Foreign Policy

Why are Myanmar’s protesters concentrating on China?

Welcome to the China Foreign Policy Letter.

The highlights of this week: The anti-Chinese mood is entertaining Protesters in Myanmar, the Biden administration reviews some of the Trump-era measures taken against China and explains why China is now The main trading partner of the European Union.

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Anti-Chinese feeling in Myanmar

The widespread protests against the military coup on February 1 in Myanmar have taken an increasingly anti-Chinese tone. Rallies have been held outside the Chinese Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, and there are increasing calls for the boycott of Chinese goods and services. Misinformation is spreading, including rumors that Chinese soldiers have infiltrated Myanmar and that Chinese software is being used to set up a major firewall. The Chinese ambassador has tried to dispel these rumors with little effect.

Beijing’s public statements in response to the coup were neutral to slightly critical. The state media described the coup as a “major cabinet reshuffle” while the ambassador to Myanmar said China was “dissatisfied with the situation”. All in all, China is unlikely to support the coup, especially given its relatively good relationship with the National League for Democracy.

One of the reasons Myanmar’s military allowed limited democracy over the past decade was fears that as the sole supporter China would become too dependent on China as sanctions cut it off from the rest of the world. The military now seems to value its own power over the risk of becoming dependent on a huge neighbor.

Anti-Chinese sentiment has a long history in Myanmar, both nationally and locally, due to conflict between ethnic Chinese communities and others. Chinese investment projects have been major hotspots, particularly the Myitsone Dam, which was exposed in 2011 after the transition to democracy. Locals have criticized the environmental impact and forced relocation associated with such projects, while Beijing has been keen to restart them.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is also growing across Southeast Asia. Many young people see parallels between the protests in Hong Kong in 2019 and their own resistance to local authoritarianism – leading to what is known as the Milk Tea Alliance of online activists. China’s tactless authoritarianism and dislike of outsiders add to this solidarity, but the main driver is the willingness of local autocrats and the rich to turn to China for their own ends.

That can mean, as in Myanmar’s case, that China will be blamed even if it hasn’t done much. As with anti-US sentiments, resentment follows hegemony.

Executive orders are checked. As part of its comprehensive review of Trump-era policies, the Biden administration suspended or reconsidered numerous measures related to China, including disclosure requirements for Confucius Institutes at U.S. universities and an attempt to ban TikTok. Despite the concerns of some China Hawks, the review doesn’t necessarily suggest a softer stance on Beijing.

Even if the Biden team can largely agree on the measures, the implementation of the Trump administration has often been arbitrary. For example, the Confucius Institutes’ disclosure requirements were enforced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Education.

Sino-European trade. China’s early economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic put China in first place in trade with the European Union, overtaking the United States, last year. The recently signed EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement, which has been criticized on human rights grounds, is likely to build even stronger ties as the United States cautiously decouples.

Leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, when asked about Beijing’s atrocities in Xinjiang, appear to be talking about engagement in terms that are more appropriate for 2001 than 2021. However, smaller and more vulnerable European democracies may be very attentive to the issues that China’s reach brings with it.

War memories. Today marks the 42nd anniversary of the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, one of the bloodiest and least remembered small wars of the last century. China attacked its fellow communist state to force the Vietnamese forces to withdraw from Cambodia, where they had overthrown the Khmer Rouge.

China never fully disclosed its losses in the war, which lasted less than a month, but it has likely lost 20,000 soldiers, with similar losses on the Vietnamese side and significant atrocities perpetrated against civilians by the invading People’s Liberation Army.

In China, the war is largely ignored – it contradicts the common propaganda claim that the People’s Republic of China did not invade another country. Chinese survivors of the war bear many scars, not least due to a lack of public recognition or adequate pensions. Vietnam brutally displaced around 450,000 ethnic Chinese after the attack. China still lists around 300,000 of them as refugees.

Strategic chip reserves. Faced with further technological constraints in the US, China is trying to build a strategic reserve for computer chips – and is pushing again for efforts to increase domestic production. Previous efforts to improve chip production in China failed, and Taiwan continued to dominate the market.

In a sign that the conflict could worsen, Chinese authorities have asked companies how to target the rare earths supply chain. This could spur efforts to resume domestic rare earth production in the United States, where the problem is not supply but lack of refining and manufacturing facilities due to China’s cost advantages.

“The long hack.” Bloomberg released more material to back up its 2018 report that the Chinese government allegedly implanted bugs directly into Supermicro’s server motherboards. The original story has been largely disputed by everyone from the Chinese Embassy in Washington to Apple – and viewed with skepticism among Chinese experts.

The sourcing in history is not strong as the reports are entirely from used or third party sources within US intelligence. The intelligence officers’ memories are not reliable on technical details that they did not fully understand at all.

Celebrate first. A growing number of important Chinese companies are given what is known as two-man leadership, with the Chinese Communist Party business employees assuming the business roles – and the latter receiving ultimate authority. Internal party organizations, always part of large corporations, are given ever more important roles – a trend that has become more visible during the pandemic.

When experience is important, it also means family members get big chunks of the pie behind the scenes of executives.

That’s it for this week.

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