Welcome to the China Foreign Policy Letter.
The highlights of this week: Beijing starts the greatest incursion near Taiwan in a year a Chinese health official refuses to criticize its vaccines and the government escalates its campaign against Alibaba.
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Tensions are mounting across Taiwan
25 Chinese jets broke through Taiwan’s air defense zone on Monday, China’s largest break into Taiwanese airspace in a year. The maneuver is part of a long-running Chinese harassment campaign that intensified last year when Taiwan recorded a record 380 robberies. The constant interference intended to wear down Taiwanese morale is forcing a risky and costly mess on the part of the fighters in response. Taiwan has announced that it will no longer respond by sending jets but by tracking the flights with missile defense systems.
The intensified campaign results in part from increasing nationalism within the Chinese system. Chinese jets have reportedly broadcast threats and allegations into Taiwan on the radio. It is also in response to signals that the United States is moving closer to Taiwan. Last week, the Biden administration eased restrictions on US officials meeting with their Taiwanese counterparts and sent a team of retired politicians to Taipei in what a White House official described as a “personal signal” of his commitment.
These gestures are all symbolic, but it is difficult to exaggerate how important they are in generating anger in the Chinese political system.
The hatred of the idea of an independent Taiwan is carried over from kindergarten to Chinese children. Chinese officials have left gatherings where Taipei was given a small gesture of appreciation, tore up conference materials mentioning Taiwanese sponsorship, and pressured others to expel Taiwan – including the Canadian government, which reportedly threatened the prestigious Halifax International Security did not host a forum when Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen received an award.
The likelihood of an actual Chinese invasion remains slim, despite recent warnings from US admirals. At best, it would take weeks to gather the forces necessary for a chance of success and be visible well in advance. Given the high likelihood of U.S. intervention, amphibious invasions against a defender who has been buried for decades are incredibly risky, even when faced with logistical and moral issues for the Taiwanese military. Rationally, an invasion would be a very risky step from a largely risk-averse leadership.
The question is: is the Chinese leadership acting rationally? Over the past year, the tone of his rhetoric has intensified so much that even seasoned readers of the Beijing language are alarmed. The aggressive attitudes of Chinese diplomats and the violent rhetoric of the state media seem to be wrong – this could mean Beijing is able to make silly mistakes. In a system where withdrawal from conflict could be politically exposed to military leaders or provincial officials, a small clash in the ocean or in the air could very easily spiral out of control.
Vaccination failure. As discussed in last week’s issue, Chinese COVID-19 vaccines appear increasingly ineffective compared to their Western counterparts. A study in Chile found that the Sinovac shot was only 50.4 percent effective two weeks after the second dose. Gao Fu, the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, publicly noted on Sunday that “current vaccines do not have very high protection rates” – commenting that it has been declining quickly.
In Brazilian studies, the vaccines made in China appear to have a strong impact on preventing hospital stays or death. However, data from Chile and other countries with mass vaccination campaigns with Sinovac or Sinopharm still show a sharp increase in transmission, as well as falling hospital stays and mortality rates.
I suspect Gao wanted to stimulate vaccine change policy in China by either increasing flexibility in importing foreign vaccines or by supporting research for China to develop its own effective mRNA vaccine. Gao likely encountered an immediate backlash internally, either from general preparedness or from certain high-profile sponsors of the vaccines. This answer is not a good sign of an honest approach in the future.
Historical revisionism. China has set up a national hotline to report people exchanging “historical nihilist” comments online. The term, coined in 1989 by the former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Jiang Zemin, became largely unusable until Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013. Since then, the government has launched an intense campaign against any critical revision by officials of history that goes beyond the party’s own rule and contains interpretations of the past inconsistent with Beijing’s ethno-nationalist line.
Attacks on Maoist-era heroes seem to be singled out for punishment, despite the implausibility of many propaganda stories of the era. A major textbook on high school history recently published revisions that emphasized anti-US sentiment and reduced coverage of the Cultural Revolution. It has been portrayed as an anti-corruption campaign that went astray.
Corrupted water. China has strongly objected to Japan’s decision to release radioactive water stored after the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 into the Pacific. South Korea and Japanese environmental groups have also filed complaints, but Tokyo and the International Atomic Energy Agency both say the move follows standard international practice. Ten years ago, Fukushima caused a wave of understandable but unnecessary public panic over radiation in China that led to mass purchases of salt.
Alibaba Smackdown. The government campaign against Alibaba and its co-founder Jack Ma continues. The company is fined a record $ 2.8 billion for “antitrust violations”. It is worth remembering that Chinese companies have little recourse when the government fines or forcibly dissolves companies. Instead, as Alibaba has done, they must publicly reject each other in hopes of returning to the good graces of the Chinese Communist Party. (The central authorities that put Alibaba in the line of fire also gave local authorities a free hand to pursue, resulting in higher fines for various violations.)
The move is part of a broader crackdown on tech companies that Beijing believes wields a dangerous amount of power. Whether the government can gain greater control over the industry while maintaining the high level of innovation that has made Chinese companies world leaders in some areas such as financial technology remains unclear.
Chip battles. Recent US additions to the Entities List, a trade blacklist, have led Taiwanese companies to stop selling semiconductors to the Chinese supercomputer company Phytium. Semiconductors have become a point of contention since a Chinese plan to encourage domestic development failed until 2021 and companies are largely dependent on imports, particularly from Taiwan. China imports record numbers of semiconductors in anticipation of further US limits.
Taiwan-China economic relations, as Bonnie Glaser and Jeremy Mark write in foreign policy, have remained strangely untouched despite their growing gulf.
Warfare at sea. China has registered the names of hundreds of controversial islands and marine features as trademarks. This program was started in 2014 and initiated under the auspices of Sansha City. Sansha is not a real city; It is an administrative and military base with around 1,400 residents that is used to advance China’s claims in the South China Sea. The trademarks appear to be intended for use in possible legal cases against other claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam. It’s unlikely they’d make any real difference, but they could be used to mold controversial cards – a perennial Chinese obsession.
Lanzhou, Gansu: 3.8 million people
Before the conquests of the Qing Dynasty put Xinjiang into orbit, Gansu Province marked China’s western frontier – a cultural crossroads that were frequently prone to riots, raids, and expeditions. The capital Lanzhou became the center of the Qing government’s resistance to the Dungan Uprising (1862-1877), in which a dispute between Sufi sects led to a Muslim uprising. (Dungan is an old name for the Hui, China’s second largest Muslim group after the Uyghurs.) During the revolt, the region was massively depopulated through migration and retaliation by both rebels and government forces.
Located in a vacuum valley with frequent desert storms, Lanzhou is still dotted with mosques, although the Muslim population is now a minority and many places have been destroyed as part of the Chinese campaign against Islam. Today, the city is best known for lanzhou Lamian hand-drawn noodles, usually served in beef broth and derived from Hui cuisine.
Lanzhou has benefited economically from the determination of the Chinese government to transform the historically poor and underpopulated West. Industry and oil revenues have made the city an economic success story, the rich capital of a poor province.