PHRASE OF THE MONTH: “The earth can live without Japan, but not without oceans” (地球可以没有日本，但不能没有海洋dìqiú kěyǐ méiyǒu rìběn, dàn bùnéng méiyǒu hǎiyáng).
China review 2023-8. Panic over Fukushima’s monstrosities
Context: real-life Godzilla, two-headed fish and other abnormal creatures – that is what you would find in the Pacific Ocean right now if you were to succumb to China’s disinformation campaign against Japan’s decision to discharge treated wastewater from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant. China’s online mediascape has been overwhelmed by a wave of animus towards Japan’s actions. “The earth can live without Japan, but not without oceans”, said the top comment, with over 129,000 likes, on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV’s post under the hashtag “#Japan releases nuclear-contaminated water into the ocean in the afternoon”.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government criticized the decision as “an extremely selfish and irresponsible act” and suspended all seafood imports from Japan. However, fears have not been limited only to seafood. Skincare products and everyday household goods have also been under scrutiny which, interestingly, has translated into panic buying. For example, Chinese as well as South Korean consumers have rushed to stock up on salt, fearing future contamination and a price increase.
The question for now is whether the Chinese consumer will continue to ride the wave of boycott towards all things Japanese or move on to the next Japanese thing to criticize, as a symptom of a wider backlash that emerges whenever territorial disputes or other points of political friction arise between two countries.
DOMESTIC POLITICS & FOREIGN AFFAIRS
1. G20 Summit without Xi
The G20 summit, which lasted two days in New Delhi (September 9-10), India, concluded with the inclusion of the African Union in the G20 and a failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a joint statement. This statement was issued after China and Russia rejected language that blamed Moscow for the conflict, finally stating that “all states must refrain from the threat or use of force to seek territorial acquisition” without mentioning Russia. As China watcher Noah Barkin stated in a comment, it looks like “Beijing is no longer concerned about reassuring Europe about its stance on the war. Solidarity with Putin is a higher priority”.
However, hanging over the summit was the absence of China’s President Xi Jinping – the first time any Chinese leader skipped a G20 summit. There has been no elaboration on the reason for President Xi Jinping’s absence from the G20 summit by the Foreign Ministry, but a few potential explanations have been proposed. Firstly, Xi Jinping has been sick. Secondly, Xi is focusing on domestic priorities as China is now dealing with numerous challenges, including the weakening economy with exports and imports contracting and new inbound investment dropping, as well as burgeoning local government debt and an increasingly troubled real estate market. Thirdly, Xi wanted to symbolically downgrade the importance of the G20, thus playing “the role of spoiler”, as US National Security Advisor Sullivan said, concurrently seeking to increase the influence of BRICS and other multilateral groups where Beijing has a stronger foothold. Fourthly and finally, Xi wanted to snub Narendra Modi because of the border dispute between the two countries and India’s apparent embrace of the US.
Instead of Xi Jinping, the Chinese Premier Li Qiang, the country’s second-ranked official, represented China. Notably, he met with a slew of world leaders on the sidelines:
- Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni told her Chinese counterpart in private that Rome is considering withdrawing from Beijing’s controversial Belt & Road Initiative in the coming months. However, it still wants to forge stronger and amicable ties with China. “The issue is how to ensure a partnership that can be mutually beneficial, regardless of the choices we make on the BRI”, said
- British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had confronted Li over the espionage allegations as the UK Parliament researcher was arrested for spying for China. Sunak said he has “very strong concerns about any interference in our parliamentary democracy, which is obviously unacceptable.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry has opposed the spying accusations as “entirely groundless” and urged to “stop political hype-up”.
- US President Joe Biden also had a chance to talk with Li, noting afterwards that “we talked about stability” and that the encounter “wasn’t confrontational at all”. This was the highest-level dialogue between US and Chinese leadership since Biden and Xi spoke at last year’s G20 in November 2022 in Indonesia.
2. Another high-ranking Chinese official to go missing
China’s Defence Minister Li Shangfu has not been seen in public for weeks. According to a variety of media reports, the general is currently the subject of a corruption probe. Dennis Wilder, an expert on the PLA, told the Financial Times that the equipment department formerly headed by Li had a long history of having the “worst corruption” inside the Chinese military. However, it is unclear whether Li’s recent removal stems from previous violations or new charges during his time as defence minister.
In a comment, Rahm Emanuel, Washington’s ambassador to Japan, wrote: “President Xi’s cabinet line-up is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None.” Indeed, it comes at a time when there has been a string of surprise personnel changes, including the replacement of Foreign Minister Qin Gang and the removal of two generals from the PLA Rocket Force in July. These changes came with no clear explanations, but as Bonnie Glaser, a managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific program, noted: “It should be a reminder about how much corruption exists in the system.”
3. Cooperation outweighs a tougher approach to Beijing
The key findings of the 2023 Transatlantic Trends report by the German Marshal Fund, covering public opinions in Western countries, reveal that China is not widely seen as a security challenge, and a willingness to expand cooperation with the country on climate change, human rights, new technologies, trade, and international crisis management prevails over a tougher approach. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the report also finds that the public is wary of the idea of sending arms or troops to Taiwan if China were to invade the island, but they would instead support responding with diplomacy or sanctions.
4. Putin–Wang meeting: paving the way for Putin’s China visit
On 20 September, a meeting between Russia’s President V. Putin and China’s Director of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Y. Wang was held in St. Petersburg. Both parties hailed Xi Jinping’s previous visit to Russia as “epoch-making” and emphasized significant progress made in the countries’ bilateral relations. In now-typical rhetoric, both sides affirmed to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the two countries and make new efforts to promote a just and equitable international order”, with no mention of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
However, the most important aim of this meeting is to pave the way for the second meeting between the countries’ leaders since the war in Ukraine began. The Russian side has now confirmed the rumours: Putin will visit China in October to mark the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative.
SECURITY & DEFENCE
1. China unveiling a new carrot but brandishing an old stick at Taiwan
The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the State Council jointly issued a detailed plan for making Fujian, a province situated on the southeastern coast, a demonstration zone for integrated development with Taiwan. The document contains 21 specific measures to make it easier for Taiwanese people to live, study and work in China, and to create “a more relaxed policy environment for people from both sides to travel across the Strait”. The Global Times, a stated-owned news outlet, described the document as “equivalent to outlining the future development blueprint of Taiwan island” and stated that it “attracted attention from some Taiwan residents, who hailed the convenience and attractiveness it could bring.”
However, the enthusiasm for integration has been trampled by Taiwan’s government, which has rejected China’s plan to boost economic integration as a cash grab to boost the country’s “deteriorating” business environment and a futile bid to win Taiwanese hearts and minds to support the Communist Party.
The economic “integration” plan comes at a time when China’s naval forces have been carrying out their largest-ever military exercises around Taiwan. As a response, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented that “with this level of threat against Taiwan, heightened acts in the South China Sea & joint military exercises with Russia in August, it’s hard to believe PRC really wants peace amid its economic slump.” Therefore, the big question is how the Taiwanese people are supposed to interpret this duality of messaging: on the one hand, China proposes a peaceful integration plan, but it simultaneously stages intensive military exercises.
BUSINESS & TECHNOLOGY
1. The latest EU–China trend
“Global markets are now flooded with cheaper Chinese electric cars. And their price is kept artificially low by huge state subsidies. This is distorting our market. So, I can announce today that the Commission is launching an anti-subsidy investigation into electric vehicles coming from China. Europe is open for competition. Not for a race to the bottom.” This was announced by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her annual State of the European Union address, indicating that she has understood the EU members’ fret about Europe’s industrial competitiveness.
Predictably, China was not thrilled, blasting the probe as a “practice of pure protectionism” that would “seriously disrupt and distort global automotive industrial and supply chains”. On top of the criticism, China also adopted the ‘fight fire with fire’ approach by extending anti-subsidy duties on potato starch imports from the European Union for the next five years. However, further reactions from China must be closely monitored, considering that the German car industry has a major presence in China, thus being the most exposed to any potential retaliation by Beijing.
2. Huawei’s chip breakthrough?
Huawei’s Mate 60 Pro was released with great fanfare, albeit with some hidden secrets, as only limited public information about the hardware specifications was available. The phone’s launch sent Chinese social media users and state media into a frenzy, and it is no coincidence that the launch coincided with a visit by US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Huawei’s hidden secrets were soon discovered: numerous reviews by tech-savvy customers appeared who took a peek inside to assess how Huawei is progressing through increasing outside pressures. And the result was surprising: the new model had a powerful Kirin 9000s, an advanced 7 nm processor produced domestically by the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC). This indicates that China is making significant progress in attempts to build a domestic chip ecosystem that would allow it to increase its resilience against external pressures and keep up with 5G technological advancements.
However, its increasingly narrow access to advanced Western technologies remains challenging as China’s current technological capabilities still lag behind the world’s leading manufacturers. Huawei’s advancement surprised the Western world. However, it will be challenging for Huawei and SMIC to catch up with the making of the 2 nm and 4 nm advanced chips currently manufactured by TSMC and Qualcomm. It is not the first time China has shown that the world should be ready to expect the unexpected when it comes to Beijing’s ambitions. This news will also have consequences for the US–China rivalry. Huawei’s breakthrough will most likely trigger even closer US scrutiny and a search for new ways to curb China’s technological advancement and access to foreign technologies and expertise.
SCIENCE & HEALTH & ENVIRONMENT
1. UN’s ‘no nonsense’ Climate Ambition Summit excludes the US and China
On 20 September, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hosted the Climate Ambition Summit. Last December, upon introducing the Summit, Guterres emphasized that it would be a “no-nonsense” summit and only those countries with concrete, ambitious plans towards net-zero greenhouse gas emissions would be invited. Interestingly, the two largest polluters – China and the US – were not invited as a clear indication that the two largest economies are not doing enough. Both countries will participate in the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai. The US seems to be stepping up some efforts in this direction. On 21 September, the White House announced new actions to combat the climate crisis that would “catalyse action across the federal government to account for climate change impacts in budgeting, procurement, and other agency decisions, and save hardworking families money”. Conversely, China is becoming more cautious in its climate-related rhetoric: on 21 September, speaking at the climate forum in Beijing, China’s top climate envoy Xie Zhenhua noted, “It is unrealistic to completely phase out fossil fuel energy”.
SOCIETY & CULTURE
1. China wants to ban clothes that “hurt nation’s feelings”
According to a recently released draft of legal revisions, a person would be subject to 5–10 days of detention and a fine of 1,000 yuan (128 euros) to 3,000 yuan (386 euros) if the person wears clothes in public that are “detrimental to the spirit of the Chinese nation, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese nation”. If the situation is more serious, the person can be detained for 10–15 days and fined up to 5,000 yuan (644 euros).
The draft law has sparked a heated debate in China on what exactly constitutes clothing and accessories that hurt the feelings of the Chinese nation. “Does wearing a suit harm the spirit of the Chinese nation?” one Chinese user asked on Weibo. Indeed, the concept behind the draft clause is vague, with no clear defining criteria; thus, many fear that it might lead to abuse due to overinterpretation.