First, the Solomon Islands, next, Kiribati?

Access Archive

Dear Access member,

Our word of the day is Kiribati (基里巴斯 jīlǐbāsī), rumored to be the next ally of Taiwan that Beijing is trying to pry away. 

—Lucas Niewenhuis

The House of Assembly in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati

1. First, the Solomon Islands, next, Kiribati?

After the Solomon Islands broke ties with Taiwan on September 16, there was widespread speculation that it could lead other, smaller Pacific island nations — five of whom are among Taiwan’s 16 remaining allies — to follow suit. The islands that remain Taiwan’s diplomatic partners are Tuvalu, Palau, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Nauru, per the brief guide to China and the Pacific island nations published last year on SupChina Access. 

Kiribati may be next. Jessica Drun posted on Twitter a “letter circulating online among Kiribatians, written in Kiribati, purporting that the country plans to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China.”

Tuvalu may also be considering a switch. The Taipei Times reports that Taiwan’s “Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) yesterday said it is closely following developments in Tuvalu after the election of a new prime minister, Kausea Natano, sparking concern that Taiwan might face another diplomatic crisis.”

Taiwan’s ambassador to Tuvalu, Marc Su (蘇仁崇 Sū Rénchóng), expressed confidence:

“This country is OK — there won’t be any effect,” Su said, adding that Taiwan had good relationships in Tuvalu from “grassroots to top level.”

However, good personal relations and public sentiment may just not be very important compared with Beijing’s influence and willingness to shell out cash. In the Solomon Islands, for instance, Little Red Podcast co-host Graeme Smith interviewed numerous stakeholders before the switch, and came away convinced that outside of a few loud pro-China MPs, almost no one was enthusiastic about ditching Taiwan. 

Meanwhile, the Solomons Islands government faces a grassroots backlash from its diplomatic switch. Reuters reports that residents of one island, Malaita, are even protesting “to become independent from Solomon Islands government to manage our own affairs.”

2. National Day fireworks canceled in Hong Kong

The annual National Day fireworks over Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor have been canceled for public safety reasons, the Hong Kong Free Press reports, noting that the event “was last canceled in 2014 because of the large-scale Occupy protests.” 

Other news from and about the City of Protest: 

“US House speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday threw her support behind legislation meant to back Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters. Speaking at a news conference featuring Hong Kong activists Joshua Wong Chi-fung and Denise Ho, who testified before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) on Tuesday, Pelosi said she would bring the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 to a vote ‘as soon as possible,’” per the SCMP

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the U.S. should “stop supporting violent radical forces and Hong Kong independence separatists, and stop adding fuel to the fire to the words and deeds that damage the prosperity and stability of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” AFP reports.

A “HK$10m crowdfunding campaign aims to help victims sue Hong Kong police over alleged mistreatment,” the Hong Kong Free Press reports, and at a press conference, some of the organizers detailed their allegations of police abuse: 

The six at Tuesday’s press briefing included Ng Hong-luen, who said he was beaten by riot police, and cancer patient Ng Ying-mo who was shot with a police projectile – both cases occurred in Admiralty on June 12. They also included Lo Cham-sze, who said he was injured by riot police in Sha Tin on July 14, and Chan Kung-shun who said he was struck with a baton in Tseung Kwan O on August 4. Chan said he was walking in a park with his son, and not taking part in a protest.

The other two included Lam Wai-kwan, who said his arm was broken after he was pushed down by undercover police officers in Causeway Bay on August 11, and Andy Chui, an Eastern district councillor who was arrested in Chai Wan on September 1.

3. You must be this loyal to renew your press card

The South China Morning Post reports that the “ Xi Study Strong Nation,” or Xue Xi Qiang Guo (学习强国 xué xí qiángguó), app is being applied to test state media workers in China:

About 10,000 reporters and editors from 14 state-run online media outlets in Beijing are expected to sit the “pilot tests” using the Xuexi Qiangguo mobile app, a media source who requested anonymity said on Wednesday… 

The media oversight office made clear that updated press cards, which are essential for those working in the industry, would only be issued to journalists who had passed the exam. Those who fail will have one chance to take the test again, according to the notice.

4. Inside those ‘AI classrooms’

Earlier this year, SupChina reported that Chinese parents want students to wear dystopian brainwave-detecting headbands. Chinese internet users were highly critical of an “elite primary school in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province [that was] making its students wear brainwave-reading headbands that can supposedly detect their attention levels in the classroom.” 

Now you can see the controversial technology in action, and hear from students, teachers, and parents at a school in Shanghai that has also implemented the “brainwave-reading” devices. The Wall Street Journal gained access to the school and published a video worth watching: In Chinese classrooms, AI monitors students’ every move (no paywall). 

5. Trade talks resume at deputy level

Reuters reports that after nearly two months, “U.S. and Chinese deputy trade negotiators were set to resume face-to-face talks” in Washington, D.C., today. The details:

A delegation of about 30 Chinese officials, led by Vice Finance Minister Liào Mín 廖岷, arrived at the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) office near the White House for the talks scheduled to start at 9 a.m. (1300 GMT). Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Jeffrey Gerrish also arrived to represent the United States.

The discussions are likely to focus heavily on agriculture, including U.S. demands that China substantially increase purchases of American soybeans and other farm commodities, a person with knowledge of the planned discussions told Reuters.

Several sources well connected in Beijing indicate that there is optimism for progress in the upcoming high-level talks next month:

  • “China and the United States are expected to reach an interim trade deal in Washington next month, with Beijing agreeing to buy more American farm products and the Trump administration postponing further tariff increases and easing restrictions on Chinese telecommunications company Huawei,” according to Chen Wenling, the chief economist for the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges, the SCMP reports

  • Echoing Trump’s emphasis on farm goods, a “senior official from China’s Ministry of Agriculture will visit US farmers in Nebraska and Montana, a source with knowledge of the trip told the South China Morning Post, without going as far as naming the official.” 

  • “There’s a huge reorganization going on in China regarding fentanyl to try to shut it down,” according to Stephen Schwarzman, the Blackstone co-founder who has facilitated communication between Washington and Beijing. 

In other U.S.-China relations news:

A new Tariff Reform Coalition, formed by “some two dozen powerful industry groups, represents a diverse cross-section of US industry, including such giants as American Express, Sam’s Club, Google, Toyota, Sony, Macy’s and Ralph Lauren.” Their aim is to convince the U.S. Congress to reassert its oversight on tariffs, the SCMP reports.

David Stilwell, the United States’ Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, gave congressional testimony yesterday, per the SCMP. Two quotes show a nuanced message:

  • “We are especially concerned by Beijing’s use of market-distorting economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and intimidation to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.”

  • “I want to make sure that we don’t demonize everything — there is room for engagement. The Trump administration has emphasized the imperative to compete with China. This does not mean we seek conflict, nor does it preclude cooperation when our interests align.”

6. UN chief says he didn’t not condemn China for that thing they hopefully weren’t doing

On September 16, five human rights groups — Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the World Uyghur Conference — wrote a letter to UN Secretary General António Guterres urging him to take action by “publicly and unequivocally condemning the Chinese government’s abusive policies [in Xinjiang] and calling for the immediate closure of its ‘political education’ camps.” 

Guterres responded to the letter today, but you tell me if you see any measurable amount of specificity or explicit condemnation of any Chinese action in these remarks, as reported by the Associated Press:

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has strongly rejected claims by five human rights groups that he has not condemned the Chinese government’s detention of more than 1 million Muslims in Xinjiang, saying he has spoken out forcefully.

“I don’t think anyone has been more persistent and more clear in talking to the Chinese authorities in relation to this issue than myself,” he said on Wednesday. “It is absolutely not true that I’ve only done discreet diplomacy.”

The official said that on his visit to Beijing in April, “not only did I raise the issue, but I made it public”… 

Guterres said he told the Chinese “that it is very important to act in a way that each community feels that their identity is respected and that they belong, at the same time, to the society as a whole.”

“There could not be a more clear message,” he said. “So, if there is an area where I believe I’ve been doing publicly much more than many other leaders around the world [it] is this.”

Guterres said he would continue acting to guarantee that “all human rights in all circumstances are fully respected in that situation.”

“It will mean to do everything that is necessary for human rights to be respected,” he said when asked if the detention should be closed.

As Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth points out, it’s hardly even clear what Gutteres is talking about, as he doesn’t use any word, like “Uighur, Muslims, Xinjiang, detention (or surveillance/persecution)” that could make what he means “more clear.” 

Two other stories on the treatment of religion in China: 

A carving of the face of Lao-Tsu (老子 Lǎozǐ), the founder of Daoism, near Ji’an, Jiangxi Province, was covered up after the “local government declared that it violated Article 30 of the Regulations on Religious Affairs, which stipulates that ‘organizations and individuals other than religious groups, temples, and churches must not construct large outdoor religious statues.’” Bitter Winter reports that the initial plan was to demolish it, but local outcry was so loud that plans were changed. 

In Shipu, a fishing port in eastern China, the sea goddess Mazu (妈祖 Māzǔ) is widely celebrated, the Economist writes (porous paywall). Two reasons why: “Mazu worship is classed as a folk belief and not as a religion” and “In 2011 [Xi Jinping] urged officials to ‘make full use’ of Mazu to woo Taiwanese.”

—Lucas Niewenhuis


The company tumbled to No. 24 in an annual report on China’s top brands, falling from No. 11 a year ago. In 2017, before the trade war started, Apple was fifth in this ranking. Meanwhile, Apple’s biggest local rival, Huawei Technologies Co., climbed two spots and came in second, behind only Chinese payment service Alipay.

According to JL Warren Capital, Tesla sales in China should hit around 6,400 vehicles this quarter, with most orders coming in for its most affordable electric vehicle… a big hit in China already.

However, Tesla’s Shanghai factory probably won’t be able to make Model 3s in high volumes — meaning 1,000 to 2,000 cars per week — until mid-2020, the investment research firm predicts.

China’s cybersecurity industry is expected to reach 63.1 billion yuan ($8.9 billion) of revenue in 2019, up 23% from 2018, according to a report released Wednesday by a research institute under the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

Chinese investors are seeing opportunities in non-tech companies that stand to benefit from the country’s embrace of the so-called industrial internet amid a planned shift to a service-driven economy.

Steel, mining, construction and chemicals, as well as livestock, are some of the industries in urgent need of technology applications, according to investors who attended the Chinese Investors Summit in Shenzhen on Tuesday. 

The multibillion-dollar Daxing, designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid and her Chinese partners, is built for the future, boasting four runways and a terminal the size of 97 soccer pitches upon opening of the first phase — as well as customer-service robots that will provide travelers with flight updates and airport information.

China’s economic planning agency said on Wednesday that railway fixed-asset investment was 449.6 billion yuan (US$63 billion) in the first eight months of this year, which marked a modest 2.5 percent fall from the same period last year.

However, August alone marked a steep fall of 27.1 percent compared to the same month in 2018, according to calculations by the South China Morning Post, based on the official data.


Though there is still time for a clampdown, executives at major heavy industrial firms believe sweeping closures are not yet on the agenda — as long as routine smog controls continue to do the job. An independent survey last week showed Beijing is on track to drop out from the list of the world’s top 200 most-polluted cities this year.

China’s total planned coal-fired power projects now stand at 226.2 gigawatts, the highest in the world and more than twice the amount of new capacity on the books in India, according to data published by environmental groups on Thursday.

The projects approved by China amount to nearly 40 per cent of the world’s total planned coal-fired power plants, according to the Global Coal Exit List database run by German environmental organization Urgewald and 30 other partner organizations.


Canada’s new ambassador to China recently married the head of Asia Pacific operations for BlackRock, the world’s largest asset-management firm, raising concerns among former ambassadors and a democracy watchdog that Dominic Barton will encounter conflicts between his personal interests and public role.

The ambassador’s Sept. 4 appointment immediately drew questions from political commentators, who asked whether Barton — a veteran business leader whose posts included a seat on the advisory board for the state-run China Development Bank — is too connected to big corporations working in Asia to represent the full range of Canada’s interests. Others saw his business bona fides as strengths.

  • The mystery of the dead panda
    Panda autopsy preparations at Thai zoo as Chinese experts arrive / Reuters
    “Chinese panda experts and Thai officials on Thursday began preparing for an autopsy of beloved giant panda Chuang Chuang, who died unexpectedly this week at the Chiang Mai Zoo in northern Thailand while on loan from Beijing.”


Within 25 minutes of its release late Monday night, Chou’s piano rock ballad “Won’t Cry” — available to download for 3 yuan ($0.42) — had sold over 2 million copies across three streaming platforms. China’s dominant music-streaming app, QQ Music, even temporarily crashed because of the spike in traffic from Chou’s ravenous fans.

  • Side note: In a reminder that while Sixth Tone may be the most interesting and progressive state media outlet in China, it is still ultimately state-controlled, the article’s editor, David Paulk, complained on Twitter: “This lede said ‘One of Taiwan’s most famous musicians’ when I sent it to publish”; it was later changed to “One of China’s most famous musicians.” 

  • The China Zun
    Vessel-shaped ‘supertall’ skyscraper transforms Beijing’s skyline / CNN
    “The 1,731-foot (528-meter) skyscraper — now the city’s tallest, and the world’s eighth tallest — was completed at the end of last year. And this winter, the state-owned conglomerate behind the project, Citic Group, plans to move into its new headquarters more than eight years after construction began.”
    The Citic Tower is known as the “China Zun” (中国尊 zhōngguó zūn), “zun” being the name of an ancient wine vessel that inspired the shape of the building. 

  • Rubbish in the Yangtze
    Fans of China’s own ‘Loch Ness monster’ deflated as beast turns out to be airbag / Guardian

Grainy footage showing what appeared to be a long black sea creature slithering among the waves near the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province circulated widely on Chinese social media. On Weibo, the video and a discussion thread about it has been viewed more than 32m times since it emerged on Friday. The video was covered by most major media, including the party paper Beijing Youth Daily and state broadcaster CCTV and China Daily… 

But on Tuesday, workers at a ferry pier downstream from the reservoir fished out a long piece of tubing, likely discarded from a shipyard. Photos from local media also showed another large piece of black rubbish washed up on the shore near the alleged sighting.

  • Einstein on exhibit in Shanghai
    An exhibition in Shanghai celebrates Einstein’s genius / Economist (porous paywall)
    The World Expo Museum in Shanghai has an exhibit on Einstein, who famously visited the city in 1922. The exhibit, running from August to late October, “does not…explore Einstein’s views on freedom of expression,” and nothing in Chinese at the museum would indicate Einstein’s strongly anti-authoritarian viewpoints. However, the gift shop sells numerous English-language items of this sort, including a bookmark that quotes the scientist: “Freedom of teaching and of opinion in book or press is the foundation for the sound and natural development of any people.” 


The Quantified Country: China runs on numbers — even if the numbers lie

China is the quantified country. It has long constructed metrics and set targets, tying numbers into both the engineering of policy and the governance of individual lives. But what if its trust in statistics is misplaced? The reality is, data is tangled up with perverse incentives, human fallibility, and behavioral feedback cycles. Numbers lie more frequently than the country’s leaders are willing to admit, with implications that are far-reaching.


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