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We’ve got six news items at the top for you today. I remain on the lookout for happy stories, but this was not a good week for them!
—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief
1. The day Hong Kong press freedom died
From July 1, 1997, until October 5, 2018, Hong Kong was the only part of the People’s Republic of China that enjoyed a thriving — and largely uncensored — news media. Yet there have been growing threats to freedom of expression ranging from violent attacks on critical journalists to commercial and political pressures on news organizations. Way back in 2015, Foreign Policy published an article about how press freedom was eroding in Hong Kong.
Today marks the first time the Hong Kong government has pulled off the mask. The official refusal of a journalist’s visa as retribution for an event he attended is a tactic from Beijing’s playbook. It’s a watershed event: Hong Kong can no longer meaningfully claim to have a free press.
Hong Kong Free Press, which is clearly going to need all the support it can get in the coming years, reports:
Hong Kong has refused to renew the visa for the foreign press club’s vice president, HKFP has learned.
Victor Mallet, the Financial Times’ Asia News Editor, has served as the vice president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong since 2017.
“This is the first time we have encountered this situation in Hong Kong, and we have not been given a reason for the rejection,” a spokesperson for the Financial Times told HKFP. Mallet chaired a talk by pro-independence activist Andy Chan (陈浩天 Chén Hàotiān) at the FCC in August, which the office of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong had tried to block
The FCC was heavily criticized by the Hong Kong government as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for hosting the talk.
Other threats to free expression in Hong Kong
2. Chinese president of Interpol disappears
In 2016, Mèng Hóngweǐ 孟宏伟 was appointed president of Interpol, the organization that facilitates international police cooperation. He holds the position concurrently with his role as vice minister of China’s Ministry of Public Security.
Meng’s selection was controversial, with critics worrying that he would abuse his position to arrest Chinese dissidents and refugees abroad. Interpol issues “Red Notices,” a type of international arrest warrant that Russia and China sometimes use to target political opponents.
Now Meng is in trouble himself: French police opened an investigation after his wife reported him missing today, according to Lori Hinnant and Christopher Bodeen of the Associated Press. She had not heard from her 64-year-old husband since he left Lyon, France, where Interpol is based, on a trip back to China when he disappeared.
“Interpol is aware of media reports in connection with the alleged disappearance of Interpol President Meng Hongwei. This is a matter for the relevant authorities in both France and China. Interpol’s General Secretariat headquarters will not comment further,” reports CNN.
“The statement noted that Interpol’s secretary general, and not its president, is responsible for the international police agency’s operations,” notes the AP report linked above.
“Meng Hongwei’s disappearance seems to fit in with a now familiar pattern among China’s senior Communist Party officials,” explains the BBC’s Celia Hatton. “The official in question suddenly drops out of the public eye and an alarm is raised that the person is ‘missing,’ usually by members of the public. Eventually, the party issues a terse statement that the official is ‘under investigation,’ the official is then booted from the party for ‘disciplinary infractions’ and — eventually — a prison sentence is announced.”
“The possible downfall of Mr. Meng could also acutely embarrass the Chinese government, with reverberations felt far beyond Beijing,” say Chris Buckley and Aurelien Breeden of the New York Times (porous paywall). “Meng’s disappearance threatens to taint China’s image, demonstrating that even the most prominent official of an international police organization is subject to secretive disappearance under Mr. Xi.”
What a strange situation. The head of an international police body disappears, and the official response is to keep mum. Journalist Isaac Stone Fish has thoughts, via Twitter:
So the president of the global policing body Interpol Meng Hongwei has disappeared after a trip to China. This is obviously a huge deal. Why it’s problematic to appoint Chinese Communist Party officials to head international bodies.
When Meng — who remains a vice minister of public security — was appointed in 2016, rights groups criticized the decision because they thought Interpol would issue arrest warrants to political enemies of Beijing, like the exiled tycoon Guō Wénguì 郭文贵.
But the bigger problem is that Party members must follow the rules, dictates, and whims of the Party above anything else. Meng couldn’t be expected to serve the interests of Interpol, but rather the interests of the Party.
Furthermore, if the Party decides that he is under investigation, or acted corruptly (which seems to be what has happened), it doesn’t feel the need to explain what happened.
Contrast this with the 2011 scandal involving then IMF managing director Strauss-Kahn, accused of sexually assaulting a maid, which played out publicly. The IMF could respond accordingly. I’d be surprised if Interpol itself knows what happened to Meng.
Meng’s situation is a warning that international organizations should think twice before appointing Party members to run them.
3. U.S.-China relations — trade war, day 92
I called yesterday decoupling day 1, but we’ll stick to our previous terminology for now, and mark October 5 as day 92 of the U.S.-China trade war. Here are the latest reports on the ongoing war of words, tariffs, and accusations:
Reaction to Mike Pence’s speech
China’s Foreign Ministry reacted to yesterday’s speech by the American vice president with a statement full of boilerplate about “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and “China’s national conditions.”
The statement denies Pence’s accusation that China interferes in American elections, but does not specifically respond to any other charges in the speech, such as militarization of the South China Sea, or the internment camps for Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang.
The key audience for Pence’s speech was a domestic American one, argues Ryan Hass of the Brookings Institution. He says “the clear objectives were to lay the basis for an adversarial posture toward China and to justify President Trump’s accusation that China is interfering in America’s electoral process.”
The speech “was not a search for off-ramps or for lowering tensions, but rather a message of America’s determination to elevate pressure until Beijing accepts the bilateral relationship, as Washington envisions it,” adds Hass.
“Any residual hope Beijing might have had that the United States was not out to contain its rise was quashed by Vice-President Mike Pence’s blistering attack on Thursday, according to analysts,” says the South China Morning Post.
“Taiwan’s presidential office has thanked U.S. Vice President Mike Pence for supporting Taiwan in his speech,” reports Hong Kong Free Press.
“Will China hack the U.S. midterms?” asks Adam Segal in the New York Times (porous paywall), in response to Pence’s allegations. Segal is the author of The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age, and a Sinica Podcast guest. To summarize his answer: Probably not, but it could. Read the whole thing for a less dumbed-down explanation.
Chinese in America
Chi Wang (王冀 Wáng Jì), a former head of the Chinese section of the U.S. Library of Congress, argues in the South China Morning Post that if Chinese students in the United States engaged more deeply with their host communities, some of the current hostility to China could be ameliorated:
The children of the elite in China travel to the U.S. simply for their own personal benefit, and are not concerned with how their actions may be perceived by Americans… More than ever before in the 70 years that I have been in the US, I am now sensing growing hostility toward Chinese in America.
Bloomberg spy chip allegations
Yesterday, Bloomberg published a bombshell of a report — it alleged that a Chinese military unit implanted tiny microchips on server motherboards made in China, which ended up being used by Apple, Amazon, and the CIA. Apple and Amazon have disputed the claims. Here are some follow-up reports:
China spy chips report adds pressure on Pentagon cloud security / Bloomberg (porous paywall)
Trade war and tariffs
US markets have a trade war edge over China: Commodities / CNBC
“The tariff spat caught China more exposed to changes in broad non-energy commodity prices, and the recent downturn in these commodities has weighed heavily on the Chinese market.”
China has been an unreliable customer for US farmers / Des Moines Register
4. Self-cultivating with state media
The National Day holiday week means central state media are still in slow-mo. Today’s top stories:
Xinhua News Agency today headlined with “How to self-cultivate the country and learn from Xi Jinping” (in Chinese), which is as boring as it sounds.
The People’s Daily went with “The General Secretary leads us to ‘precision poverty alleviation’ — new ideas from the series of reports on Shibadong village in Hunan” (in Chinese), a fine soporific if you have insomnia tonight.
The Party’s plausibly deniable attack dog, the Global Times, performed well today with a response to the American vice president’s speech: China slams Pence for US election ‘meddling’ accusation, calling it ‘unwarranted’. The Chinese version of that editorial is titled With America changing its face, China needs to hold steady.
5. Two things on our radar this weekend
Policing the internet service providers
The South China Morning Post reports:
China has issued a new regulation setting out wide-ranging police powers to inspect internet service providers and users, as the government further tightens its grip on the country’s heavily restricted cyberspace. Under the new rule, effective from November 1, central and local public security authorities can enter the premises of all companies and entities that provide internet services, and look up and copy information considered relevant to cybersecurity.
Restricting teachers’ travel
Radio Free Asia says that “China is issuing an effective travel ban to teachers in its elementary and secondary schools, recalling their passports in some locations ahead of the National Day holiday this week.”
One teacher quoted in the piece says: “We don’t get it either. I had to hand in my passport, as well, because that’s what they told us to do. We daren’t say anything… We’re not rich, and we only go overseas to visit relatives from time to time, so we are baffled by this.”
6. The intriguing history of Hunan TV
In today’s Chinese Corner, our weekly look at popular Chinese nonfiction writing:
For a long period of time, when most Chinese TV stations were still showing badly produced dramas and propaganda, Hunan TV was the only channel you could tune in to for high-quality variety shows. In 1997, it created Happy Camp 快乐大本营, which was, in some ways, China’s first reality TV show. Eight years later, the singing contest show Super Girl 超级女声 became a nationwide hit, and it was imitated by countless other talent shows. But today, Hunan TV is facing growing criticism for its excessive emphasis on ratings and a number of plagiarism scandals.
—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief
Here are the stories that caught our eye this week:
U.S.-China relations continued to spiral downward. Here are the recent major events, in chronological order:
Matt Pottinger, senior director for Asian affairs on the U.S. National Security Council, said no-no to win-win: “We at the Trump administration have updated our China policy to bring the concept of competition to the forefront.”
Someone canceled the U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue — but the two sides can’t even agree on who. A U.S. official told the New York Times that China had canceled it, but the Chinese foreign ministry later said that this “completely distorted the facts” and that Washington had requested it postponed.
A blanket ban on Chinese students in the U.S. was considered by the Trump administration earlier this year, the Financial Times reported, and at least more partial restrictions on visas still seem likely.
Chinese spies compromised America’s technology supply chain by installing tiny chips in hardware used by the CIA, Apple, Amazon, and nearly 30 American companies, according to an ongoing investigation by U.S. authorities, Bloomberg Businessweek reported. The major companies involved, and the Chinese government, all strenuously denied the allegations.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech that listed a litany of complaints about China, and seemed more about rallying Americans against a new rival than telling China what to do to reduce tensions. The speech and Bloomberg Businessweek report also came the day after two other reports on political friction points: “US Navy proposing major show of force to warn China,” reported by CNN, and “U.S. warns of new hacking spree from group linked to China,” reported by Reuters.
The speech marked the first day of “decoupling” between the U.S. and China, we suggested.
The U.S.-China trade war continues, with no end in sight. Here are updates from this week:
China is facing more economic headwinds, partly as a result of the trade war. Two measures of manufacturing in China showed declines in September, indicating pressure on exports, and a censorship order went out to Chinese journalists to downplay bad economic news.
Negotiations probably won’t resume until December, at the earliest, when it is possible that the two sides will meet on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The rebranded NAFTA agreement appears designed to unify the U.S., Mexico, and Canada against China — one part targeted currency manipulation, and another warned against dealing with “non-market economy” countries.
JP Morgan predicted a “full-blown trade war” that will significantly affect China’s economy in 2019.
Fàn Bīngbīng 范冰冰, China’s most famous actress, surfaced nearly four months after disappearing. As suspected, she was investigated for tax fraud — she issued an apology that included the line, “Without the good policies of the Party and the state, without the love of the people, there would be no Fan Bingbing,” and now owes an astounding $130 million in taxes, fines, and late fees.
Cuī Tiānkǎi 崔天凯 denied the existence of “camps” in Xinjiang in an interview with NPR. The Chinese ambassador to the U.S. also claimed that access to Tibet is limited “because it’s very high altitude and the climate could be very tough there.” Cui’s comments on Xinjiang can be seen as part of a larger propaganda campaign to deny human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Kǒng Línlín 孔琳琳, a CCTV reporter in the U.K., slapped a volunteer at a discussion on Hong Kong at Britain’s annual Conservative Party Conference. She was arrested, but the Chinese Embassy and CGTN came to her defense — this makes sense, because she was fulfilling her duty of Chinese propaganda workers to “draw their swords” to prove their zealotry and ideological purity.
China’s healthcare crisis was detailed in an important New York Times report: Lines before dawn, violence and ‘no trust’.
Police in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, are investigating two resident foreigners accused of making offensive remarks in a private WeChat group about Chinese people and Nanjing Massacre victims.
Opposition to reform and opening up is building in advance of the 40th anniversary of the policy, according to Qián Gāng 钱钢 at China Media Project, and the tide is turning against private businesses, according to
BUSINESS AND TECHNOLOGY:
Recognition of cancer research
Was pioneering Chinese scientist Chen Lieping ‘unfairly overlooked’ for Nobel Medicine Prize? / SCMP
“Chinese scientists and state media have complained that the renowned immunologist Chén Lièpíng 陈列平 has been ‘unfairly overlooked’ in the award of this year’s Nobel Medicine Prize, which went to American and Japanese scientists. Chen, based at Yale University, has been researching the same area of medicine for years and is also considered a ‘crucial contributor’ to a novel cancer treatment.”
Genomics company backs China’s largest-ever DNA study / Sixth Tone
“Scientists from Chinese genomics company BGI are conducting the country’s largest-ever genetic study, according to an article published Thursday in the scientific journal Cell.The subjects are some 140,000 women who purchased BGI’s noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT) service, which is used to screen for birth defects.”
Farming modernization and village life
China’s small farms are fading. The world may benefit. / NYT (porous paywall)
“Traditional plots of land are slowly becoming parts of bigger operations, eroding a way of life but enriching local residents and helping more Chinese people move into the modern world.”
Serviced apartments in the U.K.
Chinese flock to serviced apartments in the UK / China Daily
“China is becoming an increasingly important overseas market for the United Kingdom’s serviced apartment sector, with some of the operators seeing bookings from Chinese guests surging as much as 50 percent during the last 12 months.”
Pensioners not well served by business in Hong Kong
Hong Kong not yet ready for ‘silver economy,’ study finds, with 70 percent of elderly feeling let down by choices and services / SCMP
Hong Kong media business
Hong Kong broadcaster TVB fires 150 staff members citing losses in international business and restructuring / SCMP
The Chinese are coming – #28 / ZoZo Go
“For years, clunky designs have been killing the reputation of Chinese cars. Crude rip-offs have hurt, too. No longer. Chinese automakers are fixing the problem by hiring top global designers.”
POLITICS AND CURRENT AFFAIRS:
Xinjiang concentration camps
‘They are not livestock but people with rights’: Kazakh families torn apart in China’s Xinjiang crackdown / AFP via Hong Kong Free Press
Taiwan denies entry to PRC official after snub
Shanghai official’s application to visit Taiwan rejected / Focus Taiwan
“Following a cross-departmental screening by the relevant authorities in Taiwan, Lǐ Xiāodōng 李骁东, vice director of the Shanghai-based Taiwan Affairs Office, has been denied entry after refusing to meet with Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) officials as requested by Taiwan’s government.”“Li was slated to visit Taiwan from October 16-20 as the deputy leader of a delegation from several Shanghai-based think tanks such as Shanghai Federation of Social Science Association. All other members of the delegation have agreed to observe stipulations made by Taiwan’s government and been given permission to visit as scheduled.”
Opinion: China’s long game on human rights / NPR
Ted Piccone, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes that “China is moving beyond playing defense and adopting a more self-confident posture in the halls of the United Nations.”
More charges against Patrick Ho
Patrick Ho accused of being illegal arms dealer by US prosecutor / SCMP
“United States prosecutors have alleged that former Hong Kong minister Patrick Ho (何志平 Hé Zhìpíng) who will go on trial for bribery next month, illegally sold weapons to Libya and Qatar in 2015.”
Dealing with Taiwan’s repressive history
Taiwan pardons more than 1,200 ‘White Terror’ victims / AFP via Channel NewsAsia
“Taiwan wiped the criminal records of 1,270 victims of the island’s ‘White Terror’ purges on Friday, October 5, the first time the government has fully exonerated those who suffered political persecution under martial law. The victims, most of whom are dead, have been awarded ‘restoration of honor’ certificates under successive governments and compensation has been paid to some families.”
Sri Lanka and Japan
As Chinese influence grows, Japanese warship visits Sri Lanka / Jakarta Globe
North Korea looks to get China, Russia on side before denuclearization talks with US / Politico
Misbehaving CCTV reporter in U.K.
Crazed Chinese reporter triggered by son’s expulsion from British school / Taiwan News
China prison break: Public appeal after rare inmate escape / BBC
“In China, prison escapes are few and far between. So the case of two men escaping from a Liaoning prison has turned into a nationwide hunt. In an unusual step, Chinese media are appealing for the public’s help in tracking down the escapees and have even publicized a reward for information leading to their capture of 100,000 yuan ($14,558).”
Daring prison break in guards’ uniforms grips China / SCMP
Rape in Wuhan
Rape case shocks elite Chinese university students, raises fears of off-campus accommodation safety / SCMP
“Police have detained a 17-year-old accused of raping a female migrant worker in a Wuhan University dormitory room, in a case that has shocked students at the elite institution.”
‘If Beijing is like this…’: Storm in China over child abduction bid / SCMP
“A Chinese father’s harrowing story of how his toddler was almost abducted by strangers in broad daylight this week has sparked online criticism of Beijing police for perceived leniency in dealing with the offenders.”
SOCIETY AND CULTURE:
Wen Hui: Red review – China’s Cultural Revolution revisited / Guardian
“In the first years of China’s Cultural Revolution, there were only eight ‘model plays’ that were officially sanctioned by the regime and performed again and again across the country: five operas, two ballets and a symphony. One of those ballets, The Red Detachment of Women, about a peasant girl’s rise in the communist army, is now the subject of a contemporary appraisal in Beijing-based choreographer 文慧 Wén Huì’s Red.It’s a fascinating story that Wen tells through filmed interviews with former dancers and audience members, and movement and narration from herself and a cast of three.”
Duck tales: The origin of the birds in Beijing’s famous dish / Sixth Tone
The Bard in Beijing: How Shakespeare is subverting China / FT (paywall)
“Shakespeare sells well in China, says Duncan Lees, an assistant professor of drama at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, because his work is seen as ‘safe, revered, and as respectable ‘high culture.’ That, conveniently, can make Shakespeare seem more anodyne than he is, he adds. ‘Shakespeare often flies under the radar politically in China today, yet the plays and poems actually contain a lot of potentially very contentious material. There’s a space for subversive education through Shakespeare everywhere.’”
VIDEO OF THE DAY
Cute alert: White tiger triplets
These three white tiger cubs made their first public appearance at a zoo in Kunming, Yunnan Province, during the National Day holiday celebration.
We also published the following videos this week:
Five great movies from the Fifth Generation
Coming of age during the Cultural Revolution, China’s post-Mao filmmakers would revolutionize the industry with story-driven movies utilizing vivid colors and innovative techniques. Here are five — including from directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige — that remain influential to this day.
‘Go into a field with human-to-human interaction’: Kai-Fu Lee on AI
Kai-Fu Lee is the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, which he founded in 2009; before that, he was the president of Google China. He recently spoke with Young China Watchers about his new book, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, and how big data and AI will shape the future.
Journalist accused of sexual misconduct by former intern
An anonymous woman who interned at Guangming Daily as a politics reporter in 2016 has come forward to accuse Zhou Hongquan 周洪双, a journalist at the newspaper, of attempted rape, varying degrees of groping, and harassment.
Alipay offers official response to idiotic online trolls
In yet another example of the unfortunate real-world influence of virtual Chinese trolls, Alipay recently felt the need to clarify the meaning of the Chinese character zhi 支 in marketing materials — this after these trolls made a nationalistic fuss about the character being disrespectful to China.
Kuora: Celebrating Deng Xiaoping, who saved contemporary China
As the Chinese celebrate the 69th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, we look at Deng Xiaoping. How did he save China, and how is he regarded today?
Sinica Podcast: Introducing ChinaEconTalk
ChinaEconTalk is a weekly conversation exploring China’s economy and tech scene, hosted by Jordan Schneider. Guests include a wide range of policy analysts, business professionals, journalists, and academics.
PHOTO FROM MICHAEL YAMASHITA
Tibetan nomads and their yaks
In this photo from 2009, Tibetan nomads herd yaks on a green pasture in Tibet.