This week, Xi Jinping is visiting San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. It marks his first trip to the U.S. since April 2017, and his first meeting with Joe Biden since last year’s G20 summit in Bali. In the midst of an intensifying geopolitical rivalry, the visit provides a rare opportunity to inject stability into the U.S.-China relationship and attain greater bilateral cooperation. In order to foster better conditions for these goals, Chinese state media has taken a notable reprieve from its often strident anti-U.S. rhetoric. Huizhong Wu from the AP reported on Chinese state media’s recent shift towards more positive coverage of the U.S. and its relationship with China:
Chinese media have focused on a recent visit by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra marking the 50th anniversary of its history-making trip to China that helped build then-fledgling U.S.-China ties, and on another visit by members of the Flying Tigers, a group of American military pilots who helped China fight Japan in World War II.
“The Chinese people will never forget an old friend, and that’s an important message we want to send to the American people,” the official Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily said in its overseas edition on Wednesday.
[…] In recent days the official Xinhua news agency carried a five-part series on U.S.-China relations which called for the countries to “meet each other halfway” and “work together to return to the path of healthy and stable development.”
[…] Even the nationalistic and confrontational Global Times newspaper called for the two countries to cooperate in an op-ed Wednesday. [Source]
This shift in tone extended to official broadcast media. Phil Cunningham wrote in his CCTV Follies Substack, “Chinese propaganda has taken on a distinctly euphonic and alliterative bent as the APEC meet in San Francisco draws nearer. Philadelphia, Flying Tigers and farmers being the new catch words.” CCTV interviewed musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra about their thoughts on Xi’s overtures of friendship, and it showcased positive quotes about the China-U.S. relationship from members of the U.S.-China Chamber of Commerce and China-U.S. Youth Dialogue. “Nothing like a letter from Xi to startle and jumpstart those deeply frustrated and repressed emotions of everlasting friendship and self-validation,” Cunningham summarized.
Leading up to the summit, Hemant Adlakha argued in The Diplomat that “not only China’s strategic affairs community but also Chinese society in general seems to have been divided in two rigid, mutually ideologically contesting factions, which can be characterized as ‘pro-U.S.’ and ‘anti-U.S.’” The Chinese government has temporarily signaled its favor to the pro-U.S. camp, giving many within China a sense of whiplash. Netizens quipped: “Got it, we’ll hold off on hating the U.S. until further notice.” Many also ridiculed the abrupt about-face of Chinese nationalist pundit Sima Nan, widely known for his anti-U.S. stances, who recently claimed that he strives to promote friendly relations between both countries. Vivian Wang and Joy Dong at The New York Times described the confusion and amusement of Chinese netizens:
“Propaganda of this type is not meant for persuasion — it is not persuasive at all,” [said Titus Chen, an associate professor of political science at Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University]. “It is mainly designed for signaling, in the hope that recipients will get the signal and implement the proper response, which is investment, or resumption of exchanges.”
[…] But even if the intended audience is primarily overseas, many Chinese social media users have taken note of the abrupt turn — and have been left reeling, or at least wryly amused. On the platform Weibo, some joked that several new TV shows about fighting Americans during the Korean War would need to be shelved. One popular meme purported to show an editorial by People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, promising legal repercussions for anyone who sought to derail U.S.-China relations.
Under another post showing true, recent state media editorials promoting U.S.-China relations, a commenter wrote: “So, going forward, do we or don’t we need to hate America? So unclear.” [Source]
On Tuesday, the People’s Daily gave prime real estate to an article describing the history of the Flying Tigers, and many state outlets highlighted a letter that Xi sent to two surviving American airmen praising their bond with China. In his Sinification newsletter, Bill Bishop joked, “The way the Flying Tigers are being played up I am almost surprised Xi did not arrive in a 747 with a painted tiger mouth.” Bishop argued that the positive media coverage is merely a tactical shift to stabilize the relationship:
The propaganda preparations for the Xi-Biden meeting this week are making it clear it is OK to like America and Americans again. It is all a bit head-spinning, and so far there is no indication that this should be interpreted as anything more than a tactical shift as part of the efforts for a near-term stabilization of US-China relations, and in fact I think you could make the argument the propaganda 180 makes Xi look like he is quite eager for a stabilized relationship because of at least economic if not also political pressures. [Source]
Chinese analysts offered similar assessments. Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies and of its influential Centre for American Studies, called the Xi-Biden meeting “extremely symbolic,” but stated that “some of the easing that has emerged in Sino-US relations has been more akin to a détente than to an improvement.” Joe Leahy, Sun Yu, and Corbin Duncan from The Financial Times wrote that despite a softer tone by Chinese propagandists, the underlying Chinese narrative of rivalry with the U.S. remains:
“The dynamic of their competitive relationship is structurally ordained,” said Zhang Baohui, professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
The relatively empty halls of the Flying Tigers Museum [in Chongqing] demonstrated how much still needed to be done to restore good relations.
There used to be “busloads and busloads of tourists”, said the museum’s caretaker estimating up to 70,000 foreign visitors a year before Covid. “Now there are only 10-20 per month.” [Source]