began its mythical Long March in 1934.

Accompanied by Vice-Premier Liu He, a confidant and China’s chief trade negotiator, Xi evoked memories of “courage and endurance.”

“We are here at the starting point of the Long March to remember the time when the Red Army began its journey,” Xi said. “We are now embarking on a new Long March [the trade war], and we must start all over again.”

His second major address was during a state visit to Russia on Wednesday to meet President Vladimir Putin.

“We totally have the resources, ability, and confidence to cope with the various risks and challenges [of the trade war],” he said. “Looking into the future, China’s economy bears the supporting conditions for stable, healthy and sustainable growth.”

Still, Xi’s brand of populism infused with nationalism has not only created waves on the diplomatic front, it has also backed him into a corner at home as the year-long trade conflict drags on.

With the economy cooling and the glacial pace of further reforms grinding to a halt, the mood music in the nation resembles a melancholy melody from The Smiths.

“The Chinese leadership still confronts numerous domestic challenges even without the external pressure from the United States. The US-Chinese trade war has spurred complaints that Xi misjudged China’s economic clout, overplayed his hand, and bungled negotiations with Trump’s team,” Li and Liang, of the Brookings Institution, said.

“Chinese private entrepreneurs and the middle-class share many of the same concerns as foreign companies in China: they are frustrated that promises Xi made in 2013 to reform and open markets have stalled. They complain about the rapid advance of state firms at the expense of smaller, private ones,” they continued.

“Whereas economic growth may have once mollified these domestic critics, China is experiencing a slowdown, resulting in part from economic structural change but amplified by the trade war,” Li and Liang added.

Even when a deal is finally hammered out, the relationship between Beijing and Washington is likely to remain in the deep freeze of a new economic Cold War. For Xi the populist, that might be a good time to inspect another crop of vegetables.

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