Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
This week’s highlights: Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper shuts down under threat that Chinese Ambassador to the United States announces its departure and why China its Borders closed for the foreseeable future.
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Apple daily Shuts down
On Wednesday, crowds of Hong Kong residents gathered outside Apple Daily headquarters, one of the last bastions of media opposition to Beijing, as it sent its latest issue to print. The newspaper announced that it would be closed following the arrests of senior executives this week due to the draconian national security law introduced last year. Banks have frozen the newspaper’s assets to avoid being encumbered themselves.
When the national security law was introduced, several groups were targeted: first protest leaders, then democratic politicians, and now journalists. More than 800 Apple Daily employees have lost their jobs while Hong Kong has lost its long-held freedom of expression.
Founded in 1995, the tabloid-style newspaper vigorously supported Hong Kong’s pandemocratic politicians, which seemed incongruous alongside the normal trade in celebrity gossip and crime news. When Beijing’s influence crept into other Hong Kong media, such as the South China Morning Post, which was acquired by Alibaba in 2015, Apple Daily stuck with Beijing.
The founder of Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai, supported the then US President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election because of his administration’s tough China policy. Lai is currently in jail himself for participating in the 2019 pro-democracy protests. The media landscape in Hong Kong is now looking increasingly desolate, with identical front pages of newspapers in support of the government.
Still, the speed of Apple Daily closure still came as a surprise. The national security law has created such a state of fear that companies facing charges run the risk of being excluded from numerous day-to-day services and weighing up threats to their employees. An Apple Daily opinion writer was arrested Wednesday, adding to fears that individuals might be targeted.
The remaining Apple Daily employees are likely to have a difficult time finding work with other Hong Kong media outlets, with some already hoping to move to Taiwan or the west. They are also unlikely to receive their final paychecks due to the asset freeze.
But the impact of the closure goes far beyond Hong Kong journalism. Every step like this increases the stakes for other sectors, especially science and entertainment. Any challenge to the government has become a risk, making self-censorship even more likely.
This type of blanket coercion has long been common on the mainland; in Hong Kong, it provides further evidence that China has broken its promise to maintain “one country, two systems” until 2047.
Ambassadorial changes. Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the USA since 2013, announced his resignation. The ambassador was due to leave last year but stayed to handle the transition to the Biden administration. At 68, Cui is three years above the usual retirement age and has been respected by his foreign colleagues as an experienced and reliable professional.
The same cannot be said of China’s new diplomats, such as Zheng Zeguang, the newly appointed ambassador to Great Britain, who accused the West of “endless slander” in a curse about “disinformation against China” at a recent event. Relations with numerous countries continue to decline due to human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, aggression in the South China Sea and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The defector who wasn’t. Right-wing media are rife with allegations that Dong Jingwei, an assistant secretary of state security, defected to the United States. Such rumors are widespread in the Chinese diaspora, especially among political exiles and dissidents, but rarely do they bring anything. In this case, however, the rumor was taken up by right-wing parties as a justification for the Lab Leak Theory and Anti-Biden Conspiracy theories.
Both Beijing and Washington attempted to refute this rumor – an unusual move in itself, likely due to heightened tensions between the US and China. Beijing quietly released a report on Dong holding an anti-espionage session, while a senior Biden government source denied the allegations. However, that hasn’t stopped people from promoting it.
Expect more such rumors as the links between Chinese-language deviant conspiracy sites like The Epoch Times and the conservative US media deepen.
Dog meat festival. The Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, an event launched in 2009 to boost China’s dog meat trade, is happening this week with the usual controversy. The festival is very unpopular with the Chinese public, with activists regularly blocking trucks of slaughter dogs and forcing police to enforce regulations that require the proper transportation and certification of animals that the traders rarely have.
Dog meat is not a common dish in China, but activists claim that the poorly regulated trade kills 10 million dogs every year. By comparison, about 415 million pigs were slaughtered in China last year, fewer than in previous years due to the loss of livestock to African swine fever.
Border closings. China’s borders will remain closed to most visitors until at least the second half of 2022 due to concerns about further COVID-19 outbreaks imported from abroad. Chinese officials are reportedly concerned about two sensitive events: the Beijing Winter Olympics and the formal award of an unprecedented third term for Chinese President Xi Jinping in late 2022. Some restrictions may remain in place until after the annual two sessions in early 2023 .
However, the move could also reflect China’s lack of confidence in its own vaccines. Although the domestic vaccination program has been very successful with more than 1 billion doses administered, case data from other countries show that Chinese vaccines are not doing well at preventing the spread of the virus, especially the spread of new variants.
The vaccines are much more effective against hospitalizations or deaths: while case numbers have increased in countries that rely on Chinese vaccines like Mongolia and Chile, death rates have remained relatively low. But that’s not good enough to risk another outbreak in China, where zero COVID-19 has become synonymous with competent governance. The government’s growing xenophobia likely contributes to this too.
Crypto penetration. China is continuing its widespread shutdown of bitcoin mining, which uses a tremendous amount of power and processing capacity. Unlike previous raids, this one appears to be both final and possibly permanent. Provinces across China are following the example of Inner Mongolia – where a significant part of Bitcoin mining took place thanks to the cool temperatures and low electricity prices – and are stopping mining.
It is possible that some mining operations could be relocated to other countries – some vendors have already moved to Kazakhstan – but mining in China allowed people to bypass currency controls by buying electricity in yuan and the resulting bitcoins for it Selling dollars, a model that is not reproducible anywhere else. Bitcoin prices rebounded slightly on Wednesday after falling more than half this year due to crackdown and other poor public relations.
Arrests of banks. The state-run China Development Bank (CDB), which handles large infrastructure projects, recently charged a number of senior officials with corruption. Zhang Liwu, a now former senior CDB official, has just been expelled from the Chinese Communist Party – a first step before filing a criminal complaint – for accepting a “particularly large amount” of bribes, according to investigators.
The former CDB chairman was sentenced to life imprisonment in January for accepting $ 13 million in bribes. It is common for such investigations to go on for months as after the large fish are captured, small fish are swept away with it. During the 2013 and 2014 purges of China’s energy sector, a system of morning check-ins with key personnel was put in place in case someone was arrested overnight.
Beijing from below: Stories of marginalized life in the center of the capital, by Harriet Evans
This beautifully designed ethnography tells the stories of longtime residents of Dashalar, a poor central district of Beijing that has been the target of numerous destruction and construction campaigns. Author Harriet Evans spent years recording stories and building trust with locals, many of whom led marginalized lives for political or personal reasons.
Politics lurks in the background of the stories, but rarely comes to the fore; the individual needs of poverty, patriarchy and police play a stronger role.