Welcome to the China Foreign Policy Letter.
This week's highlights: A new report includes reports from witnesses from systematic rape in Xinjiang camps, Beijing and Washington save Climate cooperation, and how Chinese hackers may have exploited SolarWinds' cyber attack last year.
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Sexual violence is systemic in Xinjiang
This week, the BBC released a series of reports of systematic rape witnesses within the carcinogenic system in Xinjiang, where more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities are detained. Refugees have previously reported sexual abuse in the camps, but the BBC report gathers several key witnesses, including some women who have been raped.
These reports are in line with the size of the camps, recorded both via satellite data and on Chinese government websites – and with the government's own sexualized rhetoric.
However, it remains unclear whether officials use rape as a deliberate weapon of genocide or whether it reflects systemic abuse and contempt for minority rights. For example, one witness describes Han Chinese people paying to access women imprisoned in Xinjiang. That could be sanctioned politics – or it could be the kind of floor-level corruption and abuse that permeates authoritarian systems.
The Chinese government has a long history of sexualizing Uighur women in official texts. In a discourse known from Orientalism elsewhere, Uighur men are portrayed as primitive, while women are portrayed as hidden beauties that Han Chinese can save. The government actually banned mixed marriage in Xinjiang until 1979, leading to a pervasive myth that marriage to Uighur women was still prohibited.
Now the authorities are promoting mixed marriage, including forced unions. The Big Brother program, which sent over 1 million Han Chinese to Uyghur homes for daily surveillance, is also reported to be an opportunity for sexual assault and abuse, particularly in households where Uyghur men are incarcerated. Forced sterilization has also been used on a large scale to reduce the Uighur birth rate.
The new revelations are likely to create further demands for action in the West. British politicians have already called for further investigation into China's "genocide" actions in Xinjiang – a move that, under new laws, could undo a potential trade deal between the countries.
Heated words about the climate. US politicians have long viewed climate change as an area of potential cooperation with China – one critic feared the Biden administration might tone down its stance in hopes of reaching agreements. An exchange last week spoiled both ideas. US Climate Commissioner John Kerry stated directly that the problem would not affect politics elsewhere, and the Chinese State Department replied that the climate could not be separated from the overall relationship.
But if China refuses to participate in climate negotiations unless the United States remains silent about Xinjiang, it could be a self-destructive move in the long run – politically necessary, as it may be for the officials involved. Indeed, self-interest appears to be the greatest motivator for both sides to take action as the immediate costs of the climate crisis emerge.
Nuclear warnings. A prominent US admiral has warned of growing cooperation between Russia and China, which he believes threatens the international order and risks nuclear war. These warnings are nothing new: Beijing and Moscow's shared interest in destabilizing the US-led world order has been evident for a decade. In the United States, however, there is disagreement about how to deal with the Russian side.
The most interesting point in an otherwise boring anonymous article published with great gusto by the Atlantic Council last week was the case that Moscow was withdrawn. But Washington has been hoping for it somewhat for some time. A shared hostility to the United States will hold China and Russia together for the foreseeable future, but the truth is that their lack of deep mutual trust or shared ambition will prevent the relationship from ever becoming a real alliance.
Coronavirus probe. Amid fears of new coronavirus outbreaks in China, a new method of COVID-19 testing has received particular public attention: the anal swab. The new tests, which authorities promise "painless", have caused some consternation online. So far, they have been introduced mainly for foreign visitors who authorities fear could re-infect a vulnerable Chinese public.
China's coronavirus lockdowns, meanwhile, are putting a strain on the infrastructure of some northern cities like Tonghua – partly because the region's recent economic recession has left gray cities with older populations in need of more help.
Big data raid. It turned out that Russia wasn't the only country taking advantage of the bug in SolarWinds products. Chinese hackers used the exploit last year to break into the US National Finance Center (NFC), which manages payroll for over 600,000 federal employees, including the FBI and the State Department. In a somewhat strange bureaucratic architecture, the NFC falls under the Ministry of Agriculture.
The loss of salary data is worrying, especially given the extent to which the Chinese were able to use an earlier Office of Personal Management hack to identify US undercover agents. Financial information is also traditionally used by intelligence agencies to identify potential bribery or recruitment topics.
Huawei's "original" operating system is not. Following last year's U.S. sanctions, Huawei promised to develop its own operating system that would rival the Android platform it uses. Chinese state media announced the move as a step forward in domestic innovation. Unfortunately, the HarmonyOS product is here now – and it's a straightforward rip-off of Android itself, though Huawei is apparently doing its best to camouflage itself.
Not surprising. Not only are OS development and cross-compatibility with existing apps extremely difficult, but Chinese companies also have a long history of plagiarism, especially when it comes to national passion.
African swine fever is back. Long-term readers will remember that before the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest disease problem in China was African swine fever, which devastated the pork industry in 2019. The Chinese herds rebounded in 2020 thanks to major overseas purchases – but there has been a sharp recurrence of the disease this winter, seriously jeopardizing that recovery.
The disease affects both consumers and the government's public relations machine: food inflation is a big problem, and the Lunar New Year will again spike demand for pork.
What we read
Land of great numbers, by Te-Ping Chen
This sharp collection of short stories about modern China from the former Wall Street Journal correspondent in Beijing is as good a representation of the past decade as any non-fiction book. The stories range from tragic to satirical, but they are rooted in a close observation of life in China – and in the surreal ups and downs of everyday life, bureaucracy and oppression.
"Lulu", the opening story, hits hard on the portrayal of siblings' lives, divided by the decision to follow the system or to oppose it. My personal favorite is "Flying Machine" about the infinite ingenuity and survival skills of Chinese farmers.
That's it for this week.
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