Stuck in the Middle
Putin's ordered troops into eastern Ukraine, has the backing of parliament, recognizes two pro-Russia separatist regions within Ukraine – can't we just give peace a chance? China wonders.
It’s always a big day in China, but with Russia all but at war with Ukraine and Hong Kong straining under a Covid-19 crisis, these are bigger days than usual.
Practicalities: relations with Europe are probably most at risk for China if Beijing is perceived as being insufficiently aghast at Putin’s Ukraine (and perhaps Belarus) escapades – and Europe’s patience with China has been strained for some time.
If Beijing had its way, it would maintain strong ties with Moscow, safeguard its trade relationship with Ukraine, keep the EU in its economic orbit, and avoid the spillover from US and EU sanctions on Moscow – all while preventing relations with the United States from significantly deteriorating. Securing any one of these objectives may well be possible. Achieving all of them is not.
At this point, China hasn’t called on its citizens to leave Ukraine, but the local embassy has advised them to avoid “unstable areas” and pay heed to safety notices.
Allegedly a leaked notice to the media advices against writing anything unfavorable about Russia or anything positive about Europe:
𝐋𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐋𝐢 @lingli_viennaDetailed censorship instructions for dissemination of reports and comments on the Russian-Ukraine conflict, mistakenly leaked⬇️⬇️⬇️ *Shimian account belongs to 新京报 (Beijing News). *人新央 refers to, presumably, People's Daily, Xinhua Agency & CCTV. https://t.co/VoZSj08goS
If that’s how it’s going to be played, this might well herald the denouement of the great decoupling between the West and China – or at least the commencement of a new, more turbulent phase in its evolution.
Hong Kong in the crosshairs
Carrie Lam reckons it’s a war:
All Hong Kong residents will have to undergo compulsory Covid-19 testing, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said, according to Hong Kong Free Press. The tests will be carried out in three rounds and Hong Kong residents will be asked to conduct daily self-testing, kits for which which will be provided.
Dining and flight restrictions are expected to stay in place until April.
Nurses and doctors … say the situation is similar across Hong Kong's health system, showing the limits of the government's "dynamic zero-COVID" strategy as thousands of new cases are discovered each day. Daily infections have surged 70 times since the start of February.
At some hospitals, bedridden elderly and children were seen left for hours in carparks, waiting in the cold and rain, in scenes that shocked residents and many in the global medical community.
Some Hongkongers are taking no risks:
‘Uncommon prosperity’ still under attack
It’s been going on for a year now, and all the big players have been caught up in the dragnet – Tencent, Alibaba, Meituan (the ATM, as they’re known), Didi, companies in the private education sector, online gaming and crypto, you name it.
The latest big tech wipeout, as Bloomberg is calling it, started on Friday last week, when Beijing announced – as part of its systemic effort to achieve “common prosperity” – that China’s online food-delivery outfits would have to reduce their fees. On Monday, the National Audit Office demanded that state-owned enterprises disclose any financial exposure to Alibaba’s fintech affiliate, Ant Group, Bloomberg reported.
What did the Bloomberg opinion writer Shuli Ren make of this?
Since Xi made his push for “common prosperity” last summer, there’s been a lot of talk on whether China has turned anti-capitalist. That’s the wrong question. What’s happening now is that when the economy slows, Beijing will sift through every corner of the society looking for cash cows. Big Tech — from Alibaba to Tencent — happens to be more profitable than the rest. As such, they will be asked to contribute to the common good. Big Tech is not off the hook until the campaign against Covid becomes a distant memory.
Today, she sees an anti-corruption probe that “is shaping up to be the widest such inquiry since 2016."
By providing payment, credit and investment services to the middle class and small businesses, Ant remains at the center of China’s financial system. In these days of unprecedented defaults and high-profile anti-corruption campaigns, we are getting another reminder that Ant’s future might be beyond its own control.
In other words –as we all know deep down anyway – every business’s future in China is beyond its own control.
Omicron brings Covid home to Wuhan, reports the Global Times.
The total infections reached 14 in two days with all centered on a cosmetics staff training participated by about 66 people.
The emerging outbreak did not halt activity in the whole city, nor was mass testing rolled out, except that residents of affected regions were required to undergo nucleic acid testing and quarantine at home since Monday.
Cathay gets a new rival. Flight Global reports:
Hong Kong has granted Greater Bay Airlines an operating license, a move that effectively means the start-up carrier can begin scheduled flights immediately.
A notice from the Air Transport Licensing Authority (ATLA) says the license is effective for five years. It has allowed the carrier to operate passenger, cargo or mail flights “at unlimited frequency” to over 104 routes from Hong Kong.
Greater Bay Airlines is headed by former Cathay Dragon chief Algernon Yau, and aspires to operate more than 100 Asia-Pacific routes.
It’s estimated that Cathay’s passenger capacity this month is roughly 2% of its pre-pandemic capacity, while cargo capacity is around 20%, according to reports.
It is an open question whether Cathay Pacific is in severe trouble and if it will survive. There is little that Cathay Pacific can do about Covid-19 and the associated government restrictions; therefore, the airline is entirely reliant on Hong Kong’s government — as well as the government of mainland China.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called China’s alleged shining of a laser at an Australian Defense force plane in the Arufa Sea an “act of intimidation,” reports the Australian Broadcasting Commission.
Japan's Ambassador to Canberra has backed Australia's demand that China's navy explains why it shined the laster, calling it a "very dangerous" provocation.
Australia claims the Chinese action put the lives of the Australian air crew at risk.
One day, Australia may wake up to the fact that China is in no mood to make up and be mates again.
In a sign of increasing rapprochement between the US and Taiwan, former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will visit Taiwan next month; he is one of the most senior US dignitaries to visit in recent years, reports Bloomberg.
In the final days of Pompeo’s tenure, the State Department scrapped decades-old restrictions on how US diplomats could interact with their Taiwanese counterparts.
‘Pompeo has long been sanctioned by China due to his anti-China actions and deeds,’ Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Monday. ‘The [Democratic Progressive Party] DPP authorities’ attempts to achieve independence with the help of the US will only end up getting themselves burnt.’
The terrible saga of the woman in chains, which has transfixed China’s internet, continues (read this excellent backgrounder on a very bizarre story for the details), but not in any remotely Disney-like ways:
Obviously, barricading the village of China’s current human loci of social injustice is one way to deal with the problem – eventually, if China fences off enough embarrassments, there’ll be no more embarrassments left to see and China will have achieved the grand convergence of wise governance and social harmony that it advocates as the answer to the world’s problems.
In more blunt terms, Go after the whistleblowers!
“A vast deposit of one of the most highly coveted metals on Earth could potentially be located in the region around Mount Everest, reports the South China Morning Post.
It’s lithium, and as the SCMP points out:
Lithium is essential in electric vehicle batteries, and its value could increase 4,000 per cent by 2040 if global climate goals are met.
In Taiwan, repeat presidential contender and all-round big hitter James Soong is under fierce scrutiny:
This is a big, complicated and important story involving Lafayette-class navy frigates from a French state defense company and billions of dollars, but it’s unlikely it will make headlines beyond Taiwan (and France).
In brief, from OCCRP:
The so-called Lafayette scandal is one of the largest naval contracting corruption schemes in modern history. Some $520 million was paid out in kickbacks to senior officials in Taiwan, France, and mainland China, according to court testimonies. There was even a spate of suspicious deaths of people appointed to investigate the scandal.
Now, records from Suisse Secrets, a global investigation coordinated by OCCRP and based on banking data leaked to Süddeutsche Zeitung, reveal an undisclosed account at Credit Suisse belonging to a high-profile Taiwanese politician that sheds new light on the case.
Yes, the high-profile Taiwanese politician is James Soong. The amount?
Book Review: The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
Undoubtedly one of the most insightful, thought-provoking and profound books written by a non-Chinese in recent years, Souls of China was published as recently as 2017, but it already reads as if it belongs to another era, a China where religion has forcibly burned its idols and gone into hiding.
Before the rise of Xi Jinping, religion was a thorny subject in China (especially when it coincided with ethnicity, as was the case for Tibetans and Uyghurs), but it unexpectedly flourished in pockets and spiritually-voided Chinese sought them out. Ian Johnson went to the trouble of finding such people and sharing their stories .
Becoming a lay Buddhist or Daoist was increasingly popular. Some prominent Chinese, like the singer Faye Wong, were lay Buddhists. Wong, a onetime sex symbol and torch-song singer, had carved out a new identity with music featuring esoteric and explicitly Buddhist lyrics. Others signed up for Tibetan Buddhism, which they viewed as a purer form of the religion because it came from what they thought of as an unspoiled part of China—the Tibetan plateau.
But the greater religion that unrecognizably changed China in just a few decades had a far larger following:
When the Cultural Revolution ended, many wondered if they could ever trust anyone again. Some hoped that a kinder, gentler society might replace the violence of the Mao era. Throughout the 1980s, people wrote and argued for an ethical awakening. Writers like Ba Jin, for example, called for a Cultural Revolution museum to commemorate and warn against the horrors of the past. Instead, public discussion was throttled; the 1989 massacre of demonstrators further stifled any open debate about how to organize society. As economic reforms accelerated in the early 1990s, the country was ordered to direct its energies into getting rich.
Johnson’s book is in a league of its own when he interacts with Chinese and learns about their culture, but religion didn’t really return after Mao. It certainly stirred for a while, but today it’s more repressed than it ever has been before, and it didn’t disappear in the way that qigong (think of it as exercises related to tai chi, if that helps) did.
In the 1980s and 1990s, it had been one of the most dramatic religious movements in modern Chinese history, with millions of people occupying parks each morning, sitting, swaying, levitating, and hugging trees. Some of the nation’s most famous universities, such as Tsinghua University, as well as the military studied whether qi –the energy force that Chinese religion and medicine say runs through our bodies – really existed. Messianic qigong masters had roamed China, claiming to have answers to the immorality that people felt was enveloping China. But qigong had suddenly disappeared from public view after the 1999 crackdown on one of its militant offshoots, Falun Gong.
Sadly, so far, that is how religion has met its demise in Xi Jinping’s China: not with a bang, but with a whimper
“The flush should be fixed by the time we’re ready to relocate you here, your permanent new quarters:”