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Brief #18: COVID-19 & racism, US-China cooperation, Cyber sovereignty, Hungary

Hi folks, another week, another issue of China Neican. Exciting news: Yun may be getting a kitten! Adam is super jealous. Stay safe, and thanks for reading.

1. COVID-19 racism

The rise in racism against people of Chinese heritage, and East Asian people in general, in countries such as the United States and Australia, is deplorable. Fanned by racial discourses on “Chinese virus” and fuelled by existing prejudice, COVID-19 related racism has put a strain on diaspora communities.

The stigmatisation of minorities during times of crisis is nothing new. As one scholar points out:

Anthropological and historical accounts of past epidemics provide plenty of evidence of fear “legitimising” collective discrimination against minorities and other “outsiders”. For instance, during the 1853 yellow fever epidemic in America, Irish and German immigrants were blamed as the cause. In the 1916 major outbreak of polio in New York City, Italian immigrants were accused of bringing the epidemic to the US.

In the Australian context, Osmond Chiu, wrote earlier in the week here on Neican:

Narratives about disease and competition for resources echo themes in anti-Chinese campaigns during the 19th century that shaped Australia’s identity. The Australian government has failed to adopt policies to educate the community about casual racism, making these deeply rooted anxieties far harder to combat. Australia’s comparatively large Chinese diaspora means a sizable minority is affected.

In both the United States and Australia, the general atmosphere of suspicion towards China and the added sensitivity towards any perceived connections to the Chinese Government are making it difficult for Chinese diaspora to help fight the virus, both in their country and in China. They have, in the words of writer Frankie Huang “a lingering fear of being accused of having a personal agenda, even one as reasonable as wanting to generate public goodwill, for the sake of protecting themselves and the public.”

One suggested approach to respond to this discrimination is for these communities to demonstrate patriotism. According to former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, for instance:

During World War II, Japanese Americans volunteered for military duty at the highest possible levels to demonstrate that they were Americans. Now many in the Asian American community are stepping up, trying to demonstrate that we can be part of the solution. Some 17 percent of U.S. doctors are Asian and rushing to the front lines.

We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.

Demonstrate that we are part of the solution. We are not the virus, but we can be part of the cure.

Andrew Yang failed to point out that while Japanese-Americans were serving in the US military, their families were forced to live in concentration camps in the US.

For some of those vehemently against the Chinese party-state, the solution seems to lay in declaring their “royalty”.

The idea that minorities, the Chinese diaspora in this case, need to demonstrate their patriotism or show their loyalty is absurd. It presupposes that these people are somehow different from the rest of the population, that they are not part of us, that they need to “demonstrate” and “show” what the rest takes for granted.

How about just stop racist abuse and address structural discrimination?

On racism, Chinese diaspora, and the China debate, a few points come to mind:

  1. Stop seeing Chinese diaspora only or predominately through the lens of competition with China or the threat posed by the Chinese party-state.
  2. Chinese diaspora communities are diverse in their political and socioeconomic makeup, just like the rest of society. Stop caricaturing them in unhelpful ways.
  3. Why should the Chinese diaspora come under fire just for interacting with the Chinese government, if it’s lawful, ethical and transparent?
  4. Stopping discrimination against Chinese diaspora should be a high priority if we want to effectively respond to Beijing’s foreign influence and interference effort.
  5. Stop giving credence to conspiracy theories, such as that virus is a bioweapon deployed by China. Here is an irresponsible example of this:

2. China-US cooperation

The United States and China need to find ways to live with each other in an age of increasing great power competition and strategic flux.

The United States needs to recognise that China is NOT the enemy that is made out to be by sections of the American elite. China does not pose an existential threat, but rather serious challenges and opportunities.

Beijing needs to recognise that the United States is NOT the enemy that is challenging its domestic rule. The so-called “hostile foreign forces” causing it headache is often a result of its own oppression and failings.

Beijing and Washington need to learn to live with each other, to compete in a mature way, to cooperate when possible, to deter and counter each other when necessary, and to…well…not blow the world up (both literally and figuratively).

COVID-19 provides an extraordinary opportunity for the two countries to arrest their deteriorating bilateral relations and work together. And yet, what we see is bickering between the officials of the two countries on who is to blame for the virus, even going as far as to give credence to conspiracy theories.

In this context, we saw two un-directly-related letters. The first letter, Saving Lives in America, China, and Around the World, is jointly signed by nearly 100 American China experts. The Second letter, An Open Letter to the People of the United States From 100 Chinese Scholars, puts forward a Chinese perspective.

Essentially, both letters urgently call on the two countries to put aside the political squabbling and cooperate to fight the virus. The letter by Chinese scholars says that:

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global public health crisis with a horrific scale not seen in generations; the effort to overcome both it and its impact will be nothing short of a long-term and arduous global war. Countries should be working together, not complaining, finger pointing, and blaming one another. The virus does not know any borders, but neither does love, nor friendship. As two of the great countries on Earth, cooperation between China and the U.S. could, and should, be used to bring a more positive outcome for all humankind.

Cooperation, of course, is made difficult by tense bilateral relations, but as the letter by American China experts points out:

The kind of cooperation we are promoting has precedent: during the height of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union worked together to vaccinate the entire world against smallpox. It is true that the United States and China are increasingly in competition and have serious differences in interests and values. But America need not concede its interests or values, or condone China's handling of the crisis, to cooperate on coronavirus. Nor should such differences impede cooperation among local governments, NGOs, corporations, scientists, and private citizens on both sides of the Pacific that together form the core of any joint effort.

(empahsis added)

Arrest the deteriorating bilateral relations, stop the political bickering, fight the virus. And when this blows over, compete and cooperate like mature adults instead of petulant adolescents.

3. Cyber sovereignty

A Financial Times exposé outlined Huawei’s efforts to sell its idea of a “New IP” at the International Telecommunications Union. Neither the article nor the leaked document gave any details of how the “New IP” would work. But Huawei is said to be pushing for a kind of state-centric internet instead of the current model of decentralised people-centric internet.

The current internet governance system is generally quite permissive, contrary to the wishes of many governments around the world, especially authoritarian governments, but also some democratic ones. Governments are looking for ways to access and intercept communications over the Internet. Authoritarian governments generally have fewer reservations about doing so. Even democratic governments sometimes yield to the temptation of overreach, but government agencies in democracies are restrained by the system of checks and balances.

China is a special case. It argues for “cyber sovereignty”, where each country has control over what can be seen and accessed from within the country. Its Great Firewall has managed to almost separate out a Chinese internet from the rest of the world. Even though motivated individuals can still easily “climb the wall,” the Great Firewall has created two separate internet ecosystems. With internet censorship, what’s popular outside China cannot become popular inside the Firewall without government permission.

Is China trying to export this model of cyber sovereignty? Perhaps, but it is not necessarily imposing it on other countries. The flip side of the desire to export a model is the willingness to import that model. And many governments are quite receptive to this idea of controlling what its citizens can see on the Internet.

On a broader level, when discussing Beijing’s attempt to export its models and values, we should remember that it takes two to dance (unless you have a thing for solo dancing or gets off on forcing someone to dance under duress, which is not great).

Back to the Financial Times article, here is a critique of the article by the Internet Governance Project, saying that the claims in the article are distorted.

4. Hungarian rail modernisation

Hungary has passed a law to allow the Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree with no end date. The bill was passed ostensibly due to the coronavirus emergency.

With this emergency power, Hungary is proposing to classify all construction contracts, including information about its China-backed infrastructure project on rail modernisation for 10 years. The reason cited was the publication of these contracts could “threaten Hungary’s ability to pursue its foreign policy and trade interests without undue external influence”. Basically, the Hungarian government does not want any democratic oversight of its foreign and trade policies.

Hungary has been one of the more enthusiastic supporters of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Europe. The classification of information on these projects means that their costs and benefits will not come under public scrutiny. Although this classification is likely the choice of Hungary, even without pressure from China, China’s repeated willingness to enter into non-transparent contracts is still a cause for concern.


EUvsDisinfo database has up-to-date reports on disinformation, especially on COVID-19 disinformation. A valuable resource for those wanting to follow the narratives and disinformation efforts across the globe (however, with a European focus). Hat tip to Xinhua journalist Wang Zichen for this one.

Australia-China Monthly Wrap-up by the Australia-China Research Institute is concise and consistently well-written publication for those wanting to follow major developments in Australia-China relations.

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