Aug 11, 2020

Axios China

By Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

Welcome back to Axios China. I'm glad to be joining you after my vacation last week. Today we're looking at the wave of arrests in Hong Kong, disinformation from China, TikTok, and lots more.

  • 🎧 This morning I spoke with our daily news podcast "Axios Today" about the death knell of political freedoms in Hong Kong. Listen here.

Today's newsletter is 1,562 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: The end of Hong Kong's political freedom is here

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The end of Hong Kong's relatively free political system is no longer looming. It's here.

Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party is already wielding the new national security law it forced upon Hong Kong just over a month ago.

  • And through the extraterritoriality enshrined in the new law, Beijing has signaled that its push against pro-democracy activism is going global.

What's happening: Hong Kong police have arrested top media and political figures, searched the offices of a major news organization, and indicted overseas activists.

  • Early in the morning on Aug. 10, about 200 police swarmed the offices of Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, and arrested its owner, the pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, and several other media executives.
  • Agnes Chow, former leader of the pro-democracy organization Demosisto, was also arrested on Aug. 10.
  • On July 31, Hong Kong authorities issued arrest warrants for six activists based abroad, including a U.S. citizen, for “incitement to secession and collusion with foreign forces."
  • Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam also announced on July 31 that she would postpone the upcoming elections for one year.

Last week, the U.S. sanctioned Lam and other top Hong Kong and Chinese officials deemed responsible for the destruction of the city's political rights.

The big picture: The Chinese Communist Party under President Xi Jinping has learned it doesn't need tanks and machine guns to stop a vibrant political movement.

  • In Hong Kong, the party has used repressive police action and the hammer of law to crush dissent, a phenomenon known in Chinese tradition as "rule by law," rather than "rule of law."
  • The new national security law circumvented Hong Kong's traditionally independent courts and established a secret police, quietly bringing in state security officials from mainland China to convert a hotel into a new Hong Kong headquarters.
  • The vaguely worded law criminalizes sedition, terrorism, separatism, and collusion with foreign powers, defining them broadly and imposing harsh penalties.
  • Critics have said the vague wording is intentional, since it pressures people to practice sweeping self-censorship to avoid crossing unknown lines.

What they're saying: Observers abroad have expressed anger and profound concern at China's latest moves in the city.

  • “The arrests, and the raid on the newsroom, are a direct assault on Hong Kong’s press freedom and signal a dark new phase in the erosion of the city’s global reputation," the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong said in a statement.

But, but, but: Many Hong Kongers haven't given up.

  • On July 12, more than 600,000 Hong Kong residents cast votes in a primary for the upcoming election, despite official warnings the campaigns might be illegal under the new law.
  • Tuesday editions of Apple Daily, Lai's newspaper, flew off the stands in the early morning as city residents rushed to buy it after police raided the newspaper's offices.

What to watch: Article 38 in the national security law states the law applies to everyone, everywhere.

  • The indictment in late July of U.S. citizen Samuel Chu, who resides in the U.S., for "collusion with foreign forces" — in other words, Chu's own government — heralds the opening of a dark chapter both for Hong Kong and the world.
2. The American blog pushing Xinjiang denialism

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A website called The Grayzone has made a name for itself by denying China's campaign of cultural and demographic genocide in Xinjiang.

Why it matters: Chinese government officials and state media outlets are citing The Grayzone and its contributors with growing frequency as Beijing attempts to cast doubt on accusations of atrocities in its far Northwest region.

Details: American Max Blumenthal founded The Grayzone in 2015 and serves as its editor, describing his website as an independent news outlet. Blumenthal also frequently appears as a commentator on Russian state-affiliated news outlets including RT and Sputnik.

  • Grayzone drew the attention of Chinese diplomats and state media in December 2019, when it published a lengthy article attempting to discredit Adrian Zenz, a researcher whose work has helped uncover the existence and scale of mass internment camps in Xinjiang.

What's happening: Blumenthal has increasingly become a Chinese state media darling, giving interviews with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN and the Chinese tabloid Global Times.

  • He often claims that evidence of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang is exaggerated or manufactured as part of a U.S. government attempt to discredit China.
  • China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted a Grayzone article claiming to debunk what it calls "dubious" research into the mass internment camps that China has set up for Muslims in Xinjiang.
  • The Chinese embassy in Germany cited a Grayzone article in an April post on the embassy website claiming China's early handling of the early coronavirus outbreak was beyond reproach.

It's not just the Chinese government that is amplifying Grayzone articles.

  • Gabby Stern, the World Health Organization communications director, retweeted a quote from a Grayzone article in July casting doubt on Taiwan's early transparency regarding the coronavirus.

The Chinese government is increasingly adopting Russia's disinformation playbook, Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Axios in a March interview.

  • “Having westerners say things that are in line with the state narrative helps bolster their claims,” Darren Byler, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Asian Studies, said in a July 30 interview with Coda Story.

What they're saying: Blumenthal replied to a list of emailed questions from Axios with the following statement...

"Since The Grayzone — an independent outlet which, contrary to your McCarthyite insinuations, is not funded by any state — repeatedly exposed Washington's favorite Xinjiang expert Adrian Zenz not merely as a fraud, but as an anti-gay, far-right evangelical thirsting for the Rapture, Cold War ideologues like yourself who have relied on his dubious research have waged a desperate campaign to suppress our factual journalism."
3. Trump's swift, sweeping China offensive

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

President Trump's rhetoric on China has tended to run hotter than his actions — until now, Axios' Dave Lawler writes.

Why it matters: Even at the height of Trump's trade war, his administration never hit China as hard, as fast, and on as many fronts as it is right now.

What's happening: On Aug. 7, Trump escalated his campaign to claw apart Chinese and American tech worlds with executive orders that threaten to ban both TikTok and massive global messaging app WeChat.

  • The next day, the Treasury Department sanctioned Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's Beijing-backed leader, for "implementing Beijing's policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes."
  • That move follows sanctions on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a powerful paramilitary organization, for its role in the mass detention of ethnic minorities.
  • The U.S. has closed China’s consulate in Houston, stepped up its efforts to keep Chinese telecom giant Huawei out of allies' 5G networks, and even warned blue chip American companies that they could face legal penalties for doing Beijing's bidding.
  • Health Secretary Alex Azar will soon become the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan in four decades, in a pointed signal of support for the self-governing island that has infuriated Beijing.

The bottom line: It feels as though we’ve seen a decades’ worth of hawkish policies proposed or executed just in the past few weeks.

  • Many of these steps carry significant consequences, and not just for China.
Bonus chart: TikTok users are rising but time spent on app is falling
Reproduced from CivicScience; Note: ±3.0% margin of error; Chart: Axios Visuals

President Trump issued executive orders on Aug. 7 seeking to bar American transactions with TikTok or WeChat starting 45 days from the signing of the orders, Axios' Dion Rabouin writes.

Why it matters: That's effectively a shot clock for Microsoft or other U.S.-based suitors to try to close a deal to acquire TikTok and adds legal weight to Trump's threat to ban the social video app if a deal that fully severs any Chinese ties isn't reached.

Meanwhile, the orders come the same week that the State Department debuted the "Clean Network" initiative, which marshals under one umbrella a set of initiatives to edge out Chinese tech, including the push against Chinese apps.

What's next: TikTok's secret sauce is its hugely popular and effective machine-learning-based recommendation algorithm. One question for any potential acquirer will be whether that key system comes with any deal.

4. What I'm reading

Fake protest: The shady history of a phone number used to set up a sham protest (CBC News)

  • A fascinating investigation into a woman who paid people to hold signs protesting Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou's detention in Canada.

Pandemic account: How China controlled the coronavirus (The New Yorker)

  • He's back! After years in the Middle East and elsewhere, renowned writer Peter Hessler is back in China. This longform article is classic Hessler, telling a broad and compassionate story through the students he interacts with.
  • "While officials seemed to have faith in the economic resourcefulness of citizens, the approach to public health was completely different. Very little was left to individual choice or responsibility."

One passport policy: Anti-corruption watchdog to crack down on illegal dual citizens (Sixth Tone)

  • Chinese law prohibits dual citizenship. Under Xi, China has launched periodic crackdowns on people, especially party officials who secretly hold another passport without giving up their Chinese citizenship. It's viewed as enabling corruption, a sort of insurance policy that allows corrupt officials to prepare for a life elsewhere in case they need to flee.
  • Relatedly, because the Chinese government does not recognize dual citizenship, the government tends to view the Chinese passport as dominant and treats naturalized foreign citizens as Chinese citizens only — in some cases even after the foreign citizen already renounced Chinese citizenship.
5. 1 hero thing: Netizens compare Agnes Chow to Mulan

In the wake of the arrest of Hong Kong protest leader Agnes Chow on Monday, a number of memes have emerged portraying Chow as the "real" Mulan.

  • Pro-democracy protesters have looked toward a number of cinematic angles as they sought inspiration, such as adopting martial artist Bruce Lee's "Be Water" slogan, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, history professor at UC Irvine, pointed out on Twitter.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian