Much ado about the United Front

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Dear Access member,

May 12 is the 10th anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan Province that killed more than 70,000 people a few months before the Beijing Olympic Games. Here are a few links to remember the tragedy, and the mark it continues to leave on Chinese society:

We’ve got two things for you at the top today.

1. Much ado about the United Front, and Kaiser’s speech

In our May 8 newsletter, I mentioned an event at the Wilson Center about Chinese influence operations in the U.S. I issued a correction about the focus of the event the next day, but neglected to ask the journalist named in the correction for comment before mentioning her. My apologies to Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian; I will publish her view in the first free SupChina newsletter next week, on Tuesday.   

But enough of the inside baseball. The Wilson center event featured SupChina’s Kaiser Kuo as a speaker. Here are his notes. You can watch also a video of the whole conference.

How are those influence ops working out for you, China?

The American body politic may, at present, be sick. I don’t think there’s much doubt that it is. But the pathogens that infect our body today do not originate in China. Our present illness is not the consequence of interference or influence operations orchestrated from Beijing. Yet today the chorus of misdiagnosis is swelling, and calling for an aggressive course of treatment that will not only fail to cure what ails us, but to make us much more gravely ill.

To be sure, Beijing does desire to influence opinion in the United States and in other Western liberal democracies. Of course it does. This should neither surprise us nor particularly worry us.

Robert [Daly of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, the previous speaker] has been very persuasive about the extent to which the United States has consistently sought to influence opinion and outcomes in China, and of course in other countries around the world. For now, let’s recognize as we should that, working through a range of different organizations, Beijing does seek to influence opinion in the U.S. — whether through propaganda or censorship, through selective granting of access, even perhaps through lobbying, and in rare instances, perhaps even coercion. We would be foolish not to keep an eye on these things, to find appropriate means of rooting out and punishing bad actors, and preventing the most egregious instances.

But we have to do this in ways that are consistent with our values. And since there is a range of efforts from a range of actors, we have to do it in ways that are proportionate and effective – no broad brushes, no one size fits all, no strong courses of broad-spectrum antibiotics. As far as I can tell, so far it’s been neither.

From where I sit, it seems clear to me that whatever damage might realistically be done by Beijing to the American civic fabric, to the health of the American body politic, it is surely dwarfed by the damage that will certainly be done — indeed, which has already begun to be done — to that civic fabric, to that body politic, by the reaction to it in some quarters. The overreaction raises many spectres from our darker past, from those times when we’ve lost sight of who we are and the values that we stand for. It’s in moments like this when we’re most easily manipulated by xenophobes. And when the country in question is China — the first multidimensional peer we’ve really encountered in these eight decades of American primacy, a country already provoking economic, technological, and even ideological anxieties in many Americans — we’re even more prone to irrational, counterproductive overreaction.

Let’s talk about what China’s doing to influence and to interfere. I would characterize these “operations,” if what we’re seeing rises to the level of coordination that word implies, in three ways:

First, they are for the most part clumsy, ham-fisted, and obvious. We can see China’s “public diplomacy” programs and its covert ops a mile away. Usually they announce themselves as propaganda or its related arts by the stiff and awkward language, the embarrassing earnestness, the conspicuous idiocy of the useful idiots they employ. When I ponder the staggering amount of money they’ve spent, and the deep reserves of actual accomplishments the Party can boast and that a skilled propagandist might actually draw on, I just marvel at how they’ve so failed to find someone – the right agency, some genius svengali, to really put the PR in the PRC.

Second, these influence operations or whatever we’re calling them are ineffectual. This is true in part because of what I’ve said about their inelegance and the ease with which they’re spotted, but more importantly, it’s because liberal, open societies like ours still do, at least for now, come equipped by definition with features that can usually counteract such efforts: A free press, strong commitments to freedom of academic inquiry, strong laws about disclosure. We also, unfortunately, have some weaknesses — one in particular, for money — that may leave us a bit more susceptible, and I believe that Robert was correct in saying that that one is on us. Hollywood, airlines, Apple, our universities – that’s all really on us. But at present, I don’t think anyone can present me with a convincing case that China’s efforts in this way have borne much fruit.

And third, whatever China is doing, it has at least so far been mainly defensive in nature. Unlike a certain other power’s interference operations, which pretty unequivocally do rise to the level of real “operations,” China does not seem intent on setting us against one another across a widening partisan divide. It does not appear to want to undermine this country’s epistemic foundations. It does not appear to be working on behalf of one party or another. Instead it’s looking mainly to shape the narrative about China, to deflect or diminish criticism and ill-will, to bring Americans around to Beijing’s views on issues like Tibet and Taiwan, to convince Americans that China’s rise has been and will be peaceful, that its Belt and Road initiative is essentially benign, and that this whole China threat idea is nonsense.

So again I refer to my second point: How’s this working out for you, China? With popular American sentiment about China continuing to decline [Editor’s note: A Gallup poll this spring actually showed China’s approval rating slowly increasing among Americans], and growing bipartisan hawkishness toward China, even the defensive goals remain unattained, remain out of reach. In 2014 Xi Jinping famously described its United Front Work Department as a “magic weapon.” In America, at least, not so much.

China’s influence ops are, as I’ve said, mainly defensive. That doesn’t mean that they’re wholly innocuous: When that defensiveness takes forms that abridge the liberties of other Americans, when it seeks to censor speech, when we see evidence that the flames of aggrieved nationalism — flare-ups, say, over some college student making a speech that didn’t go over well with the patriotic set — when we see that those flames are being fanned from Beijing, through support of its embassy or consulates acting through student groups, of course that is unacceptable and needs to be called out. And it is being called out. If the Chinese Students and Scholars Association are taking money from consulates for purposes other than renting a venue or paying for some catering at the annual Spring Festival gala and talent show, and if the CSSAs really are, as some have alleged, compiling lists of the actively disloyal students on campus, then that’s a serious problem and should be dealt with.

Just as importantly we need to recognize and understand the roots of this problem. I think anyone with even a glancing familiarity with China knows something of the difficulties China has had defining, delimiting, and reconciling the ideas of nationality, of state, of civilization, ethnicity, culture and so on. All of these ideas remain messy and incongruent. We all probably understand also that Beijing’s problematic tendency to try and exert control over ethnic Chinese communities beyond its political borders is rooted in a very old and entrenched habit of mind that, unfortunately, is shared by many of the people in those overseas ethnic communities. This is not to suggest that we should ignore or forgive this, especially when it impinges on our own sovereignty. Extraterritoriality was wrong when we were practicing it in China, and it’s wrong when China seeks to practice it here. But we do have to recognize how deep the roots of this problem go, and be careful, perhaps even patient, in how we address it. Our conversations about the solution have to take all this into account – and should recognize, too, that the wrong approach can easily reinforce the problem.

We have, then, in the air around us, some pathogens that may be trying to penetrate our defenses. But we know what they are, because they’re so inelegant and artless. We recognize that they do us no substantial harm because our own immune system has them on file, and knows without conscious instruction just how to handle them. And we know that, even if they are ultimately successful — even if they gain a perch and are able to infect us — that it’s hardly life-threatening. These pathogens have not made us sick. It’s not the right time for large, indiscriminate, and totally unnecessary doses of antibiotics. Indeed those stand a high chance of hurting us worse — killing, as it were, our own useful microfauna.

We need to have a little more faith in our own immune system and its resilience — in the ability of open, plural societies to resist pernicious influence. We need to believe that universities will be able to develop policies to deal with the problems that they face. It’s laughable to me that we would think our institutes of higher learning might so fear the power of their campus Confucius Institute, would be so beholden to it and the funding it brings, that they would allow it to somehow warp longstanding pedagogical traditions, destroy academic freedom, and dictate an agenda. To do so is to basically deny agency to our university leadership and to greatly overestimate the power of that little handful of Chinese language teachers who form the staff of Confucius Institutes. We really have to stop crying wolf.

Lessons and experiences can’t simply be imported from the Antipodes and applied directly to the U.S. We should most certainly pay attention to what’s happening in our ANZUS allies in Australia and in New Zealand, but we should also be mindful of how different the dynamics of their relationships with China are from ours.

I believe that in the long run, bad ideas, pernicious ideas, illiberal ideas, will not take root and will not poison our body politic – that they’ll be recognized for what they are, and will be contained and ejected without the need for drastic cures far worse than the disease – a disease we haven’t even contracted.

So let’s reject the fearful, ugly policies that will lead us straight to racial profiling of ethnic Chinese scientists and researchers, that will starve of us the great contributions they might make to our country and to mankind; that will lead us straight to McCarthyism, to red-baiting, to ethnic-based violence. We don’t have to destroy the village in order to save it.

2. Movie theater in China apologizes for telling women to shut their mouths while watching ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

On May 11, Weibo user Donggu Liang Miaomiaowu 冬菇凉喵喵喵呜 went to the Tongliao Wanda Cinema in Inner Mongolia to watch Avengers: Infinity War. Before the movie started, the cinema broadcast the following message aimed especially at female audience members (audio clip in Chinese):

You should do nothing but eat your popcorn silently. Don’t mess with your man while he is worshipping the silver screen. If your man gets really excited while watching the movie, please pretend to be interested. And based on his facial expressions, you should say things like ‘yes’ and ‘totally.’

There was also a reminder for male viewers :

Don’t try to explain the characters to your women in the middle of the movie. They won’t be able to recognize them just like you can’t differentiate between lipsticks. Get them some popcorn, soda, and snacks to keep their mouths full.

Her post went viral, and on the same day, the theater issued a public apology (in Chinese). But the underlying assumptions of the message — that women, as a whole, can’t get the charm of the Marvel Universe and are naturally not interested in superheroes — offended many female Marvel fans, and the apology letter did little to ease the anger. Click through to SupChina for some reactions.


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—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief

  • North Korea
    On U.S.-North Korea talks, China may hold the cards / NYT (paywall)
    “The Trump administration insists it will maintain its campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ on the North until Mr. Kim has shown ‘substantial dismantlement’ of his nuclear arsenal. But the buoyant mood in Dandong is a reminder that China, as North Korea’s main trade partner, can decide how strictly to enforce the international sanctions against it.”
    Opinion, by John Pomfret: Xi Jinping tries to bring Kim Jong Un of North Korea back to the fold. / Washington Post
    “It’s common knowledge that a united Korean Peninsula is feared in Beijing; it means a peninsula most probably under the control of a democratic government that might even exert a pull on the 2.3 million Koreans who live along the border in China. But China also is worried about the prospect of a North Korea with good relations with South Korea and even, perhaps, the United States. Xi needs North Korea in his camp, and the meeting in Dalian only served to underscore China’s unease with Kim’s outreach to his neighbor to the south and the United States.”

  • The high-flying Chinese drone export business
    China has already won the drone wars / Foreign Policy (paywall)
    “For years, advocates of U.S. arms sales bemoaned tight export restrictions on armed drones, which has allowed China to move in on a lucrative market while depriving American companies of valuable business.” Read more on SupChina: China is selling discounted drones to contain India.

  • Wall Street in China
    JPMorgan wants to get back into China / CNN
    “America’s biggest bank is taking another shot at China’s huge financial markets… This will be the second attempt by the Wall Street giant to gain a serious foothold in China.”
    JPMorgan applies to re-enter China securities market / FT (paywall)

  • Trade war watch
    Chinese top team to land in Washington for trade talks just before U.S. decides which products to penalize / SCMP
    “A top-level Chinese delegation will arrive in Washington for a second round of trade talks on Tuesday — just before the U.S. finalizes the list of Chinese products that will be hit with punitive tariffs, a source familiar with the situation has said.”
    U.S. readies secret weapon in trade fight with China / CBS
    “There is now strong support among both parties for curbing Chinese investment in the U.S., and for slowing or reversing the pace of technological integration between the two countries,” said Arthur Kroeber, head of research for Gavekal Research.

  • The “Xi Thought” business
    What keeps Xi Jinping awake at night? / NYT (paywall)
    “The recently released 272-page book of Mr. Xi’s remarks on ‘national security’ includes previously unreleased comments that give a starker view of the president’s motivations than found in most Communist Party propaganda. Here is a selection.”
    Translation: Research fund aims to fuel Xiology boom / China Digital Times

  • Hong Kong independence movement
    Under threat of jail and bankruptcy, Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching discuss future of Hong Kong pro-independence movement / SCMP
    Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching “were convicted of illegal assembly on Friday, an offense carrying a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment and a HK$5,000 (US$637) fine. At the interview earlier, the ousted lawmakers spoke of their possible jail sentences and shared the latest on their lives after their political careers came to a sudden halt.”

  • Chinese students abroad
    Chinese students in Canada are being conned into filming fake hostage videos / Inkstone
    “Phone scammers have used an elaborate scheme that tricks their targets into filming ‘hostage videos’ in which they pretend to be victims of kidnapping, Vancouver police said Wednesday.”

  • Sichuan activist Huang Qi
    Critic’s jailing shows hushed dissent since ’08 China quake / AP  
    “A decade after a massive earthquake devastated parts of China’s Sichuan Province, an outspoken critic of the government’s response is languishing in jail, his health deteriorating.”

  • The new, totally “voluntary” China Federation of Internet Societies
    Building the Party’s internet / China Media Project
    “In a ceremony in Beijing earlier this week, the director of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), Xu Lin (徐麟), presided over the inauguration of the China Federation of Internet Societies (CFIS), a broad internet industry grouping whose stated purpose is to ‘promote the development of Party organizations in the industry.’”

  • Great video showing scale of shared bike overcapacity
    Video: The problem of China’s huge bike graveyards / BBC

  • Resisting corporate censorship
    Open skies can clear China’s ‘Orwellian’ cloud / Bloomberg (paywall)
    Adam Minter writes, “The Trump administration has vowed to resist China’s corporate censorship efforts. But so long as foreign corporations (airlines or not) decide that doing so isn’t worth potentially being shut out of the market, that vow will have little currency at home or abroad. A better approach would be to seek an ‘open skies’ treaty to widen access, such as the U.S. has with 120 other countries.”

  • LGBT
    Chinese broadcaster loses Eurovision rights over LGBT censorship / Guardian
    “Mango TV, a video-streaming site linked to one of China’s most watched channels, Hunan TV, blacked out the performance of Ireland’s Ryan O’Shaugnessy, during which two male dancers depicted a fraught relationship.”

  • Intimidation of Taiwan
    Beijing again flexes military muscle, sending fighter jets, bombers around Taiwan / SCMP

Here are the stories that caught our eye this week:


Are better China-Japan relations on the horizon?

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang concluded his three-day diplomatic visit to Japan on Friday. He was the first Chinese premier to visit Japan since 2011.


Film Friday: ‘A Big Deal,’ just in time for Mother’s Day

Film Friday is SupChina’s weekly movie recommendation column. Up first: “A Big Deal” (特殊交易 tèshū jiāoyì), a 2013 short film by 32-year-old director Tingting Yao 姚婷婷, is an exercise in simple storytelling, featuring two lonely characters in an unsparing city who choose opposite strategies to cope with estrangement.

CSL update: Guangzhou Evergrande’s kit troubles, Guizhou Hengfeng’s desperation

Team bosses of perennial Chinese Super League champs Guangzhou Evergrande went on a power streak recently after kit troubles caused one of its star defenders, Zhang Linpeng, to miss several minutes of game action. Meanwhile, Guizhou Hengfeng’s boss is offering monetary incentives to its players…along with monetary punishments for poor play.

Talk show host and entrepreneur Yang Lan on China’s media future and female leadership

Yang Lan is one of the most powerful women in Chinese media. She is a journalist and entrepreneur who co-founded Sun Media Group — a multiplatform empire that encompasses television, websites, and magazines — with her husband, Bruno Wu, in 1999.

Au revoir, Great Leap No. 12: Another popular Beijing bar forced to close

“If you’re a beer drinker in Beijing, I know where you’re at right now,” SupChina’s Anthony Tao writes. “That’s because tonight is the final night for Great Leap No. 12, the flagship location of the first craft beer brewery in Beijing, which opened five years ago. It is closing because the landlord no longer wants to renew the contract, in a trend that has become all too common within the city’s Second Ring Road.”

Mingbai: Chinese poetry of the cup, featuring Li Bai

Whereas other cultures may, on festive occasions, whip out a vodka, a grappa, a marc, a raki, or a snaps, the Chinese king of liquors is baijiu. It is much revered by poets such as Li Bai, whose immortal poetry is learned by heart in every classroom across China and is compared in cultural importance to Shakespeare. Let’s take a look at one of his particularly beautiful odes to the drink, “Drinking Alone Under the Moon” (月下独酌 yuè xià dúzhuó).

Sinica Podcast: Virginia Tan on women and work in China

What’s holding women in China back from achieving success in the workplace? Virginia Tan, who leads three organizations all dedicated to empowering women, discusses the problem and some solutions.

TechBuzz China: Xiaomi’s Record-Breaking IPO, and Baidu’s New Finance Spinoff

On this episode of TechBuzz China: Rui Ma discusses the upcoming initial public offering of Xiaomi, which will be the world’s largest since Alibaba’s debut in 2014, and Ying-Ying Lu shares the news of Baidu’s new financial services spinoff, called Du Xiaoman Financial, which is already valued at $4 billion.

Suzhou Garden Chic, evolved: An ancient city embraces the new millennium

Marco Polo called it the “Venice of the Orient,” while ancient Chinese compared it with heaven. Take a lap around this 2,500-year-old city — its dignified gardens and upstart districts — and you might understand why Suzhou is celebrated for its carefully pruned perfection. Then again, the occasional surprise still abounds.

Kuora: China’s ideological ‘war’ with the U.S.?

Karl Marx, whose ideas greatly shaped China (and is greatly influencing China’s top leader as we speak), turned 200 on Saturday. What better way to honor this ideologue than with Kaiser answering a question, originally posted to Quora on December 4, 2017, on the clash of ideas: “When did China declare ideological war on America?

A fake post purportedly from Tencent’s CEO fooled everyone, including Tencent

A WeChat story criticizing tech giant Tencent for “losing its dream” went viral on social media in China over the weekend. But what’s attracted even greater attention is Tencent CEO Pony Ma’s “reply” — which, it turns out, was fake. “I believe the person did it out of good intentions,” Tencent’s PR director said, a curious response to a fake news story that swindled everyone, including Tencent itself.



Warding off the Monkey King

A princess rebuffs the Monkey King’s advances. Photo taken by Carl Janes on April 24 at the Huguang Guild Hall, a renowned Peking Opera theater in Beijing.

Jia Guo