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  • Coronavirus Censorship and Spin Draw Public Backlash

  • Wuhan Medics Lavished With Praise, But Lack Supplies, Transparency

  • Moves to Restrict Huawei Supplies Continue, Despite Trump Shift


Photo: Three Pagodas Temple, by mzagerp

Three Pagodas Temple, by mzagerp (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Coronavirus Censorship and Spin Draw Public Backlash

Despite the lessons thought to have been learned after the 2002 SARS epidemic, Chinese authorities have been readily using censorship and propaganda amid the outbreak of COVID-19 novel coronavirus–which some see as a contributing factor to the severity of its spread and lethality. In an attempt to keep the public calm and dilute criticism, early cases in Wuhan were downplayed or ignored. Once an epidemic was underway the narrative was controlled with censorship directives. Unsanctioned medical information was labeled “rumor,” medical professionals who shared “rumors” were punished, and the punishments aired on CCTV to serve as a broader warning. Official media has been attempting to boost morale by co-opting popular culture and sharing positive stories of heroic medical workers and selfless citizen acts of charity, as CDT explored in an earlier post. Despite these efforts, public opinion is proving hard to tame. The virus has so far infected over 80,000 in the country, killed nearly 3,000, and affected the lives of nearly every person in China. The official management of information has only added to public anger: after Dr. Li Wenliang–one of eight medical workers censured for “rumormongering” in Wuhan–died from COVID-19, netizens issued a mass call for free speech, some echoing Li’s statement that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.”

In response to the sharp public anger that followed Li’s death, a private contracting firm recommended that authorities strengthen their management of online information, and use of propaganda to “divert web users’ attention.” Authorities appear to have followed the advice: domestic censorship has continued, more stories of disciplined medical workers have emerged, and VPNs have become harder to use. Meanwhile, citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin have reportedly been arrested for covering the situation in Wuhan, and human rights activist Xu Zhiyong detained after writing an essay criticizing the government. This week, Li Zehua, a reporter who resigned from CCTV and has been working as a citizen journalist to report from Wuhan, was also detained by authorities there and his current whereabouts are unknown. China Media Project translated a final message Li recorded as state security officers apparently came to his door:

Of course, the third thing is that I realize at this point that it’s highly unlikely I won’t be taken away and won’t be quarantined. I just want to make it known, thought, that I have a clear conscience toward myself, a clear conscience toward my parents, a clear conscience toward my family, and also a clear conscience toward the Communication University of China from which I graduated, and toward the journalism field in which I did my studies. I also have a clear conscience toward my country, and I have done nothing to harm it. I, Li Zehua, 25 years of age, had hoped I could, like Chai Jing [the former CCTV journalist who made the documentary “Under the Dome”], work on the front lines, that I could make a film like the one she did in the environment of 2004 about the fight against SARS in Beijing. Or like “Under the Dome” in 2016, the one that was completely blocked online.

[…] I’m not willing to disguise my voice, nor am I willing to shut my eyes and close my ears. That doesn’t mean that I can’t live a happy and comfortable life with a wife and kids. Of course I can do that. But why did I resign from CCTV? The reason is because – I hope more young people, more people like me, can stand up! [Source]

At The New York Times, Li Yuan looks at some of the positive media campaigns Beijing is pushing on the government response to the virus, noting that many in China have little patience left for propaganda:

China’s propaganda machine, an increasingly sophisticated operation that has helped the Communist Party stay in power for decades, is facing one of its biggest challenges.

[…] China’s propaganda spinners have some tough competition. Chinese people have seen images of a young woman crying “Mom! Mom!” as her mother’s body was driven away. They’ve seen a woman banging a homemade gong from her balcony while begging for a hospital bed. They’ve seen an exhausted nurse breaking down and howling.

[…] The crisis has exposed many people, especially the young, to troubling aspects of life under an authoritarian government. In the silencing of people like Dr. Li, they see the danger in clamping down on free expression. In the heart-wrenching online pleas for help from patients and hospitals, they see past the facade of an omnipotent government that can get anything done.

Beijing is doing everything it can to take back the narrative. State media is offering steady coverage of people who leave donations at government offices then dash before anyone can give them credit. One compilation of “dropped cash donations and ran away” headlines tallied 41 of them. [Source]

The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong has more on the backlash to official censorship and propaganda, noting that some of the critique is even coming from state media:

Even state media have acknowledged failings in their approach. Justice Web, a news arm of China’s prosecutor-general’s office, lamented the lack of an independent streak in Chinese media, which it said was instead filled with formulaic stories that emphasize only the positive aspects of the government response.

“At a critical juncture in the battle against the epidemic, the drummers and buglers are playing discordant notes, severely damaging the credibility of the media,” said a commentary published last week on Justice Web’s Weibo microblog. Encountering information they dislike, journalists “automatically filter it and block their ears, reporting only good news and not the bad.”

[…] Suspicion is running high that the government isn’t revealing the full extent of the epidemic. “I can’t really believe the official data showing large declines” in new Covid-19 cases outside of Hubei province, a Weibo user wrote, referring to the region in central China where the epidemic first emerged. “Because large numbers of new cases are political lapses, whereas smaller numbers of new cases are political achievements.”

[…] “These days, everyone’s saying the openness of information is the best vaccine,” said the commentary, which was later deleted. [The article in question was posted by Tencent’s online magazine Dajia, which shut down its WeChat after posting the essay with no explanation] “Blocked ears and eyes are also a contagious disease, and no one can escape.” [Source]

While the public–a sizable portion of whom are currently living under some degree of shutdown, if not total lockdown, due to the virus–often doesn’t accept the state’s spin on the situation at the frontlines, they have been generating their own ways to help deal with the situation positively. At The Guardian, Yuan Ren reports on humor and connection amid the anger online:

There’s strictly no congregating – or socialising – in this new world order. Many cities have banned public gatherings altogether, and official advice has been “Stay in, don’t go out unless necessary”, resulting in many empty streets. Nationwide, cinemas are closed and performances at Beijing’s top arts venues have been cancelled until April. Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million, remains in lockdown. As a result, online social activity and subcultures have bloomed, and state media has joined in too.

To begin with, it was memes showing bats in soup, or people eating the animals whole, as health authorities announced that bats may have been the source of the viral outbreak. But as celebrations for new year slowed down, hashtags such as #whattodowhenstuckathome and #learnanewskill trended on Weibo, China’s Twitter, giving life to a host of funny videos and entertainment.

[…] The special restrictions seemed at first to create a burst of life online. A livestream showing the emergency construction of hospitals in Wuhan attracted millions of viewers, making stars of the tractors involved. On Weibo, each type of tractor has its own page and is ranked, with the “cement mixer” coming in at number three with 8,000 followers and the “small fork lifter” at number one with more than 40,000.

[…] For now, while plenty bemoan the censor’s heavier hand, government channels remain essential sources of information and updates. The truth is that most people are not interested in being controversial, and are just trying to pass the time and are happy for a morale boost. [Source]

Meanwhile, with concerns about China’s development, use, and export of surveillance technology high, CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal reports that experts are warning that the coronavirus could be the “catalyst” for the government to boost its capabilities:

With over 77,000 coronavirus cases confirmed in China alone, the government has mobilized its surveillance machine, a move experts said could continue even after the virus has been contained.

[…] The Chinese government has also enlisted the help of tech giants like Tencent, owner of popular messaging app WeChat and Alibaba subsidiary, Ant Financial, which runs payments app Alipay. On both WeChat and Alipay, users can put in their Chinese ID numbers and where they have travelled. Users will then be assigned a QR code based on a traffic light color system which instructs them about how long they need to be in quarantine, or whether they are free to travel. A QR code is a type of barcode which is widely used on digital platforms in China [and could be used to surveil people’s location].

Mobile networks in China have also released tracking features. China Unicom and China Telecom — both stated-owned telco operators — are asking people to put in the last few digits of their ID or passport number, which will then be used to track a person’s whereabouts. They will get messages outlining where they have been. Again, the feature could be used if a building has strict restriction on people entering who haven’t been in quarantine for 14 days, which is the suggested amount of time by the government.

[…] While the Chinese government has used the coronavirus to justify the increased use of surveillance technology, experts said it could continue even after the virus is contained. […] [Source]

At The Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci argues that the coronavirus has revealed “authoritarianism’s fatal flaw”: that the increased use and reliance on surveillance and censorship has helped to obscure reality, leaving leaders unprepared to deal with the situation:

Authoritarian blindness is a perennial problem, especially in large countries like China with centralized, top-down administration. Indeed, Xi would not even be the first Chinese ruler to fall victim to the totality of his own power. On August 4, 1958, buoyed by reports pouring in from around the country of record grain, rice, and peanut production, an exuberant Chairman Mao Zedong wondered how to get rid of the excess, and advised people to eat “five meals a day.” Many did, gorging themselves in the new regime canteens and even dumping massive amounts of “leftovers” down gutters and toilets. Export agreements were made to send tons of food abroad in return for machinery or currency. Just months later, perhaps the greatest famine in recorded history began, in which tens of millions would die because, in fact, there was no such surplus. Quite the opposite: The misguided agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward had caused a collapse in food production. Yet instead of reporting the massive failures, the apparatchiks in various provinces had engaged in competitive exaggeration, reporting ever-increasing surpluses both because they were afraid of reporting bad news and because they wanted to please their superiors.

Mao didn’t know famine was at hand, because he had set up a system that ensured he would hear lies.

[…] It’s hard to imagine that a leader of Xi’s experience would be so lax as to let the disease spread freely for almost two months, only to turn around and shut the whole country down practically overnight.

In many ways, his hand was forced by his own system. Under the conditions of massive surveillance and censorship that have grown under Xi, the central government likely had little to no signals besides official reports to detect, such as online public conversations about the mystery pneumonia. In contrast, during the SARS epidemic, some of the earliest signs were online conversations and rumors in China about a flu outbreak. These were picked up by the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, who alerted the World Health Organization, who then started pressuring China to come clean, which finally triggered successful containment efforts. […] [Source]

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Wuhan Medics Lavished With Praise, But Lack Supplies, Transparency

At China Media Project, David Bandurski examined the use of emotive "kitsch" propaganda amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, and its frequent recruitment of frontline medical workers as heroic warriors in the shared national battle. This continues a theme earlier struck over the late doctor and "rumormonger"-turned-whistleblower Li Wenliang.

In yesterday’s People’s Daily we can find a consummate piece of kitsch propaganda given position of prominence right below the masthead. The article, “Heroic City, Heroic People,” is an emotional hymn dedicated to front-line medical workers, officials and ordinary people. But the real objective of the article is to underscore the Chinese Communist Party as the enabler of miraculous human feats.

[…] And of course kitsch propaganda must anneal the softness of personal tragedy into the hard steel of sacrifice. So we are told that “more than 40,000 medical staff from 29 provinces, autonomous regions and cities . . . . were deployed to assist Hubei and Wuhan,” that they “entered the battle as soon as possible, racing against time, testing their strength against the demon of disease, all to continue the relay of life!”

“In the history of the world’s fight against epidemic disease, to gather 40,000 medical personnel in one city over a few short days – this is to generate a miracle!”

But kitsch propaganda can backfire in the face of a public that is digitally connected, and far more savvy than in the past about the tropes used by the state-run media. Earlier this month, internet users responded with irritation to a video posted by the official Gansu Daily newspaper that showed nurses weeping as their heads were shaved before their deployment to treat patients in Hubei province. The video described the female nurses as “most beautiful warriors,” and made emotional fodder of their sacrifice. [Source]

The New York Times’ Li Yuan further explored the backlash over this and other propaganda missteps:

Online, people are openly criticizing state media. They have harshly condemned stories of individual sacrifice when front-line medical personnel still lack basic supplies like masks. They shouted down Jiangshan Jiao and Hongqi Man [a pair of mascots launched by the Communist Youth League]. They have heaped scorn on images of the women with shaved heads, asking whether the women were pressured to do it and wondering why similar images of men weren’t appearing.

[…] To tame public outrage, Beijing is determined to create a “good public opinion environment.” It has sent hundreds of state-sponsored journalists to Wuhan and elsewhere to churn out heart-tugging stories about the front-line doctors and nurses and the selfless support from the Chinese public.

[…] Some are blatantly unbelievable. One newspaper in the city of Xi’an apologized after it posted an article claiming that a nurse’s newborn twins asked their father where their mother was, saying it was an editing mistake. Another newspaper wrote that after a nurse went to the front line, her husband, who had been in a vegetative state since 2014, would smile whenever her name was mentioned “as if he knew that his wife was engaged in a great endeavor.” That story was later deleted.

In China, admiration of the front-line medical workers is widespread and sincere. But the state media’s coverage does not show the reality that many of those workers lack protective gear. Over 3,000 of them have been infected. [Source]

In a set of poems translated at CDT last week, Wei Shuiyin, a nurse working in Wuhan against the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, bluntly shrugged off the official praise being lavished on her colleagues following Xi Jinping’s call for "touching stories from the front line of the virus fight." "The slogans are yours/The praise is yours/The propaganda, the model workers, all yours," she wrote. "I am merely performing my duties/Acting on a healer’s conscience […] Please, don’t decorate me in garlands/Don’t give me applause […] Media, journalists/Please don’t disturb me again." The poems also tell of exhaustion, hunger, stress, and equipment shortages.

The Elephant Digest newsletter told the saga, in the voice of Jiangshanjiao herself, of the two Youth League mascots’ memetic ancestry, brief careers, and subsequent reappropriation as "an icon, not for youth nationalism, but for feminism and gender equality."

The overwhelming negative reception was truly surprising for my creator. When you look back from today, from a rational, clear-headed perspective such as mine, the failure of our launch was inevitable because of its timing. It was, and still is, a fragile and difficult time for the Chinese people. By the time of my launch, everyone was already deeply frustrated by the series of propaganda events that happened during this epidemic-fighting season. In the words of Chinese netizens, there were already so many cases of “car crashes” (翻车), aka propaganda that backfired into extreme public outrage.

Let me give you a few examples.

[…] In a documentary produced by CCTV, a Wuhan-based nurse Zhao Yu was praised for working during her last month of pregnancy despite “strong opposition from family members”. On February 12th, Wuhan’s local newspaper reported a young nurse who returned to work 10 days after her miscarriage. Yes, it’s the same old propaganda trick, using the sacrifice of ordinary individuals to strengthen solidarity. Unfortunately, they all backfired this time. Both stories received mass criticism from netizens, to the extent that the authority had to start censorship in order to cool down public opinion.

[…] Following the shaving incident, netizens soon dug out another gender-related case. An interview with a female doctor was broadcast twice in a day by CCTV news with a slight editorial change in between: in the morning segment, the doctor said on camera that she was under heavy pain because she was on her period. (She used the word “生理期”, a nothing but sensible term) In the afternoon news when the segment was re-broadcast, her mention of her period was completely erased, as if period was something inappropriate to be mentioned on national news. Having spotted the difference, quick-reacting netizens made a clip combining the two interviews, and the clip soon went viral on social media. [Source]

Amid the lionization of medical workers and eye-catching "grand gestures" like the lightning-paced but otherwise complicated construction of new hospitals, the reality on the ground appears grim. At ChinaFile on Monday, Tracy Wen Liu wrote that "eight doctors and nurses at five hospitals I have been in touch with over the past week describe precarious conditions in which basic supplies are still inadequate," a picture starkly at odds with official assurances. Despite Li Wenliang’s rehabilitation, moreover, many are still facing threats of punishment for sharing information.

Amid quickly changing news about the trajectory of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, on February 20, the Chinese government body overseeing the response to the epidemic announced that medical supplies adequate to combating the spread of the disease were now “generally guaranteed.” China Daily tweeted the news with the headline, “Shortage of Medical Supplies in Hubei Ends.” I have spent the past month trying to organize shipments of donations of medical gear to hospitals in Hubei, and while the doctors, nurses, and their family members I have contacted say the situation has improved, they continue to report shortages of supplies, concerns about further infections among medical workers and skepticism about official numbers of infections.

[…] A doctor at a hospital in Shiyan, another city in Hubei province, sent me a document circulated to employees at her hospital last week warning hospital employees and their family members that sharing information about the coronavirus situation in their hospital could result in firing, loss of their status as civil servants, or expulsion from the Chinese Community Party.

[…] Altogether, over the past month, I have talked to 31 medical workers in 11 hospitals in Wuhan and nearby regions. Many of them have sent me photographs to illustrate the conditions under which they are working. The images showed some doctors reduced to making protective suits out of raincoats and garbage bags, and fashioning goggles out of plastic folders. Three doctors (who work at three different hospitals in Wuhan) told me in late January that they wore diapers at work because protective clothing was in such short supply and they would have needed to change it after a trip to the bathroom.

[…] To try to better understand the situation, on January 30 I messaged two volunteers working for the Red Cross in Wuhan. They described both lack of adequate staffing and what sounded like looting. [Source]

These accounts and others like them received apparent corroboration on Monday when international medical journal The Lancet published a plea for help attributed to two nurses in Wuhan. The letter claimed that "the conditions and environment here in Wuhan are more difficult and extreme than we could ever have imagined," and that "in addition to the physical exhaustion, we are also suffering psychologically." Related content was quickly censored on Chinese social media. On Thursday, The Lancet retracted the letter, having been "informed by the authors of this Correspondence that the account described therein was not a first-hand account, as the authors had claimed, and that they wished to withdraw the piece." Shanghai-based Sixth Tone had already reported questions about the nurses’ roles, noting that the authors had become unreachable, and quoting claims from other medical personnel that the situation had improved. Nevertheless, suspicion lingers over the retraction given the inevitability of official pressure on the two authors, and skepticism over whether The Lancet would have published the letter without verifying its authors’ roles, or the authors would have shared easily falsifiable claims in a high-profile international venue under their real names at a time of extreme political sensitivity.

At The Washington Post on Wednesday, meanwhile, Emily Rauhala reported on China’s failure to provide the World Health Organization with data on the number of infected medical personnel, which stood at around 1,700 as of February 14. (Nevertheless, the WHO "has continued to heap praise on Beijing," Rauhala notes, citing one particularly effusive example.)

In response to questions from The Washington Post, the WHO said it has repeatedly asked Chinese officials for “disaggregated” data — meaning specific figures broken out from the overall numbers — that could shed light on hospital transmission and help assess the level of risk front-line workers face.

[…] The comment, in a Saturday email to The Post, was one of the first instances that the U.N. health agency had directly addressed shortcomings in China’s reporting or handling of the coronavirus crisis.

[…] It is not clear whether political sensitivities have shaped China’s reporting on sick doctors and other health-care professionals. It is possible that data gaps simply reflect the challenge of gathering information in the middle of a crisis, experts said.

[…] “China has learned at least one lesson from SARS. They’re cooperating with WHO just enough to stave off accusations that they are not cooperating,” said Mara Pillinger, an associate in global health policy and governance at Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. [Source]

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Moves to Restrict Huawei Supplies Continue, Despite Trump Shift

Reuters’ Karen Freifeld and Mike Stone report on continued efforts to restrict the supply of American components to Huawei, despite a series of tweets last week in which President Donald Trump spoke dismissively about the national security implications of such sales. The comments were the latest twist in a long-running U.S. campaign against Huawei.

An interagency meeting was held on Thursday to discuss national security and China export issues, including proposals to restrict sales of chips to Huawei, the world’s second-largest smartphone maker, and a plan to block the sale of jet engines for China’s new passenger airplane.

While blocking General Electric Co (GE.N) from supplying jet engines appeared to be off the table after Trump opposed efforts to stop their sale, sources told Reuters on Monday new restrictions aimed at cutting Huawei off further from its suppliers were still under discussion.

[…] In their meeting on Thursday, officials discussed possible changes to what is known as the de minimis rule, which dictates how much U.S. content can be in a foreign-made product before the United States has authority to regulate its sale, the sources said.

[…] The government agencies also have been considering changing the Foreign Direct Product Rule, which subjects foreign-made goods based on U.S. technology or software to U.S. oversight. [Source]

The New York Times’ Alan Rappeport reported on Trump’s statements last week:

President Trump publicly objected to efforts within his own administration to restrict the sales of American technology to China over national security concerns, insisting on Tuesday that such fears were an “excuse” and that the United States was open for business.

Mr. Trump’s comments appeared to represent a striking reversal of his administration’s aspirations to curb China’s ascent as a global leader in technology and came as cabinet officials were expected to discuss tougher restrictions on China later this month.

That meeting, set for Feb. 28, was expected to include a discussion about whether to halt sales to China of an aircraft engine produced in part by General Electric by blocking its license to export the technology. Officials were also expected to consider new rules that would further curtail the ability of Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, to have access to American technology, including semiconductors.

But on Tuesday, Mr. Trump seemed to scuttle such moves. Two people familiar with the matter said that the late February meeting was on hold and that the United States would not block G.E.’s ability to sell jet engine parts to China. [Source]

Trump has described Huawei as "very dangerous" and was reportedly "apoplectic" over the U.K.’s recent decision to allow the purchase of Huawei equipment for limited use in 5G networks. The administration’s insistence that such equipment would pose an unacceptable security risk appears unabated, with plans announced on Friday for an industry summit on the subject to be held at The White House in April and Trump raising the issue on a visit to India this week. Moves to tackle the problem upstream by cutting off Huawei’s supply of American components have caused alarm in the U.S. tech sector, but efforts to address it downstream by dissuading Huawei’s potential customers have met limited success. Even if sales to China are now allowed to go unfettered, the threat of their obstruction has already made securing domestic or alternative sources an urgent priority for China’s government and companies.

The Washington Post’s Joseph Marks commented:

The bottom line: As key U.S. allies in Europe and North America seem likely to allow Huawei to build at least portions of their 5G networks, they have no idea what the U.S. position really is. Trump’s comments also play into longstanding concerns the president is not concerned about the national security threat posed by Huawei and is more interested in using U.S. restrictions on the company as leverage in his trade standoff with China.

“It makes it look like the U.S. is really just worried about China as a tech competitor and not a national security threat,” Adam Segal, a cybersecurity and China scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “It speaks to the problem the administration has had from the beginning in its messaging about Huawei … It seems as if the president, at any moment, could overturn whatever decision China hawks in the administration make.”

The inconsistency couldn’t come at a worse time because U.S. arguments about Huawei’s dangers already seem to have hit a brick wall in Europe. The United Kingdom has already agreed to allow the company to build portions of its 5G networks and Canada, France and Germany all appear likely to follow suit.

[…] Perhaps most maddeningly for Huawei hawks, Trump’s tweets stepped on what might have been a rare good day for the United States in its battle with the company. A federal judge in Texas yesterday dismissed a lawsuit from Huawei claiming that Congress overstepped its bounds in 2018 when it barred the company from government computer networks, one of the earliest parries in the long-running conflict. [Source]

The American Enterprise Institute’s Derek Scissors wrote more bluntly that "the president doesn’t care about national security […] what President Trump cares about is how much the Chinese state will buy."

[… T]he proclamation that “THE UNITED STATES IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS” […] isn’t quite true. In 2018, for example, the US wasn’t open to steel from our ally Canada, steel used by many American companies for production. In 2020 we may close ourselves off to cars from more allies.

These moves and others are said by President Trump to be necessary for protecting national security, citing Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act. Basically any import can be a security risk. Trading with allies is not beneficial and common products like cars can constitute a major threat. This is odd, but yesterday’s tweets were odder.

They dismissed the “always used national security excuse” regarding sales of jet engines to China. That’s because, while the US isn’t always open for business, it is always open for selling. In the president’s view, national security can’t be harmed even by exporting vital products to your biggest adversary. The harm would not be in not exporting. [Source]

In Monday’s Terms of Trade letter from Bloomberg, Shawn Donnan similarly focused on Trump’s preoccupation with the trade balance, noting that his "broadside at what he made clear he saw as invocations of national security that were too broad … should be remarkable to anyone who has been following Trump’s trade wars closely."

Trump has made clear repeatedly over the past three years that he wants to sell more to China not less. There is a reason the aspect he touts most of the “phase one” deal he signed with China in January is the $200 billion Chinese buying spree at its center.

Which brings us to what precipitated his tweeted intervention last week.

Speak to American tech and other executives and they quickly express fears that one result of the Trump administration’s assault on China is that they will be shut out of what remains the world’s most promising market.

[…] It’s also a major concern of farm groups and American manufacturers who do a good business in China, and for U.S. academic institutions that have attracted Chinese students.

Which is why some worry that a longer-term de-Americanization has begun and that with the genie already out of the bottle it may be too late to reverse that trend. Trump taking to Twitter to intervene last week may turn out to be an important milestone. It could also simply be a late recognition that trade and technology wars are both hard to win and replete with unintended consequences. [Source]

It remains to be seen how much of the "$200 billion buying spree" will actually materialize. Bloomberg reported earlier this month that oil and gas industry leaders had warned that White House that the buying commitments it had secured from China were unrealistic:

The “phase one” deal signed by President Donald Trump on Jan. 15 calls for China to purchase an additional $52.4 billion in liquefied natural gas, crude oil, refined products and coal over the next two years. To do that, China would have to import an additional 1 million barrels per day of crude oil, 500,000 barrels per day of refined products and 100 tankers full of liquefied natural gas, the American Petroleum Institute cautioned last month in a closed-door meeting with the Energy Department.

[…] “The United States’ ability to expand its exports of crude oil and other liquids would likely become a binding constraint,” API said in its briefing for the Energy Department. And “even if production is available, logistical challenges remain with marine shipping and the Panama Canal.”

[…] Analysts and markets were already skeptical over the deal and the $200 billion in additional purchases of everything from airplanes to crude oil and soybeans that is its centerpiece. Trump has himself said that his own advisers have counseled him that some of the commitments he sought from the Chinese were unrealistic and boasted of his own role in setting higher targets. [Source]

Trump’s tone on national security may cast doubt on a related class of export control: the "Entity List" designation of 20 Chinese public security bureaus and eight companies for "engaging in [or] enabling activities contrary to the foreign policy interests of the United States" by their involvement in mass detentions in Xinjiang. The designation bars unapproved sales of American products or components to organizations "reasonably believed to be involved, or to pose a significant risk of being or becoming involved, in activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States." Western companies’ and research institutions’ entanglements in Xinjiang had attracted mounting scrutiny as awareness of the detentions grew. Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg described previously unreported American sales of DNA analysis technology to Xinjiang at China File and Foreign Policy last week:

[… One] American company, the Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific, came under public criticism as early as 2017 for its sales of genetic sequencers to police in Xinjiang. Both the U.S. Congress and Human Rights Watch raised concerns about human rights and privacy violations as a result of the region’s DNA collection campaign—and the extent to which Thermo Fisher’s technology aided these violations. In 2019, Thermo Fisher halted its sales in the region, describing the suspension as in line with its ethics code, but did not say whether it would continue to sell its products elsewhere in China.

The Bingtuan [Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a "quasi-colonial enterprise" and "’vast farming militia’"] Public Security Bureau’s 2015 planned purchase, arranged through Promega’s authorized Xinjiang-based distributor, Hangzhou Xinyue Biotechnology Co., Ltd., was for Promega’s PowerPlex 21 system. Documents show that public security officials sought this specific equipment to create records from trace DNA—minimal amounts of DNA people leave behind as they touch surfaces—that were of high enough quality to be entered into a national DNA database. Because the PowerPlex 21 was the only equipment advanced enough for this work, public security officials were issuing a single-source procurement notice, meaning that they could skip a public bidding process. Unless the notice was contested within a seven-day period, officials could buy the listed equipment.

[…] The Promega website hosts the abstracts of two academic papers that discuss using genetic sequencing to distinguish different ethnic minority populations in China, including Uighurs. According to the full version of one of these papers, Promega equipment, in addition to products made by Thermo Fisher Scientific, was used in the course of the research. The research looked at 211 samples of Uighur individuals’ DNA collected in Korla, Xinjiang, with the subjects’ informed consent. Experts have previously expressed concern that, given the ever-present threat of internment, Uighurs in China cannot give true consent, and the science publishers Springer Nature and Wiley are conducting ethical reviews of papers they have published “in which scientists backed by China’s government used DNA or facial-recognition technology to study minority groups in the country, such as the predominantly Muslim Uyghur population,” according to Nature. [Source]

These sales are part of a broader pattern. Writing on the spread of digital authoritarianism at War On The Rocks last week, Cornell’s Jessica Chen Weiss noted that "according to a report by Steven Feldstein, repressive countries like Saudi Arabia rarely buy [surveillance] technologies from a single source, relying not only on Huawei but also companies based in democracies such as the United States (Google and Amazon), the United Kingdom (BAE), and Japan (NEC). Whether technology is inherently illiberal or neutral, with their usage depending on local interests, norms, and protections, it is clear that these technologies have not emanated solely from authoritarian regimes."

At The Financial Times last week, Janan Ganesh suggested that Trump’s lack of idealism might keep tensions with China more safely contained to the economic sphere than more principled stances by "his higher-minded successors."

By now, Europeans and other third-parties to the superpower tussle know that America will not soften its line under a new president. What they tend to underrate is the chance that it will actually harden. For all his militant jingoism, President Donald Trump views China in practical terms. The more power, security and wealth that it accrues, the less he believes there is for the US. It is an impoverished idea of foreign relations but it is at least transactional.

As proof, the Chinese can and often do buy off some of his animus with material concessions. Mr Trump’s quarrel is not a principled one with the essential nature of their government. In that sense, his cynicism, so unbecoming in other contexts, is a stabilising influence on this fraughtest of relationships.

[…] Mr Trump’s indifference to the domestic doings of China, Saudi Arabia and other governments has shown his narrowness of human sympathy. But it has also kept his squabbles with most of them to what is tangible and negotiable. It is not even as though he drives the hardest of bargains, as the North Koreans might testify between Cheshire Cat smiles. [Source]

With Trump’s emphasis on sales to China, scrutiny of investment flowing the other way looks set to continue. At Wired, the Atlantic Council’s Justin Sherman identified recent moves by the U.S. as part of a global trend, and highlighted the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States’ growing focus on Chinese tech investments (which includes a national security review of a 2017 acquisition by TikTok announced last November).

Established in 1975 through a Ford administration Executive Order, CFIUS is composed of representatives from State, Treasury, Defense, and numerous other agencies. The whole point is to balance myriad interests—broadly, economic and security goals. Of all entities within the executive brand, it has primary responsibility for watching foreign investment in the States. Its recommendations can lead to blocking covered transactions that threaten US national security—and even undoing those already completed.

[…] Lately, CFIUS has zeroed on deals centered on data, like when it informed Chinese company Beijing Kunlan Tech it had to sell the dating app Grindr. Information on sexual preferences and activity, the logic went, is too sensitive to risk falling into the Chinese government’s hands. And while the last time CFIUS publicly released investigation statistics was 2015, those numbers and recent press reports indicate a growing and heavy focus on Chinese investments in US tech.

[…] As talk of US-China “decoupling” remains in vogue—at least in certain Washington wonk circles—it’s worth realizing that numerous world leaders are exploring ways to limit security risks posed by investments in technology companies. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean all those efforts are necessarily well-scoped or well-executed in practice. Paranoia and misperception of actual foreign government capabilities and intent to access data abound in certain cases.

The question for policymakers, then, becomes: What kind of investments cross the line? Developing these clear criteria—and, in the US, in ways at least slightly more transparent than those in the current, largely opaque CFIUS process—can at once help to better inform the public about these processes and to better balance economic interests with those pertaining to data flows and national security. [Source]

© Samuel Wade for China Digital Times (CDT), get_post_time('Y'). | Permalink | No comment | Add to
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