Is Trump Serious About Trade War? China’s Leaders Hunt for Answers

Governing with a new mandate since engineering the removal of presidential term limits last month, Mr. Xi has personally taken control of decision-making in the trade standoff, according to analysts and political insiders with ties to the leadership. His unquestioned authority, some say, has made it more difficult for the party apparatus to deliver news that contradicts him.

“When you have this kind of regime, you want to report the good story,” said Tao Jingzhou, a managing partner at the global law firm Dechert who deals with senior Chinese officials. “I have the impression the leadership is not fully briefed about the seriousness of the atmosphere against China in the U.S. establishment.”

The confusion over Mr. Trump’s stance on trade deepened on Thursday when he said, in a surprise move, that he was considering rejoining the multicountry trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, after abruptly withdrawing the United States from the negotiations last year.

Mr. Xi has elevated a coterie of advisers who have built their careers in part on their ability to interpret and handle the United States, perhaps more so than any of his predecessors. But they seem surprised and confused by Mr. Trump’s rapid-fire decisions and trade threats, like the move to impose punitive tariffs on an additional $100 billion in Chinese imports, according to many who have met with them.

These men include Wang Huning, the party’s chief ideologue, who has written a book about his visits to the United States as a young scholar; Wang Qishan, Mr. Xi’s most powerful lieutenant, who has cultivated relationships on Wall Street for decades; and Mr. Liu, the vice premier in charge of the economy, who has master’s degrees from Seton Hall and Harvard. Mr. Xi has also promoted Yang Jiechi, a former ambassador to Washington, to the party’s 25-member Politburo.

Despite this deep bench of expertise, the Chinese leadership appears at a loss, grasping for interlocutors in an American political landscape that has been scrambled by Mr. Trump. For more than two decades, Beijing has watched corporate America make the case for trade with China and one American president after another embrace that agenda. But Mr. Trump has defied that pattern.

“Chinese experts do not understand the current state of the United States,” said Jie Zhao, a professor at the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong, which trains senior civil servants in Shanghai. “They do not understand Trump, do not understand his team and do not understand the source of his policies.”

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