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As U.S. tensions grow, NewsHour documentary pulls back the curtain on China’s rise

A new PBS NewsHour documentary, “China: Power and Prosperity,” examines today's China, its powerful leader in Xi Jinping and relationship with the U.S. Now, amid a global pandemic, the two governments are decreasing collaboration and accelerating confrontation, says Nick Schifrin, who joins Judy Woodruff to discuss this in-depth portrait.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight at 10:00 p.m., the "NewsHour" presents "China: Power and Prosperity," an hour-long prime-time documentary.

    It is the product of more than a year-and-a-half of work and more than 70 on-camera interviews.

    Nick Schifrin begins the documentary at the top with a singular Chinese leader.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Beijing's Great Hall of the People, the people clap in unison for one man. Xi Jinping, Communist Party general secretary, commander in chief, president of the People's Republic of China, says he's making China great again.

  • Chinese President (through translator) XI Jining,:

    The Chinese nation has achieved a tremendous transformation. It has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong. It offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Not since Mao Zedong, communist China's founding father, has a Chinese leader suggested so clearly the world could emulate China. Not since Mao has China had a leader as powerful as Xi Jinping.

    Last year, we traveled to China twice and reported from eight countries to try and understand today's China and its relationship with the U.S. We wanted to return, but the pandemic grounded U.S. and changed the world.

    And in this global crisis, the two governments are decreasing collaboration and accelerating confrontation.

    In March, Xi Jinping flew to Wuhan, the epicenter of COVID-19, to declare success.

    He congratulated health care workers and the public for winning the — quote — "people's war" against COVID-19, another phrase borrowed from Mao. From January to March, the government restricted the movement of more than 760 million citizens, thousands of neighborhoods locked down.

    State planners mobilized, and built two hospitals in less than two weeks.

    Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S.: We have the confidence that we will eventually control the outbreak and win the battle, because we have very strong leadership under President Xi Jinping.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Even Xi Jinping admitted COVID-19 tested that leadership. And the virus that has killed hundreds of thousands worldwide brought U.S.-China tensions to their worst point in half-a-century.

  • B:

    And Nick is back, and he joins me now.

    So, Nick, how are those tensions playing out?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Across every single aspect of the U.S.-China relationship, Judy.

    Just today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spent most of the press conference disparaging Beijing. He called it bullying and a repressive regime.

    In the documentary, we cover tensions over trains, over trade, over technology and, of course, over coronavirus, which has really become an ideological confrontation. There is simply less collaboration and more confrontation in this relationship.

    And when I talk to the officials in charge of U.S. policy toward China, Judy, they actually welcome the tension, because they say that an administration that is confronting China is overdue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, tell us a little bit about what it was like to make the documentary.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, the government was willing to facilitate some, but not all of our interview requests.

    Inside China, Judy, the government had a minder in most of those interviews. To interview one historian who was critical of Xi Jinping, we had to communicate through an intermediary, and not be seen in public with him.

    And that's just a sign of how little space there is to criticize Xi Jinping or anything about the Communist Party today in China. During COVID, of course, we had to conduct our final interviews remotely.

    I can only hope at this point that we reflect China and its relationship with the world and the U.S.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very much looking forward, 10:00 tonight.

    Thank you, Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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