PHRASE OF THE MONTH: “Empire of lies” (谎言帝国 huǎngyán dìguó).
China review 2023-9. 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative
On September 28, the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Centre (GEC) released a special report on how China seeks to reshape the global information environment. In the report China was accused of employing “a variety of deceptive and coercive methods … to influence the international information environment.” As a response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry pushed back hard against the report, accusing the United States of being an “empire of lies” and adding that “it is the US that invented the weaponizing of the global information space.”
Interestingly, there are several possible sources for the quote. “Empire of lies” is an apocryphal Orwell quote that is traceable to Ron Paul – an American physician and former congressman from Texas – and his 2008 book The Revolution: A Manifesto. Curiously, “empire of lies” can be also traced back to Vladimir Putin’s February 24 2022 speech that launched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in which he castigated the U.S. as an “empire of lies”. With that established, it seems that China’s wordsmiths in the Foreign Ministry are getting Orwellian with a layer of Russian authoritarian Vladimir Putin to criticize the West.
DOMESTIC POLITICS & FOREIGN AFFAIRS
1. Beijing’s “Pro-Palestine neutrality”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi first addressed the Israel–Hamas war during the China–EU High-Level Strategic Dialogue. In answer to inquiries from reporters regarding the present situation in Palestine and Israel, Wang Yi spoke out forcefully in defence of the Palestinians: “Israel as a people is no longer displaced in the world—when can Palestinian people return to their place?” During a call with his Saudi Arabian counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Wang kept up the pressure on Israel, stating that “Israel, whose actions have gone beyond self-defence, should seriously listen to the appeals of the international community and the Secretary-General of the United Nations and stop its collective punishment of the people of Gaza”. Wang reiterated calls to end the violence that may “undermine regional peace” in a separate call with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. Wang said that “China supports Islamic countries in strengthening unity and coordination and speaking with one voice on the Palestinian issue.”
There has not been any explicit Chinese condemnation of the Hamas attacks and hostage-taking. It seems clear that Beijing’s position will remain in line with the larger Arab community, while insisting that it remains neutral in the conflict.
2. Kyiv’s patience with Beijing has run out
Ukraine’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention has added China’s three leading state-owned oil and gas firms – CNOOC Group, Sinopec Group and CNPC – to the list of “international sponsors of war”. According to officials, the three largest Chinese oil and gas companies continue to implement joint projects with Russia and finance Russia’s strategic industry by paying significant taxes. This marks Kyiv’s break from the deep-seated tradition of maintaining tolerance over Beijing’s cosy ties with Moscow, as Beijing is seen to have an infrastructural and technological role in Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction.
3. 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
At a time when the U.S. and Europe are preoccupied with the wars in Ukraine and Israel, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been building vast networks throughout the Global South in the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRFIC). It marked a decade of President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative to boost Chinese leadership through infrastructure investments across the Global South.
As Amy Hawkins, Senior China Correspondent at the Guardian, told, “Beijing is trying to make clear that its offer to the global south is still more attractive than the offer from Brussels or Washington.” Indeed, in his keynote speech at the opening ceremony, Xi positioned the BRI as an alternative to the Western-led global order, saying that “ideological confrontation, geopolitical rivalry and bloc politics are not a choice for us. What we stand against are unilateral sanctions, economic coercion and decoupling and supply chain disruption.” As the China Project editor-in-chief Jeremy Goldkorn has accurately summarized, “like it or not, Xi Jinping is forging a new world order”. However, the BRI family photo this year looked a little lonely as the number of leaders in attendance has shrunk (36 in 2019 vs 22 in 2023), signalling that China’s rise is not inexorable and the road of making friends with the world is becoming bumpy.
4. Spotlight on Russia’s appearance at the BRI forum
BRI Forum’s guests included a senior Taliban dignitary, several leaders of major nations like Indonesia, Chile, and Kazakhstan, and representatives from 140 countries in total. However, the guest of honour was Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose visit marked his first trip since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest. It is also the first time that Putin visited China since he agreed to a “no limits” partnership with Xi on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics just 20 days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech after Xi in which he called Xi his “dear friend”, and invited investment from foreign states in several North–South trade corridors under development in Russia. After the formal proceedings of the Belt and Road Forum, Xi had a three-hour meeting with Putin. Xi told Putin that “political mutual trust is steadily deepening. Close and effective strategic interaction is maintained”, while Putin noted that China and Russia are “moving very confidently bilaterally”.
For Putin, standing shoulder to shoulder with Xi Jinping creates the optics that Putin is not isolated from the world, thus garnering firmer support for his war in Ukraine. As Una Aleksandra Berzina-Cerenkova – China and foreign policy expert at Riga Stradins University in Latvia – commented, For Xi, having Putin “helps China to secure its position and its role in those regions that have grievances over the Western system.” Therefore, the meeting with Putin is an opportunity to showcase China’s ambitions to reshape the global order toward ‘multipolarity’.
SECURITY & DEFENCE
1. The U.S. Department of Defense report on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China”
The U.S. Department of Defense released its annual report which illustrates the importance of meeting the pacing challenge presented by the PRC’s increasingly capable military. The report’s preface highlights that “in 2022, the PRC turned to the PLA as an increasingly capable instrument of statecraft. Throughout the year, the PLA adopted more coercive actions in the Indo-Pacific region, while accelerating its development of capabilities and concepts to strengthen the PRC’s ability to ‘fight and win wars’ against a ‘strong enemy,’ counter an intervention by a third party in a conflict along the PRC’s periphery, and to project power globally. At the same time, the PRC largely denied, cancelled, and ignored recurring bilateral defence engagements, as well as DoD requests for military-to-military communication at multiple levels.”
2.‘Five Eyes’ intelligence chiefs warn of Chinese espionage activities on “epic scale”
On October 17, The Five Eyes (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) have met for a joint session. Hosted in Silicon Valley by FBI director Christopher Wray, the main message from the meeting is that China’s technological and industrial espionage has reached “unprecedented” levels and that the world needs to step up measures to safeguard innovative sectors. This joint meeting is a unique one: it is the first time that the heads of five intelligence agencies appeared publicly to address a specific topic. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has responded by stating that “The ‘Five Eyes’ is the world’s biggest intelligence organization and has habitually made up and spread disinformation about China. The US, in particular, has abused its technological prowess to indiscriminately spy on countries globally, not least its allies.”
BUSINESS & TECHNOLOGY
1. Indonesia’s new Chinese-backed high-speed railway ‘Whoosh’
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo inaugurated Southeast Asia’s first-ever high-speed railway, backed by China under the Belt and Road Initiative. The €6.94 billion high-speed railway, named ‘Whoosh’ after the acronym for “timesaving, optimal operation, reliable system” in Indonesian, connects the capital Jakarta to the top economic hub of Bandung at speeds of up to 350 kilometres per hour. It was initially scheduled to open in 2019, but was delayed due to exceeding costs, COVID-19, and land acquisition and other issues. However, on October 2, the railway started rolling, marking an important milestone for China in its pursuit of a soft power push abroad under the Belt and Road Initiative.
2. China’s economy grew more than expected in the third quarter
According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China’s economy grew 4.9% year-on-year in the third quarter. This is above the projection of 4.4% growth from a Reuters poll of analysts, and puts Beijing’s annual growth target of 5% within reach.
Consumer spending has been one of the catalysts to bolster the growth, suggesting that the government’s stimulus is starting to gain traction (read more about the recent flurry of policy measures in a recent EESC publication), but a property crisis and other headwinds continue to pose risks to the outlook.
3. China launches the Global AI Governance Initiative as U.S. imposes new controls
In his keynote speech at the Opening Ceremony of the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, Xi Jinping introduced the Global AI Governance Initiative, calling for “equal rights” to develop and utilize artificial intelligence regardless of a country’s size, strength or social system. The initiative opposes “drawing ideological lines or forming exclusive groups to obstruct other countries from developing AI”, as well as “creating barriers and disrupting the global AI supply chain through technological monopolies and unilateral coercive measures.”
The Global AI Governance Initiative was launched a day after the U.S. announced an updated set of export controls over more cutting-edge artificial intelligence semiconductor and chip manufacturing equipment. Through the Initiative, Beijing is keen to make the case that the United States is a threat to the developing world’s development, and that Chinese leadership offers a fairer global order.
SOCIETY & CULTURE
1. China’s patriotic education law
On October 20, the draft law aimed at “promoting the spirit of patriotism” was submitted to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee for consideration (principal drafters include the Central Propaganda Department and the NPCSC Legislative Affairs Commission). This law rests on an emphasis of aspects of traditional Chinese culture as well as the development of socialist values and “socialist culture with Chinese characteristics”. According to the draft, its implementation would rely on “utilisation of cultural relics, museums, libraries and major festivals”. Chines central government’s recent push to deepen patriotic education is, to a certain extent, a response to increased challenges, both domestic and international.