Joe Biden’s first contact with China runs into Communist Party’s propaganda war


China’s Politburo member Yang Jiechi (left) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) | Bloomberg


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The US and Chinese delegation concluded two days of talks in Alaska on Friday. The two sides concluded their first in-person contact of the Joe Biden administration in a strained setting. The Chinese Communist Party brought out its big guns of propaganda to win the narrative war following the summit with the US.

For China, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and director of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi attended the summit in Anchorage, Alaska. The US side was represented by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

The US imposed sanctions on 24 Hong Kong and Chinese officials for human rights abuses just before the meeting in Alaska. The action was not taken lightly by the Chinese side. The two sides exchanged sharply worded rebuke on the first day of the talks, which was recorded and shared by the media.


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State media at work

The Chinese state media drew a comparison between the 1901 signing of the Boxer protocol and the meeting in Alaska. The Boxer Protocol was an agreement signed between the Qing emperor and the Eight-Nation Alliance to end the Boxer Rebellion in the early part of the 20th century. The CCP considered the Boxer treaty as an “unequal” arrangement. The Chinese state media created a narrative that China has changed and will use “strength” to deal with the US.

The hashtag “China-US High Level Strategic Dialogue”, which began trending on Thursday, was viewed 28.2 billion times on Weibo. The hashtag remained the top trend on Weibo for over 12 hours and continues to gain traction at the time of writing. “High-level Sino-US Dialogue: The US’s opening remarks were seriously overtime” was the number one trend on Google-like Chinese search engine, Baidu.

The CCP’s official mouthpiece, People’s Daily, covered the talks extensively for the print version in Chinese and English. “The United States is not qualified to speak to China from a condescending position,” said a headline in People’s Daily and Beijing News.

People’s Daily’s official account on Weibo shared a poster which read, “Chinese people don’t buy this. Stop interfering in China’s internal affairs. The US has no right to speak condescendingly with China”.  The hashtag “US isn’t qualified to speak to China from a condescending position” was viewed 440 million times on Weibo.

The Chinese state media and the social media censors focussed on creating a narrative around the US delegation taking longer than the assigned time to deliver their remarks.

“The Chinese delegation went to Anchorage for the strategic dialogue with sincerity, fully prepared to engage in dialogue with the US according to the protocols and arrangements agreed on beforehand. However, as the US side first delivered opening remarks, they exceeded the set time limit severely and wantonly attacked China’s domestic and foreign policies, provoking disagreements. These are hardly good host manners or proper diplomatic etiquette. The Chinese side has made a solemn response,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.

But after reviewing the recording of the first day of the talks, I can certainly say that it was Yang Jiechi who spoke for over 16 minutes — both sides had agreed to keep their remarks to two minutes per person. Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan were barely over their assigned time by a few seconds. But that did not stop the Chinese state media from trying to convince their domestic audience that the US side had violated the diplomatic protocol.


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Targeted at domestic audience

The phrase “Yang Jiechi had instant noodles for lunch” was the third top trending search item on Baidu. The Baidu trend was based on Yang Jiechi’s response to a question by Wang Yi if he had lunch, to which Yang Jiechi replied, “Yes, I had instant noodles.”

The Communist Youth League of China shared a video that shows cartoon-like characters, which represent the Chinese and the US side exchanging heated arguments during the meeting. The Communist Youth League is in charge of producing propaganda content for the young audience in China and they usually use memes and cartoons to convey the Communist Party’s official line.

A video of Henry Kissinger reading out a message recorded prior to the talks in Alaska was shared by the People’s Daily on its Weibo account. The video was viewed 2.9 million times.

“Starting from a position of strength has always been the basis of U.S. diplomacy, and the same applies to a rising China. In the next four years, it would be a victory if U.S.-China relations could avoid the vicious cycle of “shotgun” style pressure-countermeasures as during the later period of the Trump administration,” wrote Huang Shan, the deputy managing editor of Caixin Media in an op-ed.

Yang Jiechi’s comments were widely appreciated on the Chinese social media platforms and did come across as targeted towards their own citizens. The Chinese delegation did win a narrative war at home against the US through extensive propaganda. But rather than resetting the relationship with the new administration, China may have given Biden another reason to continue Trump’s China policies.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. Views are personal.

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