Analysing international policy processes and Lithuania’s role in them
Review Jul 06, 2023

China review 2023-5. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Beijing

PHRASE OF THE MONTH:

“Internet maintenance day” (互联网维护日hùliánwǎng wéihù rì)

Context: June 4th marked the thirtieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre – a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests. But even now, the Chinese internet landscape has been so masterfully managed regarding the crackdown on the 1989 protests that nothing seems to have happened. Thus, it comes to no surprise that from about 2002, June 4 became known on the Chinese internet as “internet maintenance day” as many websites would suspend operations “for maintenance” in order to avoid any troubles from government internet censors or security agents.

 

DOMESTIC POLITICS & FOREIGN AFFAIRS

1. “First step in a steep uphill climb”: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Beijing

Even though Blinken’s two-day trip to China, the first in his position to visit Beijing since 2018, yielded no breakthroughs on their most sensitive issues, namely the reopening of military-to-military exchanges, the visit appeared to have gone rather well. Notably, the two sides made progress toward steering the relationship back on track by agreeing to encourage more people-to-people and educational exchanges, as well as increasing passenger flights between the two countries.

Indeed, as US–China relations have plunged to their lowest due to the shooting down of the alleged Chinese spy balloon flying over the US, coupled with China’s increasing military activity around Taiwan and the South China Sea as well as Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, the trip may be interpreted as a starting point for meetings that will put solid ground under the fraught relationship, reduce tensions to some degree and provide a basis for cooperating on issues where there are convergent interests (climate, food security, global health).

The efforts, without a doubt, will take two to tango. Nevertheless, Chinese government-owned newspaper the Global Times framed Blinken’s visit as a “time to test US’ credibility again”, arguing that “the US’ own problems have turned into problems in bilateral relations, which need to be resolved by the US side”. Therefore, it might be seen that for China, US–China tensions are mainly the US’ fault, and the ball is rather in their court.

2. “Gemeinsam nachhaltig handeln” (en. “Acting together sustainably”): the theme for the 7th Germany–China bilateral consultations

While much of the attention was on Blinken’s China trip, another highly anticipated visit took place in Europe. China’s Premier Li Qiang visited Germany for the 7th Germany–China bilateral governmental consultations – his first trip abroad since taking office.

Considering Germany’s first national security strategy, published on June 14, which noted that China “remains a partner without whom many global challenges and crises cannot be resolved”, the key topics included climate change and the need for economic restructuring. Even though both Germany and China found several convergent points such as working together on shared goals toward climate issues, much dissonance emerged about Russia’s war in Ukraine. On the war in Ukraine, Scholz urged China to use more of its influence over Russia: “As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China carries a very special duty here … Russia must – as we see it – withdraw its troops; otherwise, it will not be possible to achieve a good peace”, said Scholz. However, China’s Premier, who is known for his pro-business approach during earlier posts (Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang), ignored Scholz’s Ukraine plea and focused on deepening trade ties instead, avoiding any mention of Russia or Ukraine.

Li Qiang’s visit appears to be a delicate balancing act as China seeks to improve strained bilateral relations at a time when Germany is having a controversial debate about its future orientation towards China – its largest trading partner for the past seven years. The release of Germany’s China strategy is expected in the very near future.

SECURITY & DEFENCE

1. Not so much of the perceived closeness?

A poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that most Europeans (62%) would not support the US against China in a hypothetical conflict over Taiwan and would rather opt for neutrality. Indeed, 45% of Europeans view China as a “necessary partner,” while 35% see Beijing as a “rival” or an “adversary”. This position of Europe thwarts the Biden administration’s wish to shore up the alliance with Europe in anticipation of future conflicts with China.

2. Shedding light on the Chinese public opinion on foreign policy

Tsinghua University’s Centre for International Security and Strategy released a report titled “Chinese Outlook on International Security,” which surveyed views of 2,662 Chinese respondents on the international environment.

One of the key findings indicate that 40% of Chinese people are somewhat optimistic about China’s international security environment and 62% says that international security has a somewhat or very great impact on their own lives. These high results are especially meaningful for Xi Jinping considering that his legitimacy is tightly linked with his capability to manage China’s international security environment.

Subject to the influence of the times, the key findings also show that pandemics rank first among Chinese people’s various concerns regarding international security, followed by international forces’ intervention in Taiwan and the rivalry between China and the US. Notably, most respondents believe that the US exerts the greatest impact on China’s security and about 60% are most favourable to Russia. Meanwhile, the Chinese public is the most sceptical about relations with India. Only 8% of respondents have a favourable view of India, significantly lower than the 12% favourable perception of the US and 13% of Japan – Beijing’s other major rivals.

3. The 20th Shangri-La Dialogue

It was the 20th anniversary of Asia’s most renowned security forum that was held on 2–4 June this year. As per tradition, the US and China’s defence chiefs were at the centre of attention. While the hopes of the international media were high and both sides hinted at a willingness to repair ties, both countries’ representatives seem to have maintained a tough approach. In simple terms, this year there was not much dialogue, especially between China and the US: both representatives took the stage to criticize each other’s conduct while pushing responsibility away from them. To make matters worse, there were no bilateral talks on the side lines of the forum.

Despite the region’s growing unease and active calls on both sides to get their deteriorating ties under control, this year’s forum looked more like a place for monologue rather than dialogue with the goal of both US and Chinese representatives being to court the region’s countries in their favour. During the forum, Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen expressed “deep concern” over the lack of dialogue between the two superpowers and warned that the lack of conflict-management mechanisms could have a devastating impact in the region. The Shangri-La Dialogue has clearly shown that despite growing risks, the US–China security dialogue and crisis management remains tightly shut.

4. A rare sight: China, Russia, and the US in a joint naval exercise

On 5–8 June, Indonesia held its 4th biannual Multilateral Naval Exercise titled Komodo 2023. The navies of 36 countries participated in “non-war” exercises aimed at strengthening maritime cooperation, humanitarian operations, and disaster management. Interestingly, despite the current geopolitical turbulence, Chinese, Russian and US navies were all present: China’s PLA Navy sent the guided missile destroyer Zhanjiang and the guided missile frigate Xucheng, while the US sent a littoral combat ship. In the same event, even North and South Korean representatives were present. According to Chinese military website, participants should take part in the fleet review and conduct drills on search and rescue, maritime interception, damage control and aerial photography. On-shore activities include maritime exhibition, civil medical service, a civil engineering program, exchanges and lectures.

The event was held at tense times for the US and Chinese navies. On 3 June, an incident involving US and Chinese warships was reported: While US and Canadian navies were conducting a joint exercise in the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese military vessel cut in front of US destroyer in an “unsafe” manner. During the Shangri-La Dialogue, Li Shangfu, China’s new defence minister, has defended China’s actions and stated that “we must prevent attempts that try to use that freedom of navigation (patrols), that innocent passage, to exercise hegemony of navigation”. Dangerous incidents are becoming more frequent: just a week ago, a Chinese fighter jet performed “unnecessary aggressive manoeuvring” near a US surveillance plane operating in South China Sea.

BUSINESS & TECHNOLOGY

1. Chinese economy winning global vote of confidence?

After three years of harsh COVID-19 curbs that hampered entry into China, a veritable parade of foreign CEO’s, including Microsoft’s co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, Apple’s Tim Cook and Tesla’s Elon Musk, have made their way to a reopened China. China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the numerous visits from US CEO’s were a “vote of confidence” in the Chinese economy.

Indeed, foreign entrepreneurial heavyweights appear eager to grasp the momentum of the reopened China. Musk said that “the interests of the United States and China are intertwined, like conjoined twins, who are inseparable from each other,” and that “Tesla opposes ‘decoupling and breaking [supply] chains,’ and is willing to continue to expand its business in China and share China’s development opportunities.” Meanwhile, Bill Gates, Xi Jinping’s “first American friend” to meet in recent years, stated that he is “excited to visit with partners who have been working on global health and development challenges” with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Solving problems like climate change, health inequity and food insecurity requires innovation and China has a lot of experience in that”, he added.

Notably, Chinese foreign ministry officials have previously said Beijing welcomes foreign firms as long as they abide by its laws. However, considering that President Xi Jinping has renewed China’s focus on national security, which now trumps everything from economy to diplomacy, a new reality might be unfolding. That is, China’s obsession with security might rather taint its relationship with foreign firms, thus hampering the efforts to attract investment. Accordingto the latest annual China Business Confidence Survey, 64% of respondents reported that doing business in China became more difficult in the past year, the highest on record.

2. Beijing takes aim at Apple’s AirDrop?

On 6 June, the Cyberspace Administration of China has published a draft law proposal for consultations that aims to control and restrict short-distance file-sharing capabilities in the country. It is not surprising: the government has long negatively viewed this technology that is hardly controllable and, as a result, foreign companies are under an increasing pressure to limit their related products availability in China. To a certain extent, the anti-government protests in October 2022 seem to have influenced the government’s response, as protesters are reported to employ the technology to share information that cannot be controlled by the Chinese internet censorship machine. Foreign companies are already responding to this sensitivity. For instance, on the eve of the 20th CCP Congress last year, Apple placed limits on its file-sharing services aimed only at mainland China’s customers just before the protests.

3. China’s C919: First home-made aircraft packed with foreign technologies?

On 28 May, China’s first home-made aircraft C919 kicked of its first commercial flight with Chinese media hailing it as a proud moment in the country’s technological advancement. As stated by the Global Times, it is an “important proof of China’s strength in self-innovation in the high-end manufacturing industry”. However, the reality is more complex. A closer look at the aircraft’s specifics tells a different story: the core components and critical systems are heavily reliant on foreign technology. For instance, its engine comes from American-French CFM International, its tires are provided by France’s Michelin, and aircraft systems including navigation and cabin systems are from the US’ Collins Aerospace.

Development of China’s C919 took many years and was marked by many challenges. In a recent report, published by US cybersecurity technology firm CrowdStrike, a lot of attention was given to the C919’s development. This reportreveals one of China’s most complex hacking operations that aimed to acquire intellectual property to reduce China’s technological gap in the aviation industry, which would benefit the development of the C919. The CrowdStrike report shows that this multi-year hacking effort was systematically aimed at the foreign suppliers of the C919’s components.

SCIENCE, HEALTH & ENVIRONMENT

1. Big stride towards becoming a major space power by 2045

China sent its first civilian astronaut to space as part of a three-person mission to the country’s newly completed “Heavenly palace” (天宫Tiāngōng), and also announced plans to place astronauts on the moon before 2030. These two objectives signal that China’s outer space industry is reaching a new phase of development in its quest to become a leading “space power” by 2045. A 2022 government white paper states that “the space industry is a critical element of the overall national security”, and its development has become a point of national pride that embodies China’s economic rise in the past four decades.

SOCIETY & CULTURE

1. Li Haoshi’s joke that led to a crackdown on comedy

At the end of May, the Chinese stand-up comedian Li Haoshi had an ordinary gig that unexpectedly stirred a hurricane in country’s comedy industry. In his show, a joke about his dogs whose behaviour struck him as “fight to win, forge exemplary conduct” might not seem significant at all if it was not a part of a well-known slogan, coined by Xi Jinping in 2013 as a goal for the People’s Liberation Army. The first reactions appeared on social media when some of the audience members expressed their dissatisfaction with Li’s “insensitive” remarks. Soon afterwards the messages went viral and involved not only government officials but also highly nationalistic netizens directly threatening the comedian. The official response was swift: Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media Co, a pioneer of stand-up comedy in the country and a promoter of Li Haoshi, had its shows cancelled and Li’s contract was immediately terminated. Authorities also imposed a fine of around 2 million euros – a huge burden for the company that undoubtedly serves as a warning to the whole industry.

Before suspension of his Weibo account, Li wrote an apology for the “absolutely inappropriate metaphor” which “hurt the public’s feelings”. Soon afterwards, Beijing Police has announced that a criminal investigation against Li was initiated because his actions “caused severe impact to society”. The comedian could face a jail term.

Li’s case is having a huge impact on the entire industry: it not only led to tighter controls on live comedy performances, but other spheres of entertainment are also under a scrutiny. Increasingly scrupulous controls on live music venues are also imposed, especially those hosting live music that would now need correct permits to host such events.

Associate Expert of RESC China Research Program, PhD student at VU Institute of International Relations and Political Science. Raigirdas holds a bachelor’s degree in Asian and Pacific Studies (Chinese Studies) from Lancashire Central University (UK). After studying, he went to China, where he spent five years studying and working. Raigirdas completed a year-long intensive Chinese language and culture course at the Sichuan University (Confucius Institute Scholarship). In 2020, he graduated from Sichuan University (China) with a Master’s degree in International Relations in Chinese. Raigirdas interests: sinology, Chinese foreign and domestic policy, history of the PRC, relations and conflicts between East Asian countries.

Elzė Pinelytė is a research intern at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre. Elzė is currently pursuing a dual master’s degree in International Governance and Diplomacy at Sciences Po and Peking University.