A weekly recap of the stories to watch in China this week, plus an exclusive analysis. Delivery on Wednesday.
May 26, 2021, 5.30 p.m.
Welcome to the China Foreign Policy Letter.
The highlights of this week: China mourns the loss of the agronomist Yuan Longping, the debate on the Origins of the coronavirus does not provide any new evidence and official comments suggest that a Cryptocurrency crackdown Looms.
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National icon Yuan Longping dies at the age of 90
Chinese scientist Yuan Longping, whose development of hybrid rice in the 1970s helped end famine for millions of people in Asia and Africa, died Saturday at the age of 90. In most of the world his death was noticed in passing. In China, where the yuan was a national icon, it dominated the news.
Yuan's early years were marked by war and starvation, as a child during the Japanese invasion and as a young man during the Great Leap Forward (1959-1961) when between 20 and 45 million Chinese died of starvation. As an agronomist, Yuan crossed a type of rice for 20 to 30 percent higher yields than previous tribes. His work was part of the Green Revolution that changed the global food supply and fended off warnings of overpopulation and mass starvation in the 1960s and 1970s.
There are a number of factors that make yuan a particularly popular figure in China. He was the first modern scientist in the country to achieve a breakthrough with global recognition – without coming into conflict with the politics of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when he was doing his most important work. Agricultural science was to a certain extent politically protected from attacks on universities and scientific institutions. (Yuan's initial genetic research was done in secrecy, as Mendel's theory was politically anathema.)
Yuan was a personally humble man with a deep commitment to young scientists. He resisted being turned into a propaganda figure as best he could. His death caused widespread grief, particularly in his hometown of Changsha, Hunan Province. It also prompted authorities to arrest several people for posting abusive comments about him online.
China owes a lot to Yuan, whose work helped bring the country out of persistent food insecurity that bottomed out in the 19th and 20th centuries thanks to overpopulation, political collapse, and ecological catastrophe. Malnutrition remained the norm in many parts of China through the 1970s, and food rationing didn't officially end until 1993. Even today, the first central government document issued each year concerns China's food supply.
Coronavirus origins debate. Proponents of the coronavirus laboratory leak theory have picked up a US intelligence report that three employees at the Wuhan Institute of Virology sought "hospital care" in November 2019. There is only one problem: hospitals are the main supply point in Chinese cities, and this is often necessary in order to obtain sickness certificates for paid free time, even for minor illnesses. Three people who see a doctor during China's annual cold and flu season prove nothing.
The actual evidence that the coronavirus was created has not changed much since April 2020. A laboratory leak remains theoretically possible, but there is no evidence for it. The botched World Health Organization investigation could only cast doubts among scientists about the official Chinese report. However, the Chinese obfuscation does not mean that Beijing is hiding evidence: the political system obscures everything, especially when dealing with foreigners.
Demands for an independent, open investigation into the causes of the pandemic are fantasies. Even if the Wuhan authorities had a smoking gun, Beijing would block all outside investigators – out of instinct and based on the official lies of local and likely national authorities about the extent and virulence of the first outbreak. Former Trump administration officials have launched a campaign to discuss alleged evidence out of context.
Read Yangyang Cheng, who has a significant knowledge of Chinese science and politics, on the subject.
Endless Frontier Act shortened. The U.S. Senate Trade Committee has limited the scope of the Endless Frontier Act, which aims to counter the rise in China's technological power, as discussed last week. The committee has slashed the original budget of $ 100 billion for a new technology directorate to less than $ 40 billion, with just $ 10 billion earmarked for research and development. The move sparked violent complaints from supporters of the bill.
The ChinaTalk podcast has a good discussion of how logrolling and lack of ambition neutralized the legislation.
Europe freezes China deal A major trade deal between the European Union and China in January – too much criticism from human rights activists and the US government – was frozen by the EU Parliament in a landslide vote. China shot itself in the foot when it imposed sanctions on EU think tanks and researchers in March in response to sanctions for its ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Although the German heads of state and government are pushing ahead with the agreement, the EU Parliament has suspended ratification until the sanctions are lifted, a politically difficult step for Beijing.
Lithuania is now the youngest country to label the state atrocities in Xinjiang as genocide. It is withdrawing from the China-led 17 + 1 block in Eastern Europe and at the same time banning Chinese 5G products from its network. The move sparked a state media outbreak. Eastern European skepticism about China has increased since the bloc started nine years ago, although Beijing still has strong allies in authoritarian leaders like the Hungarian Viktor Orban.
Crypto raid. Comments by Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Liu He that further restrictions on bitcoin mining were "necessary" triggered another sudden crash in the volatile cryptocurrency market, causing Bitcoin prices to drop from $ 42,000 to $ 32,000. A significant portion of Bitcoin continues to be controlled by Chinese traders, largely due to its value for money in a country with extremely strict currency laws. The cost of illegally transporting money has increased significantly after the 2013 anti-corruption cleanup.
Inner Mongolia is a very popular region for Bitcoin miners because of the cheap electricity and cold temperatures that help prevent overheating of the huge computer equipment required for mining. The authorities there have discussed a specific action taken by the province that could restrict mining even more than the national plan.
Another Hollywood apology. Actor and wrestler John Cena apologized this week for violating China's political norms. In an interview, Cena described Taiwan as "the first country to see its latest movie, Fast & Furious 9," and inadvertently ignored Beijing's insistence that Taiwan should never be called a country after angry nationalists attacked Cena on social media he awkwardly apologized in Mandarin – the latest example of a celebrity appeasing Chinese censors for the sake of the market.
However, with the US public's renewed awareness of the relationship between film studios and Beijing, that era may change.
Social media difficulties. According to a report by the China Media Project, the proliferation of social media accounts for official departments of all kinds – including local police stations and transportation departments – is a cause for concern among top levels of government. Officials use these accounts in part to gain favor with the leadership by posting ultra-nationalist memes, some of which have been picked up by foreign media – overshadowing official party reports. More generally speaking, poor response times are common. After all, top officials may be concerned about the data such accounts give foreign researchers, even as China becomes more difficult to access.
We Tibetans, by Rinchen Lhamo
These 1926 memoirs, the first English-language book by a Tibetan about his homeland, are a fascinating – if somewhat pink – depiction of Tibet decades before the Chinese invasion. Rinchen Lhamo was the wife of Louis Magrath King, a British diplomat who was kicked out of his job for marrying a woman of color. She dictated the book to him in Chinese, their common language, before she died tragically young in 1929.
Lhamo has a keen eye for the prejudices of foreigners who write about Tibet, as well as the quirks of Western life. "I've got used to shaking people's hands, to the evening dress that makes a person look like a stork, and after a toss or two to high-heeled shoes," she writes. For Lhamo, Tibet is not a “land of ice and snow”, but a land that is bathed in sunshine even in winter.