China Brief

A weekly digest of the stories you should be following in China this week, plus exclusive analysis, written by Foreign Policy’s senior editor and former Beijing correspondent James Palmer. Delivered Wednesday.

Will the Trump Administration Sabotage U.S.-China Relations?

In their final weeks, hawks in the outgoing White House are trying to push through measures that would keep Beijing and Washington on a confrontational course.

By James Palmer, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a working session on the first day of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a working session on the first day of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief. The highlights this week: What U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has planned for China in the Trump administration’s final days, a British diplomat carries out a surprising rescue in Chongqing, and why the artist Ai Weiwei backs U.S. President Donald Trump.

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The Last Weeks of Trump’s China Chaos

Chinese President Xi Jinping called U.S. President-elect Joe Biden last Friday, nearly a week after he was declared winner of the Nov. 3 election. The delay in making formal contact, as I explained last week, was understandable. But while China may aspire to slightly better relations with the incoming Biden administration—encouraged by figures such as Henry Kissinger calling for a “reset”—the outgoing Trump administration is trying to set a course for permanent hostility.

Some officials, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are still participating in President Donald Trump’s delusions of victory, at least in public. But in private, they are trying to push through measures designed to keep the United States and China on a confrontational course.

Those efforts include doubling down on the intelligence community’s new focus on China, taking steps against China’s fishing policies, and likely introducing new limits on imports of Chinese products, especially technology. This week, Trump banned U.S. firms from “Chinese military investment.” But Trump’s electoral loss has left ongoing cases such as the TikTok ban in limbo, possibly making it harder for Biden administration hawks to follow up.

One significant step not yet taken: to officially declare China’s actions against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang genocide, following the lead of the Canadian Parliament. That would set a precedent for the Biden administration and spark a massive reaction from Beijing. But it’s unlikely to happen, given the continued strength of the pro-business lobby inside the Trump administration. (It would also require a sign-off from a distracted president with no interest in human rights.)

Another possibility, and one more in line with the Trump administration, is further visa restrictions for Chinese visitors, immigrants, and especially students.

Tightening immigration policies would be relatively easy for Biden to undo, but it would send another message to the Chinese leadership and ordinary Chinese people. While travel to the United States isn’t that attractive at present, Chinese students are still attempting to enroll at U.S. universities. It won’t be a surprise if the United States, in the final days of the Trump administration, tells them again that they’re not wanted.

What We’re Following

Diplomatic lifesaver. The U.K. consul general in Chongqing, Stephen Ellison, dove into freezing waters to rescue a young woman who slipped on rocks, hit her head, and fell into the river. Video of the event has gone viral in China, giving Britain a much-needed image boost: Relations between the two countries are at a nadir thanks to the situation in Hong Kong.

But Chinese also raised the usual questions: Why did no one else in the crowd help before the 61-year-old foreign diplomat jumped in? Bystander apathy is a common source of public angst in China, although state media under Xi has focused on propagandizing instances of help.

But there may be a simpler explanation for the failure to act in this case: While swimming lessons are universal in Britain, only 1 in 5 people in China can swim—that’s why Mao Zedong’s feats of aquatic endurance were so powerful.

Ai Weiwei backs Trump. A number of prominent Chinese dissidents have embraced far-right disinformation about the U.S. elections, retweeting Trump’s conspiracy theories about irregularities. Among them is the prominent artist Ai Weiwei. Trump has also been increasingly embraced as a potential savior figure by anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intellectuals. While Asian Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, exit polling did show a slight bump toward Trump in the election.

Long telegram? The U.S. State Department released a 70-page document this week laying out “The China Challenge,” a clear imitation of the famous 1946 “Long Telegram” in which U.S. diplomat George Kennan predicted the postwar Soviet threat. But unlike Kennan’s dispatch, this document is committee-produced. It also places a strange emphasis on China’s supposed attempt to impose a “socialist international order”—reflecting Pompeo’s own language.

The document isn’t poorly written, but it doesn’t say anything particularly new or interesting, either. It is more a reflection of the moment than an attempt to shape it.

Tech and Business

Tech firms targeted. Following the block of Ant Financial’s initial public offering, Chinese regulators have rolled out a whole set of measures directed at technology firms, especially in the online finance sector. Some of the regulations reflect legitimate anti-monopoly and data privacy concerns, an increasingly potent issue in China. But there also seems to be a feeling within the CCP that tech companies have become too powerful and are in danger of forgetting who is in charge.

Australia trade war. A deliberately leaked document shows what Beijing wants from Canberra in order to end the unofficial but comprehensive restraints on Australian trade in recent weeks: an end to efforts to combat Chinese interference in Australia; silence on Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang; and the embrace of Huawei products. The report, given to Nine News by the Chinese Embassy in Australia, accuses Australia of “poisoning bilateral relations.”

As usual with Chinese diplomacy in the “wolf warrior” era, this aggression has prompted immediate backlash in Australia. Australian politicians may find themselves caught between a desire to solve trade issues and increasing anti-Chinese feelings among the public, stirred by China’s threats.

Vaccine hopes. Chinese coronavirus vaccine efforts, which originally seemed to have a head start, have fallen somewhat behind the recent Western successes. But first- and second-phase trials show promising results. Chinese companies may have been hampered by the country’s own success at containing the virus: While Pfizer and Moderna were able to run trials among the American public, China now has almost no active cases and a much smaller pool of information to draw on.

That’s it for this week.

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