China Brief

A weekly digest of the stories you should be following in China this week, plus exclusive analysis. Delivered Wednesday.

Xi-Biden Summit Produces Few Breakthroughs

The White House still lacks a coherent China strategy.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A large screen displays U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit outside a shopping mall in Beijing on Nov. 16.
A large screen displays U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit outside a shopping mall in Beijing on Nov. 16. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: The summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shows how the White House still lacks a coherent China strategy, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio puts a block on the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Beijing, and China approves COVID-19 booster shot trials.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: The summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shows how the White House still lacks a coherent China strategy, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio puts a block on the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Beijing, and China approves COVID-19 booster shot trials.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Xi-Biden Talk Promises More Talking

The virtual summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday produced few breakthroughs, only the promise of future talks. Dialogue certainly helps avoid potentially disastrous misunderstandings, but the endless emphasis on talks recalls the Obama administration’s approach to China, in which heralded meetings and supposed agreements produced almost zero results.

The Biden team appears torn between recognizing the challenge posed by China and the desire to distance itself from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies. The administration still doesn’t seem to have a coherent China strategy, apart from vague buzzwords. Meanwhile, China called for U.S. corporations—traditionally proponents of engagement because they want access to Chinese markets—to put pressure on the White House.

This week’s meeting did immediately lead to a linguistic dispute over Taiwan, with Chinese media alleging that Biden reaffirmed U.S. opposition to Taiwanese independence. (China has a long history of deliberately misrepresenting the U.S. position on Taiwan.) After speaking with Xi, Biden casually said that Taiwan “is independent.” He has been notably sloppy with his language around Taiwan; some Chinese officials have likely read this as a deliberate signal.

One concrete outcome of the meeting between Biden and Xi was an agreement to restore journalist visas between the two countries. Washington will again issue one-year visas instead of three-month visas for Chinese state media, and Beijing will allow the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times to send journalists to China after expelling their employees in 2020. But it’s not clear whether the specific correspondents will be allowed back, and the agreement does nothing to address wider problems with foreign press access in China.

China continues to persecute so-called local news assistants working for foreign media—Bloomberg’s Haze Fan is still detained—and has threatened foreign reporters’ families and arrested state media reporters with foreign connections. The few reporters left on the ground in China face stepped-up harassment from the police and even from stirred-up crowds. The language in the new agreement includes the standard caveat about “relevant laws and regulations,” which effectively allows China to do whatever it wants.

If the agreement is to have force, the United States need to push hard—and not be afraid to put restrictions back in place. That goes for any other deal that comes out of talks between Washington and Beijing. Promises from China are meaningless without potential consequences, and guardrails to avoid conflict are useless if Chinese domestic nationalism runs unchecked. If China genuinely wants to tone things down, it should show up in the tone of state media toward the United States in the coming months.


What We’re Following

Rubio temporarily blocks ambassador. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has placed a hold on the nomination of career diplomat Nicholas Burns as ambassador to China, arguing that his career was “defined by the failure to understand the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party” and that he serves “nationless corporations.” Burns was expected to sail through the nomination process.

Rubio’s objections are nonsense: Burns’s prior career largely focused on Russia and NATO, and although he has spent time as a consultant, so has nearly every U.S. government appointee. But the move is part of the Republican obstructionism that has left Biden with only 9 percent of ambassadors in place and hampered U.S. diplomacy.

Where is Peng Shuai? Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai hasn’t been seen since issuing a statement that she was sexually abused by senior Chinese Communist Party leader Zhang Gaoli. The Women’s Tennis Association, as well as prominent players such as Naomi Osaka, have spoken up in support of her.

In response, Chinese state television issued a letter purporting to be from Peng that said she was fine and that none of the allegations were true; its tone has done nothing to dismiss concerns. The screenshot of the letter shared by state broadcaster CGTN—which regularly screens videos of forced confessions—accidentally included a word-processing cursor, suggesting that the letter was being composed by CGTN itself.

Xi’s historical resolution. After meeting last week, the Chinese Communist Party’s Sixth Plenum has issued its historical declaration—only the third in history. Unsurprisingly, the resolution puts heavy emphasis on Xi, who is mentioned 24 times—more than even Mao Zedong. In addition to glorifying Xi, the document stresses continuity and the integrity of the central party; it also praises reform and pre-Cultural Revolution Maoist policies.

Joseph Torigian, an expert on Maoist history, has a useful guide to the resolution.


Tech and Business

COVID-19 vaccine concerns. China has approved booster shot trials using more effective mRNA vaccines, after worries that Chinese-made vaccines provide less protection than Western-made vaccines and that their efficacy erodes rapidly. That creates an issue not only for China but also for many developing countries dependent on Chinese vaccine supply. Meanwhile, China is wrestling with when it can afford to ease its zero-COVID-19 policy, which has saved many lives but is proving increasingly burdensome for citizens.

The latest problem is the delta variant outbreak in the northern city of Dalian, which is reporting higher numbers than any Chinese city since mid-2020. Of course, those numbers—52 cases on Thursday—are tiny compared to the rest of the world. But Chinese leaders see each of those cases as representing a potentially explosive threat. Travel bans and other concerns are likely to lead to a muted Spring Festival next year, especially because it opens at the same time as the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Panel recommends investment restrictions. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual report, commissioned by Congress, is calling for security restrictions on U.S. businesses’ investments in China. The panel argues those investments create a dangerous dependency and allow Beijing to exert undue influence over U.S. business, especially as the Chinese government takes increasing control of the private sector.

The report draws particular attention to variable interest entities, a long-standing but dubious method used by Western firms to invest in China through third-country setups. The panel has a distinctly hawkish tilt, but, as I’ve argued, Wall Street and Western business consultants are incentivized to ignore political risk in China. Unsurprisingly, they’re lobbying hard against any restrictions.

Supply chain solutions? With global supply chains still frayed, some small U.S. businesses are turning to a radical solution: making the trip to China to oversee the process and recover goods themselves. That desperation shows just how bad things are; trying to negotiate Chinese factories and customs procedures directly is difficult for outsiders, especially with COVID-19 restrictions. (This also seems like an excellent opportunity for a smart consultancy to step in and offer help navigating the process.)

One question all this raises is what China’s military logistics look like in the event of a conflict. In China’s last war, the 1979 invasion of Vietnam, internal supply chains were so poor that tank commanders sent their soldiers back to the factories that produced tank parts to bring them back directly. I once thought that the expertise bought by Alibaba and others would make the traditionally sluggish military supply chains more efficient. Now I wonder how bad the effect of a crisis would be.

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

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