The newspaper boxes can be found around Washington, D.C., ranging from Union Station near the Hill to Foggy Bottom in the vicinity of the State Department. Inside, the newspaper articles emphasize positive, even entrepreneurial themes: investment opportunities, technological advances, the virtues of trade and economic integration. This world view, at first glance, could be mistaken for that of the Western-style capitalist outlook of a U.S. or European business daily. But the reality of these newspapers’ agendas, and their ownership, are an ideological universe apart: it’s that of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Chinese print media have played an important role since Red China’s establishment in 1949 under Mao Zedong, providing Americans with glimpses of a sometimes inscrutable society. China is one of humankind’s oldest civilizations, and its position as the world’s second-largest economy embroiled in a trade war with the Trump administration make it worthy of serious attention.

China Daily, ubiquitous on Washington’s streets and owned by the CPC, includes sections on art, music, sports, and fashion trends. A recent “most-viewed” article was titled, “Top 10 complaints of Chinese girlfriends.” Yet the heart of the newspaper is its coverage of Chinese commerce and current events, which is widely followed by foreign business leaders, diplomats, and scholars. Registered as a foreign agent under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, the newspaper includes a viewpoint section with pieces from China Watch Institute, a self-described “think tank platform” with the purpose of “shaping opinions” about China.

Under Trump, much of China Daily’s coverage has focused on international trade policy. As China’s largest English-language newspaper, it is available at places frequented by foreign visitors. Most of its circulation, however, is abroad, and it prints special editions for the U.S., Hong Kong, Europe, and Africa. As such, China Daily is international in its outlook, with other Chinese dailies presenting information for domestic consumption.

Of these domestic newspapers, the most important are People’s Liberation Army Daily, a military periodical; and People’s Daily, another CPC paper. Here, one finds practical knowledge and stories overlooked by U.S. media, along with reminders that the Chinese have grown more sophisticated in presenting themselves to the world.

Chinese media have long been a tool of the ruling CPC. As a declassified CIA memo published after China’s Communist Revolution of 1949 explained, “The press in New China is modeled after the Soviet pattern.” One practical issue the government newspapers were meant to solve was illiteracy, which at the time exceeded 75 percent of the Chinese population. The CIA memo explained, “‘Master the characters!’ is the slogan of the literacy drive in the struggle for cultural liberation. Although there are approximately 40,000 characters in the Chinese language…a knowledge of about 3,000 characters is required for adequate newspaper reading.” The army, the largest social unit in Chinese society, used government newspapers, “as well as newspapers in general” to “serve as texts for basic reading exercises,” along with “political education.” Today, China’s illiteracy rate is less than 4 percent.

Chinese newspapers have also ironically provided a window into China’s internal workings. Savvy analysts have been able to read between the printed lines to discern internal power struggles between China’s hardliners and pragmatists. During the Cultural Revolution, a 1966 CIA memo explained that the People’s Liberation Army Daily “has been spearheading the attack on ‘antiparty’ officials…. A shake-up of Mao Zedong’s inner circle of advisers definitely appears to be taking place.” The analysts divined that Premier Zhou Enlai, appeared “to have managed to stay aloof from the fray,” and opined that he was “a useful technician and as such has a good chance to survive.”

Zhou did survive, and later played a key role in the secret diplomacy that led to President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to Beijing. A 1972 CIA daily briefing for Nixon relied on the People’s Liberation Army Daily to explain that a shift in Chinese thinking that was more positive toward the U.S. followed Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong. Another 1972 report cited People’s Liberation Army Daily as “a further indication of support by powerful elements within the military for the new line.”

Readers of People’s Liberation Army Daily are today subjected to a near-daily drumbeat of columns that attack U.S. policy under Trump. Some headlines I read from the DC newsboxes during my trip there in August suggest a different agenda than China Daily’s economic message: “US interference in Hong Kong doomed to fail”; “China and US: Are they rivals or enemies?”; “U.S. provocation on ‘one-China principle’ will endanger bilateral ties”; “Washington’s gunship ploy won’t work”; “Gloomy prospect for US Cyber Auxiliary”; and “US missiles plan could spark arms race.” Inside, the tone of the articles can be described as belligerent.

Meanwhile, People’s Daily is often a place where Chinese officials both explicate official policy, and float “trial balloons” for potential changes in official policy—the former appear in editorials, the latter in an occasional column. The CIA labels the People’s Daily as a “prestigious” CPC organ. One can read much optimism for China’s future in its pages, which is a frequent theme in communist media in general.

Like the China Daily, People’s Daily has been obsessed with President Trump’s insistence on revisiting the terms of international trade. Its tone is less commercial than China Daily, and veers between firmness and reconciliation. A May editorial warned:

Given the increasing international issues and growing demand for a global rule system, the US, sticking to unilateralism, will only make troubles for other countries and itself. It is destined to lose if it maintains the arbitrary act of rule violation, and ‘to make America great again’ will only become a joke.

But an August editorial, published after Trump doubled down on confrontation over trade with China, was more conciliatory, lamenting that “U.S. tariff escalation hurts both sides…. There will be no winner in a trade war.”

Both editorials were signed “Zhong Sheng,” which is a People’s Daily pseudonym used to anonymously float foreign policy views. If you didn’t know this fact, you might conclude that examples of Zhong Sheng’s changing opinion from recent issues paint a picture of a disordered mind. According to Zhong, the U.S. under Trump is sometimes a trade “bully” deserving of tariff “countermeasures,” and other times “a major country” that “should not duck” its responsibilities and “enhance cooperation with China rather than setting obstacles.”

Also revealing is how Chinese newspapers discuss what is apparently the country’s most ambitious goal, its Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to expand China’s international trade connections through infusions of Chinese finance and infrastructure spending. Belt and Road is set to be completed to coincide with the CPC’s 100th anniversary in 2049. Through Belt and Road, China is “going global for cooperation and connectivity,” a recent Xinhua News story explained. “The initiative brings technology and funds to less-developed countries, enabling them to share the outcomes of globalization.”

However, Belt and Road masks an even more ambitious goal, one discussed on the Chronicles blog earlier this decade (June 2, 2014): that of replacing the U.S. dollar with the Chinese renminbi (or yuan) as the international reserve currency.

This story, largely overlooked by U.S. media, has been reported at length in People’s Daily. “China has finally decided to move towards using its own currency, the yuan, to settle trade with its neighboring partners, making a maiden but visionary trip to enhance [the yuan’s] status…in the global market place,” the paper noted in April 2009. Near that time, the World Bank’s then-president, Robert Zoellick, an official under Bush Sr. and fils, opined, “With China’s growth trend and Beijing’s efforts to internationalize its currency, the Chinese yuan can develop into the alternative to the U.S. dollar as a global reserve currency in 15 years.”

As yuan-denominated trade grows, People’s Daily articles have consistently described China’s perception of its progress toward this goal: “Yuan internationalization would see the currency play a greater role in world trade and become a globally accepted means of payment,” the People’s Daily editorial writers wrote in February 2011. The yuan is a future “reserve currency,” it declared in October 2012. “[Yuan] internationalization…has steadily moved forward,” it observed in October 2016. “A market-based renminbi is not just good for China, but for sovereign and private investors throughout the world,” a Xinhua News piece reprinted in the People’s Daily assured us in March 2017.

Lest anyone doubt the CPC’s ultimate goal is de-dollarization, the People’s Daily reported in June 2019:

[Yuan] internationalization…keeps improving along with…[the] Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which shows that confidence in China’s economy is growing despite the ongoing China-US trade war…De-dollarizing has become a trend.

U.S. citizens enjoy a higher standard of living because the dollar is the international reserve currency. It is in our self-interest to understand this, and how China’s long-term ambitions conflict with America’s economic interests. Now that President Trump has raised the issue of trade, the U.S. dollar’s status will emerge as an international issue in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile, paying close attention to China’s government-controlled print media is more crucial to understanding China’s goals than it ever was.