By Huizhong Wu
BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s war of words with the United States over their escalating trade dispute will reach a crescendo of sorts when a broadcaster from Chinese state television debates a Fox Business host in prime time on the U.S. cable network.
From combative missives in state media and patriotic fervour on social media, to a mobilisation of ambassadors around the globe to get its message out, China has turned up the rhetorical heat since U.S. moves this month to increase tariffs on Chinese imports and blacklist tech giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd.
In an escalation on Wednesday, the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, warned that China was ready to use its dominance of rare earths, crucial minerals used in electronics, to strike back in the trade war.
But it is an unprecedented televised face-off between Liu Xin of China’s state-run English channel CGTN and Fox Business Network host Trish Regan, to air live on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Eastern Time (0000 GMT), that has captivated many in China, with one social media hashtag on the Twitter-like Weibo garnering more than 120 million views.
Their feud started on air and has been amplified on Twitter, which is blocked in China.
Liu has been critical of Regan’s China coverage and Regan has taken up the challenge, calling on Liu to have an honest debate.
“She’s so sure of U.S. victimhood, so indignant that her eyes practically spit fire, yet in carefully analysing her words, it’s all emotion and accusation, supported with little substance,” Liu said of Regan on CGTN.
Liu accused Regan of being “emotional” and misidentifying facts after Fox Business said in a May 14 report that China steals $600 billion in U.S. intellectual property annually.
“They’re launching a full-scale information war against the United States of America, and their latest target is me,” Regan said on air and on Twitter this week.
On China’s heavily censored internet, which blocks major Western news outlets, state broadcaster CCTV and the People’s Daily newspaper have shared news of the debate on Weibo.
Other Chinese media outlets have joined in, some even circulating footage of Liu in an English speech competition from 23 years ago.
“When it comes to debating, Liu Xin won’t feel any pressure,” said one Weibo user.
Even foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang weighed in, telling a regular briefing he hoped everyone would watch the debate.
But it was unlikely that ordinary folk in China would be able to see it in real time as Fox Business is not available to most viewers. Liu said on Twitter that because of rights issues, CGTN would not be able to show it live, though it would “report on it closely”.
A Fox News spokesperson said a free live stream of the debate will be available on the Fox Business Network website and the entire segment will also be available after the broadcast.
It was not immediately clear if Fox News or Fox Business News’s websites are viewable in China.
EAT MORE TILAPIA
The surge in interest and internet chatter about the trade war contrasts with just a few weeks ago, when Chinese social media reactions and news about the dispute were less visible.
Analysts say the surge could not have occurred without the influence of Beijing’s censorship authorities.
Trump’s May 6 threat of higher tariffs, for example, was not reported by state media for hours even as Chinese markets swooned, because Beijing had ordered media outlets not to report independently on the matter and censored related content on social media.
Then on May 15, the Trump administration blacklisted Huawei.
Since May 16, the company has been one of the top 10 trending Weibo topics almost every day and has featured prominently in news coverage.
“It fits the propaganda narrative of Beijing that the West is out to bully China, that the West wants China contained, and that therefore it is necessary for the party to be in charge so China can be strong and can stand up to the bullies,” said Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who focuses on internet policy.
The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond to a Reuters query on whether it issued any new directives on trade war material on social media that would allow for more prominent discussions. Weibo operator Sina Corp and WeChat operator Tencent Holdings Ltd also did not respond to requests for comment on censorship.
In one show of officially sanctioned activism, a chapter of the Communist Youth League called on its WeChat followers to eat more tilapia, a type of fish that was exported to the United States but is now subject to higher tariffs.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina; Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel and Diane Craft)