Jun 23, 2020 - World

WSJ reporters publish insider's view of U.S.-China trade relationship

Book cover of  "Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War" (HarperCollins, June 2020), by Wall Street Journal reporting duo Bob Davis and Lingling Wei
Image: Harper Business

If you've ever wished you were a fly on the wall as top leaders in the U.S. and China were considering how to parry their counterparts' most recent moves, here's your big chance.

The big picture: "Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War" (HarperCollins, June 2020), by Wall Street Journal reporting duo Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, takes you behind the scenes of some of the biggest decisions over the past 25 years of the U.S.-China trade relationship.

Those moments include:

  • Bill Clinton's decision not to revoke China's most-favored nation status after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
  • China's entry into the World Trade Organization, the role of U.S. businesses as Beijing's biggest backers, and the sense of betrayal that human rights advocates felt at the time.
  • And of course, plenty of juicy detail about how both Trump and Xi, and their negotiators, hashed out tariffs, retaliations, strategy and concessions over the past three years.

Bonus: The book starts out with an incredible reveal, at least for those of us who have watched China for years: What Xi Jinping was really up to during the two weeks that he mysteriously disappeared in late 2012.

Zoom in: Each side of the current trade war suffered from a major misunderstanding of the other side.

  • "They think of the world like it's 1952 and the U.S. just won World War II," Davis told me in an interview. "But in 1952, the U.S. was more generous to the rest of the world."
  • "The biggest thing the Chinese side missed was how much of a change there was in Washington towards China," Wei said. "It wasn’t just the Trump administration, it wasn’t just Republicans. It crossed party lines. It took them quite a while to realize that."

The bottom line: Both the U.S. and China thought the trade conflict would be easier to resolve than it has been, Wei and Davis told me, because both sides overestimated the leverage they had over the other.

Go deeper: Wei, who was recently expelled from China along with a dozen other U.S. journalists, wrote a touching personal essay about her journey to becoming a U.S. citizen, returning to China to report, and now being forced to leave her family there.

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