Zap! Pow! Tariff Man Saves the Day!

By
Clay Chandler
and Eamon Barrett

December 15, 2018

It has been only two weeks since Donald Trump revealed his alter ego on Twitter and already Tariff Man seems destined for a Marvel movie. Coming soon to a theater near you: “Avengers: Trade War”!

We’re not quite in “Charlie Bit Me” or Apparently Kid territory yet. Still, the Internet went wild. And you know a meme has arrived when it rates a 10-panel “origin story” cartoon in the (failing!) New York Times. Then there’s this video from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (“Look, up in the sky! It’s a blimp with jaundice! No, it’s Tariff Man!”).

In Washington, the conventional wisdom is that this has been a bad week for Trump. Maybe so. But Tariff Man had a great week—one that almost felt like that last two or three minutes in most Marvel movies where the hero rallies in the face of impending doom and gets on with saving the universe.

There was new evidence China’s economy is slowing sharply, putting pressure (at least in theory) on Xi Jinping to make concessions. And there were tantalizing signs the Chinese leader is doing exactly that. China this week made its first major purchases of American soy beans since the trade war erupted in July, and said it would temporarily reduce tariffs on U.S. auto imports to 15%, down from the 40% rate it set earlier this year in retaliation for American tariff increases. The Wall Street Journal reports that China is even preparing to scrap Made in China 2025, an industrial policy Trump criticized for unfairly subsidizing China’s technology sector, and replace it with a more inclusive program that offers wider market access for foreign companies.

Meanwhile, Beijing showed admirable restraint in official comments about the extradition of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou to face charges of financial fraud in the U.S. Chinese spokesmen continue to stress that discussions about Meng’s arrest should be kept separate from the trade negotiations.

Maybe Tariff Man was right: trade wars really are “easy to win” after all.

I wouldn’t bet on that. There are still a lot of ways the Huawei case could go wrong. And as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross warned on CNBC Wednesday, it’s still not clear whether changes to Made In China 2025 will be meaningful or just cosmetic. Trickiest of all will be figuring out a way for Trump and Xi to reach an agreement that each can credibly present as victories to constituents at home. As any Marvel fan can tell you: don’t leave the cinema until after the credits roll.

More China news below.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

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