Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping visited a rare earth minerals mine in Jiangxi province on Monday, his first domestic trip of the month.
Although state media revealed few details of his trip, Xi reportedly strove to rally workers for China’s protracted trade war with the United States by invoking the spirit of the “Long March” from China’s civil war almost a century ago.
The South China Morning Post on Monday quoted analysts who said Xi also wanted to underline his support for Vice-Premier Liu He, his closest adviser and point man for trade negotiations with the U.S.:
Chen Daoyin, a Shanghai-based political researcher, said the Long March had great significance in the history of People’s Republic and the party.
“Against the backdrop of the China-US confrontation in trade and technology, the leader’s trip to Yudu sent a clear message of enduring hardship,” Chen said. “We have to be prepared for the possibility that economic confrontation with the US may persist over the long term.”
Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College in London, said Xi’s appearance with Liu showed his support for the vice-premier as “a comrade in arms or soldier by his side, while they engage in this looming issue with the US”.
“So it’s a clever deployment of domestic history and the kind of politics and narratives of the Communist Party to face the issues they are facing with the US,” Brown said.
“It’s a kind of move for propaganda purposes and to show people in China this is leadership that derives from previous leaders who faced huge issues but were able to prevail, and that despite current turbulence because of US-China issues, they will be able to get through.”
During his trip to Jiangxi province, Xi placed a floral basket at a monument commemorating the beginning of the Long March in 1934. The Long March was a 4,000-mile odyssey that ended with Communist victory and the rise of Mao Zedong as the first Communist dictator of modern China.
The Washington Post noted that China’s main television movie channel bumped other programming for the weekend to screen patriotic films of China fighting the United States during the Korean War era, while a state-run publishing house decided the time was right to publish a collection of Mao’s speeches exhorting the Chinese people to stand firm against Japanese imperialism in World War II. A defiant slogan was made into a viral sensation on Chinese social media: “Want to talk? Let’s talk. Want to fight? Let’s do it. Want to bully us? Dream on!”
“The psychological aspect cannot be overestimated. The Chinese side wants to be seen as standing up to the U.S. They have to put on a strong face,” University of Chicago political science professor Dali Yang explained to the Post.
China’s state-run Xinhua news service amusingly stumbled by accidentally reporting a “ceasefire” in the trade war, then promised to investigate itself for publishing “fake news.”
The venue for Xi’s appeal to nationalist spirit was significant because China might ban rare-earth exports to retaliate for the latest U.S. moves in the trade war. The U.S. obtains about 80 percent of the rare earths it needs for electronics manufacturing and other delicate industries from China. Rare earths were excluded from the list of items the United States targeted with higher tariffs in its next round of trade war measures.
China may be reluctant to play the rare earths card because other trading partners might fear the Chinese have become an unreliable source of the vital minerals, while American buyers might be able to find or develop alternative sources for the goods they can no longer import from China.