Amid mounting tensions with Washington, the doves among China’s communist elite are growing increasingly vocal in their urging for Beijing to take a more cautious approach.
The trade dispute between the world’s two largest economies escalated on Friday when US President Donald Trump made good on his threat to increase the tariff rate on US$200 billion worth of Chinese imports to 25 per cent and China’s commerce ministry responded by saying it would introduce retaliatory measures.
Later the same day, the latest round of trade negotiations ended in Washington with no deal and only a statement saying they would resume, at an unspecified date, in Beijing.
But even before the latest escalation, some influential doves in the ruling Communist Party have been calling for a rethink of China’s overall strategy on the United States – which they see as the most important foreign relationship and one that could shape its future direction.
While they have stopped short of directly criticising existing policies, they are now more vocal on the need for review and change.
“China has become too headstrong in the past few years and failed to recognise the immense gaps between China and the United States on many fronts,” Zhang Musheng, a retired government official and prominent intellectual, said in an interview.
“Touting [the success of] the so-called Chinese model or Chinese solution to the world is unnecessary and will only invite attacks.
The son of a senior official with the State Council, China’s cabinet, Zhang is still consulted on economic policies by Beijing. And he is not alone in his view.
Li Ruogu, a former vice-president of China’s central bank, said Beijing needed to understand more of America’s thinking and adjust its policies to maintain the relationship.
“The China-US relationship is the cornerstone of our country’s overall relationship with the Western world,” he said at a forum earlier this year.
“If we cannot manage this well, it will affect our ties with other developed countries. This is something we need to think about carefully.
“Do we really understand the United States? Do we really understand Donald Trump and the people around him? I think we need to study the US more closely before we form our views.”
Regardless of whether China and the US could reach an agreement to end the trade war, Beijing needed to maintain its relationship with Washington, as a full-on confrontation would affect China’s future development, Li said.
“Over the past 40 years, China and the US were first bound together by their [fear] of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we shared the same interest in our economic development,” he said.
“Now this common ground is disappearing. We need to think about what can be the new common ground for both countries.”
His views are shared by other liberal thinkers, including Hu Deping, son of former reformist leader Hu Yaobang.
They reflect a growing concern among party liberals that China and the US are on a collision course if both sides do not adjust their policies.
While they may not reflect the official view of the Chinese government, many of these liberal voices are influential as they come from a small, elite circle of people who can trace their lineage to the first generation of communist revolutionaries.
Their willingness to speak out also suggests more room among the party elite to discuss and debate China’s strategy towards the United States.
Zhang said the “collective leadership” had come to realise that some adjustments needed to be made. He did not elaborate.
Professor Yang Dali, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said the discussions reflected the “growing amount of discussion and soul-searching” that had taken hold among the Chinese elite since the trade war began.
“There is a clear recognition that China is as yet no match for the US in power,” he said. “There is also a sense that some of the reforms the US demands as part of the trade negotiations may require adjustments on China’s part but may nonetheless turn out to be in China’s interests in the long run.”
Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre, a Washington-based think tank, said such internal discussion alone would not be enough to bring change, as external pressure would be a major driving factor.
“If there is any change to China’s current policy course, it is more likely to be because of the negative effects from such policies,” she said.
“China really cannot afford to become the US’ biggest enemy.”
Jun Mai is columnist of South China Morning Post