Trade tensions stoke worries of anti-U.S. backlash in China

SHANGHAI, April 4 (Reuters) - As trade tensions rise between the United States and China, a small but vocal online community is calling for a boycott of U.S. products, fanning fears that American brands could see a backlash similar to that faced by South Korea last year.

China on Wednesday hit back at the Trump administration’s plans to impose tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods, retaliating with a list of duties on key U.S. imports with similar value including soybeans, planes, cars, whiskey and chemicals.

“Counterattack in trade war” was the third most-read topic on China’s Weibo microblogging platform on Wednesday, viewed about 230 million times, while an editorial published the same day in the state-backed English-language tabloid Global Times warning the United States against an entering a trade war drew roughly 7,000 comments.

“The sons and daughters of China should unite and boycott U.S. products, modern war is conducted by the people,” said one Weibo user with the handle “Deanliu1314”.

A commenter on the Global Times article said, “if they resist Chinese products, the United States won’t be able to find an alternative. But if we boycott all U.S. products, China-made products can easily fill the gap”.

Products online commenters called for boycotting included Boeing planes, Apple products, U.S. soybeans and even American graduate schools, with others saying that they could repeat what Chinese shoppers had done to South Korea.

“I resolutely support all trade measures China is taking against the United States,” said another user who said he would boycott U.S. and South Korean products. “It starts with me.”

However, there was no evidence yet of an organised campaign to stoke anti-U.S. behaviour, or that consumers were yet shunning U.S. goods in any numbers.

Trade and business exchanges between South Korea and China turned chilly last year after South Korea deployed the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system despite vehement objections from Beijing.

The THAAD disagreement prompted an undeclared Chinese boycott of products ranging from South Korean cosmetics to cars, and was estimated to have knocked about 0.4 percentage points off South Korea’s expected economic growth in 2017.

The highest profile corporate casualty was South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group, which saw its plans for mega shopping complexes indefinitely suspended and nearly all of its Lotte Mart stores in China shut for much of the year over alleged fire safety issues.

Ben Cavender, an analyst at Shanghai-based China Market Research Group, said U.S. businesses in China such as Starbucks were more firmly entrenched in the country, making them less likely to receive similar treatment.

“A lot of the brands are employing Chinese workers, essentially they’re Chinese companies in their own right,” he said.

However, he warned that everyday consumption goods could nonetheless be hit.

“You can see consumers saying we’re not going to buy a Ford , or a GM product, and we’re going to buy a European product or a Chinese product instead,” he said.

Jim Boyce, a Beijing-based wine consultant who writes the blog Grapewallofchina, said while there were concerns that the duties would make U.S. wine less cost-competitive, the greater worry was over the image the trade war would generate for U.S. goods.

On Monday, China imposed extra tariffs on imports of American goods including wine, in response to U.S. duties on steel and aluminium imports.

“Are we going to see people in China worried about drinking American wine because of politics? That’s the bigger problem,” he said.

Christopher Beros, trade director for China and the Pacific Rim at the California Wine Institute, which represented roughly 1,000 California wineries, said the issue was making him nervous.

“We do see collective thinking from time to time, and if someone gets stigmatised in a way, that’s always a concern.” (Reporting by Brenda Goh; Additional Reporting by SHANGHAI Newsroom Editing by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson)