China Instructs State Media Not to Provoke Trump During Trade Dispute

China's President Xi Jinping (L) and US President Donald Trump attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Reuters contended on Wednesday that Chinese media coverage of the trade dispute with America has been relatively muted, and it was by design because the government has instructed its media outlets not to say anything that would enrage U.S. President Donald Trump.

The claim was sourced to “several sources with knowledge of the matter” who claimed to have seen a “memo based on a set of directives issued verbally by government officials.”

“When exposing and criticizing American words and actions, be careful not to link it to Trump and instead to aim it at the U.S. government,” Chinese state media organs were purportedly instructed.

A source who works for a major Chinese news website said media controls imposed by Beijing on the trade conflict were “the most strict yet,” which would vault over a very high bar for the control-freak authoritarian state. This would be the same government that scoured the Chinese Internet of fat jokes when North Korea’s plus-sized dictator visited Beijing in March.

The controls described to Reuters were strict indeed. The website was told to post only stories about the trade conflict by state news agency Xinhua, rather than publishing its own. It was also ordered to keep the topic out of the top few headlines and closely manage comments about it, according to the source.

The website’s smartphone app was no longer permitted to send push notifications on the subject to users, and the website was forbidden from setting up special pages about the dispute.

The problem with this theory is that, as Reuters acknowledges, there have been some rather fiery editorials in Chinese papers excoriating the Trump administration for its position on trade. The idea is that President Trump is much more likely to take umbrage at criticism that targets him personally.

Reuters’ sources also said they were “instructed not to mention the impact of the trade war on Chinese companies” because they don’t want to give the impression pressure against China might be working.

Hong Kong analyst Li Xigen added that Beijing might be worried about stirring up public anger that it cannot easily control if the trade war inflicts real hardships on the Chinese populace.

“China might need to restrict the market access of American companies. But to purge American companies that are already operating in China might be a very bad idea. Those companies generate jobs and revenue for China. Most Apple products are made in China. To do something to harm American firms that are already operating in China would be very stupid,” ventured trade expert Wang Jiangyu of the National University of Singapore.

The Communist Party People’s Daily provided an interesting example of the tightrope walked by Chinese media on Wednesday, publishing an article that attacked Trump for accusing China of sabotaging talks with North Korea but using a few Westerners plucked from Twitter at random to do it, rather than editorializing against Trump directly or quoting Chinese social media users.