Perhaps the most telling sign of how sour the relationship between China and the United States has become is the way in which Washington now addresses its adversary across the Pacific.
Trump even said that during his visit to Beijing in November 2017, he called Xi “the king” and the Chinese leader “liked it”.
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These days the pair no longer talk to one another. When the US, and in particular Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, does refer to the Chinese leader, it is usually as “General Secretary Xi”.
Also, Washington appears to more frequently refer to the “Communist Party of China” or the “Chinese regime”, rather than “China” in its official statements, especially those covering human rights issues or other thorny topics, like Hong Kong or Xinjiang .
Observers on both sides of the Pacific say this is a deliberate attempt by the US to delegitimise the Chinese authorities and to drive a wedge between the ruling elite and Chinese public.
The Trump administration wants to shape its narrative as it gets increasingly belligerent with Beijing. They want to cast the focus of the struggle on the ideological differences between communism and democracy, rather than on geopolitical rivalry or economic competition.
But such methods run the risk of backfiring and could prove to be ineffective and counterproductive, analysts say.
Just this week, several mainstream US media outlets, quoting government sources, reported that the White House was considering not granting visas to Chinese Communist Party members and their families. And even those who were already in the US may have their visas revoked.
When asked about the reports at a press conference on Thursday, Pompeo said the administration was looking at “pushing back against the Chinese Communist Party”, without denying them.
Beijing brushed it off as a “ridiculous idea”. Even many neutral observers were taken aback by the suggestion.
A sweeping travel ban on all 92 million members of the Communist Party of China would basically mean “an end of the bilateral relationship”, said Richard McGregory, a senior fellow for east Asia at the Lowy Institute based in Sydney.
“There would be no Chinese visiting the US for any kind of substantial talks, say for trade negotiations or financial consultations, because any official of any seniority is by definition a member of the party,” he said, adding that the ban would also affect many Chinese entrepreneurs.
“It is a blunderbuss which would not serve US interests, let alone get Washington anywhere it wants to go in the China relationship.”
Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese Studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, said if the plan was implemented, the number of people affected could be “three or four times” higher than 92 million.
“It could be as much as a quarter of the Chinese population. The symbolism of this is the main thing – in effect it makes the Communist Party akin to a terrorist organisation in the eyes of the US – something that is aimed at demoralising and undermining the party by questioning its legitimacy,” he said.
Experts say it would be difficult do background checks on such vast numbers of people.
Scott Kennedy, a China expert with the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, called the measure “self-defeating” and “blindly dumb”.
“Narrowly targeted visa restrictions on certain Chinese officials may make sense, but banning all Chinese CCP members, SOE [state-owned enterprise] execs and PLA [People’s Liberation Army] members from the US would be, frankly, blindly dumb, dangerous and beyond self-defeating,” he said on Twitter.
There are close to 92 million communist members in China, according to official statistics. The party has established roots and branches in almost every aspect of life and in all sectors. Not only officials, but many academics, scientists, entrepreneurs and even dissidents are party members.
Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who first alerted his medical colleagues to the threat of Covid19, was a member of the CCP, as was Uygur scholar Ilham Tolti – who was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament last year – until he was sent to prison.
Ni Feng, an expert on US affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the suggested ban could end up achieving the opposite of its intended result.
“The logic obviously is to separate the Communist Party from the Chinese people, but doing so will achieve exactly the opposite and bind them closer together,” he said.
Washington has rolled out or threatened to impose a series of sanctions in the past year against specific Chinese officials. Last week, the US Treasury placed Xinjiang’s party chief Chen Quanguo under sanction. Chen is one of the 25 members of the Communist Party Politburo and the most senior Chinese official to face such restrictions.
Washington has threatened to impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for making policies on Hong Kong, after Beijing passed a national security law for the city.
But Ni said a ban on all CCP members would go much further than those sanctions.
“It’d be very different from imposing sanctions on certain officials,” he said. “There are a lot of ordinary people inside the party.”
On Friday, China’s foreign ministry said the proposed ban amounted to “Washington standing in opposition to the entire population of China”.
Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University, said such sanctions would only embolden the hawks on the Chinese side.
“There are hardliners on both sides that want the ties to go back to a Cold War-like confrontation and the sanctions could end up working in their favour,” he said.
Brown said the idea may well just be an election stunt and would not be carried out.
“We have to remember this is an election year, with an incumbent for whom everything seems to be going wrong at the moment, and who is clearly designing everything with an eye to winning re-election,” he said.
“So we have to view things like this said in such a distorting context with a great deal of scepticism.”
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