BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping has been conspicuously silent on the trade row with the U.S., sparking speculation that he is shielding himself from criticism in case it spirals out of control.
The Chinese leader has been missing from the front page of the People's Daily on multiple days this month, and his exposure on state television has decreased noticeably. Xi likely wants to stay out of the line of fire lest the trade war lead to significant repercussions such as job losses, which he could be blamed for.
That may be why the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded vehemently to a statement by a top Trump administration official blaming Xi for foot-dragging.
"Insofar as we know, President Xi at the moment does not wish to make a deal," Larry Kudlow, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, said in an interview this week on former employer CNBC.
Kudlow said he believed that Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, who has been in charge of the trade negotiations, is eager to talk. "But I think Xi is holding the game up," he said.
Beijing considers personal attacks on its leader strictly off-limits and promptly hit back. Washington, "holding high its baton, has been rudely threatening and coercing China, and brazenly engaging in flip-flopping and backpedaling," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a Thursday news conference.
China's strong reaction suggests Kudlow was getting at something. Xi in fact has avoided discussing trade since tensions between the world's two largest economies began to escalate. Put at the frontline, waving the free trade banner, is Premier Li Keqiang.
China and the European Union are "committed to promoting liberalization in trade and investment, opposing protectionism and unilateralism, and supporting the rules-based multilateral trade system," Li said on Monday, the day he met with European Council President Donald Tusk.