‘Self-re­liance’: China’s mantra re­sounds as coun­try set­tles in for trade war

The Washington Post Sunday - - ELECTION 2018 - BY ANNA FI­FIELD anna.fi­field@wash­post.com Yang Liu con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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.”

ANDY WONG/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Peo­ple and mo­torists are re­flected on an elec­tronic dis­play panel ad­ver­tis­ing a video of Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in Beijing.

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