- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2018

U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad on Sunday threw fresh fuel on President Trump’s recent allegation that China is interfering in the upcoming midterm elections — a charge Chinese officials heatedly deny.

Mr. Branstad, a former Republican governor of Iowa who has been ambassador to China for the past year, said the ruling Chinese Communist Party is “bullying” American farmers by “disseminating its propaganda” in the U.S. media — particularly through a paid ad that appeared one week ago in The Des Moines Register.

The “bullying” charge, which Mr. Branstad made in an op-ed published in the same newspaper Sunday, came just days after Mr. Trump made headlines at the United Nations by accusing China of meddling in U.S. politics with the goal of defeating Republicans in the November midterms.

Mr. Trump claimed during a U.N. Security Council meeting on Wednesday that Chinese officials are trying to subvert the U.S. vote out of frustration over his administration’s bare-knuckle trade posture toward Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was present at the Security Council meeting, appeared to shrug when Mr. Trump made the allegation. He later told the same meeting the claim was “unwarranted” and that China does “not and will not interfere in any countries’ domestic affairs.”

Mr. Branstad’s op-ed on Sunday made no explicit mention of the meddling allegation. But he did claim China has long engaged in unfair trade practices and is now spreading propaganda in the U.S. in retaliation for the imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods.

“The administration implemented tariffs to obtain elimination of China’s unfair policies and begin to level the playing field between American companies and their Chinese competitors,” Mr. Branstad wrote.

“Unfortunately, China has responded to such action by taking further steps to harm American workers, farmers and businesses through retaliatory actions — and is now doubling down on that bullying by running propaganda ads in our own free press.”

He pointed specifically to a Sept. 23 ad in The Des Moines Register that criticized U.S. actions on trade, saying it was paid for by “China Daily — a newspaper the Chinese Communist Party uses to circulate propaganda to foreign audiences.”

“In disseminating its propaganda, China’s government is availing itself of America’s cherished tradition of free speech and a free press,” Mr. Branstad wrote.

“In contrast, at the newsstand down the street here in Beijing, you will find limited dissenting voices and will not see any true reflection of the disparate opinions that the Chinese people may have on China’s troubling economic trajectory, given that media is under the firm thumb of the Chinese Communist Party,” he added. “Even in the case of this op-ed, one of China’s most prominent newspapers dodged the offer to publish.”

It was not immediately clear how the op-ed might be perceived by Chinese officials. But the impact could be biting, given that Mr. Branstad — unlike Mr. Trump, who appointed him ambassador — is perceived by many to be something of a China dove.

Criticism from Mr. Branstad, considered a longtime personal friend of Chinese President Xi Jinping — who visited Iowa regularly as a Chinese trade official prior to ascending to the presidency in Beijing — could carry more weight among party leaders.

Beijing has already roundly dismissed Mr. Trump’s allegation of meddling in the upcoming U.S. elections — a charge that underscored heightened tension following a wave of contentious trade negotiations that have been a signature of the administration’s foreign policy.

Mr. Trump has vowed to reduce a $376 billion U.S. trade deficit to China that administration officials claim is unfairly benefiting Beijing in the global economy.

The administration has leveled hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs against a wide range of Chinese exports, including everything from lobster and soybeans to steel. Beijing has responded by targeting U.S. goods headed to China with stiff tariffs of its own.

When Mr. Trump made his allegation last week, he appeared to be referring to China’s retaliatory tariffs, as opposed to the type of cyberhacking that Russia conducted in the 2016 U.S. elections. “You have statements made [by the Chinese] that they were going to hit our farmers. Those are my voters,” the president said.

A senior administration official separately claimed in a White House conference call with reporters that “China is actively interfering in our political system” by “hurting farmers and workers in states and districts that voted for the president.”

The four-page China Daily ad published by the Des Moines Register on Sept. 23 came as frustration over the tariffs has risen in the Midwest and South. The ad called the dispute over soybeans “the fruit of a president’s folly.”

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister spokesman Geng Shuang defended the placement of the ad. “According to U.S. laws, foreign media could have various forms of cooperation with U.S. media,” Mr. Geng told reporters in Beijing. “China Daily putting up a paid piece on The Des Moines Register is just one of those forms, as I understand. Many foreign media do that.”

“It is absolutely far-fetched and fictitious to paint such normal cooperation as the Chinese government trying to interfere in the U.S. election,” he said.

The latest back-and-forth, meanwhile, comes as new economic figures suggest China is feeling the pain from Mr. Trump’s aggressive campaign to re-write the bilateral trade relationship between the world’s two biggest economies.

China’s export orders shrank in September, according to two recent surveys cited by The Associated Press on Sunday.

The official China Federation of Logistics & Purchasing’s monthly measure of new export orders fell to 48 from August’s 49.4 on a 100-point scale on which numbers below 50 show activity shrinking. A separate index by a business magazine, Caixin, showed new export orders fell at the fastest rate in more than two years. The magazine said companies blamed “trade frictions” and tariffs.

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