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Brief #9: coronavirus, research collaboration, 5G, international orgs

Hi all, in “a blink of an eye” 一眨眼的功夫 we are up to the 9th issue of Neican Brief already. Thank you for reading - it motivates us to get this out each week.

From now, we will be adding a new section called “Chinoiserie,” where we list recommendations for stuff that we find interesting.

Finally, a gentle reminder to our media friends: if you are quoting from Neican Brief, please attribute both of us, and in our capability as China Neican Co-Editors. Thanks in advance.

- Yun and Adam

1. Novel coronavirus: update

The novel coronavirus crisis continued its escalation this week. According to official figures, there have now been 14,380 confirmed cases, 19,544 suspected cases, and 304 deaths in China. Outside of China, there have been 132 confirmed cases across 23 countries.

Due to the increasing number of international cases as well as human-to-human transmission (cases now in Vietnam, Japan, Germany, and the US), the World Health Organization (WTO) has declared the virus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Many countries have imposed travel restrictions on Chinese citizens or non-Chinese citizens that have recently visited mainland China. An increasing number of airlines are suspending flight to and from China. Some countries have evacuated their citizens from Wuhan.

Fear of the viral outbreak also inflamed prejudices. In China, people from Hubei are seen as pariahs by other Chinese people. In Asia, some shops are explicitly excluding Chinese people (whether they’ve been to China recently or not). In other countries, remarks related to the virus, or hygiene, or food habits are being directed at people of East Asian appearances, both online and offline. An Italian conservatoire even banned all “oriental” students, causing outrage.

Beneath the numbers and official pronouncements are the sufferings of ordinary Chinese people. Those whose family members are sick or dying. Those who are unable to travel to see or care for their loved ones. Those that are angry at how Chinese authorities are handling the crisis (full version in Mandarin). Those that are living with uncertainty about how and when it will all end.

In one heartbreaking case, a disabled kid died alone while his family was quarantined. How many are suffering in silence with their stories untold or their voices muted?

Whatever one’s politics, the unfolding crisis is a human catastrophe. And it will likely get much worse in the coming days. The virus does not discriminate based on ethnicity or nationality; nor should we. It is time for global solidarity instead of racism and geopolitics.

2. Research collaboration with China

A top Harvard scientist was arrested this week and charged for lying to authorities over their involvement with China’s talent recruitment plan and affiliation with Wuhan University of Technology (WUT).

The US Department of Justice alleges that Charles Lieber, a pioneer in nanotechnology, was a contractual participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan 千人计划 from about 2012 to 2017. Apparently, Harvard did not know this; nor was this disclosed as required under US government grants that Leiber received to the tune of US$15 million (from the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense).

WUT reportedly paid Lieber US$50,000 per month, US$158,000 living expense, and US$1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT in return for work, including international cooperation projects, mentoring, applying for patents, and organising international conferences.

The Thousand Talents Plan aims to recruit and cultivate top international scientific talent for China’s scientific and economic development. Talent is key to China’s ambitious scientific and technology goals.

Note that in this case, the wrongdoing alleged is not Lieber’s participation in the talent program or affiliation with WUT.

Despite the benefits of research collaboration with China, collaborations have become more controversial recently, due to the intensifying competition between the US and China. Some collaborations that were formerly seen as mutually beneficial may now be viewed through a competition prism.

Implications for technology transfer, national security, and human rights issues are being scrutinised more closely. The core question is how to put in place safeguards to deal with these issues while not damaging the openness and international collaboration that drive innovation.

The prosecution of a scientist at the top of the academic pyramid is a clear message to researchers: approach research collaboration with China with caution, the risks are rising.

3. Huawei and 5G

The UK has banned Huawei from its “core” or sensitive part of the 5G network. It has allowed Huawei to participate in the “periphery” part of the network, but only up to 35 per cent. The “periphery” part includes mobile phone masts and base stations.

The UK believes that it can properly mitigate the risks associated with Huawei as a vendor. Key risks associated with critical infrastructures are espionage, coercion, and sabotage. For 5G network, espionage and sabotage are the primary concerns.

The decision comes despite pressures from the US on its allies and partners to ban Huawei from the entirety of their 5G networks. A former head of the Australian Signals Directorate’s signals intelligence and offensive cyber mission criticised UK’s decision, arguing that:

[M]y concerns are not about the company or the quality of its products. They relate to the legal and political power of the Chinese state to compel the company to do its bidding. It’s simply not reasonable to expect that Huawei would refuse a direction from the Chinese Communist Party, especially one backed by law.

When I look at the risk to 5G networks as an intelligence professional would, it’s all about capability, opportunity and intent. The ability to compel Chinese vendors of 5G equipment is a strategic capability for China’s intelligence services. Huawei’s competitive offerings in a revolutionary technology like 5G are an unsurpassable opportunity. And…China has demonstrated ample malign intent in cyberspace.

Other countries, especially in Southeast Asia, have allowed Huawei to build their network. They’re not as concerned about espionage risks, perhaps resigned to being spied on by both the US and China.

This decision is unlikely to affect the Five Eye intelligence-sharing network, despite what the US has said. Tearing up the Five Eye agreement would be a huge loss to the US and its alliance network and would only benefit its strategic competitor China.

4. China’s power over international organisations

Last week, in the context of the downfall of ex-Interpol President Meng Hongwei, we questioned whether “Chinese heads of international organisations can be free from political pressures from the CCP" and serve the interests of the organisation rather than the interests of CCP”.

This week, more controversy on China’s influence over international organisations. This time it’s about the exclusion of Taiwan from the UN civil aviation safety body, the International Civilian Aviation Organisation (ICAO), and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Both organisations are helping to advise countries on containing the international spread of novel coronavirus.

The fear is that international health and safety are jeopardised when Taiwan is excluded, and Taiwan is only excluded because of political pressure from Beijing. In this context, some leaders, such as Japanese PM Abe Shinzo and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, have affirmed their support for Taiwan to participate at the WHO.

Anxiety over China’s influence over international bodies will only rise as China continues to strive for a bigger role in these bodies. China’s pursuit of its interests via these bodies should not surprise anyone. More often than not, its interests are stable and its actions predictable with respect to these bodies.


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