With Billions at Stake, FRONTLINE and NPR Investigate Trump’s Trade War with China

May 3, 2019
Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Trump’s Trade War
 Tues., May 7, 2019, at 10/9c on PBS & online | Twitter: @frontlinepbs
Instagram: @frontlinepbs | YouTube:

President Donald Trump’s decision to put tariffs on billions of dollars in Chinese imports last year shocked the world — and launched a perilous confrontation between the world’s two largest economic superpowers.

As Trump amps up the pressure on Chinese negotiators for a trade deal this week, FRONTLINE and NPR investigate the forces driving his administration’s gamble to confront China in Trump’s Trade War — premiering Tuesday, May 7, 2019, at 10/9c on PBS,, and the PBS Video App. The joint investigation also includes a report on NPR’s Morning Edition that same day.

From FRONTLINE producer Rick Young and his team and NPR correspondent Laura Sullivan, Trump’s Trade War takes viewers on the ground in both the U.S. and China, drawing on business and government insider accounts to offer an eye-opening look at the increasingly competitive rivalry between the two countries — a rivalry that extends well beyond just trade and tariffs.

Trump’s Trade War details the internal battle inside the White House over the administration’s decision to impose tariffs, upending decades of U.S. trade policy: “The most intense fights and debates in the White House, and the fights were nasty that came out of Mar-a-Lago, were about this issue of tariffs, but tariffs as a proxy to the great economic war with China that we’re engaged in,” former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon tells FRONTLINE and NPR.

With interviews from former top administration officials on opposite sides of the fight, including Bannon and former National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, the film explores how this decision ultimately put the U.S. on its own path, despite concerns from allies across the globe. Susan Thornton, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Asia, tells FRONTLINE and NPR that in high-level meetings with Trump, foreign leaders offered to work together with him on China, “but he seemed to think that this was his fight alone and that he wanted to do it mano a mano.”

FRONTLINE and NPR also examine the way China’s economic system – what’s come to be known as the China model – has driven the country’s development, but also left a trail of businesses concerned that the state-led economic model puts foreign businesses at a disadvantage. With access inside an electric vehicle startup in China, the team shows how this country with 1.4 billion people is putting major resources and focus on key industries, like autos, that have long been dominated by the United States.

The team also examines how the U.S. business community has resisted confronting China over business practices it says are unfair and violate trade rules — practices now at the heart of the negotiations between the Trump administration and China.

Former government officials describe how companies would report problems to trade officials but were unwilling to go public with their concerns: “Companies would come in and complain. They’d have great information,” says Wendy Cutler, former acting deputy U.S. Trade Representative. “But, ‘Oh, by the way. You can’t use any of this, but solve our problem.’ … It made it harder because you couldn’t really prove your case.” The film also describes how government officials were slow to act on the threat of China’s cyber hacking of U.S. businesses, in part because of the same companies’ business interests in the China market.

Finally, the piece takes viewers into a new front in Trump’s trade war: the high-stakes technology battle taking shape in places like Silicon Valley. As the Trump administration pushes ahead with new restrictions on China’s access to American technology, the investigative team takes a look at both the worries and the stakes for key businesses central to the U.S. economy: “Silicon Valley is very much at the heart of the trade war,” Dan Wang of Gavekal Dragonomics says.

FRONTLINE and NPR have previously collaborated on numerous projects — most recently, investigations of advanced black lung disease among coal miners (Coal’s Deadly Dust), Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Sandy relief efforts (Blackout in Puerto Rico and Business of Disaster), and America’s affordable housing crisis (Poverty, Politics and Profit). Now, in Trump’s Trade War, both organizations team up to present a powerful look at one of the biggest challenges facing the United States — and what might happen next.

“We’ve got to fix our system to compete with China,” James McGregor, longtime China resident and former chair of the board of the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, tells FRONTLINE and NPR. “We’ve got to internalize some of this blame and not spend all our time blaming it all on China.”

And whatever deal the Trump administration may reach, the growing economic rivalry between the U.S. and China isn’t going away any time soon. “We do have a chance to see a so-called… I don’t like the term, but new cold war,” Da Wei, Asst. President of the University of International Relations in Beijing, tells FRONTLINE and NPR. “I don’t think we will have a cold war like the one the U.S. had with the USSR, but we will have another type of cold war that nobody [has] ever experienced.”

Trump’s Trade War premieres Tuesday, May 7, at 10/9c on PBS (check local listings) and online at In addition to the documentary, listen for a report on NPR’s Morning Edition that same day (see stations and local broadcast times at

Trump’s Trade War
is a FRONTLINE production with American University School of Communication’s Investigative Reporting Workshop in collaboration with NPR. The  writer and director is Rick Young. The correspondent is Laura Sullivan. The co-producers are Fritz Kramer and Emma Schwartz. The reporters are Emma Schwartz and Laura Sullivan. The executive producer for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.

FRONTLINE, U.S. television’s longest running investigative documentary series, explores the issues of our times through powerful storytelling. FRONTLINE has won every major journalism and broadcasting award, including 91 Emmy Awards and 22 Peabody Awards. Visit and follow us on TwitterFacebookInstagramYouTubeTumblr and Google+ to learn more. FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Abrams Foundation, the Park Foundation, the John and Helen Glessner Family Trust, and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.

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