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What's Ahead For U.S.-China Relations As Trump Takes New Steps Against Beijing


The Trump administration has made a series of new moves against China, and they are some big moves. The administration is targeting some of the biggest Chinese apps and the top official in Hong Kong. To parse through the latest, we're joined by NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch.

Hi, John.


VANEK SMITH: So, John, let's start with last night's announcement about Chinese tech companies. What did the White House say?

RUWITCH: Yeah, there were two executive orders. One took aim at TikTok, which is that hugely popular short video app that's been in the government's sights for a while. The U.S. says that it poses a national security threat, and the order says it has 45 days, basically, before it's banned. TikTok, in response, has said that it might sue the U.S. government because it thinks the order was - you know, came down the pipeline without due process. It's worth noting, though, that Microsoft is in acquisition talks with TikTok, so the landscape may change in the coming days.

VANEK SMITH: And another target, from what I understand, was the popular Chinese app called WeChat.

RUWITCH: That's right. It's from another executive order. And this is no ordinary app. Just to put it into context, some call it a super app. It's got messaging. It's got games. It's got payments. I mean, you can buy plane tickets, movie tickets. You can order food, book a cab. It's hard to understate, actually, how important this app is to daily life in China. And a lot of Chinese Americans and U.S. businesses use it to keep in touch with people back in China. WeChat's owned by Tencent, which is one of China's biggest tech firms. It's a big force in gaming. It's a big deal. And I guess a final point would be that, though the wording on these executive orders is pretty vague - it talks about transactions - so implementation and enforcement are still a question mark.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, it seems a little bit like the U.S. is kind of throwing up a big barricade, trying to keep Chinese tech out. Is that fair?

RUWITCH: Uh-huh, yes. It's worth remembering, though, that China has the great firewall in place, which blocks websites and apps from outside of China.


RUWITCH: So this divide between the Internets already exists, right? But yeah, Trump administration does seem to be taking its own steps to draw a line. Earlier in the week, it took some other measures, including those aimed at Chinese telecoms providers. Scott Kennedy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies says there actually may be legitimate concerns about surveillance, monitoring, censorship - these type of things - when it comes to Chinese tech companies.

SCOTT KENNEDY: But the way that the U.S. is going about it and the pace that they're going about it suggests that they're not so much interested in trying to solve any of these specific problems, at least in the near term, but in really taking, you know, a full-frontal assault against the Chinese across the board.

VANEK SMITH: I'm wondering how things feel in China right now and, also, if there's a chance that China might retaliate.

RUWITCH: Yeah, China's messaging amid this sort of barrage of measures from the Trump administration has been, stop - let's get back to normal. In terms of retaliation, you know, in the past, Beijing's been pretty reluctant to target U.S. businesses because it sees them as an ally. And for U.S. companies, you know, China's been the big growth engine, and that's especially true, I think, during the pandemic.

VANEK SMITH: Right. I mean, this was not the only recent action by the Trump administration. They also sanctioned top Hong Kong officials. What was the reasoning there?

RUWITCH: Yeah, the officials were sanctioned for undermining Hong Kong's autonomy, and this is in connection with the controversial national security law that Beijing imposed in Hong Kong in June. Among the people named was the top Hong Kong official, Carrie Lam, who's effectively the mayor, and other top Beijing officials who were involved in implementing the national security law. China's not going to be happy about this. They're likely to retaliate, as they have with previous steps that have been taken. There's really no end in sight, it seems, to where the relationship is headed. The administration, you know, seems to be aiming to take as many steps as it can to decouple the relationship as quickly as possible.

VANEK SMITH: NPR's John Ruwitch.

Thanks, John.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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