‘Self-reliance’: China’s mantra resounds as country settles in for trade war
beijing — China must accelerate the development of new-generation artificial intelligence as a “strategic issue,” President Xi Jinping told top Communist Party officials this past week, in his latest exhortation to give China control of new technologies and lessen its dependence on the United States.
This comes just days after the United States imposed restrictions on technology exports to a state-backed Chinese semiconductor maker, and just months after a proposed American ban on a telecommunications company that would have caused its certain death.
These aggressive actions from the Trump administration, part of a broader trade war between the world’s two biggest economies, have led Xi to call — with increasing urgency — for China to become “self-reliant.”
“AI is a vital driving force for a new round of technological revolution and industrial transformation,” Xi told a Politburo “group study” session Wednesday that included discussions on artificial intelligence, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
China must “control” artificial intelligence and make sure it is “securely kept in our own hands,” he was quoted as saying.
With no end in sight in the increasingly rancorous trade war, Xi has been emphasizing the need for China to be able to stand on its own two feet, especially when it comes to the kinds of technologies it needs to propel its economy forward.
“Self-reliance” is the starting point for the struggle of the Chinese nation, Xi said late last month in Guangdong, part of a four-day trip across China’s south, where he made stops at an electrical appliance maker and an e-commerce industrial park.
A month earlier, in the north, he had urged China to “stick with the path of self-reliance amid rising unilateralism and protectionism” in the world.
The use of “self-reliance” recalls a phrase Mao Zedong invoked during the economic collapse of the 1960s but that in more recent decades has been associated with isolationist North Korea and its contention that it can fend for itself.
But Xi — who has been stoking nationalism and has positioned himself to rule China indefinitely — has invoked the phrase as a rallying cry against President Trump’s tariff-driven trade war. China, he is repeatedly saying, needs to do everything on its own.
“Xi is using ‘self-reliance,’ inherited from Mao’s political ideology, to solve the economic problems triggered by the trade war with the U.S.,” said Qiao Mu, a dissident Chinese academic who is now an independent analyst based in Washington.
As he tries to redress the trade imbalance with China, Trump has been unleashing a barrage of economic and legal weapons against Beijing.
He has already imposed 10 percent tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports to the United States and has pledged to increase the duties to 25 percent in January if Beijing has not capitulated. He has threatened to tax the remaining $267 billion in Chinese imports to the United States if Beijing attempts to punish the American heartland in response.
Beijing’s tools are relatively limited, given that it buys so much less from the United States than it sells, but it has slapped tariffs on key agricultural imports, such as soy beans and pork.
Trump has also told American companies such as Apple to move their manufacturing lines from China back to the United States — however improbable that is.
The standoff has led to increasing talk in Washington of “decoupling” the American economy from China — a clumsy word, analysts say, that is tantamount to “deglobalization.”
And that has injected new momentum into Xi’s efforts.
“I think this is what Xi wanted to do anyway,” said Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism China Newsletter. “But Trump is encouraging Xi to appeal to his old-school roots, and self-reliance is a part of that.”
Xi’s calls for self-reliance come amid celebrations for the dramatic “reform and opening” movement led by Deng Xiaoping exactly 40 years ago, a change that unleashed China’s economic power.
Xi, during his trip across the south last week, visited many of the areas that were pilot zones for Deng’s opening and reform, and pledged to continue propelling the economy forward for a new stage in China’s development.
The confluence of talk about self-reliance and new efforts to generate reverence for Xi is no coincidence. Qiao, the dissident academic, says Xi is trying to strengthen his power at a time of slowing economic growth.
Many outside experts are skeptical about Xi’s economic vision and his pledges to continue “reform and opening,” noting his recent promotion of state-owned enterprises. Some even call Xi’s vision “neo-Soviet.”
“This is part of a broad structural shift in the U.S.-China relationship,” said Bishop, who doubts the two leaders will achieve any breakthroughs when they meet next month. “Even if Xi and Trump can reach a cease-fire at the G-20, they’re just playing for time rather than returning to a normal trajectory.”
People and motorists are reflected on an electronic display panel advertising a video of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.