Hi, China Watchers! Your guest host this week is Shirley Martey Hargis. You’re familiar with Shirley’s work since she’s a regular contributor to China Watcher. She’s also senior adviser on China to the Oxford Diplomatic Society at the University of Oxford, and is spearheading CRDF Global’s counter China technology transfer and emerging technologies programs as a senior project lead. Over to you, Shirley. — John Yearwood, global news editor
Chinese leader Xi Jinping left seasoned observers stunned this week after comments that appeared to signal a dramatic softening of the harsh rhetoric from Beijing in recent years when referring to the United States, Europe and other nations.
In his speech to the Politburo study session, Xi instructed the country’s leaders to focus on a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable” image for China. And Xinhua, China’s state-media outlet, even suggested that the country adopt a “humble” approach in relations with the outside world.
The reaction was swift among China watchers, particularly among those who flooded social media. Some wondered whether it was the end of China’s sharp-edged Wolf Warrior diplomacy. Others were hopeful that it could lead to real change, such as allowing foreign educators back into the country to do research.
“No more wolf worrier [sic] diplomacy as per President Xi at the 30th collective study session of the politburo?” Henry Gao, a law professor in Singapore, wrote on Twitter. Gao’s tweet quoted Xi as saying: “We should make friends, unite and win the majority, and continuously expand the circle of international public opinion friends who know China and are friendly to China.”
That prompted an optimistic response from Victor Shih, a Chinese politics and finance professor at the University of California San Diego. “Potentially important indeed, hopefully this means we can start to do research in China again.”
There were even positive media headlines. “Xi Seeks ‘Lovable’ Image for China in Sign of Diplomatic Rethink,” said Bloomberg.
But not so fast. Some of the reaction may be overly optimistic and caution is warranted in dealings with China, according to some China experts.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a strong critic of the Chinese regime, said Xi’s comments are more of the same from Beijing.
“Communist China has started a new Cold War with the United States. At the direction of General Secretary Xi, Communist China has shown it’s eager to assert its power across the globe, undermine democracy and human rights, violate U.S. sanctions, and prop up dangerous dictators,” Scott told China Watcher. “Nothing Xi says can or should be trusted. Communist regimes that commit genocide and violate human rights, skirt responsibility for the global pandemic that killed thousands around the world, and build a military that threatens the U.S. and its allies will never be trusted or ‘loved.’”
Xi’s comments don’t really change anything, said Isaac Stone Fish, CEO and founder of Strategy Risks, which quantifies corporate exposure to China, and a former host of China Watcher.
“This isn’t saying ‘We are changing our policies,’ rather ‘We are trying to sell our policies better.’ It’s not ‘We want to increase freedom of speech or stop imprisoning Muslims.’ It’s ‘We want to be more sophisticated propagandists and we need to find more foreigners to tell China’s story well. … And more people to lie, obfuscate and propagandize,’” Stone Fish said. “It’s not ‘Let’s treat people better.’”
China has come under intense criticism in the United States and Europe for committing what the State Department calls a “genocide” against the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region. China has denied the allegations. Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics in response to the alleged human rights violations.
“We cannot proceed as if nothing is wrong about the Olympics going to China,” Pelosi said.
The State Department has said that the U.S. is consulting with its allies about the Olympics. It declined to comment on Xi’s speech. It’s unclear if Xi’s new tone is related to the increasing calls for an Olympics boycott. Some experts are taking his words at face value, devouring the news release about the Monday speech for any clues about his intentions.
Most of Xi’s remarks focused on redoubling Beijing’s efforts to create a more positive image of the Communist Party overseas by using social media, electronic media and other means.
Xi’s speech “could be interpreted as a slight turn and not a fundamental reorientation because the emphasis is still on promoting a positive image of China overseas,” said Shih of UCSD. “It [the news release] says that China should assert its views but do so in a more artful manner. They just don’t have to go all-out Wolf Warrior all of the time and can take a step back sometimes.”
Wolf Warrior diplomacy was inspired by China’s popular Rambo-like movies, “Wolf Warrior” and “Wolf Warrior II.” The label has come to signify the tough, sharp-edged tone of many Chinese diplomats. Some have traced the combative tone to Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson at the Foreign Ministry, who has used his Twitter feed and briefing podium with equal fierceness to defend against any criticism of the regime. Last month, he told the media that “accusation of the so-called ‘genocide’ in Xinjiang is an out-and-out lie. Its real purpose is to undermine social stability in Xinjiang and curb China’s development.”
That strong pushback against criticism has been adopted by other diplomats. Just months ago, China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, called a French researcher a “small-time thug” in a Twitter battle.
As a sign that Xi could be serious about a new tone, Xinhua reported Wednesday that Xi urged the CCP to “develop a voice in international discourse that matches with China’s comprehensive national strength and international status, presenting a true, multi-dimensional and panoramic view of the country.”
Regardless of whether China changes its tone, the Biden administration should not let up on the CCP, some experts say.
“The Biden Administration must take every necessary action to display the true resolve of the United States in addressing Communist China’s destabilizing behaviors and finally put policy in place that unapologetically places American interests first,” Scott said.
But if Xi is genuine, the U.S. should also modify its language, said Maritza Adonis, delegate to the first U.S.-China People-to-People exchange and CEO of MTA Visions, a corporate social responsibility and government relations firm.
The language at the March summit in Alaska was particularly tough, with Chinese diplomats accusing American officials of being “condescending” while the U.S. team countered that Chinese diplomats were “grandstanding.”
“Xi’s statements are catching up with the people, and it will be up to the business, educational, and government stakeholders [in the U.S. and China] to help Xi uphold his statements,” Adonis said.
And now, back to your regular China Watcher programming …
— 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 close look at China’s adorable Tesla-slaying EV, a first-person essay by a Meituan and Ele.me delivery worker, and everything you need to know about the NetEase Cloud Music IPO.
— CONTROVERSIAL ANNIVERSARY: “Hong Kong’s most controversial destination has been forced to close just two days before a hugely significant date in the global pro-democracy calendar,” CNN reported ahead of Friday’s anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
“Located inside a nondescript high-rise building wedged between a gas station and a highway overpass in Kowloon, the June 4 Museum is the only museum in Greater China — which includes the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan — that commemorates the Beijing government’s crackdown against student protesters in Tiananmen Square,” the network reported.
“The timing was striking, coming days ahead of the June 4 anniversary, when tens of thousands of Hong Kongers normally gather in Victoria Park to remember the people who died in the crackdown. The vigil was canceled last year due to the coronavirus outbreak, and on Saturday a court sided with a police decision to cancel the event again this year, for the same reason.” Patrons were invited to lay flowers at the museum to mark the day, according to CNN.
— REMEMBERING THE ACTIVISTS: Meanwhile, in an article to mark the anniversary, the Washington Post reported on activists who are fighting to keep alive memories of Tiananmen Square. Among the activists featured is 64-year-old Lee Cheuk-yan.
Lee was in Beijing on June 4, 1989. And “after being briefly detained, he returned to his home in Hong Kong, where for the next three decades he helped arrange an annual vigil at Victoria Park to mark the massacre and honor the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who died in the fight for a democratic China,” the Post reported.
“Now Lee is in prison, serving 20 months for his role in protests, and faces further charges including some related to the June 4 vigil — which after 30 years of being allowed was suddenly banned last year. Other activists who defied that order have also been detained, and the vigil remains illegal.”
— SENATE PUNTS ON CHINA BILL: “The Senate on Friday agreed to delay final passage of a wide-ranging bipartisan bill aimed at confronting China after Republican senators forced a series of procedural hurdles that threatened to keep the chamber in session through the holiday weekend,” POLITICO’s Andrew Desiderio and Gavin Bade reported.
“A group of Republicans grinded the Senate to a halt on Thursday night and into the early hours on Friday over their objections to the sweeping legislation. The delays came even after senators struck a bipartisan eleventh-hour deal on a GOP push for changes to the bill which were eventually adopted.
“The delays, led by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and other conservatives, prompted Democratic leaders to abandon their push to finish up the chamber’s work on the China bill this week and instead punt on final consideration until after the Memorial Day recess.
‘It’s important that the public understands what’s in this bill,’ Johnson said on Friday. ‘If we just had passed this yesterday, it would be yesterday’s news and we’d be moving on to the next spending boondoggle.’
“Combating China’s economic and geopolitical ambitions has long been a top priority for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who reached an agreement earlier Thursday with Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) on a bipartisan trade proposal that allowed the chamber to break a filibuster of the underlying bill. But several Republicans were determined to hold up final passage of the bill, lamenting the price tag and the process by which changes were made.”
— UNIVERSITIES FIGHT SCRUTINY: “Colleges and universities are rushing to fend off a new round of federal scrutiny of their foreign dealings as the Senate negotiates last-minute changes” to the China bill, POLITICO’s Michael Stratford reported.
“Higher education groups have cheered on the massive boost to science and technology research in the bill, which is a top priority for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that he was pushing to finish this week. But universities are fighting a range of provisions that would impose new federal controls on foreign donations to U.S. campuses and contracts that schools have with partner institutions or other entities abroad.
“Democrats and Republicans on Thursday were also still negotiating changes over how to structure a key portion of how the U.S. government would set up new mechanisms to monitor foreign donations, particularly from China, to American campuses.
“Under the initial bipartisan proposals, universities would face national security reviews of some of their foreign transactions and they would have to publicly disclose more about the funding they receive from abroad. Some research universities also would be required to create a database of the foreign gifts and contracts that individual faculty and staff receive.
“Proponents of the increased scrutiny say the measures are needed to prevent the Chinese government from exploiting American universities and stealing or monitoring U.S. research or technology. But universities argue that the measures would be burdensome, ineffective and inhibit collaboration with international partners.”
— DOWN TO BUSINESS: “It’s been strange to go from constant, full-on trade wars with China under former President Donald Trump to the Sino-America relationship being almost an afterthought in the early months of the Biden White House. Which doesn’t mean the fight is at all over,” POLITICO’s Ben White and Aubree Eliza Weaver reported Wednesday for Morning Money.
“Many of the tariffs remain and the current White House has taken a tough line on human rights and other issues (witness the dust-up in Alaska back in March). But it’s been relatively quiet until the last week as Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, the point man in trade war talks with the Trump White House, has held talks with a couple of top U.S. officials, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Tuesday.
“Treasury put out a pretty bland read-out of the Yellen/Liu call: ‘Yellen discussed the Biden-Harris Administration’s plans to support a continued strong economic recovery and the importance of cooperating on areas that are in U.S. interests, while at the same time frankly tackling issues of concern. Secretary Yellen noted that she looks forward to future discussions with Vice Premier Liu.’
“The U.S.-China stuff won’t really come to a head until late this year when the ‘Phase One’ deal with the Trump White House, which demanded increased purchases of U.S. goods in exchange for some tariff relaxation, expires.
“At that point, the White House will face some difficult choices with the business community arguing for further deescalation of tensions and tariffs and unions and others on the left concerned with human rights pushing for a tough line.”
— CROSSING THE LINE: “The foreign ministry of Malaysia on Tuesday said it would summon China’s envoy to explain an ‘intrusion’ by 16 air force planes into its airspace, after the Southeast Asian country’s military detected ‘suspicious’ activity over the South China Sea,” Reuters reported.
“Malaysia’s air force said it scrambled jets on Monday to conduct visual confirmation after the planes flew within 60 nautical miles off Sarawak state of Malaysian Borneo.
“It described the incident as a ‘serious threat to national sovereignty and flight safety.’
“The Chinese planes did not contact regional air traffic control despite being instructed several times, the air force said.
“Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Malaysia will issue a note of diplomatic protest and ask China’s ambassador to Malaysia to explain the ‘breach of the Malaysian airspace and sovereignty.’
“China’s embassy earlier said the planes conducted routine flight training and ‘strictly abided by’ international law without violating airspace of other countries.”
Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Shirley Martey Hargis, Luiza Ch. Savage, Matt Kaminski and editor John Yearwood.
Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week’s items? Email us at [email protected].
Xi defangs the ‘Wolf Warrior’ – POLITICO – Politico