China protests prompt U.S. political posturing

China protests prompt U.S. political posturing

Updated: 2 months, 2 days, 9 hours, 1 minute, 29 seconds ago

China protests prompt U.S. political posturing Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans as they march.

Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans as they march in protest in Beijing on Nov. 27, 2022. | Ng Han Guan/AP Photo

Hi, China Watchers. This week we examine the U.S. response to recent mass protests in China and quiz the D.C.-based representative for Taiwan’s opposition KMT party about Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) Taiwan travel plans. We’ll also parse China’s complicated politics of mourning and profile a book that reveals the vulnerability of our most personal information to Chinese government data harvesting operations.

Let’s get to it. — Phelim

The dramatic protests that erupted in Chinese cities over the weekend handed an opportunity to GOP lawmakers to attack the Biden administration over perceived weakness in its dealings with Beijing.

Republicans have rebuked President JOE BIDEN, who met with Chinese paramount leader XI JINPING last month on the sidelines of the G-20 in a bid to ease tensions, for not issuing any public statement about the protests.

GOP lawmakers also scolded the administration for its minimalist public statements on the protests, which were limited to concerns about Xi’s zero-Covid policy and a declaration of support for the right of peaceful protest. Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN is the only administration official to stray from that script by calling Chinese government moves to smother the protests “a sign of weakness” in an interview with NBC on Wednesday.

That GOP reaction suggests that the past two years of fragile bipartisan alignment on Biden’s China policy may become more confrontational in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.

“The Biden administration's weak rejection of the CCP’s zero-Covid policy and refusal to call out General Secretary Xi’s totalitarian grip is nothing short of cowardly,” Sen. MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.) and Rep. CHRIS SMITH (R-N.J.) said in a statement Monday. “Just weeks after shaking hands with Xi in Bali, President Biden and his administration have once again demonstrated that they are unwilling to stand up to the CCP and stand in solidarity with the Chinese people.”

The White House stood by the substance and scope of its statements on the protests. "It's been an approach consistent with past practice… deliberate, thoughtful, and that's the way we have approached these sorts of issues elsewhere around the world,” National Security Council spokesperson, JOHN KIRBY, told reporters Wednesday.

Rep. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-Calif.), presumptive House Speaker in the next Congress, also sensed political gain in slamming the administration’s messaging. “As Chinese citizens bravely protest, Joe Biden & the corporate class shrug,” McCarthy tweeted on Monday. McCarthy added teeth to that tweet by repeating his pledge to launch a Select Committee on China in the next Congress tasked to “do what Biden refuses — finally reckon with the pariah that is the CCP.” McCarthy’s office didn’t respond to a request for details about that committee.

Sen. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R-Tenn.) joined the pile-on with a tweet slamming Biden on Tuesday for “remaining silent on the China protests.” Rep. MIKE GALLAGHER (R-Wis.) went one better by issuing a statement on Tuesday that urged Biden to take “concrete actions” to support Chinese protesters. Gallagher’s wish list included imposing sanctions against Chinese officials implicated in violent reprisals against protesters for human rights violations, along with Treasury sanctions against Chinese firms enabling Chinese government surveillance systems.

But the Biden administration’s cautious response to the protests — which a massive police response has effectively dispersed — is likely to continue as part of an effort to stabilize a vital but increasingly adversarial relationship with Beijing. Read my and NAHAL TOOSI’s full story on the administration’s initial reaction here.

And regardless of that administration messaging, U.S. officials believe there is little chance the protests will spread or spark a wider movement against Beijing’s authoritarian rulers, according to U.S. government communications obtained by POLITICO. Read my and ERIN BANCO’s related story  here. Eric Chu, left, and Tsai Ing-wen talk during the National Day celebrations.

Eric Chu, left, and Tsai Ing-wen talk during the National Day celebrations in 2015. | Wally Santana/AP Photo

Taiwan’s D.C.-based KMT rep braves the beltway

Taiwanese opposition party KMT, or Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), launched a representative office in D.C. in June with ERIC HUANG as its resident representative. China Watcher sat down with Huang to discuss what the KMT is up to in D.C. and its views on U.S.-Taiwan relations.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What are you doing in D.C.?

We're here to understand the thinking, the intentions and logic behind some of the policymakers here in Washington. And to have contact with all of the agencies that deal with Taiwan in the executive branch and also all the think tanks. Also, anybody who has either spoken about Taiwan, went to Taiwan or endorsed a bill or act on Taiwan — starting from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

I'll explain to our congressional contacts what some of the thinking is inside Taiwan and the KMT’s take on the issues.

 Is the KMT for or against U.S. “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan?

Our official policy is that we are for strategic ambiguity. We support the maintenance of the status quo.

I think the U.S. is moving toward a clearer policy towards Taiwan. That means the United States probably won’t change its position in terms of whether it will intervene in a military confrontation, but it will come very close to clarity on economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Is the KMT rethinking its China “reunification” policy platform?

When we talk about reunification: This has to be done democratically. We will not engage in any reunification effort if a democratic China is not a precondition. We want to maintain the status quo, keep Beijing [ties] on a friendly basis and hopefully, maintain peace and stability.

Why did the ruling Democratic Progressive Party of President TSAI ING-WEN do so badly in last week’s city and county-level elections?

People are fed up with the DPP’s performance. In the last two to three weeks of the campaign, they tried to use an anti-China strategy, which did not work. If you want to use anti-China rhetoric, you have to be able to convince the voters that the KMT will not do as good a job as the DPP.

KMT chairman ERIC CHU has done a great job convincing voters that the KMT has a moderate stance but that we are also pro-U.S. and have a fair and balanced cross-Strait policy.

How do you feel about Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) pledge to visit Taiwan after he becomes House Speaker in January?

There are pros and cons. If the House Speaker’s travel to Taiwan has a substantial meaning to it, that’s one thing. But if it’s just a symbolic trip I think more can be done in the U.S.

TRANSLATING WASHINGTON

— RAIMONDO: NATIONAL SECURITY GUIDES CHINA TRADE: Commerce Secretary GINA RAIMONDO laid out strict new U.S. ground rules for trade with China, POLITICO’s DOUG PALMER and ARI HAWKINS reported on Wednesday. In a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, Raimondo said national security and human rights concerns will govern the U.S.-China trade relationship to a far greater degree than before. “China today poses a set of growing challenges to our national security. That is a fact. It's deploying its military in ways that undermine the security of our allies and our partners and the free flow of global trade,” Raimondo said.

— BURNS: BEIJING SHOULD HELP FIGHT FENTANYL: U.S. Ambassador to China NICHOLAS BURNS has urged the Xi government to shut down Chinese companies supplying raw materials for illicit fentanyl production to Mexican cartels. Those chemicals are fueling the U.S. opioid overdose epidemic that killed 71,000 Americans in 2021.

“We’re trying to work with the government of China here to say please crack down on those illicit Chinese firms and help us to deal with this major problem in the United States,” Burns said in a video presentation from Beijing at a Chicago Council on Global Affairs event on Tuesday. Beijing has consistently denied any role of Chinese firms in illicit opioid production in Mexico.

 — PENTAGON: ‘DRAMATIC ESCALATION’ IN CHINA NUKES: The Pentagon has warned that China is steadily expanding its nuclear arsenal and could have 1,500 warheads by 2035, POLITICO’s LARA SELIGMAN reported on Tuesday. Beijing currently has a nuclear stockpile of more than 400 warheads, the Pentagon warned in its annual report to Congress on China’s military might. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson ZHAO LIJIAN called the report a Pentagon “pretext for expanding its nuclear arsenal.”

— NAVY REJECTS CHINA’S ‘TRESPASSING’ ACCUSATION: The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet has dismissed Chinese Defense Ministry accusations that the guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville illegally “trespassed” into Chinese waters in the South China Sea on Tuesday. The Navy called the accusation “the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims.”

Hot from the China Watchersphere

 — U.K.’S SUNAK: CHINA A ‘SYSTEMIC CHALLENGE’: The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister RISHI SUNAK declared on Tuesday that China poses a “systemic challenge to our values and interests.” Sunak warned that the “golden era” of U.K.-China ties was over and pledged to apply “robust pragmatism” in dealing with Beijing. Zhao at the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Sunak’s comments “constitute grave interference in China’s internal affairs.”

 — YOON: CHINA SHOULD CURB PYONGYANG’S AGGRESSION: South Korean President YOON SUK-YEOL called on China to pressure North Korea to stop its drive to build its nuclear arsenal. “What is sure is that China has the capability to influence North Korea, and China has the responsibility to engage in the process," Yoon told Reuters in an exclusive interview on Monday.

— CANADA TAKES HARDER LINE ON CHINA: The Canadian government has rolled out a new Indo-Pacific Strategy that targets China’s “assertive pursuit” of economic and security ambitions, POLITICO’s ZI-ANN LUM reported on Sunday. The strategy identifies China’s “advancement of unilateral claims, foreign interference and increasingly coercive treatment of other countries and economies” as risks to Canada’s national security. Zhao at the Foreign Ministry said on Monday that Beijing “strongly opposes” the strategy.

TRANSLATING CHINA Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin attends the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress on Nov. 8, 2012, in Beijing, China. | Feng Li/Getty Images

 — CHINA’S POLITICS OF MOURNING: Former Chinese paramount leader JIANG ZEMIN died on Wednesday. And that creates a potential incentive for fresh expressions of public discontent with the Xi regime after authorities effectively quelled recent protests against the country’s Covid control policy. “There’s a recurring pattern that [protests erupt] when someone important passes away in the midst of widespread public anger about political, economic or social issues,” said YINAN HE, associate professor of international relations at Lehigh University and an expert on China’s politics of memory.

Chinese Premier ZHOU ENLAI’s death sparked mass public tributes in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in April 1976 that morphed into a violent protest against CCP rule that spread to at least five other cities. When former CCP General Secretary HU YAOBANG died in April 1989, mass student tributes grew into the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests that the CCP crushed with tanks on June 4, 1989.

Public antipathy toward Xi Jinping over his zero-Covid strategy compounded by an ailing economy makes Jiang’s death a tempting pretext for renewed street protests. He’s Chinese social media feed blew up after Jiang’s death was announced with tributes from normally apolitical contacts.

“Dissatisfaction is widespread and the people who are angriest and most vocal are the middle class,” He said. For Jiang “ideological disputes and political and factional struggles were secondary to economic development, while [Xi] is willing to sacrifice economic development and the people’s economic welfare for ideological correctness.”

But those who venture out to honor Jiang as a way to protest Xi face a daunting large-scale deployment of police and weaponry aimed to discourage such activity.

 — THE CPP PROTEST-BUSTING PLAYBOOK: Protesters who filled the streets of multiple Chinese cities over the weekend may have dispersed. But CCP mechanisms for identifying and neutralizing dissent are just gathering steam. Authorities are likely deploying high tech tools ranging from mobile phone geolocation tracking to facial recognition technology to identify protesters and target them for reprisals, according to the U.S. government communications my colleague Erin Banco and I reported on Wednesday.

China Watcher consulted Human Rights Watch senior researcher YAQIU WANG, an expert on freedom of expression issues in China, to unpack the CCP’s protest busting playbook.

Bury it

“The government will do everything to try to wipe out any information about the protests, because protests can inspire and encourage other people. So they will try to make it look like it never happened. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is the clearest example of this strategy.”

Round up the “ringleaders”

The police “need to find someone who they identify as the ringleader even when there's actually no real ringleader. This is a chance for them to enhance their own performance and their chances of getting promoted.”

Hide the reprisals

“They won’t advertise that they are arresting protesters because they don’t want the general public to know that protests happened. And there are smaller things that they can do, like tell your boss to fire you… or get your parents fired from their jobs. These tactics are less obviously abusive, but very effective.”

Neutralize the Students

“Anti-protest tactics and strategies were developed to address the origins of the Tiananmen Square protests — and the main body of protesters were the students.”

Blame Foreign Forces

“The government is increasingly blaming protests on what it calls foreign forces. Accusing foreigners of antagonizing China …to undermine China.”

HEADLINES

The Guardian: “Awkward silence: China official speechless after question on protests – video”

National Geographic: “China is erasing their culture. In exile, Uyghurs remain defiant”

Washington Post: “Xi Jinping will order a crackdown. It will probably work”

HEADS UP

 —XI JINPING SAUDI SUMMIT-BOUND?:  An Arab-China summit will occur in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Dec. 9 and there’s talk that Xi will attend to reaffirm China-Saudi ties. We’ve been here before – Xi was widely expected to travel to Saudi Arabia in August, but the trip never happened. Stay tuned.

One Book, Three Questions

The cover of the book "Trafficking Data" is shown.

Oxford University Press

The Book: Trafficking Data: How China is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty

 The Author:  AYNNE KOKAS is the C.K. Yen Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center

 Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What is the most important takeaway from your book?

China has developed a new model of digital sovereignty based on its ability to traffic personal data across borders without informed consent. Such practices may empower the Chinese government, but the powerful financial interests of Big Tech have created an oversight vacuum in the United States, leaving citizens vulnerable to data gathering and extraction.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?

I was shocked to see that despite protections from HIPAA (the Health Information Portability and Accounting Act), the dysfunctional U.S. healthcare system permits biodata, from DNA to blood types, to be exported across borders. After reaching China it can be used for genetic research and modeling, health surveillance and monitoring, and massive experiments in personalized and precision medicine. 

What does your book tell us about the trajectory and future of U.S.-China relations?

 Attempting to force China to change its strategic vision of digital sovereignty is a fool’s errand. For this reason, the United States must regulate its technology sectors while contributing internationally to design a new paradigm for protecting user data.  

Got a book to recommend? Tell me about it at [email protected]

Thanks to: Heidi Vogt, Matt Kaminski, Nahal Toosi, Erin Banco, Doug Palmer, Ari Hawkins, Lara Seligman, Zi-Ann Lum, and digital producer Andrew Howard.Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week's items? Email us at [email protected]