A weekly recap of the stories to watch in China this week, plus an exclusive analysis written by senior foreign policy editor and former Beijing correspondent James Palmer. Delivery on Wednesday.
May 5, 2021, 7:14 p.m.
Welcome to the China Foreign Policy Letter.
This week’s highlights: An offensive Weibo contribution Triggers a backlash in India, what to believe in China’s population Pay, and regulators will fine the $ 1.5 billion Tech giant Tencent.
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A bad post and a bigger problem
The Indians reacted with anger and disgust after the powerful body overseeing Chinese law enforcement agencies this week shared an offensive post on their official Weibo account showing pictures of a Chinese rocket launch and cremation in India during the ongoing surge in coronavirus were compared. The post sparked complaints from Chinese social media users who thought it was tasteless and from others who supported India, including some state media officials.
The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission deleted the post within five hours, but the damage has already been done. Lower-level official reports, such as the Hainan Provincial Public Security Bureau, had already approved it, and other people added comments, such as a prominent university lecturer who wrote that China should “show its anger to India.” Relations between India and China have deteriorated sharply since the border collisions last year in which dozens of soldiers were killed.
The raw post is a little kerfuffle on its own, but it indicates a bigger trend. The incident follows a pattern of social media aggression from Chinese official institutions and diplomats. Confrontational rhetoric that denounces any criticism of China – “wolf warrior diplomacy” – seems to please President Xi Jinping. Additionally, the staff responsible for official social media accounts are often relatively young and prone to make embarrassing mistakes, for example when the Chinese Embassy in Ireland tweeted a mangled analogy about “the wolf” last month that the RTE confused stations for a newspaper.
The intense political mood in China explains some of these behaviors with posts aimed more at domestic bosses than at overseas audiences. Junior bureaucrats often see jingoistic rhetoric on the internet as a way to get noticed. But many of the incidents are downright errors, reflecting an underlying problem: at times of heightened political tension, the bombast – and sometimes the mediocre – are promoted more than the bureaucrats’ careful diplomacy normally requires.
These types of officials may be more willing to come to terms with political sentiment as a useful avenue to notoriety and success. In an atmosphere of political paranoia where bureaucrats fear betrayal by subordinates, senior officials are more likely to patronize subordinate officials who they know are lithe because they are less threatening.
This trend towards relative mediocrity is not a unique Chinese phenomenon. The best description for this comes from this article by researchers Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi on the preference for substandard work in public and private institutions in Italy. What is dangerous in China is the combination of officials fit for domestic survival with a challenging external environment in which mistakes can ruin international relations.
Officials say the population is not shrinking. China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) issued a statement that the population continued to increase in 2020, contrary to reports that census data shows a decline. Given that the actual statistics have been weeks delayed, their credibility is now even shakier than ever. China’s population has always been in doubt. As with other numbers, the data at the central and provincial levels are not remotely similar, suggesting that the provinces have been reporting birth rates for at least a decade.
Given the external review, it is likely that the NBS is busy tweaking the statistics to make them appear more plausible.
May Day Vacation. Chinese citizens are returning home from the May 1 holiday that began on May 1 and ended on Wednesday. This was a much-needed boost to domestic tourism, one of the sectors hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Spending rose during the holidays and even surpassed 2019 numbers, though this was in large part due to a lack of access to international travel. State media highlighted so-called red tourism – visits to places associated with the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – ahead of the party’s 100th anniversary.
Filipino Twitter Feud. For once, Chinese diplomats weren’t the only ones acting like kids online this week. Filipino Foreign Minister Teddy Locsin Jr. tweeted Sunday in China for “GET THE FUCK OUT,” referring to the continued occupation of a controversial reef by China’s maritime militia. Although Locsin finally apologized, China’s aggressive movements at sea have ruined its chance to exploit Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s willingness to sell his country’s interests to an authoritarian potential ally, as Derek Grossman argued on foreign policy.
Punish Tencent. As part of the ongoing crackdown on China’s internet giants, Tencent faces a fine of at least $ 1.5 billion for antitrust violations. Although Alibaba and its co-founder Jack Ma have been the authorities’ main targets, other companies are now being sharply reminded of who is responsible. Given its political influence, regulators saw Ma as a long-term obstacle to their efforts across the sector. With him out of the way, they trigger a wave of long-planned movements.
In some ways, this scheme is a good thing. As in the United States, Chinese tech companies have taken risky moves with people’s finances and privacy, such as the wave of peer-to-peer lending services that effectively turned into Ponzi schemes. But it is also a sharply politicized claim of the CCP’s dominance in a sector that was once known for innovation.
Game censorship. Chinese teams in the popular online game Overwatch are threatening to boycott an event involving a Korean star player, Jong-ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park, after Park expressed support for Hong Kong and Taiwan and discussed Chinese censorship. This type of backlash will be an increasing problem for any sport with a significant Chinese presence, as it was for the NBA two years ago following a tweet from an association executive.
Domestic pressure in China means that Chinese teams cannot afford to neglect these ultra-nationalist performative gestures for fear of being attacked as unpatriotic themselves.
Corporate values? In the Financial Times, Jamil Anderlini writes about a meeting of Hong Kong executives where reporting on China’s actions, not the actions themselves, was seen as the greatest threat to business in the city. He describes this as “Stockholm Syndrome” and argues that companies operating in China or Hong Kong believe that the interests of the Chinese state coincide with theirs.
But that may be too generous for companies. Often times, when Western companies operate overseas, they have sought the capital advantages of authoritarianism in China and elsewhere, taking advantage of a fair legal system and open market at home. Western firms have no moral incentive to act on issues such as slave labor in Xinjiang unless they are exposed to reputational damage or government action in the West that outweighs the damage the Chinese government will do.
“It’s a cold, cold, cold war” by Seva Gunitsky, Hegemon
This essay in the newsletter of political scientist Seva Gunitsky is the sharpest analysis of the idea of the conflict between China and the US as the “new cold war” that I have seen. Gunitsky recognizes both the virtues and the problems of analogy. “It’s pretty clear that Chinese officials are not just a group of technocrats. They are based on ideology. And even if they are instrumentally guided by ideology – that is, they don’t really believe it, they do it to please or to conform to the leader – the effects are the same, ”he writes.