After a weekend in which the Trump administration, to much fanfare, announced a breakthrough in the trade war with China according to which Beijing would purchase substantial amounts of US farm products and remove barriers to trade in exchange for a delay of new tariffs and higher tariff rates, Donald Trump left his top advisers scrambling on Monday to explain just what was in the trade deal he claimed he’d struck with China to reduce tariffs on U.S. cars exported to the country – an agreement that doesn’t exist on paper and hasn’t been confirmed in Beijing.
As we reported earlier, Trump announced the deal in a two-sentence Twitter post late Sunday. The White House provided no additional information, and in a briefing in Beijing a few hours later, a spokesman for the foreign ministry declined to comment on any changes to car tariffs. Asked about the agreement on Monday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, coyly dialed back expectations and added qualifiers.
“I’ll call them ‘commitments’ at this point, which are – commitments are not necessarily a trade deal, but it’s stuff that they’re going to look at and presumably implement,” Kudlow told reporters during a briefing that followed TV interviews and informal briefings by him and Mnuchin earlier in the day.
That wasn’t the extent of the confusion. As part of the broader trade truce, the U.S. said it had agreed to hold off on raising tariffs Jan. 1 while negotiations took place. Bizarrely, Kudlow initially said that the Chinese had 90 days from Jan. 1 to come up with “structural changes” regarding intellectual property protections, forced technology transfer and other issues. The White House later corrected him to say that the 90 days actually began on Dec. 1, Saturday.
With both sides apparently having their own version of what actually transpired during the Saturday night dinner, the confusion was exacerbated by the absence of a joint statement from the U.S. and China following the dinner. Financial markets were left struggling to digest talks that the White House portrayed as a major victory for the president.
“That’s what happens when you don’t have the detailed negotiations going into the summit” and end up with the “broad swath of a 35,000-foot deal,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s risky. There’s certainly no guarantees that it will produce the outcomes that we want.”
But where things got truly bizarre, is that according to the SCMP, a social media post by the US embassy describing the trade agreement between the two nations was being partially censored on Monday, with the WeChat article visible but blocked from forwarding or sharing. The embassy WeChat posts about the outcome of the talks were in English and Chinese.
At the same time, separate posts on the death of former president George H.W. Bush were not similarly affected, and could be shared.
As noted above, the official statements made by China and the United States about what was agreed at the meeting in Argentina between presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump contained marked differences and omissions on both sides, which in the absence of a joint statement statement is to be expected. However, for China to censor the US version of events suggests that not only does China have a different take on what really happened on Saturday, but it also disagrees with the US take and – more importantly – wants to prevent the Chinese population from learning what Trump has been telling the US about what took place.
For example, the Chinese statement did not include mention of the 90-day deadline or a requirement that the nation begin buying more US farm, energy and other products.
The US embassy has repeatedly used its account on Tencent Holdings’ WeChat network and other social media to post statements and news critical of China, including about the detention of Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. It was unclear if Beijing had ever gone so far as to censor official US communications, as it did today.
The US embassy declined to comment on a specific post, but a spokesman said the embassy faced regular and routine blocking of social media posts in China.