China Brief

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

Xi Jinping Shows His Nerves Over Decoupling

The Chinese leader’s speech at the World Economic Forum reveals his worries about Beijing’s place in the post-Trump era.

By James Palmer, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
People walk below a giant screen showing news coverage of Chinese President Xi Jinping's virtual speech to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, outside a shopping mall in Beijing on Nov. 19, 2020.
People walk below a giant screen showing news coverage of Chinese President Xi Jinping's virtual speech to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, outside a shopping mall in Beijing on Nov. 19, 2020. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the World Economic Forum shows just how worried he is about the prospect of decoupling, a Chinese comedian becomes the target of online misogyny, and why Alibaba’s Ant Financial is changing its tune.

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How to Read Xi Jinping’s Davos Speech

In his speech at this year’s virtual World Economic Forum—normally hosted in Davos, Switzerland—on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping followed the usual posturing on the global stage: saying that China opposed ideological confrontation and a so-called new cold war—that “the strong should not bully the weak.”

These remarks are hypocritical. While Beijing tells the world it opposes a new cold war, it is running anti-foreigner campaigns at home, cracking down on foreign ideologies, threatening smaller countries that don’t follow its demands, building up its military presence in disputed areas, sending flights over Taiwan, and asserting that its thoughtcrime laws have global scope. What China really opposes is anyone else acting in response to its aggressive moves.

Notably, Xi went after sanctions and supply chain decoupling in particular. That is in part because the Davos audience can be gullible when it comes to economic globalization. (Many lapped up Xi’s 2017 speech on the topic.) But as China tries to size up the Biden administration, the renewed emphasis indicates just how worried it is about the prospect of decoupling.

Reasonably, China is trying to build up its own internal supply chains and reduce its dependence on foreign technology, such as its supply of semiconductors from Taiwan. Decoupling proposals pushed by the technology industry have quickly gathered steam in Washington, posing a threat to China’s main source of global influence: the size of its market.

The eagerness of U.S. companies to work with China in the 2000s was a huge boost. Absent the Trumpism factor, that some of them are now having second thoughts is a serious threat.


What We’re Following

More coronavirus lockdowns. China continues a policy of understandable overkill when it comes to potential coronavirus outbreaks within its borders. After a single case in Kashgar, Xinjiang, health authorities administered over 4.7 million tests. That is an impressive feat of public organization, even with the systems of control already in place.

But restrictions come with frustrations. The northern city of Tonghua has experienced food and medicine shortages under a new lockdown. Lockdowns have spread across northern China with winter temperatures, but numbers remain around 100 cases a day—more than China has seen for months, but not threatening. Still, authorities have strongly discouraged travel for the upcoming Spring Festival, resulting in a plunge in ticket prices.

Can’t take a joke? Popular comedian Yang Li is the target of a misogynistic campaign online after a sarcastic comment about “men having no limits.” Yang is one of many women leading a revitalized feminist movement in Chinese cultural spaces. The movement has been met with a state campaign to promote patriarchal values and online backlash from angry men.

Feminist activists point to a raft of legal changes they say threaten women, such as the recent introduction of a cooldown period for divorces. While that is common in developed countries, it’s much more dangerous in rural China, where it often forces women back into abusive environments.

Under fire. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, was grilled in her Wednesday confirmation hearing over a 2019 speech given at a Confucius Institute at Savannah State University. Thomas-Greenfield called the speech “a huge mistake.”

But it’s not the host of the speech that’s concerning; it’s the content. Thomas-Greenfield’s list of talking points praising China’s actions in Africa could have been straight out of a state media piece. Given the generally sharp tone of the Biden administration on China, that’s unlikely to affect her work—but the growing influence of China is the main U.S. concern at the U.N.


Tech and Business

Ant Financial changes its tune. After years of describing itself primarily as a technology company, Ant Financial—Alibaba’s fintech spinoff—is restructuring itself as a financial holding company under the authority of China’s central bank. The move comes after months of pressure from regulators after Alibaba founder Jack Ma criticized the authorities just before a planned—and later canceled— initial public offering.

The extreme nature of the restructuring indicates just how threatened Ant and its parent company feel by the government. Expect more this year as Ma attempts to edge his way back into Beijing’s good graces.

Has the FBI gone too far on China? The arrest of Gang Chen, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on charges relating to his professional dealings with China sparked pushback from his fellow academics. Chen’s colleagues say it is part of a disturbing trend of the FBI targeting scientists of Chinese heritage.

But three years into the FBI’s crackdown on scientists not reporting their Chinese contacts, someone in Chen’s position should have been far more conscious of ticking the correct boxes; the engineer served directly as an expert for the Chinese Consulate in New York. The U.S. Justice Department’s reported plans for amnesty over funding issues seems sensible, but the double-dipping into U.S. and Chinese government money that was common in the 2010s is over.

Calls for tech decoupling. A group of prominent technology and think tank figures calling for U.S. decoupling with China echoes a growing mood in both Washington and Silicon Valley. It’s hard not to be cynical about such proposals, given all the time Big Tech spent trying to court Beijing. But it’s undoubtedly the direction things are moving at the moment. The question may be what role the U.S. government plays in the bifurcation of tech—not whether it will act at all.


What We’re Watching

54 Days: China and the Pandemic

This chilling BBC documentary does an excellent job of laying out the failings around the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. (It’s helped by a guest appearance from yours truly.) While it’s unlikely the world will ever fully know who knew what when, the responsibility of the central government in covering up the pandemic’s first days seems greater than initially thought.

The documentary is currently only available to U.K. viewers—or those sensible enough to maintain a VPN even outside of China.


That’s it for this week.

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