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Trudy Rubin

The queues of Chinese tourists eager to visit Mao Zedong's mausoleum in the center of Beijing's Tiananmen Square start building at 7 a.m. and the wait can be three hours. The tourist shops along one side of the square are filled with glossy pendants that feature Mao on one side, and Chinese president Xi Jinping on the other.

Those pendants are fixed in my mind on my return from my latest trip to China, as the clock ticks down to a critical meeting between Xi and President Trump at the G-20 summit in Argentina at the end of November. The Mao factor must be addressed.

The outcome of that meeting will reveal whether there is a chance of avoiding an all-out trade war between Washington and Beijing -- and whether Trump or Xi have the will to head off a U.S.-China cold war.

Much will depend on whether Trump's mistaken belief he is "winning" the trade battle has convinced him that tariffs alone will force Chinese submission. But much will also depend on whether Xi's concentration of power in his own hands, in imitation of "leader for life" Mao, convinces him he is strong enough to resist real compromise with Washington.

What I heard from Chinese officials, think tanks, and academics -- and from U.S. businessmen in the country -- made me pessimistic about the road ahead.

The atmosphere was clearly more repressive, with the internet more tightly controlled and a handful of once-daring news outlets muzzled. Gone was the open atmosphere of my first trip, in 1986, in the era of Deng Xiaoping's "opening," when strangers on the street would talk openly about their suffering under Mao's cultural revolution. Gone was the political ferment of the mid and late 1990s, when mid-level officials speculated that village and town elections might lead to greater democracy.

Gone was the hopefulness of the 2000s, when I met with activists from environmental and health NGOs, and students of public interest law who were teaching peasants their legal rights to compensation when developers seized their lands. Non-governmental organizations have been curbed, while student activists are now arrested.

Chinese officials and think-tankers repeated almost identical talking points (a reflection, I was told, of Xi's efforts to strengthen the Communist Party line). Almost all refused to be quoted on the record, even when they hewed to official lingo. They flatly refused to admit that China has become a global superpower or a competitor, has stolen technology or forced U.S. companies to transfer it. They insisted that Beijing plays by the international rulebook.

Meantime, academics downplayed the situation.

"I disagree that the United States and China are locked in a Thucydides Trap," said Zha Daojiong, professor of international relations at prestigious Peking University, referring to the thesis that a rising power must inevitably clash with a declining hegemon. "That is lazy thinking," he continued. "Why should we gear for total war? There are a large group of Chinese who promote the same argument, with comparable rhetoric. But the US and China are separated by an ocean. We should just relax."

Yet other academics admitted they were far from relaxed. They privately worried about Xi's open declaration of intent to outstrip America in technology and displace its influence in Asia and beyond. They also expressed concern that decades of academic cooperation and student exchanges with U.S. universities could be jeopardized.

Most stunning was the anger I heard from U.S. business people. On previous trips, I had heard hopefulness that the Chinese government would finally play by World Trade Organization rules and provide U.S. companies with the open access that Chinese companies provide here. There was still hope that China would cease forcing U.S. companies to share technology and stop unfair government subsidies to Chinese competitors. Those hopes were gone.

Despite concern that Trump's tariffs might boomerang, I heard repeated (off the record) cheers that Washington was finally talking tough to Beijing.

Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, long an open-trade champion, echoed these sentiments in a speech this month in Singapore, saying: "How can it be that those who know China best, work there, do business there, make money there and have advocated for productive relations in the past, are among those now arguing for more confrontation?" His answer: because China has refused to open its economy.

"American business doesn't want a tariff war," Paulson said, "but it does want a more aggressive approach from our government."

Which brings us back to the Trump-Xi meeting in Buenos Aires. The stonewalling in Beijing offers little prospect of real progress, but Trump's fixation on tariffs alone won't advance the ball either.

China experts widely agree that Beijing can withstand the tariffs. What would make a stronger impact would be a U.S.-led coalition of Asian nations that pressured China in unison on its economic (and military) predation.

Instead, Trump failed to attend two key Asian summits last week, leaving the impression that he intends to tackle China solo. Those two-sided Mao-Xi medallions should serve as a warning: a one-on-one confrontation with Mao-wannabe Xi isn't likely to work.

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Trudy Rubin writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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