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Brief #12: US-China-EU, expelling journalists, Chinese media, Xinjiang leaks

Hi folks, for those of us in the China debate, let’s remember that behind each Tweet or op-ed there are real people, like you and me, deserving of our empathy even if we fiercely disagree.

A big thanks for the great turnout on Thursday at Canberra drinks. We hope to make this a regular thing.

Sorry that we are a day late on this issue - one of us couldn’t get his act together before flying.

- Yun and Adam


The trans-Atlantic divergence on China between the US and Europe was sharply highlighted at the Munich Security Conference. The Americans went to Munich to warn the Europeans to “wake up” to Xi’s authoritarian China. Great power competition was cast as a clash between the liberal West and a rising tide of authoritarianism led by China, a clash that apparently the “West was Winning” (we thought the zeitgeist was Westlessness?).

US officials certainly did not have a sympathetic audience. At its core, European leaders generally do not see China as a threat in the way that US officials are framing China. European leaders still see China as a rising power that is best dealt with through a combination of competitive and cooperative strategies.

A European Commission report put it this way:

China is, simultaneously, in different policy areas, a cooperation partner with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives, a negotiating partner with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests, an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance. This requires a flexible and pragmatic whole-of-EU approach enabling a principled defence of interests and values. The tools and modalities of EU engagement with China should also be differentiated depending on the issues and policies at stake. The EU should use linkages across different policy areas and sectors in order to exert more leverage in pursuit of its objectives.

Another aspect is that European leaders do not see as in their countries’ interests to confront China in the way that the US is going about it. US pressure across a variety of issues, including technology transfer, 5G and Huawei, interference and influence, foreign investment, have been met with limited success. This does not help when the US threatens, for example, London on Huawei and 5G, and doesn’t follow through.

Finally, the Europeans do not trust the current US administration. US credibility in Europe eroded greatly under Trump. His ambivalence to NATO, protectionist trade policies, a penchant for unilateralism, and the narrow-mindedness of the “America First” foreign policy have all undermined trust at a time of flux.

The prospect of trans-Atlantic cooperation between the US and Europe is not great and would deteriorate if Trump is elected in 2020. For Washington, lecturing the Europeans on China, and framing it as a “with us or against us” issue is not only ineffective but ultimately counterproductive.

The other issue is, of course, that Europe does not have its own house in order when it comes to China policy. Europeans are rightly worried about the direction that China is going under Xi, and the need to push back against it across a range of issues, including on technology transfer and human rights. But it also recognises the need to work with China.

Since declaring China as a “systemic rival” last march, there has been no progress on a united European policy beyond a few symbolic gestures. We are likely to see more activity on this front as we progress towards the September Europe-China Summit in Leipzig. The danger here is that instead of a more united China policy, Europe could go the opposite way.

Expulsion of WSJ journalists

China expelled three Wall Street Journal journalists by revoking their press credentials. The expelled journalists are two Americans Josh Chin and Chao Deng, and Australian Philip Wen. Previously, it has expelled journalists by denying applications or renewals (e.g. Melissa Chan, Ursula Gauthier, Megha Rajagopalan and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian). Revoking press credentials is a tactic not seen recently.

Note that the recently expelled journalists are all either women or of Chinese ethnicity. It is possible that these journalists are targeted because they can gain better access for their research and are more insightful in their analyses. We expect that China is more concerned about journalists that are familiar with the Chinese language, culture, and system, with the ability to travel far from the big cities and talk to ordinary people without interpreters.

So the expulsion of these foreign correspondents is a very sad state of affair for press freedom in China. It also bodes badly for journalists of Chinese background who wish to become foreign correspondents in China.

The expulsion conveys a strong message from Beijing. But what message? The Ministry for Foreign Affairs says it is for WSJ’s publication of an op-ed titled “China is the real sick man of Asia” by Walter Russell Mead. The “sick man of Asia” term is often considered offensive in China because most people in China were taught in schools that it was a term used to refer to China when it was weak. The phrase was also made famous by Bruce Lee’s film Fist of Fury, where Bruce Lee tore up a banner that said “sick man of Asia” 东亚病夫 after defeating Japanese martial artists.

However, it is highly doubtful that the three journalists were expelled due to this op-ed. Offensive titles in op-ed have appeared quite frequently in the international press, and China has not made drastic actions beyond condemning them. The more likely reason is China’s retaliation for the US designation of China state news agencies as foreign government operatives.

Both the US and Australian governments have responded. The US Secretary of State:

Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions. The correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech.

A spokesperson for the Australian Foreign Minister:

Australia believes firmly in the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and a free press. It is our view that journalists should be able to carry out their work without unreasonable impediments.

Such deplorable actions by Beijing makes it harder for the world to know the “real” China story.

US designation of Chinese state media

As we mentioned above, the US has designated five news agencies from China — Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily and The People’s Daily — as foreign government operatives. This means their journalists will be subject to the same restrictions as diplomats. These organisations will have to register their property and personnel with the US government.

While the designation did not seem to entail onerous requirements, China has vehemently denounced the decision, going so far as to retaliate.

Beijing is unhappy mainly because this is seen as an attack on the Party and its efforts at expanding overseas media presence. This slap on the face (or the mouth more precisely) may not have operational impact, but it is a sign that the US is increasingly focused on countering China’s information operations and narrative power.

More Xinjiang leak

There is another Xinjiang leak this week. This trove of documents details the reasons for the detention of many Uyghurs. Many of the reasons listed are related to expressions of Islamic practices, such as growing a beard, wearing a veil, and observing Ramadan. One reason listed was even “having too many children”. In addition, the documents also list details from surveillance efforts, such as phone call records and WeChat messages.

It remains to be seen how Muslim-majority countries will react to this leak, which has provided further evidence for Beijing’s tough stance against Islamic practices by Uyghurs. In July of last year, some Mulsim-majority countries signed a letter to the United Nations defending China’s Xinjiang policies:

Faced with the grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centers.

Signatories of the letter included Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Algeria. Despite the latest leak showing that the reasons for many detentions are related to Islamic practices rather than terrorism, these countries are unlikely to change their stance.

More and more material is leaking out of Xinjiang despite new vigilance by the Party and actions to hide information and evidence. There are good reasons to believe that leaks will keep coming. But at this point, do we really need another leak to justify actions? Is the current human catastrophe in Xinjiang not enough?

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