Axios China

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February 08, 2022

Welcome back to Axios China. Today, we're looking at press intimidation in Beijing, controversy over Olympics protest posters here in D.C., cleaner Beijing air, and lots more.

Today's newsletter is 1,677 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Olympics put China's press intimidation on full display

Illustration of a camera lens with a no symbol in the lens reflection

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Foreign correspondents in China are speaking out after a Chinese security official pulled a Dutch reporter out of their live shot during the Olympic opening ceremony, Axios' Sara Fischer and I write.

The big picture: The International Olympic Committee called it an "isolated incident," but the press environment in China has deteriorated dramatically in the past two years.

  • Foreign journalists have been kicked out of the country, and intimidation and physical violence targeting journalists have become more common.
  • "I'm sorry but this sort of thing is not an 'isolated event' and happens regularly to resident foreign media journalists based in China," tweeted Edward Lawrence, a senior journalist based in China for the BBC.

Details: The reporter, Sjoerd den Daas, a correspondent for Dutch broadcaster NOS, tweeted the next day: "[J]ust after we had gone live, I was forcefully pulled out of the picture without any warning by a plainclothes man wearing a red badge that read, 'Public Safety Volunteer.' He did not identify himself."

  • "When asked, they couldn't say what we had done wrong," he wrote.
  • Eventually, they were able to continue the live TV hit from a parking lot around the corner, den Daas said.

What happened to den Daas doesn't appear to be an isolated incident.

  • Antoine Morel, a correspondent for France 24, tweeted a picture on Sunday of a "guide" assigned to his team "at the last moment to follow us everywhere and take back the people we ask questions if they deviate from the official discourse."
  • Patrick Fok, a Beijing-based journalist with Feature Story News, tweeted Sunday, "Stopped by security at Wangfujing [a street in Beijing]. Showed my press pass. Told interviewing people to ask them how they are enjoying the Olympics is not allowed."

Flashback: The atmosphere of intimidation is dramatically different from the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, when Chinese authorities made it easier for journalists all around the world to enter China for months leading up to the Olympics and allowed them to travel freely around the country, in what was seen as a sign of greater opening up to the world.

  • In 2022, leaders in Beijing seem less interested in garnering approbation from Western democracies and their reporters and more interested in demonstrating that their rules matter most.

The bottom line: "In recent weeks, we, like several foreign colleagues, have been hindered or stopped several times by the police while reporting on subjects related to the Games," den Daas tweeted.

  • "Therefore, it’s hard to see last night's incident as an isolated incident, as the IOC claims, although such interference rarely happens live on broadcast."

2. U.S. university reverses decision to remove Olympic protest posters

Five posters by Badiucao protesting the Beijing 2022 Olympics and the Chinese government's human rights record

Olympic protest posters by Badiucao. Image courtesy of Badiucao

The president of George Washington University in D.C. has reversed his earlier decision to remove campus posters protesting the Beijing Olympics, which Chinese student groups had said "incited racial hatred and ethnic tensions."

The big picture: Universities in the U.S., Australia and elsewhere are navigating how to protect Chinese students from rising anti-Asian hate crimes, while protecting speech and art that criticizes Chinese government oppression from censorship by some Chinese students on campus who view that criticism as racist.

  • "Some Chinese students in the U.S. often don't realize that it's possible to be both victim and oppressor at the same time," Maya Wang, senior China analyst at Human Rights Watch, told Axios.

Details: In early February, posters protesting the Beijing Olympics were posted in several locations on the George Washington University campus, according to a student group statement and photos posted to Twitter.

  • The posters show athletes wearing uniforms bearing the Chinese flag pointing a rifle at a bound and gagged Uyghur; pinning down a Tibetan; skating over a Hong Kong flag; riding atop a surveillance camera doubling as a snowboard; and pushing a virus across the ice.
  • Chinese Australian artist and political cartoonist Badiucao created the posters before the Olympics began and made them available for free download online.

What they're saying: In a Feb. 6 statement posted to WeChat, the GWU Chinese Cultural Association said students had reported the posters to the police and the "unauthorized" posters had been removed.

  • The posters "pose a potential risk to the personal safety of all Chinese and Asian students at George Washington University, including verbal and physical violence," the group said.
  • "The ideas expressed are not based on indisputable facts but rather on highly controversial political disputes," the statement read. "This series of posters incites not only intra-ethnic hatred in China but also inter-ethnic hostility and inter-cultural contempt."

Background: In recent years, Chinese student associations in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. have intimidated students and visiting speakers who support Uyghurs, Tibetans and the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, according to a recent ProPublica investigation.

  • Official Chinese students associations abroad often have close ties to China's embassies and consulates, which often provide funding to the groups and sometimes ask them to hold pro-Chinese Communist Party political activities.

Between the lines: "This student group seems to be exporting Chinese government oppression and conflating a number of issues while referencing Black Lives Matter," Wang of Human Rights Watch told Axios.

  • "Racism and discrimination against people of Chinese origin is definitely real," Wang said.
  • But "it is quite disingenuous of them to raise the oppression of African Americans, while completing dismissing the oppression of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Hong Kongers."

Read the full story.

3. Catch up quick

1. Team China's Eileen Gu won a gold medal in the big air event, CNN reports.

2. Reporters at the Wall Street Journal and other outlets were targeted in a cyberattack believed to be linked to China, the Wall Street Journal reports.

3. Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai announced her retirement in a supervised interview, the Washington Post reports.

4. Putin and Xi met in Beijing and announced a "no limits" partnership aimed at countering the West, Reuters reports.

4. Cleaner air means longer lives for Beijingers

Aerial view of vehicles being driven on the road through the central business district on October 27, 2020 in Beijing, China

Aerial view of the central business district in Beijing, October 2020. Photo: Zhou Jin/ via Getty Images

Beijing was once notorious for its "airpocalypses," with smog so severe schools shut down. But since 2013, pollution levels in China's capital city have fallen by about half, according to a new report published by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

Why it matters: The improved air quality will add about four years of life expectancy for Beijing residents, who have suffered from high rates of respiratory illness because of poor air quality.

Yes, but: Beijing's air is still three times more polluted than Los Angeles', one of America's most polluted cities. There's more work to do.

5. German official: Berlin "must give up its bilateral approach toward China"

Photo collage illustration of Nils Schmid and flags of Germany and China

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Mazen Mahdi/AFP via Getty Images

A top German lawmaker representing Chancellor Olaf Scholz's party says the Chinese government's coercion of Lithuania has underscored the need for Germany to abandon its bilateral approach to Beijing in favor of a unified European position, Axios' Zach Basu writes.

Why it matters: China has been Germany's largest economic partner since 2015. As broader European attitudes toward Beijing have soured over its human rights abuses and unfair trade practices, Germany has faced calls to rethink the pro-engagement policies favored by former Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Driving the news: Nils Schmid, the foreign policy spokesperson for the Social Democratic Party, spoke to Axios ahead of Scholz's meeting with President Biden yesterday, where U.S.-German coordination on China was one of several topics on the agenda.

  • Schmid had just returned from leading a cross-party delegation to Lithuania intended to "show solidarity" in the face of Beijing's pressure campaign, which escalated after the Baltic nation allowed Taiwan to open a trade office in Vilnius using its own name, rather than "Chinese Taipei."
  • The European Union launched legal action against China at the World Trade Organization last month, accusing Beijing of barring all imports of Lithuanian goods and pressuring European companies to cut Lithuania out of their supply chains.

What they're saying: Schmid, noting how uncharacteristically swift the EU's lawsuit was, told Axios, "It is vital to defend the integrity of the EU single market" and "stand up for smaller member states when they are bullied around by China."

  • "The EU is not always in all aspects a superpower, but when it comes to trade and the economy, it is a superpower. It's a regulatory superpower," he said.

6. What I'm reading

The party next door: A vast network of "New Era Civilization Practice Centers" is Beijing’s latest bid to reclaim hearts and minds (ChinaFile)

  • Since 2018, the Chinese Communist Party has opened thousands of centers across the country aimed at bringing party ideology and governance down to the neighborhood level.
  • "By intertwining practical services with Party theory, the planning documents show, the CCP seeks to reassert itself as a source of well-being and meaning in individual and collective life, restoring an intimacy between 'the masses' and their rulers that decades of economic liberalization have worn thin."

Labels matter: Opinion: China isn’t just "authoritarian" any more. It’s scarier (Washington Post)

  • "As a correspondent formerly based in China and now writing from Berlin, I find it difficult to ignore how much China’s present echoes Germany’s past," writes Melissa Chan, who argues that journalists and other public commentators should describe the Chinese government as "fascist," not "authoritarian."
  • "[C]onsider the hallmarks of fascism: a surveillance state with a strongman invoking racism, nationalism and traditional family values at home, while building up a military for expansion abroad."

7. Poll: Americans less enthusiastic about this year's Olympics

What, if anything, concerns you about China hosting the Games?
Data: Axios/Momentive Poll; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

Americans' concerns about the Chinese government's human rights abuses, surveillance and international competitiveness — and fears of another COVID-19 outbreak — are driving down enthusiasm about this year's Winter Olympics, according to an Axios-Momentive poll.

The big picture: 7 in 10 survey respondents disapprove of allowing China to host these Olympics — but half plan to tune in anyhow, Axios' David Nather and Margaret Talev write.

  • Just 7% say they're more enthusiastic about this year's games than the 2018 games in South Korea, while 47% say they're less enthusiastic.

What they're saying: "People aren’t happy that the Olympics are in China, but it’s still the Olympics," said Laura Wronski, senior manager for research science at Momentive.

Read the full story.

8. 1 photo to go: Eileen Gu soars to gold

Eileen Gu jumps with Beijing highrises in the background

Eileen Gu competes during the women's freeski big air final at Big Air Shougang in Beijing on Feb. 8. Photo: Li Ga/Xinhua via Getty Images

Beijing's skyline serves as a backdrop as Eileen Gu of Team China competes in the big air final, earning her first gold medal.

  • "That was the best moment of my life," Gu said of winning her first gold. "I just cannot believe what just happened."