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Latest Updates from China Digital Times

  • Two Americans Detained in China

  • China Expands Military Power with Aircraft Carrier “Factory”

  • Is Xinjiang Inspiring Modi’s Crackdown in Indian Kashmir?


Photo: Untitled, by Hsiuan Boyen

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Two Americans Detained in China

Two Americans, Jacob Harlan and Alyssa Petersen, were detained in Jiangsu Province in late October, and the company they work for, China Horizons, has closed down. Harlan is the owner and Petersen is the director of the company. The group helped bring English teachers and volunteers to China, and describes itself as, “an English teaching program that offers an immersive experience within a Chinese school.” The Chinese government announced they had been detained for “illegally moving people across borders.” Anna Fifield reports for the Washington Post:

A GoFundMe page set up to help Harlan with legal costs says that police picked up him and his 8-year-old daughter, Viara, from their hotel in Weifang in eastern China.

They took Harlan’s phone and computer and he was not allowed to contact his wife at home in Utah with their four other children for 48 hours, the post says. Then Viara was allowed to call her mother and leave China with a family friend.

[…] Petersen is the company’s director, based in Rexburg, and a student at Brigham Young University at Idaho, according to a GoFundMe page her parents set up. She has been traveling to China for a decade, including for China Horizons.

She was detained on Sept. 27 and has been held in a jail in Zhenjiang ever since, her parents said. She has had no contact with anyone apart from a consular officer, who is allowed to see her only once a month, they said. [Source]

The detentions come amid continued trade tensions between the two countries and as foreigners, including several language teachers, have been increasingly targeted for detention in China. Two Canadians–Michael Kovrig, a researcher for International Crisis Group and a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a consultant for businesses trying to work in North Korea–have been held since last December on state secrets charges and denied access to lawyers or their families. Todd Hohn, a pilot for FedEx, was detained in Guangzhou in September and investigated for “weapons smuggling” after air gun pellets were found in his luggage. He was later released on bail but has been unable to leave China. Amy Qin reports for The New York Times:

The detentions are the latest in a series of prosecutions that add to a growing sense of unease among Americans and other Westerners in China. Among the most prominent of such cases is the ongoing detention of two Canadians on charges of espionage — a move that was made apparently in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a prominent executive of Huawei, a Chinese technology giant.

“China has become a risky place,” Dan Harris, a lawyer at Harris Bricken, a firm that specializes in investment with China, said in an email. “If you are going to do business there you had better know what the laws are and you had better follow them, because China is not going to let anyone slide, especially not an American or a Canadian.”

[…] It is unclear when or where trials for Mr. Harlan and Ms. Petersen will be held. A spokesman for the United States Embassy in Beijing said United States officials were aware of the detentions and were “monitoring the situation.”

The police in Zhenjiang did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Thursday. [Source]

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China Expands Military Power with Aircraft Carrier “Factory”

Satellite images of a Chinese military shipyard taken over several years show that China is rapidly building up large-scale infrastructure to support expansion of its naval fleet with the construction of carriers and other large surface warships. The extensive building works are part of longstanding efforts by the Chinese government to modernize and expand its military, and suggest that it is set on building not just one full-sized aircraft carrier but a carrier “factory.” Reuters’ Greg Torode and Michael Martina report:

The images of the Jiangnan shipyard outside Shanghai were taken last month and provided to Reuters by the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), building on satellite photos it obtained in April and September last year.

Noting a series of pre-fabricated sections, bulkheads and other components stacked nearby, CSIS analysts say the hull should be finished within 12 months, after which it is likely to be moved to a newly created harbor and wharf before being fitted out.

The vast harbor on the Yangtze River estuary, including a wharf nearly 1 kilometer long and large buildings for manufacturing ship components, is nearly complete. Much of the harbor area appeared to be abandoned farmland just a year ago, according to earlier images CSIS analyzed.

[…] “We can see slow but steady progress on the hull, but I think the really surprising thing these images show is the extensive infrastructure buildup that has gone on simultaneously,” said CSIS analyst Matthew Funaiole.

“It is hard to imagine all this is being done for just one ship,” he added. “This looks more like a specialized space for carriers and or other larger vessels.” [Source]

Also contributing to China’s naval ambitions is a plan to lease the island of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. A deal was signed last month between a Solomon Islands provincial government and the state-owned China Sam Enterprise Group, giving the company development rights to the entire island. Given the strategic location of the island in the South Pacific and its surrounding waters that serve as a natural harbor, some fear that China may turn the island into a military base. Damien Cave at The New York Times reports:

The renewable 75-year lease was granted to the China Sam Enterprise Group, a conglomerate founded in 1985 as a state-owned enterprise, according to corporate records.

A copy of the “strategic cooperation agreement,” obtained by The New York Times and verified by two people with knowledge of the deal, reveals both the immediate ambitions of China Sam and the potential — just as in Vanuatu — for infrastructure that could share civilian and military uses.

Signed on Sept. 22, the agreement includes provisions for a fishery base, an operations center, and “the building or enhancement of the airport.” Though there are no confirmed oil or gas reserves in the Solomons, the agreement also notes that China Sam is interested in building an oil and gas terminal.

These are just the explicit possibilities. The document also states that the government will lease all of Tulagi and the surrounding islands in the province for the development of “a special economic zone or any other industry that is suitable for any development.”

The provincial governor who signed the deal, Stanley Maniteva, could not be reached for comment. Noting that laws and landowner rights would be respected, he told local reporters this week that the agreement had not been completed. [Source]

The Solomon Islands broke diplomatic ties with the government of Taiwan days before the Tulagi deal was struck. The island nation of Kiribati followed suit the same week, leaving Taiwan with only 15 diplomatic partners worldwide that officially recognize it as an independent nation.

In addition to naval power, the Chinese government is also upgrading its air force with the addition of Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E jets from Russia. The jets, which entered service with People’s Liberation Army Air Force last year, may give China an edge in the event of conflict over Taiwan and the South China Sea. From The National Interest:

“The Su-35 is a multi-purpose fighter jet capable of air combat and precision strike against land and surface targets,” Senior Colonel Wu Qian, Director General of the Information Office of China’s Ministry of National Defense, said during a April 26, 2018 press conference. “Currently, the aviation troop units of the PLA Air Force have been armed with the Su-35 fighters.”

With the jets now in service, the Su-35 would significantly bolster Chinese forces operating over the South China Sea or the Taiwan Straits. Indeed, Beijing has in recent days been conducting exercises in the region near Taiwan, which it considers to be a breakaway province. “Recently, the PLA Air Force dispatched multiple types of warplanes to carry out real combat training exercises in the airspace over the sea to further enhance the capability of safeguarding China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Wu said. “The island the PLA warplanes patrolled around is, of course, China’s Taiwan Island.”.

[…] If push comes to shove, the Su-35 could feature prominently in any Chinese attempt to subdue Taiwan. The Flanker-E is arguably the PLAAF’s most capable fighter apart from the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, which is not likely to fully operational yet even if it has achieved some level of operational capability. Particularly, if the Su-35 is armed with long-range air-to-air missiles such as the very long range PL-15, it could be used to attack American aerial refueling tankers and other support aircraft such the E-3 AWACS that are crucial for conducting air operations over the vastness of the Pacific. [Source]

The Center for a New American Security’s Elsa Kania noted on Twitter that the Chinese military is intensifying its focus on electronic warfare techniques:

At The National Interest, Robert Farley looks at some of the possible scenarios that could lead China and the United States to go to war:

Fifteen years ago, the only answers to “How would a war between the People’s Republic of China and the United States start?” involved disputes over Taiwan or North Korea. A Taiwanese declaration of independence, a North Korean attack on South Korea, or some similar triggering event would force the PRC and the US reluctantly into war.

This has changed. The expansion of Chinese interests and capabilities means that we can envision several different scenarios in which direct military conflict between China and the United States might begin. These still include a Taiwan scenario and North Korea scenario, but now also involve disputes in the East and South China Seas, as well as potential conflict with India along the Tibetan border.

The underlying factors are the growth of Chinese power, Chinese dissatisfaction with the US-led regional security system, and US alliance commitments to a variety of regional states. As long as these factors hold, the possibility for war will endure.

[…] If the history of World War I gives any indication, the PLA will not allow the United States to fully mobilize in order to either launch a first strike, or properly prepare to receive a first blow. At the same time, a “bolt from the blue” strike is unlikely. Instead, a brewing crisis will steadily escalate over a few incidents, finally triggering a set of steps on the part of the US military that indicate to Beijing that Washington is genuinely prepared for war. These steps will include surging carrier groups, shifting deployment to Asia from Europe and the Middle East, and moving fighter squadrons towards the Pacific. At this moment, China will need to decide whether to push forward or back down. [Source]

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Is Xinjiang Inspiring Modi’s Crackdown in Indian Kashmir?

The ongoing crackdown by the Xi administration in the Xinjiang region has been described as an effort to “re-engineer” the Uyghur identity and as a form of “cultural genocide.” Officially launched in 2014, the steadily intensifying crackdown has mostly targeted Xinjiang’s predominately Muslim Uyghur minority, and has included limits on Islamic dress, the banning of religious customs, and the promotion of practices forbidden in Islam. The campaign has been fueled by the application of cutting edge technology—including surveillance and AI-driven profiling—culminating in a mass detention program where an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs have been or are being held in a series of internment camps.

Meanwhile, across the Himalayas, a violent crackdown on the Muslim-majority region of Indian Kashmirjustified by the Modi government on economic grounds, and criticized by rights groups as an attack on Islam amid rising Hindu nationalism—began last month. At The Nation Nithin Coca identifies similarities in the two campaigns, including the two regions’ similar status as “de facto modern colonies,” rising nationalism, the focus on Islam, and the use of Chinese technology:

“The current Kashmir shutdown, and in particular the turning off of the Internet and communications, is awfully similar to the one in Xinjiang post-2009 riots,” [see CDT coverage] James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University and an expert in Central Asian history, said. “One wonders if [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi is taking a page from the Chinese book there.”

[…] “Kashmir and Xinijang have many parallels,” Ovais Sultan Khan, a human rights activist and director of Future Council, a Delhi-based think tank, said. “Uighur Muslims are facing genocide by the Chinese state, and both India and China are using their own tactics to oppress Uighur and Kashmiri people.”

[…] Not surprisingly, over the past decades, both regions have seen waves of militarism, conflict, and repression. More recently, though, it is the rise of global ethno-nationalism, a phenomenon seen in the West too, that is driving more fierce state-led oppression.

[…] In Kashmir, surveillance technology, some of it possibly sourced from the very companies enabling Chinese repression in Xinjiang, are creeping in. While the Xinjiang model is still the cutting edge of the digital authoritarian state, Kashmir may not be that far behind. Hikvision, a Chinese state-controlled company and one of the world’s largest developers of sophisticated CCTV surveillance systems, had contracts with Chinese police in Xinjiang, and is now exporting technology to India, according to a recent report from the Carnegie Endowment. […] [Source]

Coca continues to note that currently, “the best hope for Kashmir lies in the fact that India has not yet gone as far down the authoritarian path as China. There remains a civil society, albeit one under increasing pressure, some free press, and a supposedly independent judicial system[.]”

As the Chinese-developed surveillance technology being piloted in Xinjiang spreads throughout China and to other nations, the AP’s Dusan Stojanovic reports that nations vulnerable to human rights abuse are increasingly adopting the technology:

The cameras, equipped with facial recognition technology, are being rolled out across hundreds of cities around the world, particularly in poorer countries with weak track records on human rights where Beijing has increased its influence through big business deals. With the United States claiming that Chinese state authorities can get backdoor access to Huawei data, the aggressive rollout is raising concerns about the privacy of millions of people in countries with little power to stand up to China.

“The system can be used to trail political opponents, monitor regime critics at any moment, which is completely against the law,” said Serbia’s former commissioner for personal data protection, Rodoljub Sabic.

[…] While facial recognition technology is being adopted in many countries, spurring debate over the balance between privacy and safety, the Huawei system has gained extra attention due to accusations that Chinese laws requiring companies to assist in national intelligence work give authorities access to its data.

As a result, some countries are reconsidering using Huawei technology, particularly the superfast 5G networks that are being rolled out later this year. […] [Source]

The Trump administration last week announced a decision to blacklist 28 Chinese companies, including several AI companies and state security bureaus. Western firms, including some based in the U.S., have been accused of “lending expertise, reputational credence, and even technology to Chinese surveillance companies.” See also a map of the increasing international reach of 12 key Chinese tech firms from The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, and “The Global Expansion of AI Surveillance” report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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