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Digging in ChinaDiction #76
The US secretary of state's China trip was 'postponed' not 'canceled' by China's errant balloon, but don't hold your breath for a rescheduled Blinken-Xi get-together
Screenshot of what is alleged to be the Chinese surveillance balloon being shot down: Via Twitter.
Yes, it’s already old news: US President Biden had that Chinese balloon shot down as soon as it drifted over the incoming foamy waves of the Atlantic.
Some have called it all an overreaction, but basically the moment the balloon became national news, the Biden administration had no choice but to either shoot it down or cancel Secretary of State Blinken’s trip to China.
In the end Biden did both.
China’s vice-foreign minister – and likely next ambassador to the US – Xie Feng, submitted a formal complaint to the American embassy in Beijing, claiming that the destruction of the aerial device “seriously violated the spirit of international law.”
China has repeatedly claimed that the balloon was for “civilian use” and that it had meandered astray due to bad weather – just like the one China’s also admitted is floating around over Latin America.
The US says it reserves “the right to use the necessary means to deal with similar situations” and is now combing through the debris to figure out what the Chinese know about surveillance.
On an incidental note, for military geeks, according to Defense One:
F-22 jets from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and F-15 fighters from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts were among the military aircraft dispatched to shoot down the balloon, officials said.
The Raptor was at 58,000 feet when it fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, a senior military official said. At the time, the balloon was higher than the jet, flying between 60,000 and 65,000 feet.
The F-22 used the call sign “FRANK,” according to open-source aircraft spotters, in an apparent nod to Frank Luke Jr. The World War I fighter ace shot down 14 German surveillance balloons and was known as the “Arizona Balloon Buster.”. Luke Air Force Base in his home state is named after him.
The Chinese balloon is believed to be the first air-to-air kill for the F-22, a twin-engine stealth fighter that was originally built to battle Russian warplanes
Exciting stuff, but what exactly did China think it was doing? Did they think no one would notice?
Bloomberg (paywall) notes that the “US authorities were well aware of the unidentified object that had entered American airspace on Jan. 28 …
By the time the thing became visible in Montana, President Joe Biden had already been briefed and the White House was scrambling to decide whether to blast it from the sky.
The gravity of the situation was only exacerbated by Montana being home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which houses a large portion of the US’s Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles.
As the New York Times (paywall), among others, have noted, there’s not a whole lot China can do it about it but complain – as usual:
Hours after the balloon was struck by a Sidewinder missile and crumpled into the waters off South Carolina, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared its “strong discontent and protest” and doubled down on its position that the balloon was a civilian research airship blown way off course by fierce winds. Washington, not Beijing, had broken the rules, the ministry said.
The fallout, writes Bloomberg, is still settling but pressure is mounting on Joe Biden to hit back at Beijing with new export curbs on sensitive technology.
For all those posting balloon memes on social media and making “hot air” jokes, actually it’s a critical setback at a critical time. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s China visit was not expected to yield much – if anything – in the way of breakthroughs, but at least the US and China were agreeing that they needed to try to talk.
They are now going to have to find new reasons to do so, hopefully not in a last-ditch effort to avoid outright confrontation.
And meanwhile …
The above was breaking at the time of writing, but should not come as any great surprise.
Ironically, Hainan Island/Province was the site of the 2001 Hainan Island crisis, when a US EP-3E signals intelligence aircraft and a PRC J-8II jet collided in mid-air, downing the J-811 and forcing the EP-3E to emergency land on Hainan.
The pilots were interrogated for two weeks, the US paid for their accommodation and food and issued a letter of apology called the “letter of two sorries” to avoid an international incident and the EP-3E was returned to the US in pieces – according to some sources, in 200 boxes.
It’s difficult not to wonder how the incident would unfold today – particularly, whether the US would be apologizing.
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Obituaries offer clues into scale of Covid
Photo: Chinese social media; source unattributed.
Yes, China has been occasionally releasing Covid-19 statistics in the aftermath of the collapse of its Zero-Covid policy, but no one besides blow-hard state media workers and Chinese politicians pretend to believe them.
The New York Times (paywall) has taken an oblique approach to the problem by collecting obituaries of noted scholars published by the Chinese Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Both rose significantly in December last year and January this year.
Recent government data indicates there have been about 80,000 deaths since it lifted Covid restrictions, but Chinese social media has been avidly discussing soaring obituaries in media countrywide.
Any count is likely to be incomplete because the government has largely abandoned Covid testing, including in hospitals, said Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. “The reality is that even the government might not know everything,” he said.
“It’s the government’s job” to gather and share accurate information, Dr. Jin continued. “But they’re not doing their job.”
The deceased included molecular biologists, nuclear physicists and experts in agricultural chemistry. One academy member, Ma Jianzhang, 86, was a wildlife scientist who specialized in Siberian tigers. He helped establish the country’s only college for wildlife and nature reserves, and led groups including the China Zoological Society and the China Wildlife Conservation Association.
Full editorial mode: China’s utter lack of transparency from the moment “mystery pneumonia” cases started to emerge in Wuhan in late 2019, to providing data on the origins of the virus to providing the world with dependable window on the evolution of the virus in China has been shockingly lacking – worse than was the case in the first coronavirus outbreak of SARS-1 in 2003.
Local entrepreneurs unconvinced by Beijing about face
Long-time China commentator Min Xinpei, writing for the opinion section of Bloomberg, points out that local entrepreneurs are skeptical about Beijing’s claimed sudden enthusiasm for the private sector after several years of hammering it.
Foreign businesses are probably well advised to follow their lead.
Writes Min, the government may be campaigning “to convince executives and investors — both abroad and at home — that China is open for business again” but “Chinese entrepreneurs have long memories – and good reason to doubt government promises.”
At Davos last month, outgoing Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, a highly respected pragmatist and confidante of President Xi Jinping, reportedly left a strong impression on Western corporate titans with assurances that “China is back” and once again on the path of “reform and opening up” that drove its decades of spectacular growth.
While it’s too early to measure exactly how effective Liu’s sales pitch was, the recent spike of Chinese stocks listed overseas suggests foreign investors are eager to believe his message. Facing possible recessions at home, few Western CEOs can afford to miss out on China’s anticipated 5.5% GDP growth in 2023.
“The scars in China’s private sector run deep,” writes Min and government talk of “common prosperity” has led many entrepreneurs to vote with their feet. “Their skepticism,” he concludes, “could derail any incipient recovery.”
Credibility is easy to lose and hard to regain. Winning back the confidence of this key constituency is going to take work. At a minimum, the government needs to purge from its messaging all the leftist ideological elements, such as the emphasis on common prosperity, party supremacy, and political loyalty. To underscore that the shift to economic development is here to stay, the ruling Chinese Communist Party should immediately issue a formal Central Committee document pledging full support for the private sector.
Well, that’s not going to happen. Excitable, “go East,” China-boosters be warned.
US mulls sanctions on Chinese surveillance sales to Iran
The Wall Street Journal (paywall) is reporting that U.S. authorities are in advanced discussions on sanctions on Chinese surveillance companies over sales to Iran’s security forces
In the spotlight is Tiandy Technologies Co, “whose products have been sold to units of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a hard-line paramilitary group.”
On state television, the police in Tehran showcased the use of networked surveillance cameras to identify, follow and arrest demonstrators. Iran’s security forces are now planning to use Chinese technologies to detect and punish women who don’t wear the veil, according to an Iranian official and an adviser to the IRGC.
The expanding role of Chinese technology companies in helping Iran clamp down on dissent has drawn mounting scrutiny from Washington, where officials have grown alarmed by Beijing’s exports of surveillance tools used in a forced assimilation campaign targeting the Uyghur minority in China’s northwestern region.
The Greater Sinosphere
47 Democrats face the law in China’s ‘other’ system
The Financial Times (paywall) is calling it “Hong Kong’s largest national security law trial,” which it is.
It opened on Monday …
… with 47 of the city’s most prominent pro-democracy activists facing up to life imprisonment in a landmark case that could spell the end of the territory’s once vibrant political opposition.
Dennis Kwok, a former opposition lawmaker who now lives in the United States, was more direct, calling the trial “a complete farce,” according to Agence France-Presse via RFI.
The legal proceedings are expected to last for some four months.
Back to the FT:
The defendants, who include some of Hong Kong’s highest-profile politicians and campaigners, were arrested in January 2021 in the single largest police raid under the national security law. Most of the defendants have spent more than two years in pretrial detention after being denied bail.
Critics have described the arrests as a politically motivated crusade to wipe out Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy parties and eradicate opposition voices, part of China’s wider crackdown on the territory’s freedoms and civil society in the wake of anti-government protests in 2019.
Writes the New York Times (paywall)":
In hearings before the trial, 16 pleaded not guilty and 31 pleaded guilty, including Benny Tai and Joshua Wong. Most, if not all, of the 47 are expected to receive prison sentences, which could range from less than three years to life.
The defendants and their lawyers are barred from commenting on the case. But legal experts say the democracy proponents are likely under enormous pressure to plead guilty because of the lengthy detentions, dwindling financial resources and the difficult chances of winning in a court modeled after China’s authoritarian system.
‘The process is designed to be as painful as possible,’ said Samuel Bickett, a lawyer and activist based in Washington, D.C., who was jailed in Hong Kong after scuffling with a plainclothes police officer in 2019.
The Union of Catholic Asian (UCA) News reports that a bipartisan United States Congressional committee haw recommended that Cardinal Joseph Zen and Catholic pro-democracy publisher and entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, along with student activist Joshua Wong, trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan, lawyer Chow Hang-tung and journalist Gwyneth Ho be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
It would no doubt be an “honor,” if awarded, that would ironically, in Beijing’s eyes, justify whatever sentences are meted out.
Free tickets to Asia’s world city
Photo: David Clarke; Unsplash.
Reports Bloomberg, Chief Executive John Lee wants to make Hong Kong lovable again, but to do that he’s going to have to wipe away five years of truly bad shit – not to mention the “complete farce” legal proceedings against 47 Democrats that are ongoing as I write these words – and as noted above.
But in fairness, Lee’s got a “Hello, Hong Kong!” campaign and 500,000 free air tickets and vouchers to enjoy a welcome drink!
There are those who wouldn’t turn their noses up at such an offer.
We’ve all met them.
The city’s leader John Lee announced the giveaway at the launch of the Hello Hong Kong campaign at a briefing, saying it was “probably the world’s biggest welcome ever.” Lee highlighted a number of events coming up including the Rugby Sevens and city marathon in a speech given in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
The government is seeking to revive the economy and repair Hong Kong’s global image which was damaged by often-violent protests in 2019, the imposition of tough security laws in 2020 and three years of self-imposed isolation during the pandemic.
KMT deputy China-bound for talks
KMT Deputy Chairman Andrew Hsia. Photo: VOA via WikiCommons.
The Kuomintang (KMT) are at it again: posturing to the Taiwan public in a show that implicitly suggests, “Only we can keep the PLA away from your doorsteps.”
According to Reuters, the KMT’s deputy chairman, Andrew Hsia (Xià Lìyán, 夏立言), is leaving for China today (Wednesday) and will meet Song Tao, the newly appointed head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office.
He is also reportedly scheduled to meet Wang Huning, who is thought to be the intellectual mastermind behind “Xi Jinping thought” and who has been tasked with formulating a Taiwan-customized alternative to the “One Country, Two Systems” paradigm after the latter failed to live up to expectations – anywhere other than in Beijing – when it was applied to Hong Kong.
Chinese-language United Daily News (UDN) broke the Wang Huning news in Taiwan on Monday and seemed to be further confirmed by other reports yesterday (Tuesday).
Perhaps more importantly, UDN (Chinese) also reported that, according to Song Tao, talks between China and Taiwan can only resume if the Taiwanese government recognizes the 1992 Consensus insofar as it “manifests” the One China Principle.
The latter is a tricky point, because most Taiwanese today know that there was no 1992 consensus – former Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) head and KMT legislator Su Chi (Sū Qǐ, 蘇起) has admitted he made it up in 2000 before the KMT handed over presidential power to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
It’s possible, however, that Andrew Hsia might be the kind of KMT politician to play by China’s rules if it gives Taiwan voters the impression that a presidential vote for the KMT a year from now is a vote for peace and prosperity.
Reuters reported that Hsia, a former Taiwanese diplomat and one-time head of Taiwan’s MAC, said he and his delegation will “conduct exchanges and dialogue on the basis of equality and dignity."
It’s an interesting move by the KMT because it suggests that the party is betting that the Taiwanese are so rattled by the current situation that they will vote for a KMT presidential candidate who will re-recognize the 1992 Consensus on the grounds that China can be appeased with symbolic gestures toward unification.
It’s also a highly risky move, not only because it’s playing out during an international crisis between the US and China, but because as yet the KMT does not have a presidential candidate who can assure the Taiwanese public that he or she can stand firm on China when “symbolic gestures” fail to appease the giant across the strait.
That candidate could be KMT New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (Hóu Yǒuyí, 侯友宜) – probably the most popular politician in Taiwan today.
Unfortunately, the KMT inner sanctum consider him headstrong, possibly too “Taiwanese” and worst of all, perhaps potentially a party betrayer like Lee Teng-hui (Lǐ Dēnghuī, 李登輝), who some accuse of having thrown the 2000 presidential election to the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian (Chén Shuǐbiǎn, 陳水扁) after five decades of KMT rule over Taiwan.
Michael Fahey in Taipei and Chris Taylor in Bangkok
Chinese feelings be damned, Markéta Pekarová Adamová, speaker of the Czech lower house, is visiting Taiwan in March. Photo: WikiCommons.
First it was Czech President-elect Petr Pavel on the phone with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (Cài Yīngwén, 蔡英文), which obviously rankled Beijing, and now, reports EUROCTIV, Markéta Pekarová Adamová (ChinaDiction eagerly waits to see her name in the Chinese-language press), the speaker of the Czech lower house, announcing a trip to Taiwan with a delegation of entrepreneurs.
In some reports, China “slammed” the proposed visit; Reuters played it down:
The Chinese government has urged Adamová to cancel her trip, Reuters reported on Thursday [last week].
The EUROCTIV report added:
‘As a sovereign state, we decide who we call and who we meet with. We also need to respect that China is a major Asian trading partner. We have traditionally had good economic, educational and research relations with democratic Taiwan. We continue our tradition and point out the need to protect common democratic values,’ Prime Minister Petr Fiala (ODS) wrote to the Czech News Agency on Tuesday.
In 2020, the president of the Czech Senate upper chamber, Miloš Vystrčil, visited Taiwan despite the fact that the Czech Republic officially adhered to the one-China policy at the time.
There has been no suggestion that this policy has changed but EUROCTIV reports:
The arrival of Petr Pavel now brings a 180-degree turn of opinion to the presidency and unifies Czech foreign policy.
US General’s ‘gut feeling’ leaks to the press
The general’s got a gut feeling. Photo: US Air Force via WikiCommons.
A long Guardian think piece on a leaked memo by US Air Mobility Command (AMC) Gen Mike Minihan’s “gut instinct” that the US and China will go to war in 2025 dwells largely – and sensibly – on how regularly such predictions are made.
But it does devote some space to reactions in Taiwan, which is important, and considers the “balloon incident” – a reminder that “accidents” can happen, and one thing can lead to another, especially when dialogue has broken down.
Obviously, it’s in the interest of the US military for us all to be on full alert to justify defense spending, but the reality is nobody knows if and when conflict could break out.
In Taiwan, the memo received a modest level of coverage, featuring in news bulletins and political talkshows, but with far less alarmism than it got overseas.
Last weekend, February 5 marked the 15th – and last – day of the Lunar New Year, which was celebrated, as it is traditionally, with a lantern festival.
The lanterns burned as they always do in a Taiwan phlegmatically resigned to the warnings from the West and the threats from China.
First they come for your sand
Fucheng Village, Matsu Island. Photo: WikiCommons.
Reuters has an extensive report on how China is engaging in so-called gray-zone warfare – exhausting the enemy without actually resorting to open combat – by dredging sand around Taiwan’s Matsu islands, which are little more than a stone’s throw (9km at the closest point) off the coast of China’s Fujian Province.
The sand-dredging is one weapon China is using against Taiwan in a campaign … since June last year … swarming around the Matsu Islands, dropping anchor and scooping up vast amounts of sand from the ocean bed for construction projects in China.
The ploy is taxing for Taiwan’s civilian-run Coast Guard Administration, which is now conducting round-the-clock patrols in an effort to repel the Chinese vessels. Taiwanese officials and Matsu residents say the dredging forays have had other corrosive impacts - disrupting the local economy, damaging undersea communication cables and intimidating residents and tourists to the islands. Local officials also fear that the dredging is destroying marine life nearby.
The Taiwanese refer to it as psychological warfare, but it’s also a huge drain on Taiwan’s resources – it repelled 4,000 Chinese sand-dredgers and sand-transporting vessels last year; in 2019 it was 600.
The island has a total of just nine coast guard ships, ranging from 10 to 100 tons. On some days, government officials said, the coast guard has faced hundreds of Chinese vessels, ranging in size from 1,000 to 3,000 tons, in and around the island’s waters.
4,000km of railroad planned for the High Plateau
The Qingzang (Qinghai-Tibet) railway near Lhasa. Photo: Windmemories; Wikicommons.
To add insult to neocolonial injury, state tabloid The Global Times has taken to calling Tibet, Southwest China’s Xizang, in a reference to the Chinese name for Tibet.
In the meantime, the newspaper reports that 4,000km of railway will make Tibet further accessible to the rest of China in accordance with the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25)
According to the plan, the unique tourism resources in Xizang are expected to attract more tourists from China and abroad with railway passenger trips in the autonomous region anticipated to reach 5.62 million by 2025 and about 9.68 million by 2035.
Bill Bishop, in his widely read Sinocism Substack, remarks:
From the plans it looks like eventually there will be train line running through the little town at the base of Mt. Kailash.
Photo: Kenneth Schipper Vera; Unsplash.
The Chinese-language, pro-Taiwan Liberty Times reports that the Council of Agriculture is actively guiding pig farmers to convert pig manure into biogas for power generation.
Home to some 5.31 million pigs, at present the excrement and other waste of only around 2.5 million Taiwan pigs are being used as a power source.
But that in itself makes Taiwan a regional leader, reducing carbon emissions by 50,000 tons a year.
The council is not resting on putting pig manure to work alone; some 60% of Taiwan’s estimated 6,000 pig farm now have roofs with photovoltaic panels, in a total upgrade investment of NT$4 billion (US$133 million), according to the deputy director of the Animal Husbandry Department of the Council of Agriculture.
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