Chinese cosmocrats — from mission control to the governor’s office

Business & Technology

A roundup of today’s top China news. Get this free daily digest delivered to your inbox by signing up at


Rocket men for the government

During the first 30 years of “reform and opening up” (1978–2008), China’s government was dominated by men with a background in hydraulic, chemical, civil, or mechanical engineering. Could aerospace engineers be the next dominant class of technocrats? The South China Morning Post looks at four former aerospace engineers who recently have become provincial governors:

  • Ma Xingrui 马兴瑞, former general manager and Party secretary of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC), acting governor of Guangdong Province since 2016, now governor.
  • Xu Dazhe 许达哲, former chief administrator of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), governor of Hunan Province since 2016.
  • Chen Qiufa 陈求发, former director of CNSA, governor of Liaoning Province since 2015.
  • Yuan Jiajun 袁家军, former president of China Academy of Space Technology, appointed acting governor of Zhejiang Province last week. (Zhejiang is seen as a powerbase of President Xi Jinping.)

The South China Morning Post quotes CASTC missile scientist Bao Weimin 包为民 on reasons for the success in politics of some of his former colleagues: “A handful of people from our company have become governors in recent years. I think it has something to do with principles we follow here… We don’t cook the books. The satellites and rockets won’t work if we do.” But provincial politics may prove more difficult than the rocket men anticipate: The article quotes a missile scientist at Beihang University: “When they were managers at the aerospace corporation, they stuck to their own opinions. That could be a problem at local governments.”

Inner Mongolia forest fire under control

On May 3, we noted that authorities had organized more than 8,300 people to fight a huge forest fire in Daxing’anling Prefecture in Inner Mongolia, which had spread to over 5,000 hectares of wooded mountains. Today, according to Xinhua News Agency, the blaze is under control, with “nearly 5,000” police officers and firefighters working in the area (pictured above).

Women and China:

A Forum on How Women Are Shaping the Rising Global Power

SupChina’s conference in New York on May 18 will feature 20 women leaders in Chinese technology, business, and culture. Please click here to learn more and buy tickets.

China’s boycott diplomacy

The Financial Times has published an article (paywall) on the way “China wields power with boycott diplomacy,” which looks at the recent — and ongoing — state-encouraged boycott of South Korean companies in reaction to their country’s deployment of the American THAAD missile defense system. The FT says that “China has been implementing such boycotts against its foes for more than 100 years and it knows how to make them hurt economically and politically,” adding that “Beijing must play a delicate balancing act to ensure that its embargoes neither damage the Chinese economy nor unleash forces…that could threaten one-party rule.” Countries that have felt a commercial squeeze from Beijing in retaliation for a political decision or a perceived slight in recent years include Japan, the Philippines, Norway, and the U.K. The article quotes from a recent column by SupChina’s Kaiser Kuo: “Do we really need to worry so much about Chinese nationalism?

Trump leans in, Xi strings him along?

  • After months of mixed messages on China and North Korea from the White House, the latest statement comes from U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who, according to Reuters, said that “the Trump administration had been ‘leaning hard into China…to test their willingness to use their influence, their engagement with the regime.’”
  • China itself is losing patience with North Korea. Hu Xijin 胡锡进 is editor of the Party-owned nationalist tabloid Global Times, a newspaper that Graham Webster recently pointed out on SupChina is “non-authoritative” but can indicate “domestic pressure that the Chinese government may be under.” Hu posted to Weibo (in Chinese) on May 4:

North Korea…must be clear on China’s bottom line. I hope that sanctions, especially oil embargoes, are the language they will eventually understand. I know that sanctions are painful, but that’s better than war on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea turning out to be very useful issue for P.R.C. Expect Xi to string Trump along with marginal moves while not changing strategic calculus.

Drug surcharges banned, fees capped at public hospitals

In March, we noted that the Beijing city government had issued a set of regulations to address one of the Chinese healthcare system’s worst problems: overprescribing and overcharging for drugs. This week, Caixin reports that joint guidelines were published on Tuesday “by seven government authorities, including the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC),” which prohibit public hospitals from adding drug surcharges to patients’ bills starting in September, and from raising fees by more than 10 percent this year. The rules cover all drugs except for prepared traditional Chinese medicine.

Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief

Sinica Podcast: Bill Bishop on what it takes to be a good China-watcher

Kaiser Kuo speaks with a noted authority on China about how to keep up with one of the world’s most dynamic countries.

This issue of the SupChina newsletter was produced by Sky Canaves, Lucas Niewenhuis, Jia Guo, and Jiayun Feng. More China stories worth your time are curated below, with the most important ones at the top of each section.



Xiaomi launches 12 billion yuan fund to develop new products

Caixin reports that Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi has partnered with the Hubei provincial government and other partners to set up the “Yangtze River Xiaomi Industry Fund.” The initiative is expected to raise 12 billion yuan ($1.7 billion) for the development of Xiaomi products, which range from smartphones to internet-connected TVs and smart home appliances, as well as software and products that grow the Xiaomi ecosystem of tech and services.

The Beijing-based company, which is worth $46 billion, has attempted to reclaim the Chinese market after falling behind in the country’s smartphone arms race in the past year, Forbes reports. It is China’s fourth-largest smartphone maker, after Huawei, Vivo, and Oppo. Xiaomi made its name as an online-sales-only company, but has recently been hurt by mediocre reviews and a lack of retail distribution. It is now making a push to open brick-and-mortar stores, and announced plans to open more than 200 Mi Home stores in China this year, bringing the total number of stores to 300. Outside of China, India is the biggest market for the company. The smartphone maker is currently the second-largest smartphone vendor in India after Samsung. India’s first Mi Home store is expected to open next week in Bangalore.



Belt and Road: A ‘China solution’ or a path to nowhere?

As Beijing prepares to host 28 world leaders on May 14-15 for a summit on China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) global infrastructure initiative, a wide array of commentators and financial institutions are sizing up the plan.

Bloomberg reports that the bank Credit Suisse has concluded that China may pour more than $500 billion over the next five years into OBOR projects, and confirmed the mainstream perception that the projects are likelier to further China global influence under a less globally engaged, Trump-led U.S. The Japan-led Asian Development Bank confirmed that it “seeks to cooperate, not compete, with China” on OBOR projects, Reuters notes. The Financial Times explains (paywall) how OBOR is now seen as part of a “China solution,” as one expert put it, to spur economic development worldwide. China’s Xinhua News Agency, meanwhile, is kicking into gear defending the plan in an editorial titled “Belt & Road Initiative win-win, not a solo show.”

Meanwhile, OBOR continues to draw criticism as little more than a rhetorical basket filled primarily with pre-existing projects, particularly those in Pakistan, which have political problems on their own that could torpedo the wider initiative. Mihir Sharma writes in a column for Bloomberg that the political risks of the OBOR projects in Pakistan are underrated, and that “China usually struggles to live up to such big promises” as those offered to Pakistan. George Magnus points out in a piece for Nikkei Asian Review that the projects in Pakistan date back to 2002, long before Xi Jinping’s rollout of OBOR in 2013. And the Financial Times piece linked above notes that with stalled projects in Kazakhstan and Thailand, “so far, little outside China has been completed.”



Tai chi master takes a beating

It took only 10 seconds for mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Xu Xiaodong 徐晓冬 to destroy tai chi master Lei Lei 雷雷 in an exhibition fight held on April 27, but the ensuing tai chi-MMA debate has been such a widely discussed topic on Chinese social media since then that even Alibaba chairman Jack Ma 马云 weighed in.

The buzz began with a short video circulated on the Chinese social media platform Weibo last week, in which the modern-style fighter unleashes a series of punches on his opponent’s face and knocks him down almost immediately after the fight starts. The tai chi master is then seen lying on the ground bleeding while two men from the crowd help him up.

The fight was initiated by Xu, who, according to Sixth Tone, said repeatedly that his goal is to prove that Lei is not even remotely comparable with him when it comes to real combat. In an interview (in Chinese), Xu said that “90 percent of traditional Chinese martial arts are just self-brainwashing and self-deception,” and “this line of thinking passed on from generation to generation.” Xu also invited other self-proclaimed tai chi masters to challenge him. On Weibo, many commenters questioned (in Chinese) Xu’s motive, accusing him of attracting publicity by saying arrogant things, while others applauded his courage to expose the weakness of tai chi in a real fight.

On the other side, after the embarrassing loss, Lei insisted (in Chinese) that the reason why he lost the fight is because he didn’t use internal power, a tai chi technique that he said “can’t be easily activated, as it might cause the opponent’s death.” The explanation was unconvincing to most commenters. “His brain must have been damaged during the fight,” one person ridiculed (in Chinese).

Jack Ma commented (in Chinese) on his Weibo account that the fight is, in fact, a “show” that doesn’t deserve such public attention. “The fight didn’t involve any techniques and is not watchable at all. The only special thing about this is the large audience online. They want the show to grow bigger and bigger,” Ma wrote.

Work hard and love your country: May 4th movement at 98

This year is the 98th anniversary of the May 4th movement, a political and cultural movement broadly supported by students protesting the Chinese government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles and the granting of Shandong to the Japanese under former German concessions. The May 4th movement was against Western colonization and imperialism, but is often connected to the New Culture movement, which rejected the strictures of aspects of traditional Chinese culture and strove to build a society based on Western ideas of science and democracy.

Although the intellectual foment of the May 4th movement provided the Communist Party — founded in 1921 — with some of its animating spirit, the Party has an awkward relationship with it: How to energize the youth with patriotism, maintain a patina of anti-imperialist credibility, yet avoid too much chattering about democracy? Xi Jinping’s answer was given in a speech to students at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing in advance of May 4: The Party is engaged in a campaign to make its primary message about patriotism and hard work. The People’s Daily has an article (in Chinese) about Xi’s speech, or you can refer to this handy English infographic by the China Daily.