BEIJING — In an elegantly furnished back room at a conference in eastern China in December, a member of the Chinese leadership asked American tech executives for help.
The official, Wang Huning, a Communist Party strategist who has spent much of his career sizing up the United States as a geopolitical rival, wanted to know whether President Trump was serious about a trade war with China — and whether his American visitors could serve as a channel of communication to the White House.
He has not been alone.
For the past few months, some of the most powerful men in China — allies of President Xi Jinping with longstanding ties and deep experience with the United States — have been casting about for a better understanding of Mr. Trump and how to respond to his combative trade agenda, according to several people they have consulted.
Vice President Wang Qishan has met in recent weeks with a series of American business leaders and former cabinet officials to question them about Mr. Trump’s trade threats. Liu He, the Politburo member coordinating economic policy, has done the same. One longtime China scholar in the United States said five officials had visited him seeking advice in the past two weeks alone.
In these meetings, the Americans have warned that Mr. Trump’s complaints should be taken seriously because of widespread frustration in Washington with Chinese policies, especially a $300 billion program to dominate critical high-tech industries, known as Made in China 2025, that has alarmed the United States national security establishment.
It is unclear whether that message is making it through to Mr. Xi — or whether he has chosen to ignore it after concluding that Mr. Trump is bluffing and that the United States will back off, as it has in the past.
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…
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