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  • Tsai Ing-wen Reelected in Taiwan in Historic Victory

  • The Costs of the Belt and Road Initiative

  • U.S. Commission Calls Xinjiang Detentions “Crime Against Humanity”


Photo: Wedding Ceremony, by Rod Waddington

Wedding Ceremony, by Rod Waddington (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Tsai Ing-wen Reelected in Taiwan in Historic Victory

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was decisively reelected on Saturday in an election that had become a referendum on democratic freedoms and Taiwanese autonomy. Winning 57 percent of the vote against Kuomintang challenger Han Kuo-yu, Tsai, of the Democratic Progressive Party, had seen her popularity surge in recent months as voters contended with a coordinated disinformation and propaganda campaign from Beijing and concerns over encroaching Chinese government control in Hong Kong.

At The Wall Street Journal, Chun Han Wong and William Kazer write about how ongoing protests in Hong Kong, and the Chinese government response, influenced Taiwanese voters to support Tsai and her defense of Taiwan’s autonomy:

Opinion polls suggest that Ms. Tsai’s decisive win stemmed in large part from widespread sympathies for anti-Beijing protesters in Hong Kong, which energized Taiwanese opposition against China’s efforts to cajole and coerce the self-ruled island into accepting unification with the mainland.

Beijing has maintained an implacable face over the result. Its Taiwan Affairs Office reiterated China’s commitment to applying to Taiwan the “one country, two systems” formula currently used to govern Hong Kong as a semiautonomous territory—even though protests there against Beijing’s growing influence have energized Taiwanese opposition to the proposal.

Such sentiment was instrumental in Ms. Tsai’s re-election, lifting her from the political doldrums in late 2018 when her Democratic Progressive Party suffered humiliating losses at local elections amid widespread dissatisfaction over her perceived mishandling of the economy, pension reforms and relations with the mainland.

China appeared to dismiss Ms. Tsai’s post-victory offer to start dialogue with Beijing on condition that Taiwan’s sovereignty and democracy are respected. The Taiwan Affairs Office reiterated that dialogue must be predicated on an acknowledgment that Taiwan is part of “one China.” [Source]

Anna Fifield at the Washington Post looks at why so many Taiwanese were motivated to vote in this election, with thousands of overseas Taiwanese flying home to participate:

Even for the dynamic democracy that is Taiwan — complete with candidates in Japanese anime costume and a death-metal band frontman — this election was electrified.

That was partly because of the Hong Kong factor, but also because of clear signs that China was trying to spread fake news through social media and tilt the coverage in traditional media with strong ties to the mainland. The disinformation continued on election day, with messages circulating on social media telling people not to come out to vote because of the risk of a pneumonialike virus from China.

Chinese efforts to muddy the waters in Taiwan were credited with propelling the KMT to a huge victory in local elections at the end of 2018, with voters skewing older. But China’s efforts may have backfired spectacularly by encouraging people to vote — and not for the KMT.

[…] The cautionary tale of Hong Kong encouraged many young Taiwanese to vote. “I don’t want Taiwan to become the next Hong Kong,” said Chen Yi-wen, a 28-year-old waitress in Taipei. “We have to use our votes to guarantee the democracy and freedom of our home.” [Source]

Since her first election in 2016, Tsai has ardently defended Taiwan’s autonomy from China, and in response Beijing has racheted up pressure on other countries which recognize Taiwan diplomatically. seven countries have switched diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing since Tsai’s first election, while global corporations, organizations, and other entities have acquiesced to Chinese government demands to name Taiwan as part of China. In her victory speech Saturday, Tsai maintained her firm stance against Beijing’s influence efforts while also promoting a relationship built on mutual respect, saying: “I also hope that the Beijing authorities understand that a democratic Taiwan and our democratically elected government will not concede to threats and intimidation…Positive cross-straits interaction, founded in mutual respect, is the best way to serve our peoples. The results of this election have made that answer crystal clear.” Jennifer Creery at Hong Kong Free Press reports:

Tsai on Saturday reaffirmed her commitment to a cross-strait relationship built on mutual respect. The victory speech was a rebuff of Beijing’s long-standing view of Taiwan as part of its territory, despite never having governed the island. In 1945, Japan ceded control of the territory to the Republic of China government, which has controlled it ever since.

“Saturday’s election sent an undeniable signal that Taiwan is keen on maintaining its liberal-democratic way of life, and that it opposes all forms of coercion and pressure on unification and ‘One Country, Two Systems’,” J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington DC, told HKFP. He referred to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s proposal, raised in his 2019 New Year’s address, to draw up a close bilateral agreement with Taiwan, as seen in Hong Kong.

“The results also discredited the alternative proposed by the populist Han Kuo-yu, who had the kind of undemocratic tendencies that Taiwanese voters made clear isn’t for them,” he added. “This vote also confirmed the social trends in Taiwan society, such as respect for LGBT rights, generational justice and so on.”

[…] Tsai has invoked Hong Kong as a cautionary tale of Beijing’s tightening grip on one of its peripheries, with the slogan “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” appearing at rallies across the island ahead of the election.

But [Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Bonnie] Glaser also put Tsai’s electoral success down to manifold factors including the strength of the economy in terms of its strong export growth and low unemployment rate. [Source]

Beijing had supported Tsai’s opponent Han Kuo-yu and had waged a propaganda and disinformation campaign to support his candidacy. The Chinese government responded to the election results by reasserting its claim to Taiwan and accusing Tsai of using “dirty tactics” to win. Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee report for Reuters:

The election campaign was dominated by China’s efforts to get the democratic island to accept Beijing’s rule under a “one country, two systems” model, as well as by anti-government protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong.

“No matter what changes there are to the internal situation in Taiwan, the basic fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China will not change,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

[…] China hoped the world would support the “just cause” of Chinese people to oppose secessionist activities and “realize national reunification”, it added.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said China should respect the election result and stop putting pressure on the island. [Source]

Despite Beijing’s belligerence in the wake of election results, it is unclear how cross-strait relations will fare in coming years–though immediately tensions are expected to escalate–and if Beijing has assessed its own role in Tsai’s election victory. From DW:

Other experts said China’s hardline policy towards Taiwan not only failed to influence the election on Saturday, but it even convinced more Taiwanese people to come out and vote. According to Taiwan’s Central Election Commission, Saturday’s voter turnout was nearly at 75%, a historic high.

Yen Wei-Ting, a Taiwanese political scientist teaching at the Franklin and Marshall College in the US, said China’s continuous aggression towards Taiwan, and the ongoing Hong Kong protests, helped drive up voter turnout.

[…] Some experts said that the election result means that Beijing will have to adjust its cross-Strait policy, since both economic benefits and economic coercion have failed to have an impact on Taiwan’s domestic politics.

Austin Wang, a Taiwanese political science professor at the University of Nevada, said he thinks China’s Taiwan policy will become two-fold.

“Beijing will harden its hardline policy and soften its soft-line policy,” Wang told DW. “It is very likely that China will initiate more military actions to create direct or indirect conflicts with Taiwan. It may also increase the frequency of cyberattacks on Taiwan, periodically paralyzing the function of the Taiwanese government.” [Source]

Overseas Chinese democracy activists and Hong Kong protesters both lauded Tsai’s victory and said it gave them hope for the future of democracy in China. James Pomfret and Yimou Lee report for Reuters:

Some who left the Asian financial hub after nearly seven months of often violent protests said they welcomed Tsai’s historic win with more than 8 million votes, exceeding the tally of any previous president.

“A weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” said a Hong Kong protester in Taipei, who gave his name only as Roger and said he had feared being kicked out of Taiwan if its China-friendly opposition Kuomintang party swept to power.

[…] “I hope Hong Kong can be like Taiwan, that in the time of our next generation, Hong Kong will be a democratic and free place,” said Ventus Lau, one of the organizers of a 1,000- strong rally in Hong Kong against the Chinese Communist Party.

“That’s why, in 2020, we need to fight autocracy together with the international community,” Lau said on Sunday. [Source]

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The Costs of the Belt and Road Initiative

’s Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion dollar-plus global trade and development program that was unveiled in 2013 and enshrined into the Party constitution in 2017, has attracted both international excitement and concern. While Beijing touts the plan as a “win-win” for global trade and cooperative economic growth that will usher in a new era of globalization, the massively ambitious initiative has also raised a host of concerns over its aim to expand Beijing’s global military and political influence, country-specific security issues, and looming debt traps that could arise from BRI deals. At The Atlantic, Chris Horton looks to the port city of Sihanoukville, Cambodia (known as Xigang in Chinese), a key Belt and Road outpost, as an example of the economic, social, and environmental costs and risks that come with deepening ties to Beijing through the BRI:

Many Cambodians I spoke with voiced concerns about Sihanoukville turning into a de facto Chinese colony, and the consensus was that they were being treated like second-class citizens in their own homeland. At one restaurant, when I told a Cambodian employee that I was visiting from Taiwan, he referenced the opposition in other locales where Beijing has sought to impose its will. “Taiwan says no to China, Hong Kong says no to China,” he told me, “but Hun Sen only says yes to China.”

There are roughly as many Chinese as Cambodians in downtown Sihanoukville, perhaps more, and this sudden influx has sent the cost of living skyward. Small, basic rooms that had a few years earlier rented for $25 a month now rent for four times as much in a country where the monthly minimum wage in the garment sector, a key export industry, is just $190. Vegetables, once cheap, are now prohibitively expensive—one roadside restaurant I stopped at charged $8 for a small plate of stir-fried broccoli. Yet few Cambodians appear to have benefited from this economic boom. […]

[…] One of the biggest changes in recent years is the boom in casinos. In Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, NagaCorp holds a monopoly on casino gambling—which is forbidden for Cambodians. But in Sihanoukville, regulations are lax and oversight nearly nonexistent. Around Sihanoukville, casino developments aimed at Chinese—prohibited from casino gambling at home—are being built by Chinese companies with Chinese labor. The irony is stark: Companies beholden to the same Communist Party that forbids Chinese from casino gambling in China are building casinos for Chinese tourists in Cambodia. A year ago, there were 88 casinos in operation, many of them open 24/7, offering shuttle vans for the difficult task of navigating the city’s cratered streets. (The announcement that Cambodia would eliminate the booming online-gaming sector by the end of 2019 sparked an exodus of Chinese, with estimates in the tens of thousands leaving.)

Safety is also an issue: As Chinese investment has surged, public safety has deteriorated. […] [Source]

While Beijing has made environmental sustainability and “greening” a major theme in its promotion of the BRI over the last two years, the environmental cost of relevant energy projects–many of them coal-fueled–have led some analysts to wonder if greenwashing is at play. At The South China Morning Post, a group of international economics, environment, and business academics look at the potential environmental impact of the BRI in Southeast Asia:

The region is a global biodiversity hotspot and home to numerous threatened species not found anywhere else in the world including charismatic megafauna such as tigers and Asian elephants.

But much of China’s belt and road investment in Southeast Asia have come in the form of fossil fuel projects or natural resource extraction – both of which are likely to cause habitat loss, threaten wildlife and increase pollution.

[…] Between 2014 and 2017, fossil fuel investments accounted for 91 per cent of energy-sector syndicated loans by the six major Chinese banks and 61 per cent of energy-sector loans financed entirely by the state-backed China Development Bank or China Exim bank, according to one study.

[…] A number of recent studies have identified some of the potential environmental impacts attached to belt and road developments, especially in relation to biodiversity. […] [Source]

Last month at Sierra, the Sierra Club’s national magazine, Mike Ives also warned of the drastic environmental threat of BRI infrastructure projects, using a project in an already threatened Malaysian island as a case study:

The park is a small part of what scientists say may be the most ecologically interesting complex of wetlands in Malaysia—one that has faced severe environmental threats for much of Tengku’s adulthood. For decades, the Setiu District has experienced a steady encroachment of palm-oil plantations and sand-mining operations as well as upstream logging in the highlands that lie inland from the swamp. All that development has created profits for Malaysian conglomerates and jobs for local workers but has strained the hydrological systems that regulate the delicate balance of fresh and salty water in Setiu’s lagoon and estuaries. It has also fueled erosion, both in upstream forests and along a wide sandbar that separates the lagoon from the sea.

Now comes a new threat: a 400-mile, cross-country railroad financed by the Chinese government that is scheduled to cut through Setiu. Biologists say that the railroad would likely disrupt the waters that flow from the mountains into the lagoon—in the process potentially pushing the wetlands toward their ecological breaking point. Changes in salinity could kill freshwater flora and fauna, they say, while the reduced water flow could exacerbate erosion on the sandbar, allowing the South China Sea to overwhelm the lagoon.

The multibillion-dollar project, known as the East Coast Rail Link, is one of many that fall within China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a colonial-style endeavor that links infrastructure loans with geostrategic diplomacy. […] [Source]

In a Q&A at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Mercator Institute for China Studies’ Matt Ferchen explains how China’s BRI represents Beijing’s major global push of its alternative vision for international development, one that relies less on aid than on “win-win” economic partnerships. After outlining the differences between the prevailing Western model and China’s innovation as seen through the BRI, Ferchen outlines the inherent risks of the new model:

The debate about China’s model of development and its impact has tended to focus on China’s state-led capitalist approach to foreign economic policy, in which the state, not private enterprises and banks, makes business decisions and controls production.

But in some cases, an altogether different aspect of the “China model” of development has been even more disruptive. In China’s freewheeling, Wild-West version of capitalism, risk-tolerance and rule-dodging can often be sky high. In other parts of Asia especially, the activities of Chinese property speculators, commodity traders (trafficking in goods like jade or teak or methamphetamines), and illicit online gambling dens have been equally or more difficult to track and regulate than any Chinese state-owned enterprise. Coming up with regulatory and policy solutions to this problem is an urgent task for China and many of its neighbors.

[…] The big question is, who is learning what from these processes? Host countries, China, the United States, and other stakeholders with an interest in these issues need to share lessons learned and best practices. And governments, businesses, civil society organizations, and researchers in different parts of the world that are engaged with China’s international development ambitions should all be talking more with one another. [Source]

At Yahoo Finance, Aarthi Swaminathan looks at the United States’ response to the BRI, the creation of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), a taxpayer-funded development agency offering international private sector funding:

“The Belt and Road has really turned into a major focal point for the U.S.,” Andrew Small, senior transatlantic fellow on the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Yahoo Finance. “The problem has been that [U.S. agencies] haven’t really had the means to mobilize resources to compete.”

[…] Responding to growing criticism over the BRI, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross confirmed in early November that the U.S. will invest and trade more in Asia in an attempt to counter the project. Ross also laid out an initiative called the “Blue Dot Network” which would essentially “evaluate and certify nominated infrastructure projects” based on commonly accepted standards. That move aims to address concerns about the sustainability of China’s projects.

The same week, DFC’s predecessor, Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s (OPIC) announced a new plan to work with Trans Pacific Network to build the “world’s longest subsea telecommunications cable” spanning the Indo-Pacific region. That project appears to be taking on Chinese tech giant Huawei, which is doing something similar as part of the “digital silk road.”

[…] “In many ways, you can think of us as an investment bank,” [OPIC COO Edward] Burrier said. “We make investment decisions, we look at the credit and the ability to repay the loans … we’ve made money across our portfolio on an annual basis.” [Source]

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U.S. Commission Calls Xinjiang Detentions “Crime Against Humanity”

In their annual report assessing human rights conditions in China in 2019, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China called the detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang a “crime against humanity,” while also presenting findings and recommendations on a host of other human rights issues including freedom of expression, workers’ rights, women’s rights, the ongoing protest movement in Hong Kong, civil society, Tibet, and more. From their Executive Summary:

During its 2019 reporting year, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (Commission) found that the human rights situation has worsened and the rule of law continued to deteriorate, as the Chinese government and Party increasingly used regulations and laws to assert social and political control. The Chinese government continued its crackdown on ‘‘citizen journalists’’ who report on human rights violations, with mainstream Chinese journalists calling conditions in China an ‘‘era of total censorship.’’ The abuse of criminal law and police power to target rights advocates, religious believers, and ethnic minority groups also continued unabated, and reporting on such abuses became increasingly restricted.

Further, the Chinese government has become more efficient in the use of advanced technology and information to control and suppress the people of China. Nowhere is this more of a concern than in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where the Commission believes Chinese authorities may be committing crimes against humanity against the Uyghur people and other Turkic Muslims. Over the past year, Chinese authorities have expanded a system of extrajudicial mass internment camps in the XUAR. Although the true number of detainees has not been publicly reported, experts estimate one million or more Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui, and others currently are or have been detained and subjected to abuse and forced labor in mass internment camps. [Source]

Gerry Shih from the Washington Post reports on recommendations made in the report to help restrain Chinese government influence campaigns in the U.S. and other countries, a topic that Jamil Anderlini recently wrote about for the Financial Times. From Shih’s report:

While the commission’s previous reports focused on China’s domestic situation, Wednesday’s document contained stark new warnings about the threat of what it called China’s “intensified use of disinformation, propaganda, economic intimidation and political influence operations.”

Congress should require U.S. universities, think tanks and nongovernmental organizations to disclose major gifts from foreign sources and expand scrutiny of Chinese government influence in American classrooms via student groups and on-campus organizations such as China’s state-funded Confucius Institutes, the commission said.

It warned, however, that the U.S. government’s statements and policies should “clearly differentiate between the Chinese people and culture and the Chinese government and Communist Party” to prevent the targeting of Chinese Americans or the Chinese diaspora. [Source]

At Radio Free Asia, Joshua Lipes summarizes the report’s findings on repression in Xinjiang, where up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have been detained in a network on internment camps as part of a coordinated campaign to force cultural, linguistic, and religious assimilation. In recent months, the Chinese government has claimed the camps are vocational training facilities and that many of the inmates have “graduated,” but journalists and researchers have found evidence of continued forced labor and other abuses in the camps. Up to half a million children have been separated from their parents in boarding schools where they are indoctrinated and forced to undergo cultural assimilation with the Han majority, according to a recent report in The New York Times. Government efforts to eradicate Uyghur culture continue even after death with more than 100 traditional cemeteries destroyed in Xinjiang in recent years, according to CNN. From the RFA report on CECC’s findings:

“Security personnel at the camps subjected detainees to torture, including beatings; electric shocks; waterboarding; medical neglect; forced ingestion of medication; sleep deprivation; extended solitary confinement; and handcuffing or shackling for prolonged periods,” the report said.

Other forms of mistreatment in the camps included restricted access to toilet facilities, punishment for behavior deemed religious, forced labor, overcrowding, deprivation of food, and political indoctrination, the report said, while noting that some detainees reportedly died in the camps due to poor conditions, medical neglect, or other reasons.

“Scholars and rights groups provided a strong argument, based on available evidence, that the ‘crimes against humanity’ framework may apply to the case of mass internment camps in the XUAR,” the report said.

The report said that China’s arbitrary detention of Uyghur, Kazakh, and other ethnic minorities in mass internment camps; the torture of detainees in the camps; the targeting of specific minority groups; and forced disappearances of hundreds of intellectuals meet definitions laid out in Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which lists acts that may constitute “crimes against humanity.” [Source]

Patricia Zengerle of Reuters reports on the CECC’s recommendations for the U.S. government:

Some lawmakers at the news briefing called China’s treatment of the Uighurs a “crime against humanity.”

To address the abuses, the study recommended tightening access to U.S. capital markets for Chinese companies that provide support or technical capabilities for repression.

It recommended rights sanctions against businesses and officials involved in the mass internment and surveillance of Uighurs. The report said the Chinese government has used facial-recognition cameras and mobile telephone-monitoring systems to create an “open-air prison,” the report said.

It backed controlling the sale of facial-recognition systems, machine learning and biometric technology by placing agencies on the Department of Commerce’s “Entity List,” preventing purchases from U.S. suppliers. [Source]

In the past year, both the U.S. House and Senate have passed Uyghur human rights bills. For more on the current situation in Xinjiang and the U.S. response, listen to a recent Deconstructed podcast with Uyghur activist Nury Turkel. China’s Foreign Ministry called the CECC report “neither objective nor credible.”

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