Three hidden assumptions in the coverage of Trump’s trip to China
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Three hidden assumptions in the coverage of Trump’s trip to China

November 10, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump visits China; Trump and Xi announce plan to increase trade by $253B

U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping gave a joint address to reporters on Thursday during Trump’s two-day state visit to China. They also announced memorandums of understanding to increase bilateral trade by $253 billion.

In their remarks to reporters, Xi called this a “new historic starting point” for the relationship and Trump said that China and the U.S. “have a capacity to solve world problems for many years to come.”

Trump said he has “great respect” for Xi, and added that they share a “great responsibility” to their countries. He called trade with China “unfair and one-sided,” adding that he did not “blame” China for the trade deficit. Currently, the U.S. has an annual trade deficit with China of more than $300 billion, meaning U.S. imports from China exceed its exports to the country by this amount. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said they have “more work to do” to address the trade deficit with China.

During Trump’s visit, the leaders also discussed a shared goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The presidents did not take any questions.

Trump arrived in China on Wednesday for a two-day visit that included a military parade in Tiananmen Square, a tour of the Forbidden City palace complex in Beijing, and a performance at the Peking opera and a state dinner. Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited China as part of Trump’s 12-day trip through five Asian countries.

Distortion Highlights

  • Some U.S. media suggest that Trump should have publicly criticized Xi on trade.
  • Rather than just presenting facts, the outlets use spin and implication that portray Trump’s behavior as bad.
  • Take a look at the hidden assumptions in the coverage of the visit, and see how they may be faulty.

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The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Rapacious

    President Donald Trump has often portrayed China as a rapacious competitor on the world stage, but in his two-day visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a different rivalry seemed to emerge over which leader could out-flatter the other. (Politico)

    “The president may not blame China, but I do, and so do millions of Americans who voted for him and others who have lost their jobs at the hands of China’s rapacious trade policies,” he said in a statement. (The Washington Post)

  • Lavish

    President Trump lavished praise on Chinese leader Xi Jinping here Thursday, touting great chemistry” between them while refusing to criticize his counterpart for the trade imbalance that Trump railed against during his campaign. (The Washington Post)

    The Chinese have described Trump’s trip to the country as a “state visit plus” and so far have lavished him with special treatment. (The Washington Post)

    On Trump’s first full day in China — the third stop on a five-country, 12-day trip through Asia —  Xi greeted him with a lavish reception at the Great Hall of the People, a display that included three horn players in red uniforms, a military band and ceremonial cannon fire. (The Washington Post)

    Mr. Xi arranged for Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball star, to attend a state dinner for Mr. Trump, held in a lavishly decorated room in the Great Hall of the People. (The New York Times)

    Xi, for his part, threw a lavish dinner to cap the trip that featured a video including clips of Xi’s April trip to Mar-a-Lago, as well as a highlight reel of Trump’s stops over the past two days in Beijing. (Politico)

  • Pageantry

    And despite the pageantry surrounding the visit and an eagerness of the Chinese to reset their relationship with the United States, Xi — now arguably his nation’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong — appeared emboldened to demand concessions from the United States. (The Washington Post)

  • Flattery

    Trump, Aiming to Coax Xi Jinping, Bets on Flattery (The New York Times)

    The U.S. president and the Chinese leader traded flattery in a day that included a state dinner complete with highlight reels and a video of Ivanka Trump’s young daughter, Arabella, speaking Mandarin. (Politico)

  • Protectionist Threats

    ‘Mr. Trump’s conciliatory words on trade were particularly striking, given his protectionist threats during the 2016 presidential campaign. (The New York Times)

  • Scathing

    While Trump made clear that he feels the U.S.-China relationship needs to change, his rhetoric was nowhere near the scathing tone he used during the 2016 race. (Politico)

  • Deeply skeptical

    But some of Trump’s allies are deeply skeptical of that approach, worrying that Xi could take advantage of the president’s kindness. (Politico)

  • Strong-willed

    His observation captured the essential nature of the visit: a grand exercise in personal diplomacy between two strong-willed leaders, who seemed determined to get along. (The New York Times)

  • Historic

    Xi says China-U.S. ties “at new historic starting point” (Xinhua)

  • Remarkable

    It was a remarkable moment in the story of China’s rise and America’s response to it, with Mr. Trump’s performance suggesting a tipping point in great-power politics. (The New York Times)

The U.S. outlets we analyzed suggest that what Trump said during his speech in China was problematic, without saying what the problem was in a clear, data-based way. Let’s examine some of the assumptions in the coverage.

Assumption 1: Trump should have publicly criticized Xi

Example A: “Trump declines to hit President Xi Jinping on trade” or Trump was “refusing to criticize” Xi on trade. (The Washington Post)

Example B: “Far from attacking Mr. Xi on trade, Mr. Trump saluted him…” (The New York Times)

To say Trump “refused” or “decline[d]” to criticize Xi on trade assumes he should have or was expected to. So, why should he have? And who was expecting this? During the campaign, Trump said China was “killing” and “raping” the U.S. on trade and China was responsible for “the greatest theft in the history.” He said he’d “turn it around,” and that he’d support a 45 percent tariff on goods coming from China.

But the fact that he was critical of the trade deficit with China in the past doesn’t necessarily mean he should have publicly criticized Xi about it on this trip. Which leads to the next assumption…

Assumption 2: Trump is being hypocritical by previously criticizing and not doing so now

Example A: “Trump has often portrayed China as a rapacious competitor on the world stage, but … a different rivalry seemed to emerge over which leader [Trump of Xi] could out-flatter the other.” (Politico)

Example B: “Trump’s conciliatory words on trade were particularly striking, given his protectionist threats during the 2016 presidential campaign.” (The New York Times)

Trump used more positive language this week than during his campaign (he said on Thursday that the leaders had “great chemistry,” when during the campaign he had said China was “raping” the U.S.). Is that hypocritical? It’s not uncommon for politicians to speak in more respectful language on a diplomatic trip than during a campaign. The media could just present what Trump said then and now, without opinion or implication.

Assumption 3: Trump is intentionally trying to flatter Xi to get what he wants, but it won’t work

Example A: Trump “bets on flattery” and “doubl[ed] down on his gamble” (The New York Times)

Example B: “But some of Trump’s allies are deeply skeptical of that approach [of ‘flattery’], worrying that Xi could take advantage of the president’s kindness.” (Politico)

Trump may have intentionally been trying to “flatter” Xi to get what he wanted, or he may just be speaking respectfully. Assuming the former, why is it a problem? Would Trump more effectively address the trade deficit by criticizing Xi? We don’t know how Trump’s visit will end up affecting the deficit in the long run.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 80% Spun

  • 83% Spun

  • 85% Spun

  • 91% Spun


The Washington Post

“The two leaders did not take questions from reporters, a win for Xi, who oversees an authoritarian system that has sought to sharply limit free speech and press freedoms.”

Trump and Xi did not take questions from reporters. Xi’s media policy requires journalists to perform an act of biao tai, or pledging loyalty, to the Communist Party, according to a 2016 New York Times article. “All news media run by the party must work to speak for the party’s will and its propositions, and protect the party’s authority and unity,” Xi said.

The New York Times

Trump didn’t “express dissatisfaction” with China’s response to talks on trade and North Korea, which “suggest[s] a tipping point in great-power politics.”

Trump did not say he was dissatisfied with his discussions with China.


During Trump’s “two-day visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a different rivalry seemed to emerge over which leader could out-flatter the other.”

During his visit to China this week, Trump said he gives “China great credit,” and Chinese officials described Trump’s trip a a “state visit plus.”

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

The U.S. and China announced a memorandum of understanding to increase trade between them by $253 billion. (The Washington Post, The New York Times)

Xinhua and Politico mention trade as a topic of the U.S.-China meeting, but not this specific announcement. Reporting on the memorandum could better inform readers of the tangible results that came out of the meeting.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that during their meeting the United States trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, spoke about the history of trade imbalances, and said they could not be allowed to continue. (The New York Times)

Only the New York Times gives an example of what sorts of discussions may have taken place on trade during meetings between U.S. and China officials.

On trade, Tillerson called the deals agreed on at the summit relatively “small in the grand scheme of things,” given a trade deficit of more than $300 billion a year. (The Washington Post, The New York Times)

Xinhua doesn’t make any mention of the trade deficit the U.S. has with China. This information might have given a different perspective to Xinhua’s generally positive portrayal of U.S.-China relations.


An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Presumes that Trump’s actions are a strategy, and interprets what he said.

The Times assumes to know Trump’s intentions but the article doesn’t actually cite Trump sharing the reasons for his behavior. It’s a subjective interpretation of what he said and did.

Could bias by focusing only on a positive quote.

A more neutral headline would say that the leaders met, or that they signed a trade plan.


Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • President Trump is being weak and inconsistent about fixing the trade imbalance with China, despite campaigning hard against it before the election. He should have addressed it during his visit with Xi Jinpeng. (CNN,  Politico, The Washington Post)
  • The imbalance in U.S.-China trade is a problem. (CNN,  Politico, The Washington Post)
  • This is an important new beginning for both countries and they’re in agreement. Everything is good. (Xinhua)
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Trump using different language than he did on the campaign trail could potentially help bilateral relations.
  • Trade between the US and China as it is now may have some benefits for both parties. The outlets lack information on why and how unbalanced trade is problematic. The U.S. shares responsibility in trade relations; if the U.S. stopped buying so much, then China wouldn’t sell so much.
  • This is an oversimplification of U.S.-China relations, and not all elements are benefitting both countries. (For instance, the trade imbalance may have negative effects.) Also, the agreements made on this visit have both benefits and drawbacks that will ultimately be tested as such.


Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

One of the topics that Trump discussed with Xi during his trip to China was trade. He specifically mentioned the U.S. trade deficit with China, which was $347 billion in 2016, according to the Census Bureau. A trade deficit occurs when a nation imports more than they export and is calculated by subtracting the exports from the imports. Trump said during the joint address in China that previous U.S. administrations were responsible for this deficit. So how have U.S.-China trade relations developed?

A brief history of U.S.-China Trade

Oct. 1949: The People’s Republic of China forms as a Communist nation. The U.S. implements trade restrictions in 1949, and a trade embargo in 1950 after China enters the Korean war on the side of North Korea

Mar. 1971: U.S. State Department lessens restrictions on U.S. citizens visiting China.

Jun. 1971: President Richard Nixon ends U.S. trade embargo on China

Feb. 1972: Nixon becomes first U.S. president to visit People’s Republic of China since it was formed in 1949

1979: Full diplomatic relations are restored between the U.S. and China

Jan. 1980: U.S. lowers tariffs on imports from China by granting it contingent Most Favored Nation (MFN) status; the tariffs had been in place since the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Act

1980: U.S. reduces restrictions on exports of advanced technology to China, by changing its trade status to category P (new trading partners) from category Y (Warsaw Treaty nations)

1983: U.S. gives China category V (American allies) trade status, further reducing restrictions on advanced technology exports from the U.S.

1986: U.S. trade deficit with China reaches $1.67 billion (21.1% of U.S.-China trade), according to U.S. numbers, widened from a $6 million deficit the year before

May-Jun. 1989: Students protest in Tiananmen Square, after which President George Bush suspends government-to-government sales and commercial exports of weapons

May 1993: U.S. President Bill Clinton issues an Executive Order tying China’s MFN status to human rights. He removes the requirement the following year.

1996: U.S. trade deficit with China is at $39.5 billion (62.2% of U.S.-China trade), according to U.S. numbers

2001: U.S. trade deficit with China reaches $83.1 billion (68.4% of U.S.-China trade), per U.S. numbers

Dec. 2001: China joins the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was formed in 1995 to replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) from 1948

2006: U.S. trade deficit with China is at $234.1 billion (68.6% of U.S.-China trade), according to U.S. numbers

2016: U.S. trade deficit with China is $347.0 billion (57.8% of U.S.-China trade), U.S. numbers say

Oct. 2017: Trump and Xi announce memorandum of understanding for $253 billion in new U.S.-China trade, including investments in energy, banking, software, soybeans and more. The presidents don’t announce how much it will address the deficit.

For perspective, here is some data on the relative size of the two economies: in 1972, China’s Gross National Product was about 7 percent of that of the U.S. economy. In 2012, it had grown to about half the size.

From 1997-2006, China’s part of the U.S. global trade deficit increased from 27 to 28 percent. During that period, the overall U.S. global trade deficit and the U.S.-China trade deficit were increasing at approximately the same rate.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported that total U.S.-China trade was at $536.1 billion in 2012, while China’s number for total trade was $484.7 billion. For comparison, in 1972, total trade between the countries was $4.7 million.

China reported that repeated trade surpluses of at least $1 billion with the U.S. began in 1990, while the U.S. reports they began in 1986. Differences between Chinese and U.S. trade figures may be due to differences in the accounting methods used for: (1) “re-exports” to China via Hong Kong, (2) foreign firms in China, (3) multinational trade, as in commercial services, and (4) global outsourcing and capital flows.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative also quoted some recent U.S.-China trade facts and statistics.

Sources: The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Council on Foreign Relations