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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Whiplash in China as state media does U-turn on U.S.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s meeting with President Biden was an unmitigated success, according to the Chinese version of events, as state media made an about-face so abrupt it caused whiplash on social media.

After months of criticizing the United States for trying to contain China’s growth, state-controlled Chinese websites were filled Thursday with reports on the “positive, comprehensive and constructive” talks between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies.

This left more than a few Chinese social media users confused. “I haven’t been online for two days … a look at the trending topics shows the atmosphere between China and the U.S. is as if a couple in an arranged marriage fell in love,” read one post on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. It was later removed, apparently by censors.

The sharp shift in tone came as the leaders of the world’s two biggest economies met for the first time in more than a year in an attempt to ease tensions and reestablish stronger lines of communication after a series of disputes.

Biden and Xi agree to restore military ties, helping ease tensions

They also made progress on transnational issues, cementing a deal to restart climate talks and agreeing to strengthen counternarcotics cooperation in the hopes of easing the United States’ fentanyl crisis.

Xi’s trip came at a time when U.S.-China relations had reached their lowest point in more than 40 years, but analysts said the Chinese leader needed a win because he is facing so many headwinds at home: a slowing economy, latent unhappiness among young people in particular and questions about his leadership decisions.

Xi was eager to appear the global statesman in his meeting.

“The world is big enough to accommodate both countries, and one country’s success is an opportunity for the other,” Xi reportedly told Biden, according to state media coverage. The phrase immediately became one of the top trending topics on Weibo.

For audiences inside China, Xi’s comments positioned China as a global superpower able to take the long view without compromising on key issues.

The meeting showed Beijing’s willingness to find a way to cooperate, rather than compete, with Washington, said Zhao Minghao, a professor of international relations and senior fellow at the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

In a breakthrough, U.S. and China agree to restart climate talks

“Xi is saying that China and the U.S. are powerhouses on equal footing,” he said. “What Xi wanted to get across was that China rejects seeing competition as a policy goal, an endgame or the nature of China-U.S. relations.”

The modest results of the four-hour meeting between Biden and Xi were hailed as a success in Chinese state media.

Xi did not appear with Biden at the news conference after their meeting, but the official interpretation of events is conveyed through state broadcasters and other news outlets.

“China and the United States’ respective successes are opportunities for each other,” read a commentary released by state news agency Xinhua. “Great power competition is not the backdrop of this era and cannot solve the problems facing China, the United States and the world.”

This progress at the summit on issues like climate change and fentanyl was largely thanks to China, according to nationalist commentator Shen Yi.

“We can see that the Chinese side took the initiative in this meeting,” Shen said in a column on the news site Guancha that was published after the meeting. “Obviously, the United States needs such a meeting more than China does, and the Biden administration most of all.”

Xi and Biden meet amid a fracturing world order

There were plenty of signs in the weeks leading up to the meeting that Beijing wanted to ease tensions. Chinese state media had been taking a notably warmer approach toward the United States, with a flood of editorials praising incremental steps like an increase in passenger flights as steps toward positive relations.

Just hours after Xi landed in San Francisco on Tuesday, state broadcaster CCTV advocated for more communication between the two superpowers in a short video commentary.

“Those big influencers who have made a fortune by criticizing the United States are rapidly changing the topic these days,” wrote one Weibo user in the lead-up to the summit, noting the thaw. “The trend has turned 180 degrees.”

Others were amused. “As Sino-U.S. tensions ease, my first thought is: When will Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars come hold a concert in Shanghai?” said one.

Tobin reported from Taipei, Taiwan, and Li from Seoul.

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