Hi, China Watchers. Today we’ll look at GOP efforts to revive the DOJ’s now-defunct China Initiative, explore the legacy of outgoing Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and giggle-test an alleged Chinese cyberattack against Ukraine. We’ll also highlight the new Great Translation Movement, assess Taiwan’s Ukraine generosity and gauge the global disorder factor of a rising China in our “One Book, Three Questions” section. Got a book to recommend? Tell me about it at [email protected].
Let’s get to it. — Phelim
A group of GOP lawmakers say the Department of Justice’s closure of its China Initiative investigation program in February has “recklessly” endangered U.S. security interests.
Those lawmakers — who include Sens. MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.), RICK SCOTT (R-Fla.) MIKE BRAUN (R-Ind.), BILL HAGERTY (R-Tenn.), MARSHA BLACKBURN (R-Tenn.) and RON JOHNSON (R-Wis.) — are demanding the DOJ put a target on China and are backing that rhetoric with the “Protect America’s Innovation and Economic Security from CCP Act.”
The bill aims to restore the China Initiative’s effort “to investigate and prevent spying by the Communist Party of China on U.S. intellectual property and academic institutions and counter threats to U.S. national security,” the lawmakers said in a statement.
The act underscores an emerging GOP political campaign strategy designed to paint the Biden administration as weak-willed amid heightening public concern about China’s economic, security and military threat to the U.S.
“The Department of Justice canceled the China Initiative because a band of woke activists smeared it as racist and xenophobic,” Rubio said in a press statement. “The Chinese Communist Party is the single greatest threat to our national security, and it was a foolish decision to divert resources from confronting this threat.”
Rubio’s “woke activists” reference is a dog whistle to a conservative base that has interpreted social accountability efforts, including the #MeToo movement and Defund the Police campaign, as unnecessary disruptions of the status quo.
U.S. public opinion has soured toward China over the past two years due to concerns ranging from Covid-19 origins to China’s increasingly aggressive posture in the Indo-Pacific. The percentage of Americans who perceive China as the “greatest enemy” of the U.S. rose to 45 percent in 2020 from 22 percent in 2019, while the proportion of Americans who perceive Chinese economic power as a “critical threat” rose to 64 percent in 2020 from 46 percent in 2019, a Gallup poll published in March 2021 revealed.
Democratic lawmakers see hypocrisy in that political opportunism.
“Curious that these senators are choosing to defend this xenophobic program as a purported matter of national security, but don’t want to talk about or address the home-grown insurrection last year that was stoked by the leader of their party,” Rep. TED LIEU (D-Calif.) told China Watcher.
Multiple Senate primary campaigns have produced platforms emphasizing the severity of a “China threat” and linking political rivals to China-friendly policies or business interests. Those campaigns include GOP Senate primary races in Missouri and Pennsylvania as well as a Democratic Senate primary race in Ohio.
References to China in an online ad for Rep. TIM RYAN (D-Ohio) reaped a tweet critique last week from Rep. GRACE MENG (D-N.Y.) for potentially provoking anti-Asian hate crimes by “shifting blame away from American corporations’ anti-worker policies and putting a target on the backs of #AAPIs [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders].”
A DOJ spokesperson declined to comment on criticism of the China Initiative’s closure or the proposed legislation to revive it. Instead, the spokesperson referred China Watcher to Assistant Attorney General for National Security MATTHEW OLSEN’s comments in a February 23 press briefing and recent prosecutions of individuals implicated in spying for the Chinese government.
In that briefing noting the initiative’s official closure, Olsen vowed to be “relentless in defending our country from China,” but noted public concern about the program’s alleged racial profiling and said that the Justice Department would shift gears to a wider security threat focus from “hostile nations,” including China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.
DOJ will also temper its focus on researchers suspected of grant fraud linked to their relationships with Chinese educational institutions through “alternative remedies, such as civil or administrative [penalties],” Olsen said.
Asian American advocacy groups are also leery about giving oxygen to the GOP move to revive the China Initiative.
“We are very concerned about giving the bill attention and giving it traction/momentum in what I believe is an effort to invigorate Congressional members to reinstate the China Initiative,” GISELA PEREZ KUSAKAWA, assistant director of the Anti-Racial Profiling Project at the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said in a statement. “I am very hesitant to add fuel to that fire.”
GOP lawmakers can expect fierce Democratic opposition to efforts to revive and rebrand the China Initiative.
“The Department of Justice has already re-framed their work to target actual threats from our adversaries, including from China, based on criteria that are not focused solely on potential ties to a specific country,” said Rep. JUDY CHU (D-Calif.) ”Reviving this program as the CCP Initiative will do nothing to curb the national security threats we face, but will only continue to encourage profiling of Chinese researchers, stymie the collaborative nature of our country’s research enterprise, and perpetuate anti-Asian hate.”
HONG KONG LEADER LAM LEAVES MALIGNANT LEGACY
The deeply unpopular Hong Kong Chief Executive CARRIE LAM announced Monday that she will not seek a second five year term. But that’s not lighting the fires of hope for would-be democrats — the Chinese government is continuing to tighten control over the territory at the expense of human rights and rule of law.
Lam’s tenure will end in June, but her legacy will be of a zealous servant of Beijing who championed policies, particularly the draconian National Security Law introduced in June 2020, that have undermined the city’s status as an international financial hub, destroyed the vestiges of a free press and spurred a surge in outward migration.
Lam’s presumed successor, Hong Kong’s chief secretary for administration, JOHN LEE KA-CHIU, will likely only tighten Beijing’s chokehold on the former British colony and further diminish its viability as a regional business center.
“Beijing has decided to promote John Lee and the message there is very clear — the policies that we’ve seen in the past two years will continue,” said DENNIS KWOK, former Civic Party member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Beijing doesn’t care about public opinion in Hong Kong anymore — they want to tell the world that this policy that they have in turning Hong Kong into a security and police state is not going to change.”
Lee, a former police officer and the territory’s secretary of security from 2017 to 2021, oversaw often brutal police responses to pro-democracy protests. That earned him a spot on a U.S. Treasury Department sanctions list in 2020. Lee’s proven disregard for the niceties of civil liberties pairs well with Maj. Gen. PENG JINGTANG, former head of the People’s Armed Police in Xinjiang, who Beijing appointed in January as chief of Hong Kong’s People’s Liberation Army garrison.
Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN last week accused the Chinese government of crushing Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms. “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has continued to dismantle Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, placed unprecedented pressure on the judiciary, and stifled academic, cultural, and press freedoms,” Blinken said to mark the release of this year’s Hong Kong Policy Act Report.
“In just one term, Lam oversaw the collapse of the rule of law, the disappearance of basic freedoms, the end of “one country, two systems” and she will be remembered as the chief executive who transformed one of the freest cities in the world into one of the most politically repressed,” said SAMUEL CHU, president of the nonprofit The Campaign for Hong Kong.
Lam, who was also sanctioned by the U.S. in 2020, said her resignation was due to family reasons. But observers say that Lam’s emergence as the focus of public dismay over the National Security Law and the government’s deadly bungling of the territory’s recent Covid surge made a second term untenable.
“I am sure it was not her decision,” said MARK CLIFFORD, president of the nonprofit Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong. “She might have been relieved, but everything we know about her kind of stubborn stick-to-it-iveness nature suggests that it wasn’t her decision, it was Beijing’s decision.”
— U.S. ANNOUNCES AUKUS HYPERSONIC MISSILE PROGRAM: The U.S., U.K. and Australia will start joint work on hypersonic missile technology and electronic warfare capabilities under the umbrella of the AUKUS security pact, POLITICO’s CRISTINA GALLARDO reported Tuesday. AUKUS is a working group geared to share advanced technologies in a thinly veiled bulwark against China.
The decision, announced Tuesday by the leaders of the three countries, is the latest move in an international race for hypersonic weapons, which are not only fast but maneuverable, making them much harder to detect and shoot down. China successfully tested its own hypersonic missile in August. The collaboration underscores the deepening security partnership between the U.S., Britain and Australia, after their creation of AUKUS last September scuppered a mega submarine deal for France, souring relations between Washington and Paris.
— RUBIO TARGETS CHINA’S ‘MILITARY CIVIL FUSION’: The Florida senator announced Tuesday that he’s planning legislation that will prohibit U.S. academic collaboration that could benefit China’s “Military-Civil Fusion” strategy. “We can no longer pursue scientific collaboration with institutions in China. Because if we do, it is all but guaranteed that any promising research or emerging technology that can have military applications will wind up in the hands of the Chinese military,” Rubio said in opening remarks to an experts’ panel convened by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (and moderated by yours truly) focused on “Disrupting China’s Military-Academic Complex.”
— NAVY: CHINESE TAIWAN INVASION TIMETABLE ‘UNPREDICTABLE’: A senior U.S. Navy official said Monday that it’s difficult to estimate if or when China’s People’s Liberation Army may try to invade Taiwan. “I think the window of a potential unification by force is highly, highly unpredictable,” Adm. SAMUEL PAPARO told reporters. Paparo’s comments suggest a slight walk-back from comments in March 2021 by the then-head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. PHILIP DAVIDSON, that an invasion could occur in the next six years.
The State Department’s approval Tuesday of the sale to Taiwan of a $95 million Patriot Air Defense System, a handy risk-mitigation tool in the face of China’s expansion of Taiwan-targeted surface-to-surface missiles, suggests the Biden administration is taking no chances. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson ZHAO LIJIAN said Wednesday the sales’ approval will “severely harm” bilateral relations.
Meanwhile, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. DAVID BERGER made clear that a posture of “campaigning forward” embedded in the upcoming National Defense Strategy would be a potent deterrent to any possible Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific. “If you’re [China] — if you want to extend your defense line farther and we’re already there — it makes it much more difficult,” Berger said in a speech Monday at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference.
COMMISSION WARNS ON CHINA RIGHTS ABUSES: The bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China released its annual report on China’s human rights and rule of law developments last week and the findings weren’t pretty. “The report reflects the view of CECC commissioners that the Chinese government’s systematic violations of human rights and failure to fulfill its obligations under international treaties pose a challenge to the rules-based international order, requiring a consistent and coordinated response from the United States and its allies and partners,” a commission statement said.
— TAIWAN CAUCUS: GIVE ISLAND IPEF ROLE: The co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Taiwan Caucus last week urged the U.S. Biden administration to allow Taiwan to participate in the Biden administration’s new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. “As Taiwan is a major economy in the Indo-Pacific region, we strongly believe that Taiwan should be invited to participate in the IPEF,” Reps. ALBIO SIRES (D-N.J.), MARIO DIAZ-BALART (R-Fla.), GERRY CONNOLLY (D-Va.) and STEVE CHABOT (R-Ohio) said in a letter to Commerce Secretary GINA RAIMONDO and U.S. Trade Representative KATHERINE TAI.
— EU-CHINA SUMMIT HARDENS BILATERAL DIVIDE: The EU’s foreign policy chief JOSEP BORRELL on Tuesday described Friday’s EU-China Summit as a “deaf dialogue,” noting Chinese officials’ unwillingness to discuss Russia’s Ukraine invasion. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao on Wednesday called Borrell’s comments “irresponsible” and “counter to facts.”
— UKRAINE ‘CHINA CYBERATTACK’ STORY FALLS SHORT: Ukraine on Friday refuted allegations by The Times that the Chinese government had “coordinated” thousands of cyberattacks on “more than 600 websites belonging to the defence ministry in Kyiv and other institutions.” The paper sourced those allegations to an unnamed source in the official Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, which quickly denied the report. “The SBU has nothing to do with the findings of The Times. The Security Service of Ukraine does not currently have such data and no investigation is underway,” the SBU said in a statement obtained by The Guardian.
Skepticism about The Times’ story abounds.
“We would not expect China to undertake a cyberattack in Ukraine and the bigger the claim, the higher the standard of proof you would hope for,” said BEN READ, cyber-espionage analysis director at the cybersecurity firm Mandiant. “That would be well outside what we’ve seen them do before … [and] it would be an unprecedented move for a bunch of different reasons.”
— REPORT: CHINA’S WILDLIFE TRADE HARMS MEXICO: China’s role as buyer of illegally trafficked wildlife and timber from Mexico is harming the country’s biodiversity, a Brookings Institution report warned. “In Mexico, far more so than in other parts of the world, poaching and wildlife trafficking for Chinese markets is increasingly thickly intermeshed with drug trafficking, money laundering, and value transfer in illicit economies,” the report’s author, VANDA FELBAB-BROWN, said in its executive summary.
— ‘GREAT TRANSLATION MOVEMENT’ EXPOSES ONLINE INIQUITY: Video footage of nylon bags stuffed with wailing cats awaiting slaughter reflects a local campaign against strays. A high-profile Chinese blogger parrots Russian denials of war crimes in Ukraine. A student records the intimidation tactics of neighborhood volunteers angered by online complaints about lockdown food shortages. These are snapshots of translated Chinese internet perspectives that a Twitter account called “The Great Translation Movement” is sharing to shine a light on social media commentary otherwise inaccessible to those not fluent in Mandarin.
TGTM, which has gained more than 100,000 followers since it launched last month, is the brainchild of a self-described collective of anonymous Chinese dissidents who launched it “to name and shame those who praise Putin, the unjustified invasion, authoritarianism, and the spread of far-right nationalist ideas on social media,” CHAUNCEY JUNG wrote Tuesday in The Diplomat. “While a social media campaign is unlikely to outperform the CCP propaganda apparatus, the effectiveness of this social media campaign highlights a critical weakness in China’s propaganda tactics … their messages and efforts now become embarrassments on international social media platforms.”
— CHINA’S ‘ZERO-COVID’ COSTS $46B MONTHLY: China’s “zero-Covid strategy” is costing China around $46 billion per month in lost economic activity, ZHENG MICHAEL SONG, an economist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong estimated last week. Despite the economic cost, the “zero-Covid strategy” has been wildly successful from a public health perspective. Johns Hopkins University data indicates that China has recorded only approximately 12,900 deaths from Covid-19, compared to approximately 982,000 in the U.S.
But this week’s extension of the Shanghai lockdown to all of its 26 million residents, the curtailment of most commercial and industrial activity, and restrictions on residents’ access to essential services and food supplies — including for U.S. Marines posted at the city’s U.S. Consulate — fuel doubts about the “zero-Covid” strategy’s cost-benefit ratio.
The draconian policy has also sparked pleas from 30 foreign embassies in China to exclude foreign families from the compulsory separation from their parents of children who test positive for Covid-19. Shanghai authorities eased that policy Wednesday by allowing infected parents to accompany infected children in state isolation facilities.
“China’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy in the age of Omicron was doomed to fail,” MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said on his podcast last week. “China had to prepare for the possibility that their ‘zero-Covid’ playbook might not be enough, and they did not [prepare].”
— TAIWAN’S UKRAINE SOFT POWER OPPORTUNITY: Taiwan is showing up China by providing $32 million and 650 tons of relief supplies for Ukrainian refugees, the self-governing island’s Foreign Ministry announced Friday. Taiwan is distributing those funds and supplies — raised from private donations — via the governments of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Lithuania for distribution to Ukrainian refugees within their borders.
China’s contributions to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine have been embarrassingly modest: some $790,000 with the promise of $1.6 million more to come. That contrast in national generosity marks a soft power win for Taiwan in Central Europe where it has already forged a close diplomatic relationship with Lithuania.
“Taiwan can always benefit from the chance to participate in international affairs — even more so if that participation involves the defense of democracy and liberalism,” said KUAN-TING CHEN, CEO of the Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a Taipei-based think tank.
“Taiwan has a vital interest in the continuation of international norms that the Russian-Chinese axis is currently attempting to shatter.”
Worth your time…
“Boris Johnson’s China Problem“
“Bristling Against the West, China Rallies Domestic Sympathy for Russia“
“For the rising stars of Taiwanese political satire, China is a joke“
— XI JINPING TO MEET WITH PHILIPPINES’ DUTERTE: China’s ASEAN charm offensive continues this week with Xi’s virtual meeting Friday with Philippine President RODRIGO DUTERTE. No agenda has been publicly released, but Duterte hinted Tuesday that the two leaders might discuss their competing territorial claims to the Spratly Islands, while emphasizing that the two countries “do not have any quarrel.” Duterte’s presidency will come to an end this summer, with elections scheduled for May 9.
The Book: “China Unbound: A New World Disorder”
The Author: JOANNA CHIU, a senior reporter for the Toronto Star.
What is the most important takeaway from your book?
Democracies have mishandled, misinterpreted, or simply ignored Beijing’s actions for too long. My book dissects what the West has gotten wrong about China, while providing nuance and context about Beijing’s global ambitions based on firsthand accounts. It is ordinary people — not the global elite — who are the prime targets of the CCP’s foreign influence campaigns. China Unbound highlights the stories of people, like the international student in Canada threatened by Chinese police, who are marginalized in Western societies and excluded from positions of influence.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?
In Europe, I met quite a few people who found themselves agreeing with President Xi Jinping’s ideas about a new world order, one in which the U.S. isn’t hegemonic. It was fascinating to explore why the government of Greece has used its vote in the United Nations to stand with Beijing. I also researched why Ankara is in a state of limbo as to what extent to oppose China’s anti-Muslim crackdown. And in Russia, I examined distrust among local stakeholders towards Chinese counterparts.
What does your book tell us about the trajectory and future of U.S.-China relations?
America cannot effectively counter China’s human rights abuses and its attempts to undermine democracy abroad without facing its own complicity. Hypocrisy and the spread of disinformation about China became particularly acute under Trump, but they haven’t gone away since he left office. I recently updated my book’s arguments in this article for Noema magazine.
Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Matt Kaminski, Cristina Gallardo, digital producer Setota Hailemariam and editor John Yearwood.
Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week’s items? Email us at [email protected].