BEIJING —By President Trump’s account, China is an economic behemoth, out to destroy the United States.
In the last few years, he has compared China’s leaders to “grand-chess masters” and accused Beijing of “raping” the U.S. economy and committing the “greatest theft in the history of the world.” Last April, as the trade war with China, was seemingly just ramping up, Trump tweeted that it was “lost many years ago.”
China has a different message: We’re not that great. Really.
In the past several months, Beijing has urged its officials and party outlets to tamp down the swagger about China’s economic strength. Rather than behemoth, Beijing has begun to pitch itself as a humble helper, an aide to countries in need.
Editorials in the state-run People’s Daily cautioned against describing China’s accomplishments as “the world’s first” or “number one in the world.” This kind of braggadocio, writers argued, “could easily make people misunderstand or even misjudge” the country. (This month, a professor who dared suggest that China’s economy had already surpassed the United States’ faced a social media backlash of students and alumni suggesting he should be fired.)
State media has been told to minimize references to Made in China 2025, a major initiative to turn China into a global leader in 10 key industries, including artificial intelligence, commercial airline development and pharmaceuticals.
“The trade war has made China more humble,” Wang Yiwei, a professor of international affairs at Renmin University in Beijing and deputy director of the institution’s “Xi Jinping Thought” center, told Bloomberg. “We should keep a low profile.”
At a recent Washington reception, China’s U.S. Ambassador Cui Tiankai said Beijing’s goal is to develop itself, not to compete with other nations. “China has no intention to challenge the international standing and interests of any other country or the existing international order and system,” he said.
It’s an odd turn for China under leader Xi, who has sought to shed his country’s modest foreign policy for a more aggressive, in-your-face quest for dominance. But experts say it’s an attempt to mollify the Trump administration and other foreign leaders.
“There is an effort to downplay any potential Chinese threat to the U.S.,” Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an email.
Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy accused China of using “economic inducements and penalties, influence operations and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.” At the time of its release, a senior administration official called China a “strategic competitor.” Glaser said the new modesty campaign was likely prompted by that American assessment.
Richard McGregor, author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers” called the shift “tactical, and little more.”
“There is a realization in China that they may have been playing into the hands of their critics in the West by displaying their ambition so openly,” he wrote in an email. “That ambition goes well beyond economics — China is also catching up and challenging the West, and particularly the U.S., for technological and geopolitical ascendancy and even parading itself as a political model, as an alternative to democracy.”
China’s modesty harks back to the rhetoric deployed by many of the country’s past leaders. As Angela Stanzel, a senior policy fellow and editor of China Analysis at the European Council on Foreign Relations, put it, Xi’s “predecessors have always downplayed China’s development in comparison to the U.S.”
“Hide your strength, bide your time,” was one of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s most famous sayings, a guiding foreign-policy principle for decades.
But when Xi came to power in 2013, he brought a different message, Stanzel said. China was a world-class country, Xi believed. It was time for it to behave that way.
Some of Xi’s biggest and most public projects — like Made in China 2025 — are efforts to do just that. Xi has also expanded China’s military muscle: The country now has the second-largest military budget in the world, with nuclear submarines, an aircraft carrier and more on the way, and stealth-fighter programs. And he has built new kinds of alliances with regional trade deals and what China calls the Belt and Road Initiative, an international, billion-dollar infrastructure investment project.
“It’s a new narrative we haven’t known before,” Stanzel said.
Since the trade war with the United States erupted, “China is trying to be much more careful in what it’s saying to the outside world,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean China means it.”
China’s current attempt to downplay its ambition may serve another purpose, too. In the last couple of months, a string of domestic challenges has shaken the country’s faith in its leaders. Hundreds of thousands of children were given faulty vaccines, raising questions about whether parents can trust the medicine given to their kids.
Earlier this month, several victims of a crackdown on peer-to-peer lending networks tried to organize a protest in Beijing, calling for stricter regulation and bailouts for people who lost money in the lending crisis. Officials tracked down several of the organizers at their homes or en route to Beijing, essentially shuttering the protest.
There’s frustration, too, over the party’s response to President Trump’s ever-escalating tariffs and threats. Beijing’s more modest rhetoric may be an attempt to ease domestic expectations and urge Chinese people to be patient.
But already, remnants of Xi’s old message are filtering back into the official conversation. As a recent editorial in the People’s Daily put it:
“After more than a century of hard work, China has returned to the center of the world stage, and this is the basic fact we must observe in the China-U.S. trade friction . . . Such a large size, such a heavy thing, can’t be hidden by ‘being low key,’ ” it said. “Just like an elephant can’t hide behind a sapling.”