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Why China trusts that it can beat Trump in a trade war

However, in the political arena, Mr. Xi enjoys advantages that allow him to face the economic consequences far better than Trump can. His authoritarian control over the media and the party means there is little room to criticize his policies, even when Trump must deal with complaints from American companies and consumers before the important midterm elections in November.

The Chinese government also has much greater control over the economy, which allows it to protect the public from job cuts or factory closures by ordering banks to support industries that suffer from US tariffs. It can spread the pain of a commercial war while it tolerates years of losses by state companies that dominate the main sectors of the economy.

"My impression is that there is an exaggerated sense in Washington of how painful these tariffs can be." in China, said Arthur R. Kroeber, CEO of Gavekal Dragonomics, a research firm in Beijing.

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The highly centralized government under President Xi Jinping and the omnipresent state control of the media could allow China to withstand shocks of a trade war.

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Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

At worst, he estimated, US stocks could reduce China's economic growth by a tenth of a percentage point, barely enough to force a drastic reversal of policies, given the huge benefits that leaders Chinese people see in the state economic model that they have relied on in recent decades.

At the same time, Chinese officials seem to believe that they can take advantage of what they consider vulnerabilities in the US political system.

"The US agricultural sector is quite influential in Congress," said Wang Yong, a professor of economics at Peking University, and explained why China has focused on agricultural products such as soybeans with possible retaliatory tariffs. "China wants the US national political system to do the job."

There are already indications that it could be like that. Hours after China's announcement on Wednesday, Trump administration officials tried to calm fears that a trade war was imminent, suggesting they might not trigger a plan to impose tariffs on $ 50 billion on Chinese goods such as screen televisions. flat, medical devices and industrial machinery.

Speaking earlier in the day, Mr. Zhu, the deputy finance minister, even thanked American soybean farmers and the association that represents them for declaring their opposition to the Trump administration's plan.

In addition to soy, China threatened to retaliate with tariffs on cars, chemicals and other US products. The 106 products, many produced in parts of the country that have supported Mr. Trump, were selected to send a warning that American workers and consumers would suffer in a protracted confrontation.

"If someone wants to fight, we will be there with him," said Mr. Zhu, describing more or less the terms of a US surrender: the elimination of unilateral tariffs and the resolution of any claim through the World Organization. of Commerce. "If he wants to negotiate, the door is open."

Globally, China's strategy has been to isolate the United States, separating it from allies in Europe and Asia who, otherwise, share American concerns about China's trade policies protecting key markets and acquiring technology from foreign firms.

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Ford cars at an auto dealership in Shanghai on Thursday. American cars could also face new rates.

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Aly Song / Reuters

Mr. Kroeber said a united front against China would be more effective than US tariffs alone, but so far Trump has not managed to build one.

On the other hand, Mr. Xi has succeeded to a large extent in occupying the high moral level on the world stage, projecting China as the sober administrator of international agreements on issues -from global trade to climate change- of the that Mr. Trump has been eager to retire.

"The US side is ready to start a trade war in the lightest pretext," the popular party newspaper, People's Daily, wrote on Thursday, condemning Mr. Trump's tariffs as "totally against of the trend of economic globalization. "

"Today, it aims at China, and tomorrow it can take aim at other countries," he said.

The party has also taken advantage of the trade dispute as new evidence that the United States is trying to undermine China's rise as a global power, a central narrative used to justify the party's, and Mr. Xi, rule.

In December, state media also highlighted the new National Security Strategy revealed by the Trump administration, which declared that China "sought to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the scope of its economic model driven by the state, and reorder the region in their favor. "

The document signaled a bipartisan change in Washington's stance towards China after decades of economic cooperation and concessions. The party has argued that the United States is only challenging China because it fears losing its privileged place in the world order.

"The latest US measures against China have a sense of containment, which is supposedly a commonplace among American politicians." said an editorial in the Global Times, a nationalist state tabloid. "But they have overlooked the fact that China has grown to become another economic center of the world."

He went on to point out that the Chinese market was now "no smaller or less attractive" than the American: a little exaggeration perhaps, but not as big as it would have been a decade ago. And that makes the country a more formidable opponent than Trump could have anticipated.

"To overthrow China," the editorial said, "would mean an unimaginably cruel battle for the United States."

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