Welcome to the China Foreign Policy Letter.
This week’s highlights: A new law reduces the number of directly elected representatives in Hong Kong lawmakersBeijing’s propaganda network is redoubling its efforts to silence criticism Atrocities in Xinjiangand Chinese Provocations near Taiwan keep growing.
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Further legislative changes in Hong Kong
On Tuesday, the Chinese government approved changes to Hong Kong legislation that will reduce the proportion of directly elected representatives from 35 seats out of 70 to just 20 seats out of 90. The decision is not surprising, but it is another blow to the last of the democratic elements in the Hong Kong government and to a city that once dreamed of political freedom.
Under the new law, pro-Beijing companies and professional groups will continue to vote for 30 seats – the so-called functional constituencies – while a government-appointed electoral committee will vote for 40 seats. In addition, the same electoral committee will review all candidates, so even the 20 directly elected seats are likely to be occupied by “patriotic” officials, as the government calls supporters of Beijing’s tough policy in Hong Kong.
The current Hong Kong Legislative Council has stamped the changes. The panel lost its effective opposition last November when pro-democracy members resigned en masse in protest against the expulsion of some of their colleagues under the new national security law. Even holding primaries for pro-democracy parties is now considered a violation of the law.
Hastily formed before the last British government left Hong Kong in 1997, the city’s democracy was always imperfect, but Hong Kongers valued it nonetheless. Fierce election campaigns often led to conspicuous reprimands in Beijing, such as the 2019 local elections, which swept the opposition. The shock caused by this loss and the city’s youth-led protest movement has been so severe that Beijing seems determined never to suffer such embarrassment again.
Hong Kongers’ dejection and distrust of their government now seem high, although the crackdown on independent polls makes it difficult to gauge how the public is feeling.
One consequence of the loss of confidence in the government: Hong Kong people express the greatest skepticism about vaccines worldwide. Only 39 percent say they are ready to take a shot from the government. This reflects the perception that China is forcing the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines on Hong Kong people. That feeling increased after the spread of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine was halted in Hong Kong because of alleged safety issues.
Xinjiang denialism. China’s propaganda network put aggressive press in court this week against criticism of state atrocities in Xinjiang after sanctions were imposed on European politicians, think tanks and academics last week. The so-called “wolf warrior” rhetoric has reached a new high. Chinese diplomats throw around insults to attract attention at home, like the Brazilian consul who called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a “spendthrift”.
Harassment from foreign media has also increased, leading to the departure of two more journalists from China: John Sudworth of the BBC and Yvonne Murray of Ireland’s RTE, a couple who moved to Taiwan after threats from the authorities. The tone of state media articles targeting journalists is now malicious – even by the Chinese government’s standards. Vicky Xu, a Sino-Australian analyst who has done work on Xinjiang for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank, was a particular focus of the misogynist vitriol.
One problem China faces is that, unlike the Soviet Union’s western apologists, it lacks credible global intellectual support for its atrocity denialism. This has led to Beijing’s promotion of marginal numbers: for example, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying this week declared the Schiller Institute – the German branch of the LaRouchite conspiracy movement – “true scholars”.
Taiwan in danger. Twenty Chinese planes entered Taiwan’s air defense zone last Friday, the largest incursion to date. The maneuver signals growing provocation in Taiwan ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 23. The interventions have become so common that Taiwanese planes have stopped moving in response. The United States then eased restrictions to make it easier for US officials to meet with their Taiwanese counterparts.
While there are serious concerns about who would prevail in a hypothetical invasion, it is important to remember that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would likely be telegraphed well in advance. The size of the armed forces needed and the penetration of the military by Taiwanese-Chinese intelligence means that a strategic surprise is likely out of the question.
WHO pushes back. After a year of criticism of the World Health Organization’s approval of China during the coronavirus pandemic, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reprimanded Beijing on Tuesday for lack of proper access or data as part of the WHO investigation into the origins of the virus had admitted. This week the WHO released a report highlighting the likelihood of a zoonotic transfer rather than a laboratory leak.
Tedros’ comments effectively undermine the report after investigative team leader Peter Ben Embarek stated that they were under political pressure in China. Robert Redfield, the former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the Trump administration, has expressed support for the laboratory leak theory, but the supposed intelligence to confirm it has not yet materialized.
Ethnic surveillance. Video companies like Dahua and Hikvision play a direct role in creating standards for police cameras that track people by ethnicity. Information on skin and hair colors is programmed into the systems as well as a special category in which Uyghurs and Tibetans are highlighted by IPVM and Reuters found. China’s military has also paid special attention to artificial intelligence facial recognition, with more funds allocated to it than to any other project.
While there is clearly strong pressure to monitor China’s own ethnic minorities as well as foreigners, there is also an opportunity to sell this technology to governments around the world that view minorities as security threats or use surveillance systems already made in China.
Paper mills threaten science. Nature Magazine has tracked more than 370 articles from academic publications since January 2020 – all by authors from Chinese hospitals. This is a recurring problem. The demand for publications or deaths is acute in China and the academic standard is low. A number of Chinese companies have specialized in placing papers in Western magazines, often using fake data or poor experimental methods.
The Chinese government and university authorities have repeatedly tried to crack down on the paper mills, but they have also defended government-favored pseudosciences such as traditional Chinese medicine.
Tech stocks are falling. After regulators signaled tightening and the impact of Archegos Capital Management’s $ 20 billion moves on global markets, Chinese tech stocks had one of the worst months ever. The price cuts have still only set them back to where they were in early 2021, but with the government potentially planning to eradicate powerful tech firms and U.S. agencies to put more limits, it may be best to ignore purchase proposals below.
Hohhot, Inner Mongolia: 2.8 million people
The history of the town of Hohhot is evident in its name: it is short and crispy in Mongolian and clumsy and long in Chinese, in which it reproduces Huhehaote. Since its founding in 1557, beyond the Chinese borders, it has been a trading city between Mongols and Chinese. Han merchants were encouraged to settle there by both the local Mongolian Khan and the Ming Empire.
The Mongolian name means “blue city” and reflects a sacred color in a steppe dominated by the sky. Like the rest of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot saw heightened conflicts between Han settlers and Mongolian indigenous people from the mid-19th century when the Qing government’s attempts to restrict the settlement collapsed. The original Mongolian population is inferior by Han Chinese 6 to 1, making the city less susceptible to the wave of ethnic repression in Inner Mongolia – but not immune.
Today, Hohhot is the capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and an industrial city whose population has swollen from settlement after World War II. It is also an ecological disaster. The city has grown well beyond what local water sources can support and the faucets keep running dry as rainfall can only be 2 inches per year. City administrators have long struggled to keep the city alive by applying wastewater recycling and household water limits.
That’s it for this week.