This week, Xi Jinping is making a trip to San Francisco to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. This is his first visit to the U.S. since April 2017 and his first meeting with Joe Biden since last year’s G20 summit in Bali. Amidst growing tensions between the two countries, this visit presents a rare opportunity to improve the U.S.-China relationship and promote greater cooperation. Chinese state media has notably toned down its usual critical stance towards the U.S. in order to create a more conducive environment for these objectives. According to Huizhong Wu of the AP, Chinese state media has recently shifted towards more positive coverage of the U.S. and its relationship with China.
The media in China have been highlighting a recent trip made by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their groundbreaking visit to China, which played a role in strengthening early relations between the United States and China. They have also been covering a visit by members of the Flying Tigers, a group of American military pilots who aided China in their fight against Japan during World War II.
The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, stated in its international edition on Wednesday that the Chinese people will always remember their old friends and this is a significant message to convey to the American people.
Recently, the Xinhua news agency published a five-part series discussing the relationship between the United States and China. The series emphasized the importance of both countries meeting each other halfway and collaborating to achieve a healthy and stable development.
Even the nationalist and aggressive Global Times newspaper published an opinion piece on Wednesday calling for cooperation between the two countries. [Source]
The change in attitude was also reflected in official media broadcasts. In his newsletter, CCTV Follies, Phil Cunningham stated, “Chinese propaganda has adopted a pleasing and alliterative approach as the APEC meeting in San Francisco approaches. Philadelphia, Flying Tigers, and farmers are now the new buzzwords.” CCTV also interviewed musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra to gather their thoughts on Xi’s gestures of friendship, and shared positive remarks about the China-U.S. relationship from members of the U.S.-China Chamber of Commerce and China-U.S. Youth Dialogue. Cunningham concluded, “Receiving a letter from Xi is enough to shock and revitalize those deeply suppressed feelings of eternal friendship and self-affirmation.”
Hemant Adlakha, in his piece for The Diplomat, discussed the division within China’s strategic community and society as a whole, with two opposing factions labeled as “pro-U.S.” and “anti-U.S.” The Chinese government has temporarily shown support for the pro-U.S. group, causing confusion among citizens. Some joked that they would hold off on their hatred towards the U.S. until further notice. There was also ridicule towards Chinese nationalist Sima Nan, known for his anti-U.S. views, after he suddenly claimed to promote friendly relations between the two countries. Vivian Wang and Joy Dong of The New York Times highlighted the mix of bewilderment and amusement among Chinese netizens.
According to Titus Chen, an associate professor of political science at Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University, this type of propaganda is not intended to persuade others, but rather to send a signal and prompt them to take action, such as making investments or resuming exchanges.
Even though the intended target audience is mainly international, numerous Chinese users of social media have observed the sudden shift and have been caught off guard or at least entertained. On Weibo, some users playfully commented that several new TV programs about fighting Americans in the Korean War would have to be cancelled. One popular meme showed a supposed editorial from People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, threatening legal consequences for anyone attempting to disrupt U.S.-China relations.
In response to a different post that featured recent state media editorials promoting positive U.S.-China relations, a commentator questioned, “Are we supposed to continue hating America or not? It’s very confusing.” [Source]
On Tuesday, the People’s Daily prominently featured an article detailing the background of the Flying Tigers. Many government-run media sources also focused on a letter from Xi to two remaining American pilots, praising their connection with China. In his newsletter about the Sinification process, Bill Bishop made a humorous comment, suggesting that the Flying Tigers were being exaggerated to the point where Xi might have arrived in a plane with a tiger design. Bishop explained that this positive media attention is likely a strategic move to improve and maintain the relationship.
The preparations for the Xi-Biden meeting this week are promoting the idea that it is acceptable to have positive feelings towards America and Americans once again. This change in messaging can be overwhelming, but it appears to be a strategic move to improve US-China relations in the short term. It could be argued that Xi’s sudden change in propaganda portrays a desire for a stable relationship due to economic and potentially political pressures. [Source]
Chinese experts gave comparable evaluations. Wu Xinbo, who leads the Institute of International Studies and Centre for American Studies at Fudan University, described the Xi-Biden meeting as “highly symbolic.” However, he also noted that while there has been some easing in Sino-US relations, it is more similar to a détente than an actual improvement. The Financial Times reporters Joe Leahy, Sun Yu, and Corbin Duncan stated that although Chinese propagandists have adopted a gentler tone, the fundamental narrative of competition with the U.S. still persists.
Zhang Baohui, a political science professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, stated that the competitive relationship between them is predetermined by their structure.
The sparsely populated corridors of the Flying Tigers Museum [located in Chongqing] showcased the remaining work necessary to repair and improve relations.
According to the museum’s caretaker, there used to be numerous tourists arriving in buses, with an estimated number of 70,000 foreign visitors per year prior to Covid. However, now there are significantly fewer visitors, only around 10-20 per month. [Source]