Hi, China Watchers! Please join me in welcoming your guest host for this week, Diana Fu, a scholar of Chinese politics at the University of Toronto, a fellow at Brookings, the Wilson Center, NCUSCR and occasional TV host. She is author of the award-winning book, Mobilizing without the Masses. Over to you, Diana. — Ben Pauker, world and national security editor.
Let’s start with the 10-day National People’s Congress (NPC) meeting that begins Friday in Beijing. The highly scripted dual meetings of the NPC and its political advisory counterpart — the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — are held every spring.
Watch for this key takeaway from President Xi Jinping: the East is rising and the West is in decline. Agree or not, the East and West are certainly attuned to different aspects of the China policy agenda. But for liberal democracies in the West and elsewhere, the headline from the meeting is likely to be pending electoral reforms in Hong Kong. After the surprise introduction of Hong Kong’s National Security Law at last year’s NPC, Beijing is expected to further its reach into the territory this year by introducing “electoral reform,” a euphemism for “electoral control.” The New York Times reports that Beijing is intent on planting “patriots” — those who align with the CCP — in Hong Kong’s electoral system.
“[I]f the past two years have taught us anything about Beijing’s relationship with Hong Kong, it is that by now all bets are off,” Andrew Mertha, professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS, told China Watcher. “There is no longer any pretense of safeguarding ‘one country, two systems.’ … What is surprising is just how brazen the dismantling of the status quo ante in Hong Kong has been.”
The recent charging of 47 HK pro-democracy figures with subversion underscores Beijing’s lack of interest in disguising its actions to set up full control over Hong Kong’s political system.
Not surprisingly, Hong Kong’s electoral reform will not be the central focus of headlines in Beijing. Chinese media instead will focus on Xi’s reform agenda and domestic successes. A top triumph is eradicating extreme poverty. The CCP has reportedly lifted 100 million peasants out of extreme poverty in the past eight years. The poverty campaign doubled as a propaganda tour for “Helmsman Xi,” who appeared on television chatting with peasants and inspecting crops. Next goal? Achieving “modern socialism” and doubling per capita GDP to US$10,000 by 2035.
Chinese media also will focus on the country’s population decline, a source of worry for the country’s leaders. Even with the two-child policy implemented in 2016, Chinese women are not having as many babies as the party would like. The consequence? An aging population and workforce. Neither is good for China’s economic development in the coming decades, as it seeks to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy.
The two sessions will also address emphasizing internal markets over external ones, along with innovation and green development. Ryan Hass, senior fellow at Brookings, told China Watcher: “President Xi has an ambitious agenda in front of him in combating corruption, pollution and shifting the country’s economic model toward dual circulation.’”
Finally, the sessions will touch on the environment, in keeping with Xi’s earlier declaration that China will achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. That’s a decade behind President Joe Biden’s timeline for the U.S. But Scott Moore, director of China Programs at the University of Pennsylvania, says he believes Xi has set an energy goal that’s daunting but reachable.
“The 2060 goal is achievable — but right now you wouldn’t want to bet on it, unless you like long-ish odds,” Moore said. “It’s a tall order for a still-developing country that faces a range of serious challenges, including massive inequality and post-pandemic recovery.”
— China was a key focus Wednesday as Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave his first major address since taking office, reports POLITICO’S Nahal Toosi.
The speech, where Blinken outlined the administration’s national security strategy, underscored how much the national security discussion in Washington is shifting away from focusing on threats like terrorism and more on competition with “great powers” such as China.
“China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system — all the rules, values, and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to,” Blinken said in the speech, delivered at the State Department.
Blinken also hit another favorite Biden theme: the need to strengthen democracy.
“Shoring up our democracy is a foreign policy imperative,“ he said. “Otherwise we play right into the hands of adversaries and competitors like Russia and China, who seize every opportunity to sow doubts about the strength of our democracy. We shouldn’t be making their jobs easier.“
SINOPHOBIA BECOMES A GLOBAL ISSUE: At CPAC last weekend, Republicans were piling on Biden for allegedly being too soft on China. Whatever Biden does to signal his “toughness” on China, it needs to be balanced with strong messaging accompanied by concrete action to combat Sinophobia. In the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe and Africa, Asians have reportedly been yelled at, spat upon, or worse, physically attacked. This wave of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. was fueled by former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, where he referred frequently to the “China virus.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said in a recent interview: “When you have Asian Americans afraid to walk down the street, for fear of being knifed, this is an issue that needs to be dealt with.”
“Fear the virus, not the people” should be the mantra of any leader that cares about rising Sinophobia around the world. Biden issued a memo condemning anti-Asian racism last month, a message he reiterated in his Lunar New Year address, joining leaders of Canada, U.K., and Australia. But more can be done. With the rhetoric of “Chinese influence” still afloat in and outside of Washington, it will be an uphill battle to counter Sinophobia.
TO DEAL OR NOT TO DEAL IN XINJIANG: As more news emerges about China’s dispatching of Uighurs to work far away from home to better assimilate them, the human rights crisis in Xinjiang has also created an ethical dilemma for the business world.
The House and Senate recently reintroduced the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would curtail all imports from Xinjiang. It would expand the existing suspension of cotton and tomato imports and cover both goods originating in Xinjiang and those made through programs that dispatch minorities to other provinces as factory laborers, a policy that severs them from home and culture.
This is forcing multinationals to seek supply chain alternatives to China, as businesses look for stability. “As the Chinese market grows more important, many multinationals prefer to keep a low profile and avoid angering both consumers and political leaders in China,” said Greg Distelhorst, professor at the University of Toronto who studies sustainability and global supply chains. “A small group of leading corporations will extricate themselves to avoid being linked to human rights abuses, but most won’t get serious until faced with the threat of a customs agent confiscating their merchandise.”
Even as economic pressure builds, there is no evidence that the CCP plans on changing course.
In case you missed it, the New Yorker published yet another chilling account of Xinjiang’s detention centers.
THREE-WAY BATTLE TO CONTROL AI: The U.S. and Europe are crafting their own regulations for artificial intelligence in a bid to ensure the powerful technology is deployed in an ethical manner, POLITICO’S Steven Overly and Melissa Heikkila reported this week.
But the long-time allies share a common concern that may require them to combine efforts: China. As Beijing barrels ahead with AI development, and uses the technology in ways that violate civil liberties, officials on both sides of the Atlantic say the best counterweight is alignment between Washington and Brussels.
“Nations that do not share our commitment to democratic values are racing to be the leaders in AI and set the rules for the world,” Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) testified at an EU hearing this week. She urged Europeans to take a “narrow and flexible” approach to regulation while working with the U.S. to stand together against China. “We cannot allow this to happen.”
A tech update from Protocol | China. Protocol | China, backed by Robert Allbritton, publisher of Protocol and POLITICO, tracks the intersection of technology and policy in the world’s largest country. Sign up for the newsletter and learn more about Protocol’s research here. This week’s coverage includes a look at how and why Chinese companies push back against Beijing’s information sharing requests, the weird and fascinating tradition of using bizarre nicknames among employees at major tech companies like Alibaba, and why misogyny is out of control on Bilibili, China’s would-be Youtube.
STUDENTS ON THE BRINK: Let’s take the pulse of the younger generation. Students’ lives are in upheaval at campuses across the world. This is especially the case in Hong Kong, where the battlefield for democracy versus authoritarianism is also playing out on campuses. Last week, The Chinese University of Hong Kong cut ties to its student union, triggering yet another round of student unrest.
What does this signal for academic freedom there? Ching Kwan Lee, professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and at UCLA, offers an on-the-ground perspective: “I have heard cases where students dropped courses they deemed ‘sensitive’ and faculties avoided materials they fear are potentially controversial. It has become risky to teach critical thinking which is the essence of higher education.” She is unequivocal about those who side with Beijing: “And most insidious of all, there are pro-Beijing faculties and students on each campus [for] whom nationalism trumps academic freedom.”
In Mainland China, all is quiet on the campus front. This was not always the case. In 2018, student leaders from Marxist study groups who stood in solidarity with striking workers as they were punished, and a few were disappeared after forced confessions. Jenny Chan, scholar-activist at Hong Kong Polytechnic, recently wrote an account of just how these students managed to form an alliance with workers. Not much has happened since. But the absence of student activism is not enough: Beijing would like people to forget the incident altogether.
“The pivotal role of students and intellectuals in numerous ‘mass incidents’ remains a taboo topic,” Chan said. For more on Chinese workers, labor, and civil society, see Made in China Journal.
— UPDATE FROM CHINESE CIVIL SOCIETY: The past five years have been mixed for foreign NGOS operating in China. The INGO law took effect in 2017, bringing an end to INGOs (international NGOs) operating in a legal gray zone. Clearer regulations were intended to make it easier to know the boundaries set by the government. The bad news: INGOs were placed under the powerful Ministry of Public Security rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs. This signals that Beijing sees foreign NGOs’ work as pertaining to domestic security. China has always viewed INGOs with suspicion and this law left no doubt.
Foreign NGOs in China have had to learn new survival skills. The Ford Foundation is among a handful of INGOs that has legally registered in China. The Foundation has had a long history in China, engaging as early as 1979 when the country first established diplomatic relations with the US. “The Foundation has had to adapt to the new operating environment,” says Elizabeth Knup, Ford’s regional director in China. “We no longer make grants directly to individuals nor to organizations registered as businesses. While this reduces the number of ways we can support our partners, we still are able to support a great deal of meaningful work, including work carried out by grassroots NGOs.”
Others like Asia Catalyst, a U.S.-based organization which works with marginalized communities and civil society organizations on issues related to sex work, HIV and the LGBTQ community, were not so fortunate. In 2019, the Chinese government accused the NGO of violating the INGO law. According to a ChinaFile report, this constituted “the first case in which Chinese authorities have publicly and formally announced that a foreign NGO received punishment under the Foreign NGO Law…”
International funding is drying up in China due to a combination of political and legal barriers as well as the growth of government funding and domestic philanthropy replacing or supplementing foreign cash. In response, China’s domestic NGOS have gotten creative by adopting hybrid funding models. As Shawn Shieh, researcher and host of the NGOs in China blog, wrote, “Ten years ago, many rights-based CSOs [civil society organizations] I spoke with had 80-90% of their funding coming from international sources. Now, some of these CSOs have 80-90% coming from Chinese sources.” The policy has helped to create a blossoming of Chinese philanthropy as crowd-funding and corporate partnerships have started replacing foreign funding.
But not all is well on the civil society front. Since the 709 crackdown on lawyers in 2015, human rights advocates and lawyers in China have been battered. Terry Halliday, research professor at the American Bar Foundation, is concerned. “This is a dark moment for China’s notable rights activists who are lawyers, perhaps the darkest since the end of the Cultural Revolution,” Halliday said. “They are scattered, silenced, cut off from the rest of the world.”
The situation is even more dire when you consider that Hong Kong activists, who long inspired and supported their rights-defending brethren on the mainland, are also being crushed by the National Security Law.
Your host agrees with Andrew Nathan of Columbia that “human rights has assumed a new centrality in US China policy” in the current era of struggle between democratic and authoritarian values. Dan Mattingly of Yale also makes a compelling case that the Biden administration ought to support Chinese civil society.
— WHAT OF CHINA’S THINKERS AND ARTISTS? What has happened to intellectuals and artists in the ever-restrictive Xi era? State repression of Aiweiwei, the celebrated dissident artist, is well known. Other Chinese artists have also felt the sting of the CCP. In 2018, Chinese political cartoonist Jiang Yefei was sentenced to over six years in jail for subversion and illegally crossing a national border. The writer Fang Fang, now famous for her Wuhan diaries describing events during the Hubei lockdown last year, has also been vilified in state media.
These are not isolated instances. Jeffery Wasserstrom, professor at University of California, Irvine, told your host: “The last dozen or so years have been challenging ones for creative figures across the mainland, as there has been a tightening of controls and expansion of the topics treated as taboo. This began before Xi took power … but it has definitely accelerated since then.”
Yet, there is still exciting new work in the diaspora. Wasserstrom recommends Montreal-based Xue Yiwei’s Dr. Bethune’s Children, an experimental work of fiction. (Dr. Bethune is a lauded Western hero who joined Mao Zedong in 1938 to treat Chinese Communist Party casualties.)
Tammy Ho’s English language poems about Hong Kong’s struggle takes you straight into the heart of current events.
Historian Denise Y. Ho et. al’s forum of ethnographies on the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Borderland (Shen-Kong 深港) offers a historical and ethnographic take on the complexities of the borderland.
Joshua Freeman’s translations of Uighur authors and artists evokes the “chill” of repression in Xinjiang. You can read more of his translations of Uighur poetry on Twitter.
Historian David Ownby’s Reading the China Dream is a meticulously curated collection of writings by Chinese intellectuals, who may harbor visions that depart from Xi’s own China dream.
Thanks to: Editor John Yearwood, Ben Pauker, Steven Overly, Nahal Toosi, Stuart Lau, Blake Hounshell, Luiza Ch. Savage and Matt Kaminski.
Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher? Email us at chinawatcher at politico dot com.
Showtime for Xi as China’s annual Congress opens – Politico