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The coal winter ahead
China is frequently touted as a global leader in renewables; the numbers suggest otherwise
Patches of green; China aims to be carbon neutral by 2060, but in 2022 it’s still pretty much business as usual. Photo: Bart van Dijk; Unsplash.
Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader, said a lot of things on Sunday, the first day of the week-long, once-in-five years Party Congress, but one remark deserves more attention than it received.
Basically, Xi said, clean energy goals have their place, but energy security is more important.
As Bloomberg puts it:
Xi’s speech made China’s path to decarbonization clear: It won’t stop burning fossil fuels until it’s confident that clean energy can reliably replace them. The speech shows more emphasis on energy security and the significant role of coal in China’s energy supply given the resources endowment, said Qin Yan, lead analyst with Refinitiv.
OK, a huge surge in investment in clean energy by local governments and state-owned firms took place two years ago after Xi announced that China would reach carbon neutrality by 2060 after peaking emissions before 2030.
But the reality is that China may still be the world’s second largest economy, but when it comes to carbon emissions it’s No 1 – by far.
Over to the Institute for Energy Research:
China’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 were more than that of the United States, the European Union, and India combined. In 2020, China’s carbon dioxide emissions were 10.7 billion metric tons compared to 9.7 billion metric tons for the next 3 largest emitters combined. Since 2000, China’s carbon dioxide emissions grew by a factor of 3. They increased 1.4 percent in 2020, while most other countries saw a decrease in emissions in 2020 due to lockdowns caused by the coronavirus.
Those are the numbers, and the reality is that it is challenging to steer a hard turn on a climate-change behemoth like China. In fact, it’s tempting to write off China’s firm climate promises as more windy commitments to shared global values when, in fact, it will do whatever circumstances demand or opportunities offer.
Case in point, last year, shortages of coal sparked a national energy crisis, and China is facing yet another now as the Party Congress is underway.
As Bloomberg reports in another China coal-addiction story:
China has stepped up efforts to ensure energy supply ahead of what might be a colder-than-normal winter, including ordering liquefied natural gas importers to stop reselling cargoes to other buyers and instead direct them to the mainland.
And coal stockpiles at major power plants are at about 170 million tons, nearly double last year’s levels, Ren Jingdong, vice head of the National Energy Administration, said Monday at a press conference.
State media reports that coal production had increased by 11% year on year in August, nearly doubling the 5.7% annual growth rate seen in 2021, while officials had authorized the construction of 46 GW of new coal-fired power capacity – twice the capacity approved last year.
Meanwhile, let’s not forget that China broke off climate negotiations with the US in August after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan – a reminder that China will hold the world hostage over political disputes while simultaneously prioritizing energy however it can get it.
China may well be leading the world in investment into renewables as many in the Middle Kingdom choir are so eager to remind us, but it’s still very far from giving up on dirty power.
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Ministry begins engaging with chips sanctions
At least China still has the abacus; even Biden cannot take that away. Photo: Sam Balye; Unsplash.
China’s top technology agency, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), has held a series of crisis meetings with semiconductor manufacturers in an effort to assess the Biden administration’s latest round of technology restrictions, according to Bloomberg.
The ministry has summoned executives from businesses such as Yangtze Memory Technologies Co (YMTC) into closed-door meetings, but …
MIIT officials appeared uncertain about the way forward and at times appeared to have as many questions as answers for the chipmakers, people familiar with the discussions said. While they refrained from hinting about counter-measures, officials stressed the domestic IT market would provide sufficient demand for affected companies to keep operating, the people said, asking to remain anonymous on a sensitive issue.
Many of the participants argued US curbs collectively spell doom for their industry, as well as China’s ambitions to un-tether its economy from American technology. Yangtze Memory, among China’s best hopes of getting into cutting-edge chipmaking, warned the MIIT its future may be in jeopardy, according to one of the people.
Xi Jinping has never ceased to warn the Chinese people of the challenges ahead – some of them of his own making, by awakening the world to a boldly assertive China that plays by its own rulebook – but in this case the technology wars are not a one-way street in which China stagnates and the West crunches numbers.
The global chip industry, which relies on China as the world’s biggest single consumer of semiconductors, has been bracing for retaliation of some fashion from Beijing. US firm Lam Research Corp. warned its revenue could halve in China – a market that yields roughly 30% of its overall business. ASML however suggested ‘fairly limited’ impact from the export controls.
In short, this is going to hurt China more than it does the West. But the PRC is a regime built on nursed grievances and the latest chip developments are likely to add fuel to the flames of nationalism once the MIIT figures out exactly what has happened and shuffles the information upstairs to the inner sanctums of power, which are being reassembled just this week.
Influencers on the edge of empire
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has released another fascinating report, this time on social media influencers from China’s frontiers – Hey, it’s all hunky dory out here in Xinjiang and Tibet!
Listen to a podcast interview with the authors here.
Australia’s SBS News sums up the contents:
New research has found China is using social media in increasingly sophisticated ways to sanitise its image of troubled areas, including Xinjiang. A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says China's government is using popular ethnic-minority influencers to spread its narrative around the world.
From the report’s executive summary:
Despite being blocked in China, YouTube is seen by the CCP as a key battlefield in its ideological contestation with the outside world, and YouTube’s use in foreign-facing propaganda efforts has intensified in recent years …
Alongside party-state media and foreign vloggers, these carefully vetted domestic vloggers are increasingly seen as another key part of Beijing’s external propaganda arsenal … For the CCP, frontier influencers represent, in the words of one Chinese propaganda expert, ‘guerrillas or militia’ fighting on the flanks in ‘the international arena of public opinion’, while party-state media or the ‘regular army’ ‘charge, kill and advance on the frontlines’.
And in non-banned media …
Call it Pop-pat, pat-pop … Call it what you like.
The Economist weighs in on the subject of popular-culture patriotism in China, noting that this year’s national-day season, hobbled by lockdowns countrywide, “ticket sales have been propped up by ‘Homecoming,’ a film about fearless Chinese diplomats rescuing compatriots from an African crisis.”
But the article also cautions against seeing all popular Chinese entertainment these days as playing up agents of state power. That would be …
missing another trend, one that involves the success of teenage dramas which portray the mainland as a cool, admired ‘big brother’ to youngsters from many ethnic-Chinese backgrounds.
A case in point is a comedy-drama series, ‘North-Eastern Transfer Students,’ currently streaming on iQiyi, a Netflix-like Chinese service. A parade of chauvinist clichés, its hero is Wang Hu.
Wang is a “muscle-bound, exam-flunking teenage tearaway from the north-eastern Chinese city of Shenyang” who’s sent to study in the former Portuguese colony of Macau, where he encounters fellow students from Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and the Cantonese-speaking south of China.
Of course, Wang eventually makes good, becomes a true Chinese patriot and defeats a Taiwanese judo champion in a fight, before admonishing the boy to treat his father with more respect, in line with traditional values.
And if that were not cringeworthy enough …
Wang Hu nudges the school’s Cantonese-accented basketball captain to be kind to less-skilled classmates – after demonstrating his own unrivalled skills on the court.
No doubt the soon-to-be-re-anointed chairman of everything Xi Jinping would approve. Whether Chinese audiences would prefer something racier, well, who cares?
Tencent, ‘Give me a second chance!’
Photo: Joshua Fernandez; Unsplash.
The MIT Technology Review reports that some WeChat users are begging to get their accounts back – even writing confession letters – in the aftermath of a rare act of protest in Beijing ahead of the party congress last week
After banners were unfurled on a bridge in northwest Beijing calling for the overthrow of “national traitor and thief” Xi Jinping, and saying that the people needed food not lockdowns etc, Bloomberg reported that even the word “Beijing” was banned on social media.
On Weibo, any user content that includes words like ‘Beijing,’ ‘bridge,’ and ‘brave’ is restricted from being searched. Apple Music’s Chinese version removed a song named ‘Sitong Bridge,’ presumably only because the name refers to the place where the protest happened.
This censorship extends to WeChat, the dominant messaging app with over 1.2 billion global users, the majority of whom live in China. Users soon realized that just posting a picture of the event, even in a private group chat, could cause their accounts to be permanently banned.
Being banned from WeChat, as the MIT Technology Review notes, is no trivial matter – users are blocked from their accounts, “from health QR codes to online subscriptions …
It takes days, if not weeks, to reestablish their digital connections with a new account.
One evidently distraught WeChatter posted a confession letter online, saying:
‘I have been in a terrible mental state due to the massive pressure from recent pandemic prevention measures. I lost my control, and sent sensitive statements in a group chat with six people … I have profoundly realized my mistake. I hope Tencent can give me a chance to start with a clean slate. I won’t let down the party and the country.’
The Tik-Tok dilemma
Too big to ban, even if China probably gets all the data. Photo: Olivier Bergeron; Unsplash.
If we were talking about a Western social media app in China – Oh, let’s say one like Facebook or Twitter, just for example – China would ban it overnight without a second thought.
But when it comes to Tik-Tok, the wildly popular everyone-gets-their-30-seconds-of-fame app developed by China’s ByteDance, the US and Europe get squeamish.
And it’s banned in China, ironically.
Put bluntly, it comes down to what CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping would no doubt call a vulnerability of democracy; Tik-Tok is too big to ban when your domestic policy agendas are ultimately hostage to the ballot.
Bloomberg, via Yahoo Finance, reports that Senator Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Tik-Tok has “a big mountain to climb with me to prove the case that it can really be safe.”
He added that it’s much harder today to wall off TikTok’s data technically or ban it outright than it was five or six years ago as the popularity of the app has surged. ‘The burden of proof that you can really segregate American data, particularly if the code is still being written in China – that would be a tough case to make.’
Lawmakers pressed TikTok Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas during a Senate hearing last month about whether the company would seal off Chinese access to all US data. Pappas said the company has strict controls over access to data and where it’s stored, and that the company wouldn’t give that data to the Chinese government.
She said that the company will continue cooperating with federal agencies to secure US data and said a final agreement will satisfy all national security concerns.’
Skeptics abound, and no doubt with good reason.
‘They built the whole system in China,’ said Stewart Baker, a national security lawyer at Steptoe & Johnson LLP. ‘Unless they’re going to rebuild the system in the United States at great expense, sooner or later, when something goes wrong, there’s going to turn out to be only one engineer who knows how to fix it. And he or she is likely to be in China.’
Baker added that TikTok believes it’s satisfied reasonable national-security concerns, but feels “they shouldn’t have to sign in blood that there will never be access.”
As we said above, China would just ban it … Wait, as we also noted above, China has banned it.
‘Don’t mention the invasion’
Unfortunately, it seems to be all we hear about these days – that and possible liberal tendencies of anyone who could be credibly elevated into the exalted ranks of the Politburo’s Standing Committee.
In the last ChinaDiction newsletter it was US Secretary of State Blinken warning that China might hasten its “historically determined” move on Taiwan as beholden by “the will of the Chinese people.”
Since then, we’ve had a second warning from the US, according to the South China Morning Post, which cites Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of US naval operations as saying that the US needs to be prepared for a “2022 window or potentially a 2023 window” in which Beijing might force unification.
This year is running out of days, frankly, but it’s conceivable that Beijing might begin further stymying Taiwan’s soft-power projection while bottle-necking supplies as a lead-up to an outright blockade that could lead to hostilities involving Taiwan, the US and Japan, among other nations.
Gilday sensibly warns against simply listening to what China says and advises it’s more important to watch what they do.
‘What we’ve seen over the past 20 years is that they have delivered on every promise they’ve made earlier than they said they were going to deliver on it,’ he said in a discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council.
‘So when we talk about the 2027 window, in my mind, that has to be a 2022 window or potentially a 2023 window. I can’t rule it out.’
To those who exclaim, but we would have already seen China’s preparations if they’re poised to invade, it’s worth considering that it would be in China’s interests to first ratchet up imposed isolation on Taiwan to the point that the “island renegades” emerge from their fortress waving a white flag.
If that failed to materialize, we would likely start to see the preparations for a more forceful intervention.
For a military invasion and occupation the party will need to claim that Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty is an existential threat to its revolutionary project. This is flagged by Xi’s use of the phrase ‘all necessary measures’ to achieve unification.
The truth is that Taiwan really is an existential threat to the party’s project. Taiwan has been on its own path of post-imperial development for more than a century, since the end of the Qing dynasty, through Japanese colonial rule, authoritarianism and to democracy. Taiwan’s sovereignty and modernisation have come to represent the party’s failure, both in theory and in practice. Taiwan has been very successful, too—this year its per capita GDP passed Japan’s for the first time and is far higher than that of any province in China.
Sorting that out, as Xi said in his party congress speech on Sunday, will depend entirely on the will of the Chinese people, which could come into play as soon as tomorrow given the embarrassment Taiwan is causing Comrade Xi.
The Greater Sinosphere
Asian financial hub Hong Kong is facing a tough fight to resume its regional ascendancy. Photo: Dan Freeman, Unsplash.
Everyone’s been focused on Xi Jinping’s speech – speeches – in Beijing but Hong Kong’s Chief Executive has been busy talking up Hong Kong too.
The response has been far from enthusiastic.
John Lee Ka-chiu’s (李家超 Lǐ Jiāchāo) first policy address since stepping into the role of top dog at the Legislative Council today whipped through the government’s “five-year plan” – over what must have been an agonizing 2-1/2 hours – but skirted around the pressing issue of what to do about Covid, which has ring-fenced Asia’s world city from the world.
Nevertheless, Lee found time for practicalities, as the Wall Street Journal (paywall) reports.
The chief executive said:
Hong Kong must be more ‘proactive and aggressive’ in competing for top workers and companies … adding that about 140,000 people had left the city’s local workforce over the last two years. More than 60% of those were highly skilled, including those who had worked in management positions or had professional qualifications, according to the government.
‘Apart from actively nurturing and retaining local talents, the government will proactively trawl the world for talents,’ Mr. Lee said.
Later Lee said that the government will allocate a fund of around US$3.8 billion to lure businesses to Hong Kong, while those with salaries of about $320,000 or more could apply for preferential visas.
The markets refused to rebound on Lee’s Party-man rhetoric. Bloomberg reports that Hong Kong’s stock exchange is down 30% in profits after its sixth consecutive quarterly decline
Meanwhile the Global Financial Centres Index listed Singapore as now ahead of Hong Kong as a regional financial hub, while Reuters reported that Hong Kong's “mid-year population dipped 1.6% to 7.29 million – the steepest year-on-year drop on record.”
Singapore saw a 3.4% increase in population over the same period.
Military coproduction with the US
The latter reports:
It is likely for U.S. defense companies to provide technology to manufacture weapons in Taiwan, or to produce them in the U.S. using Taiwan-made parts. ‘This is going to take some time to really shake out,’ said another source, adding that the process is likely to continue throughout 2023.
"It's right at the beginning of the process," Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, told Reuters.
Hammond-Chambers said it was yet to be determined which weapons would be considered as part of the effort, though it would likely focus on providing Taiwan with more munitions and long-established missile technology.
A US State Department spokesperson told Reuters, “The United States is looking at all options to ensure the rapid transfer of defensive capabilities to Taiwan.”
‘Snakehead gang’ accused of transporting human ‘piglets’ to Cambodia for organ harvesting
Hsieh and Tsai. Photo: Taoyuan City Police Department via Taiwan News.
Originally reported in Chinese-language reported ET Today, the Taiwan News features a horrifying story on how Taoyuan prosecutors – while investigating a fraud case tied to Cambodia – found information on a mobile phone about a victim “who had been duped into going to Cambodia to have their organs harvested:” terms such as "full dismantlement," were used, “meaning that the heart, liver, kidney, and cornea could be removed.”
The Taoyuan City Police Department in Chungli set up a special task force to pinpoint the participants in the international human organ harvesting ring. Thus far, the investigation has led to the arrest of three suspects, including [a man surnamed] Lin, a 27-year-old man surnamed Tsai (蔡), and a 31-year-old man surnamed Hsieh (謝).
According to the victim, surnamed Huang (Huáng, 黃) – who managed to escape when an organ “benefactor” backed out of a deal – he was lured to Cambodia for a semi-lucrative administrative job by what he called a a snakehead gang (an international human trafficking group) headed by Hsieh, Tsai and Lin.
He [Huang] said that Lin was in charge of finding the organ buyers, Hsieh was tasked with finding the victims commonly known as "piglets" (豬仔), and Tsia along with another man surnamed (王), who is being investigated by the Chiayi District Prosecutor's Office, were in charge of managing the departure of the "piglets" from Taiwan.
AI translation takes on Hokkien
Those dratted Taiwanese (Hokkien, if you like) tones! A-kun--a; public domain.
In a fascinating AI linguistic breakthrough, Universal Speech Translator (UST) is tackling Hokkien (Fújiàn huà, 福建話, 台語, Daigi).
Hokkien – probably spoken by around 50 million in China, Taiwan and in Southeast Asia – originated in southern Fujian Province (it’s also known as Mǐnnán yǔ, 閩南語, the language south of the Min River).
It has no agreed-upon written language – despite ongoing efforts in Taiwan – and is classified as a “dialect” in China – even though, as any English speaker who has tried to learn it after learning standard putonghua/guoyu, will tell you, it’s as hard as going from English to, say, German or Dutch.
The results, as seen in videos, are impressive.
Tech at Meta, which is behind the project, states:
While the initial stage of the project translates between English and Hokkien, researchers plan to allow the translation of more unwritten languages. It’s part of Meta’s ongoing effort to develop a Universal Speech Translator that will allow the translation of many languages in real time and could eventually help millions of people around the world like Chen’s father become more effective communicators.
Without going into too much detail, Meta explained that the input speech was translated into a sequence of acoustic sounds, which was then used to create waveforms of the language. Those waveforms were then coupled with Mandarin, which Meta identifies as a “related language.”
The Hokkien speech interpreter is still under development.
Taiwanese soap operas subtitled in Mandarin – some 1,500 hours of them – played a crucial role in the development of this beta version, according to the Taiwan News.
National Palace Museum souvenirs made in China
Souvenirs of the famed jade cabbage (made in China) are being made in China for Taiwan’s National Palace Museum. Photo: Gary Lee Todd, Ph.D. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.
In a report unintentionally layered with irony, CNA (Chinese) reports – shock! – that a significant amount of the souvenirs sold at Taiwan’s National Palace Museum are made in China, just as the exhibits themselves were.
DPP legislator Fan Yun (Fàn Yún, 范雲) said that that she had an assistant visit the museum last week and found that about one quarter of the souvenirs were made in China, which, she suggested, could cause confusion for tourists
Museum Director Wu Mi-cha (Wú Mìchá, 吳密察) said that future souvenirs will be made in Taiwan, or “MIT,” as the Taiwanese say.
It’s the right thing to do.
After all, as the DPP’s Fan Yun puts it (loose ChinaDiction translation), “If even jade cabbage souvenirs are made in China, imagine the confusion when tourists from China, the United States or Japan come home and see that they have a Taiwan souvenir made in China?”
And that’s after the confusion of unpacking and going, How on earth did I end up with a souvenir jade cabbage?
This week in history
Thanks to polymath Cory Doctorow for this lead, which takes us back 15 years to 19 October (yes, we know it’s Friday now) 2007, with a proto-podcast on gaming in China, “the most wired country in the world.”
The recording took place during the 17th party congress (just in case you haven’t been paying attention, we’re on our 20th now). It notes:
“Everybody knows that China’s next president will be the current president, Hu Jintao, who has vowed to purify the internet.”
Fascinating commentary on more innocent times when “zombified video game junkies” were the scourge of China’s young best and brightest, some of them dropping dead after three-day video-game binge sessions; some saved by shock treatment and bootcamp training.
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