Welcome to the China Foreign Policy Letter.
The highlights of this week: Beijing announces sanctions against outgoing US officials parts of northern China remain under, including former Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo Coronavirus lockdowns amid a relatively severe outbreak and Alibaba founder Jack Ma reappears.
If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please register here.
China sanctions 28 outgoing officials
Minutes after US President Joe Biden took office on Wednesday, Beijing announced sanctions against almost every Trump administration official who worked on China policy. Among the 28 names: former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, Assistant to the President Peter Navarro and former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.
Others on the list had more tangential ties to China politics, but spoke out about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or the coronavirus outbreak, such as former Minister of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. The sanctions prohibit the named officials and their family members from traveling to China or doing business with China. This reflects the US sanctions imposed on Chinese officials for cracking down on protesters in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
China is following Russia in imposing mutual sanctions on the United States. Such sanctions are largely symbolic: of the sanctioned US officials, only Bannon has done business in Hong Kong and mainland China in the past. But Westerns may have more bite thanks to the desire of many Russian and Chinese officials to maintain financial or family ties with the West.
Why now? The recent spate of US actions on China – including red-line issues for Beijing such as Taiwan's status and naming the Xinjiang abuses as genocide – has likely resulted in sanctions. But they could also be a way of assessing the Biden government's position on China. A violent reaction on behalf of political opponents could indicate a more hawkish position on the part of the Biden team.
Domestically, the sanctions are actually a gift to personalities like Pompeo who point to their opposition to the CCP as a sign of their own virtue. Previous goals of Chinese sanctions have taken up the move: Senator Marco Rubio, for example, lists in his Twitter biography “Banned and sanctioned by China”.
Coronavirus lockdowns continue. Authorities in northern China are expanding tough measures to contain a coronavirus outbreak in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei province, by Chinese standards. The outbreak has spread to the northeast. Several dozen cases have been reported and de facto bans have been imposed in several cities.
As part of the containment effort, Shijiazhuang is building a large centralized quarantine facility of the type used in Wuhan with great success. With the lunar new year less than four weeks away, celebrations in much of China are likely to be curtailed again. Beijing and the surrounding cities have already banned temple fairs, usually large and crowded excursions.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is doubling down on conspiracy theories that blame the United States for the coronavirus. This could indicate the severity of the new outbreak as the first round of intense conspiracies coincided with China's first wave. However, the new conspiracies also target Western vaccines after reports that the vaccine made in China is barely above the threshold of effectiveness.
WHO investigator in Wuhan. China is also in the spotlight because the World Health Organization (WHO) team is currently in Wuhan to investigate the origins of the coronavirus. The team is very unlikely to be given open access, but its arrival has drawn new attention to largely unexplained and speculative allegations of laboratory leaks. The scientific consensus remains that the virus originated naturally, while the possibility of new evidence remained open.
US declares genocide in Xinjiang. On his last day as Secretary of State, Pompeo finally made a statement that the atrocities in Xinjiang constituted genocide. As Kate Cronin-Furman writes for Foreign Policy, the statement is correct – but the way it was carried out gives Beijing material for further propaganda. Xinjiang expert James Millward broke the Trump team's hypocrisy on Twitter.
Nevertheless, the Uighur diaspora is very relieved that their suffering is recognized. The move doesn't require any further action in the US, but the Biden team, which has already made strong statements about Xinjiang, is likely to move on. One possible move would be to pave the painful path to refugee status for Uyghurs in the United States after the obstacles imposed by the Trump administration.
Huawei's favorite princess. An attempt by a daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei to make a name for herself has failed online. Annabel Yao, a Harvard computer science graduate, released the music video, aptly named "Backfire," to meet a wave of public contempt. (It doesn't help that Yao called the documentary she started about herself an extraordinary princess.)
China's Fürdai – the second-generation wealthy – are generally unpopular, not least because of their attempt to lead a double life between earning rent in China and enjoying the spoils of their wealth in the West. Ren's other daughter, former Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, has been under house arrest in Canada for two years when her extradition to the United States is canceled. The Chinese press has played Meng as a patriotic heroine, but her luxurious lifestyle has also sparked outrage online.
More app lawsuits ahead? It's not certain that the Biden team will pick up on the largely unsuccessful efforts of the Trump administration to restrict China-related apps like WeChat and TikTok. Despite the noise last year, both apps remain available in the US, thanks in part to the legal flaws of the Trump administration. A new challenge, however, emerged when a group of California plaintiffs filed a private lawsuit against WeChat for alleged surveillance practices.
The case is unlikely to be successful, but there could be yet another round of bad advertising for the app.
Return of ma. Alibaba founder Jack Ma appeared publicly for the first time in months at an event for country teachers in China and quashed any theories about his arrest or disappearance. After the video clip of his appearance, Alibaba stock rose sharply – but the company is likely still being restricted by regulators. Ma will likely be staying at charity events for some time to win back government favor.
What we read
Invisible China: How the Urban-Country Gap threatens China's rise, by Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell
As the world focuses on China's empires, the country faces economic and political disaster if it does not invest heavily in educating its rural population, argue economists Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell in this recently published book. Both authors are part of the successful program of action for rural education (REAP) between the USA and China. As they note, Taiwan and South Korea escaped the middle income trap by causing large numbers of students to graduate from high school, which enabled the transition to a high-end economy.
In China, on the other hand, the graduation rate is only 30 percent.
That's it for this week.
We look forward to your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find older issues of China Brief here. If you want to learn more about foreign policy, subscribe here or subscribe to our other newsletters.