China Brief

Why China Just Doubled Down on Australia

Facing increasingly hostile diplomacy, Canberra is more likely to strengthen defense ties with Washington than cave to Beijing.

Bottles of Australian wine are displayed at a supermarket in Hangzhou, China, on Nov. 27.
Bottles of Australian wine are displayed at a supermarket in Hangzhou, China, on Nov. 27. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief. The highlights this week: China turns up its aggressive diplomacy against Australia, a Beijing court hears a landmark sexual harassment case, and where China stacks up in the race for a coronavirus vaccine.

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Wine Tariffs Follow Aggressive Pattern

China’s relationship with Australia keeps hitting new lows.

After threatening Canberra with a list of 14 demands, Beijing imposed heavy tariffs on Australian wine—a key export—last Friday, following a range of unofficial trade restrictions in recent weeks. Afterward, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who is well known for trolling other countries on social media, tweeted an image of an Australian soldier cutting a child’s throat—a reference to allegations of war crimes against several Australian soldiers. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has demanded the tweet’s removal.

This behavior is not new for Zhao, but it’s now clear that the Chinese state backs his trolling. In previous times, the tweet probably would have been quietly deleted. But under the current environment of ultranationalism, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended the quote. Some Chinese advisors attempted to rein in the so-called wolf warrior diplomacy earlier this year, but the wind is clearly against them. Other Chinese media, including the People’s Daily, came out swinging for Zhao, and thousands of Chinese bots expressed their support on Twitter.

Jake Sullivan, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for national security advisor, has already offered a strong statement of support for Australia. China hawks in Washington closely watch Australia’s experience, as they see the country as being on the front lines of attempted Chinese influence efforts. Biden has also stated that he doesn’t plan on giving up outgoing President Donald Trump’s trade war tariffs until a “coherent strategy” is in place.

Australia is particularly vulnerable to Chinese pressure because its decadeslong economic boom has been driven in large part by exports to the Chinese market, especially minerals. One-third of all Australian exports go to China, and politicians such as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd once saw the country’s future as inextricably linked to China.

But the combination of the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing’s increased aggression has turned Canberra against it. Stronger defense ties with the United States—prompting further Chinese retaliation—are more likely than concessions.


What We’re Following

Landmark sexual harassment case. A Beijing court heard a critical sexual harassment case today brought by Zhou Xiaoxuan, known online as Xianzi, a screenwriter who alleges she was assaulted by the famous television host Zhu Jun when she was an intern at CCTV (now CGTN). Initially turned away by police, Zhou brought a civil case under recently introduced laws. Zhu denies her claims and has launched multiple countersuits.

Zhou is a pivotal figure in moving China’s #MeToo movement forward, organizing and inspiring others online. Hundreds of backers, mostly women, demonstrated outside the courthouse in support, despite the freezing Beijing winter. But victory in the case is unlikely given Zhu’s power, a heavily politicized court system, and the novelty of the laws. Discussion of the case has been censored online.

Global Times debacle. Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the Global Times and a prominent propagandist, faces potential political trouble after an accusation by his deputy editor that he has fathered two children with employees. Children born outside of marriage in China often face legal discrimination, including the inability to access public education or health care.

Hu has called the accusations concocted—an alleged plot by his deputy to try to create a disciplinary case against him within the Chinese Communist Party. Hu is unpopular within the People’s Daily, which owns the Global Times, but his business success and political intelligence have so far protected him. This case might not push him over the line, but it can’t help him.

Shifting conspiracy theories. As I predicted during the U.S. election, Trumpian conspiracy theories about voter fraud are moving toward the obvious villain: China. Trump himself hasn’t explicitly made Beijing the culprit for his loss on Nov. 3, but the conspiracist lawyer Sidney Powell has alleged a tripartite conspiracy involving Venezuela, China, and Iran.

The Epoch Times, the Falun Gong-run newspaper, remains a key source of far-right election disinformation, pushing the idea of sinister Chinese conspiracies into the U.S. conservative media sphere.


Tech and Business

Vaccine race. China is slightly behind Europe and the United States in COVID-19 vaccine development, but it may have a critical advantage in production and distribution due to the size of its manufacturing industry and the ability of the state to command resources. That is important because it’s not just the efficacy of the vaccine that matters but also the ability to produce it on a large scale—especially when it comes to reaching the developing world, where vaccination looks likely to become a key soft power tool.

Moon landing. The Chang’e 5, China’s first lunar sample return mission, has successfully landed on the moon, following the precedents set by the United States and Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. China’s space program continues to make steady, well-funded progress. Space advocates in the United States hope it will spur a second space race.

Until China pulls off something unprecedented or dramatic, such as a new manned moon landing, the battle seems unlikely to capture the public imagination.

Another one for the list. The China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation, a midsize state-owned enterprise specializing in civil and defense engineering, has been added to the U.S. entity list, freezing its assets in the United States and banning U.S. firms from doing business with it. It’s a little surprising it wasn’t on the list already, given its close ties with the People’s Liberation Army, but this time the nominal excuse is its work in Venezuela.


What We’re Reading

“The Summer before Thirteen,” by Xujun Eberlein

This evocative and tragic essay by Xujun Eberlein, a well-known translator, about her older sister’s death by drowning during the Cultural Revolution focuses on the immediate and the intimate rather than the political. It also captures just how much of a battlefield Chinese cities such as Chongqing were in those chaotic days—and the gap between the revolutionary romanticism of death and its reality.


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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