In U.S. and China, Competition Rhetoric Meets Inequality Concerns


Two weeks after the U.S.’ and China’s foreign ministers met for face-to-face dialogues for the first time under the Biden administration, relations between the two governments remain solidly frosty. But as both sides exchange rhetoric about competition and confrontation on the international stage, at home, that talk has become entwined with the issue of domestic inequality.

In the U.S., the Biden administration recently announced a mammoth infrastructure bill to be funded with a series of tax hikes on corporations. That plan is being sold by the administration as a powerful tool to target income and racial inequality at home, but also, as AP’s Ellen Knickmeyer and Lisa Mascaro report, a way for the U.S. to compete with China:

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It’s a national security pitch for a domestic program: that the $2 trillion proposal for investments in U.S. transport and , manufacturing, internet and other sectors will make the United States more competitive in the face of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s massive infrastructure-building campaign.

The argument is that competition today with China is more about economic and technological gains than arms — and its outcome will impact the United States’ financial growth and influence, its ability to defend U.S. security alliances and interests abroad, and the daily lives of Americans.

[…] Using urgent warnings of a rival’s advances to press for more infrastructure and research spending is a Cold War-tested technique. Past American presidents pointed to the while building up the U.S. highway system, space program and arms stockpiles.

And in the case of infrastructure, Biden’s repeated warnings that China and other countries are “eating our lunch” are borne out by many crucial metrics, and by the observations of almost anyone who’s traveled abroad much. [Source]

Meanwhile in China, state rhetoric about competition and U.S. relations has also collided with a discussion about domestic inequality, albeit in an unexpected way. On Monday, Chinese netizens made use of a rare window of opportunity to criticize China’s own inequality issues in response to their ’s foreign policy talk. The criticism was kicked off by a Xinhua interview with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that was published on Monday, in which Wang warned the U.S. against taking a “superior position” in world affairs. South China Morning Post’s Teddy Ng reported on Wang’s comments:

[Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi] said China would not accept a list from Washington of unilateral demands for negotiations with Beijing. “The door for dialogue with China is open. But the dialogue should be done on equal basis and with mutual respect,” he said.

“China will not accept that there is any nation in the world that [can] put itself superior to the others, and that any nation will have a final say on world affairs. If the US continues to confront, China will take it calmly without fear.”

Wang was speaking to Chinese state media about his recent meetings in Fujian province with foreign ministers from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea. He said he had briefed them on the Alaska summit between US and China diplomats, telling them it was “reasonable for regional nations to be concerned about China-US relations”. [Source]

Wang’s interview was disseminated widely across domestic Chinese media. But it received particular attention from Weibo netizens after it was reposted on Phoenix Television’s official account, when users discovered that their comments were not being intercepted by censors. The comments section was quickly overrun, after netizens took issue with Wang’s statement about “superiority,” which in Chinese could alternately be translated as “China doesn’t recognize that there is a country with ‘superior people’ in this world.”

Widely upvoted comments decried the hypocrisy of Wang’s remarks, as users pointed out China’s own problems with social inequality. Netizens latched onto Wang’s “superior people” remark to criticize China’s social services for privileging so-called “superior people” over ordinary citizens. Others protested that central leaders delivered “empty talk and bluster.” Thousands of comments were later deleted from the post, but not before CDT editors collected a selection (originally in Chinese):

Yi_要努力:A whole lot of empty talk and bluster.

仓单派学徒:I support this sentiment, but citizens here are also sorted into social ranks and grades.

岭幕理:Which country’s people are not “superior people” when they visit China?

陆西蝉_235:China doesn’t recognize that there is a country with “superior people,” similarly, at home we don’t distinguish between who pays less tax, who receives greater pensions, who is Sun Xiaoguo [a serial rapist whose death sentence was commuted due to corruption], or who drives a G-class to tour the Forbidden City.

一串蕉绿道冯冯:Free healthcare for retired officials can be cancelled!

S-T-E-P-:As a small person in a big country, I only care about when 996 will be cancelled, and when the eight hour workday will be implemented?

Echohello_word:Those people inside the system are the “superior people”

tengwei_hoho:A country with “superior people” lets its citizens work 996, 007. Countries with inferior people don’t dare do this.

三圣乡粮丰村:My ’s pension, healthcare, and education are all divided by rank and grade. Yeah, that’s on you, American emperor!

有心人无心事:When will the dual-track system be abolished? When will the special food supply system end?

小草闲心5:Sigh, just to see a doctor, I’m still sorted according to my social rank and grade.

同学不可能什么都知道:The more ascendant the country, the lower the people. This is the so-called country of “superior people.” [Chinese]

The comments represent a rare glimpse at the sentiment of critical Chinese netizens, suggesting some ambivalence and even bitterness towards the Foreign Ministry’s tough rhetoric aimed at the West. Chinese censors have in recent weeks carefully manipulated nationalistic sentiment on social media, helping to amplify a viral post after the Anchorage talks calling on the U.S. to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs” and going after Western multinationals in an “anti-anti-forced labor” movement. Dissenting comments, meanwhile, have often been blocked or deleted. CDT recently translated the comments of a small number of netizens who opposed the viral online campaign to “support Xinjiang cotton.”

Netizens’ criticism of Beijing’s foreign policy rhetoric is also ironic in its mirroring of a recent Global Times editorial that criticized the Biden administration for being distracted with “defeating China” in its marketing of its infrastructure plan:

[…] To engage in infrastructure construction, the internal driving force of society should have been far greater than the resistance from disputes by different interest groups, but this is not the case in the US. Exploiting “defeating China” as a thrust to push the plan sharply deviates from the appropriate track. This makes the plan hard to achieve.

[…] The US now has China everywhere in its mind with regard to its domestic policy, attaching labels of national security randomly, and blaming China for any industrial imbalance in the US. Apart from instigating nationalism, this would do little to solve the problem. Over time, the US will not only be down with an anti-China syndrome and strike at anything Chinese, but will also only be able to make its policy with anti-China elements. This will lead to the misdirection of its goal time and again and cause it lose its way in development. [Source]

The editorial went on to suggest that large-scale U.S. spending on infrastructure could be a boon for both countries, with greater demand for construction material in the U.S. helping to bolster China’s economic growth. But other analysts are less certain about the infrastructure bill’s benefits for China. In an op-ed for South China Morning Post, political economy journalist Zhou Xin warned that icy bilateral relations could see Chinese manufacturers frozen out of lucrative construction contracts:

On the surface, the massive US$2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan could open new potential for the world’s two biggest economies to work together. After all, China has a track record of building things in a quick and efficient way. According to the Engineering News Record, the top five global contractors in 2020, measured by revenues outside their home countries, were Chinese companies.

However, the prospect of Chinese engineers, workers and even equipment taking part in American infrastructure projects has never been more distant. Strategic mistrust of Beijing runs deep in Washington while the American public’s dislike of China has increased to record highs.

[…] For any Chinese business to take part, it would have to overcome high political, institutional and legal barriers, possibly including an extensive review on national security grounds. That alone could keep Chinese businesses at bay.

There might be certain efficiency losses given China’s comparative advantages in digging tunnels, fixing bridges and paving roads. But in the current political climate, it’s hard to imagine that a Chinese state-owned engineering company could be a big winner in Biden’s “once-in-a generation investment in America”. [Source]