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Trump Points Finger at China’s Xi, Escalating Fight Over Virus

Daniel Ten Kate

(Bloomberg) --

President Donald Trump escalated his rhetoric against China, suggesting that the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, is behind a “disinformation and propaganda attack on the United States and Europe.”

“It all comes from the top,” Trump said in a series of tweets on Wednesday night. He added that China was “desperate” to have former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, win the presidential race.

While Trump has often blamed China for failing to prevent a pandemic now ravaging the global economy, he has been careful to maintain that his relationship with Xi remains strong. China’s foreign ministry has regularly fired back with similar charges, saying the Trump administration was looking to obscure the facts around the virus to deflect from its own shortcomings.

Trump and other Republicans have been ratcheting up efforts to paint China as the villain, as the U.S. economy drifts into recession and the president’s handling of the crisis jeopardizes the party’s grip on the executive branch. China has denied Trump’s claims that it was trying to damage his chances at re-election in November.

The feud has revived the worst-case scenarios about U.S.-China ties, edging them closer to confrontation than at any point since the two sides established relations four decades ago. From supply chains and visas to cyberspace and Taiwan, the world’s two largest economies are escalating disputes across several fronts that had quieted after they signed a “phase one” trade deal in January.

On Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian sidestepped a question on Trump’s tweets while attacking Secretary of State Michael Pompeo for his comments about Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“Who’s been doing everything possible to ensure people’s lives and health and to promote international anti-virus cooperation?” he said. “The answer is clear as day. The world is a fair judge.”

A day earlier, the Chinese military condemned a rare message from Pompeo to Taiwan’s president as “wrong and very dangerous,” vowing to defend Beijing’s claim to the democratically ruled island. Hours later, the White House issued a broad critique of China’s economic and military policies in a report to Congress without detailing specific actions the U.S. will take in response.

The U.S. Senate also overwhelmingly approved legislation Wednesday that could lead to Chinese companies such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Baidu Inc. being barred from listing on U.S. stock exchanges. The Republican-controlled upper chamber had already passed a bill this month that would impose sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights abuses against Muslim minorities.

Trump, who had repeatedly praised Xi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak early on, has passed up recent opportunities to criticize the Chinese president directly. During a Fox News town hall event May 3, Trump described Xi as a “strong” leader with whom he had a good relationship.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump accused “some wacko in China” on Twitter of deflecting responsibility for the spread of the coronavirus, without elaborating. He accused China of “mass Worldwide killing.”

Although it was unclear who Trump was referring to in either tweet, Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, denounced Trump administration officials on WeChat on Wednesday as “political hooligans” who don’t care about the lives of more than 100,000 Americans. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian -- the person who would most obviously fit Trump’s “spokesman” description -- hewed closely to the usual talking points in his agency’s regular briefing Wednesday.

Hu pushed back against Trump’s “wacko” remark in a subsequent tweet, saying “I have never heard of such a wacko in China making this statement” and speculating that the person is “fictional.” He later said Chinese internet users wished he would be re-elected, saying he promotes “unity in China” and makes international news “as fun as comedy.”

(Updates with Chinese statement in sixth paragraph)

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