Is Trump Serious About Trade War? China’s Leaders Hunt for Answers
BEIJING — In an elegantly furnished back room at a conference in eastern China in December, a member of the Chinese leadership asked American tech executives attending the event for help.
The official, Wang Huning, a Communist Party strategist who has spent much of his career sizing up the United States as a geopolitical rival, wanted to know whether President Trump was serious about a trade war with China — and whether they could serve as a channel of communication to the White House.
He has not been alone.
For the past few months, some of the most powerful men in China — allies of President Xi Jinping with longstanding ties and deep experience with the United States — have been casting about for a better understanding of Mr. Trump and how to respond to his combative trade agenda, according to several people they have consulted.
Vice President Wang Qishan has met in recent weeks with a series of American business leaders and former cabinet officials to question them about Mr. Trump’s trade threats. Liu He, the Politburo member coordinating economic policy, has done the same. One longtime China scholar in the United States said five officials had visited him seeking advice in the past two weeks alone.
In these meetings, the Americans have warned that Mr. Trump’s complaints should be taken seriously because of widespread frustration in Washington with Chinese policies, especially a $300 billion program to dominate critical high-tech industries, known as Made in China 2025, that has alarmed the United States national security establishment.
It is unclear whether that message is making it through to Mr. Xi — or whether he has chosen to ignore it after concluding that Mr. Trump is bluffing and that the United States will back off, as it has in the past.