China Brief

Beijing Doubles Down on Diplomatic Aggression

As China makes veiled threats against Western economies, the Trump administration is adopting a heightened anti-Chinese rhetoric.

Chinese police march in Tiananmen Square on April 28 in Beijing, where life is slowly returning to normal following the city's coronavirus lockdown.
Chinese police march in Tiananmen Square on April 28 in Beijing, where life is slowly returning to normal following the city's coronavirus lockdown. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: Chinese diplomats are responding to Western criticism with more threats, Beijing finally reschedules an annual political meeting, and the Uighur crackdown continues in Xinjiang as Ramadan begins.

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Chinese Diplomats Make Veiled Threats

China’s rhetorical assaults on the West amid the coronavirus pandemic have continued this week, with Beijing’s ambassadors taking an increasingly undiplomatic tone—likely in response to pressure from home. After Australia’s prime minister called for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, the Chinese ambassador in Canberra made a thinly veiled threat of boycotting the Australian economy.

That’s not empty talk: China has a record of directing boycotts over what it sees as political slights by other countries, from South Korea’s 2017 decision to use a U.S. missile defense system to the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident. State media doubled down on criticism of Australia’s call for an investigation, with the editor of the Global Times calling Australia “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe.”

Performing patriotism. The Netherlands was also in China’s firing line this week after it changed the name of its representative office in Taipei—it doesn’t have an embassy there—to a form that Beijing interpreted as being more supportive of Taiwanese independence. The Netherlands also criticized the quality of coronavirus tests sold in Europe by Chinese companies. In response, China made vague threats against the Dutch—likely to be backed up by future sanctions. China’s fierce language is driven in part by anti-foreign feeling at home and officials desperate to stand out by waving the flag. Performative patriotism appears to be a necessity for political survival.

The U.S. bites back. A recent profile of Matt Pottinger, a top Trump administration advisor on China issues, highlights the degree to which China hawks are ascendant in Washington. But challenging Beijing appears less important to the White House than using anti-Chinese rhetoric as a deflection of the U.S. failure to handle the pandemic. Attempts to engage with China—either to criticize its handling of the pandemic or to find common ground fight it—are being distorted by the political needs of the presidency.

The anti-Chinese political strategy was laid out in a recent Republican strategy memo—which faced criticism from the White House—that instructed candidates to attack China rather than defend Trump. Anti-Chinese rhetoric has come at a direct cost to Asian Americans: Conservative media have targeted Chinese Americans such as former Washington Gov. Gary Locke and New York Times reporter Ed Wong as supposed agents of Beijing.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is setting the stage for a fresh confrontation with China over Taiwan’s status at the World Health Organization, as FP’s Colum Lynch reports.


What We’re Following

Annual political meeting rescheduled. In a sign of confidence about coronavirus containment, Beijing has set an official date—May 21—for the annual “two sessions” meeting of the rubber-stamp national parliament and its largely symbolic advisory body. The meeting usually takes place in early March but was delayed due to the coronavirus. The capital, along with the rest of northern China, has also eased travel restrictions to allow residents to visit other parts of the country and return without facing quarantine. Both decisions show that the government is reasonably certain it won’t face another outbreak in Beijing, even as everyday life still requires constant monitoring—from a compulsory tracking app to temperature checks.

Cultural genocide in Xinjiang. The plight of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang region has been sidelined by the pandemic. But as the holy month of Ramadan begins, Muslims in Xinjiang are still being forced to not fast during daylight hours, and mosques remain largely shuttered. Part of China’s campaign against the Uighurs has been the systematic and deliberate destruction of historical and religious sites, including graveyards containing mazar—the tombs of Islamic saints. For example, new satellite imagery shows that the ancient graveyard in Hotan, destroyed last year, has been replaced with a parking lot.

Arrests in Hong Kong. The detention of prominent democracy activists and dissidents in Hong Kong is a frightening sign of the city’s future. Beijing seems determined to move toward complete control of the territory, especially with the city’s mass protests curtailed by fear of the coronavirus pandemic. That could backfire by further alienating residents, though it’s hard to see how Hong Kongers could be any more opposed to the mainland than they already are. Don’t be surprised if the United States moves this year or next to strip away Hong Kong’s favorable trade and commerce status.


The COVID-19 Crash

For years, Chinese economic growth has been consistently high—so consistent as to raise suspicions, even as it declined from an average of 8 percent a year to hover around 6 percent. That all changed with the coronavirus, as shown below. The plunge of 6.8 percent in the first quarter may still be an underestimate, but it shows the impact that the pandemic continues to have on China’s economy.


Tech and Business

Foreign student fallout. With Western universities expecting an 80 to 100 percent drop in the number of international students this year, the U.S. higher education system is facing a double crisis: the pandemic and the disappearance of the Chinese students it relies on for financial health. Even if international students eventually return, Chinese students may face increased pressure—both from the Chinese government and from Republican Party rhetoric—not to attend U.S. schools. That could cause the situation that U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad has warned against: a financial crisis for lesser-known universities without large endowments.

Unemployment guesstimates. Analysts from the brokerage Zhongtai Securities recently estimated that China’s real post-coronavirus unemployment rate is over 20 percent—far beyond the official 5.9 percent figure. That tallies with informed guesses (link in Chinese) by other experts. Under official pressure, the firm was forced to retract its report and conform to the government’s figures. Despite a brief spike during the beginning of China’s outbreak, migrant wages now appear depressed and job prospects poor. Millions of migrants are likely to return to their villages as a result. That will cause a rise in rural poverty that is difficult to reconcile with the government’s poverty reduction goals and will likely be swept under the carpet.

Auto industry crashes. China’s car sales were completely crushed in the first quarter of the year, especially in February, which saw a 79 percent drop from the previous month. The government is trying to prop up the industry with loans to firms and cash to buyers. The trend contrasts with the SARS outbreak in 2003, when fear of public transport prompted a rush in car sales. Today, with the Chinese car market already near its saturation point and economic prospects bleak, families may prefer to brave the subway. The airline industry, which benefited from big infrastructure investments over the last two decades, is also facing a major cull.


What We’re Watching

The WHO, Trump, and the Failure of Global Diplomacy” webinar at the Center for Global Policy

This week, the Center for Global Policy assembled a panel—including me—to discuss China, the World Health Organization, and other international bodies in the time of coronavirus. The discussion, which included past Foreign Policy contributors Azeem Ibrahim and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, addresses a big question: How can an opaque, politically paranoid power be addressed by international bodies without it overwhelming them?


That’s it for this week.

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James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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