Early this month, President Trump sent an SOS to China, asking its government to help him find dirt on his political opponents at home. “China should start an investigation” of the Biden family, he said on the White House lawn. China’s ruling Communist Party has for decades denigrated democracy, lest its attractions overwhelm the benefits doled out by the Chinese system, so Trump’s request could have seemed enticing. Beijing might have momentarily enjoyed the prospect of destabilizing the U.S. election and, at the same time, discrediting the American political system more broadly. The Chinese watched with curiosity and admiration as Moscow sowed chaos in Washington with its interference in the 2016 presidential election and its other online efforts. (One Chinese official told me in a moment of candor that Russia’s success prompted them to take a fresh look at what tools they could use to infiltrate politics in places like the Philippines and Taiwan, either to tip the scale in favor of a preferred candidate or to undermine and discredit the democratic process.)
But President Xi Jinping has learned the hard way about the dangers of dealing with Trump and seems to have quickly concluded that helping him would be a risk not worth taking. “China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the U.S., and we trust that the American people will be able to sort out their own problems,” Wang Yi, the foreign minister, said in response to Trump’s request. Based on a range of factors — China’s long-standing principle of noninterference in foreign countries and its repeated frustrations with Trump — Wang seemed to be telling the truth. Faced with a choice between helping to undermine American democracy or angering Trump by rejecting his request, the Chinese chose the latter.
It is hard to pinpoint the moment when the relationship between Trump and Xi soured. Mostly likely it was in May, when a nationalistic debate inside the top Chinese leadership prompted Xi to tear up a draft trade agreement with the United States that had been painstakingly mapped out by his handpicked negotiator. (The White House on Friday announced a partial trade deal that could lead to tariff relief, but it’s less comprehensive than the proposed May agreement, and it doesn’t solve Washington’s core complaints about China.)
There were many stops en route to the U.S.-China rupture: Trump’s tweetstorms attacking China as a currency manipulator and a thief of “Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year” in intellectual property; his bans, and occasional reversals, on Chinese tech companies such as Huawei; and of course the mutually destructive trade war, which punishes both countries without yet yielding the United States any meaningful edge. Beijing does not believe that it can do business with the U.S. president, let alone strike a permanent, far-reaching trade deal that might restore trust between the two superpowers.
Trump and Xi are, politically speaking, polar opposites. Trump wears his sentiments and desires on his Twitter account, a form of radical transparency, even by the standards of U.S. democracy. Xi, by contrast, rules a party-state that is opaque even by Chinese standards, speaking only in highly controlled settings and delivering barely digestible policy tracts in official media outlets. Trump is a minute-by-minute proposition. Xi leads a country that, while opportunistic, is following a deliberative strategy to acquire greater wealth and reach technological parity with the West.
Joe Biden is the kind of mainstream, professional politician the Chinese are used to dealing with. Xi knows him well. In 2011, a year before Xi’s elevation to head of the Communist Party, Biden traveled to China for extensive talks as part of an effort by the Obama administration to understand the incoming Chinese leader. Even if that mutual history played little role in Beijing’s calculations, the principle of noninterference has traditionally held a totemic status in China. The “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” which have ostensibly guided Chinese foreign policy since the early 1950s, include a stricture against meddling in other countries’ “internal affairs.” State media outlets have maintained a near-blackout, imposed by the propaganda authorities, on Trump’s request to investigate Hunter Biden’s involvement in a local investment fund, another sign that Beijing wants nothing to do with the American president’s antics.
Trump’s unpredictable methods and blithe willingness to dispense with long-standing taboos (such as those against phoning the president of Taiwan) initially worked well in laying the groundwork for trade negotiations. His tactics threw Beijing off balance. The Chinese liked the old way of doing business, when the two sides mixed public diplomacy with discreet back channels to reach understandings on difficult issues, out of the glare of the media. Henry Kissinger traveled in secret to Beijing in 1971 to set up rapprochement and clear the way for President Richard Nixon to visit. George H.W. Bush sent national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to China on an unannounced trip to try to reopen dialogue with Beijing after the violent 1989 crackdown on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square . More recently, Barack Obama dispatched Tom Donilon, then deputy national security adviser, and Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council, on a low-key visit to Beijing in 2010 to try to reset relations.
Trump has no interest in back channels; he blasts his Twitter foghorn, no matter what the issue or its sensitivity. He has also been tougher on China than any other president in the modern era. In China, for a while, many scholars extolled Trump as a master strategist for his ability to shape the agenda and bully the Chinese leadership. For Xi, this was especially disruptive. Xi is his nation’s most powerful, ambitious and assertive leader in a generation, someone who is used to riding roughshod over critics in his unapologetic embrace of a bigger role for China in the world.
Like any leader, Xi also has to manage domestic politics. He is the most ideological Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, placing the Communist Party, and himself as its head, at the center of governance and power while sidelining all his rivals. Trump has presented a challenge to his vision of an ever more powerful China. Many senior officials portrayed the U.S. draft trade deal in May as humiliating, a lethal charge in a country with a history of capitulation to foreigners. Faced with mounting condemnation in the Politiburo, Xi abruptly abandoned his chief negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, and led the nationalist charge against the agreement himself. (Liu also led the tentative deal announced Friday; it’s unclear whether this one will stick.) Xi has also faced heavy internal criticism for his assertive foreign policy, which many Chinese scholars blame for triggering a backlash against Beijing in much of the West.
The reason Chinese leaders decided they see little value in engaging seriously with Trump is that they don’t believe a trade deal would solve their problems with the United States. The two sides might be able to finalize the mini-deal in coming weeks, but Chinese scholars and officials I have spoken to over the past year recognize that any accord will just be a stopover on the way to the next fight.
There are plenty of Chinese hard-liners who don’t want a deal at all. “I hope that the negotiations will break down,” said one of the best-known hard-liners, Dai Xu, a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, before the May rupture. Hu Xijin, the hawkish editor of the Global Times, the tabloid mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, tweeted that “a trade deal, even if reached, will be limited in actual meaning and could be broken constantly.” As a result, he added, many Chinese “support being tough on the US, giving up any illusion.”
Beijing knows that if Trump loses, the next president might be a more stable interlocutor, though it’s not expecting sudden and miraculous relief. Democratic presidential candidates have broadly criticized Trump’s trade war tactics as counterproductive but have sided with the overall strategy of constraining and punishing China. But even if the Chinese consensus is right — that the two countries’ broad, systemic rivalry is here to stay — Beijing is not that interested in sitting across the table from Trump. Not because officials fear he’ll out-negotiate them. They believe that the United States is not interested in negotiating at all. Instead, Xi is returning the party-state to its communist roots, telling his colleagues that they should be prepared for a decades-long “struggle” with their enemies in the West.