Axios China

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February 23, 2021

Welcome back to Axios China. Today we're looking at trials in Hong Kong, the dramatic rise in attacks on Asian Americans, Biden's calls to Asia, and lots more.

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Today's newsletter is 1,706 words, a 6½-minute read.

1 big thing: High-profile Hong Kong activists face trial

Illustration of a gavel cracking the Hong Kong flag

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Last week, nine high-profile Hong Kong democracy activists went on trial on charges related to the 2019 mass protest movement there.

Why it matters: The trial is another step in Beijing's heavy-handed destruction of Hong Kong's liberal political traditions.

What's happening: The defendants include Lee Cheuk-yan, who has organized Hong Kong's annual Tiananmen candlelight vigil every year since 1989; venerated politician Martin Lee; former legislator Margaret Ng; and Jimmy Lai, owner of news outlet Apple Daily.

  • The defendants are charged with organizing an illegal assembly after they led a march of 1.7 million people in 2019 despite a police ban on protests.

The big picture: The charges are politically motivated and represent a degradation of Hong Kong's traditionally independent judiciary system.

  • "Martin Lee is the personification of the rule of law. He knows the law, he practices law, he reveres the law," wrote Fred Hiatt, editor of the Washington Post editorial page, in an op-ed published Feb. 21.
  • "That Chinese leader Xi Jinping now wants to put this distinguished 82-year-old barrister in prison perfectly illustrates the dictator’s contempt for the law. It shows, as it is meant to show, that no one in Hong Kong is safe any longer from the arbitrary repression of the Chinese Communist Party," Hiatt wrote.

Context: The charges are not related to the national security law that Beijing forced on Hong Kong in 2020. That law cannot be invoked for incidents that occurred before it took effect in July 2020.

  • But Hong Kong authorities, under China's guidance, have pursued every avenue of prosecution against pro-democracy activists. Several activists already charged with lesser crimes under existing laws, including Lai, have recently seen additional charges under the national security law, which carries far harsher punishments including up to 10 years or even life in prison.
  • "I have four trials for four incidents," Lee Cheuk-yan told me in a phone call on Monday morning just before he entered the courthouse for his trial.
  • When I asked him if he had been charged under the national security law, he said, “Not yet.”

What to watch: China is considering replacing the 117 seats in Hong Kong's lawmaking body currently held by largely pro-democracy representatives, according to a Wall Street Journal report, and giving them to Hong Kong-based members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, whose members are pro-Beijing.

  • The Hong Kong government also said it had found "deficiencies" in the editorial management of RTHK, the city's public broadcaster, and announced that the independent news outlet's director would be replaced with a bureaucrat with security experience but no journalism background.

The bottom line: The national security law has made it far more dangerous for Hong Kong residents to openly oppose politically motivated prosecutions, even if the charges themselves aren't under that law — making it that much easier for Beijing to further entrench authoritarianism in the city.

Go deeper: With Hong Kong arrests, China outlaws democracy itself

2. 2020 saw steep rise in attacks against Asian Americans

Illustration of an Asian person being watched by a wall of eyes.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A rise in assaults against Asian Americans last year seems primarily tied to the coronavirus pandemic. Some Asian Americans also worry that heightened tensions between the U.S. and China and growing fears of China's espionage activities stateside could make them more vulnerable to racist attacks.

Driving the news: There were more than 2,800 incidents of verbal and physical assaults directed at Asian Americans in 2020, according to Stop AAPI Hate, an organization founded early last year to track hate crimes against people of Asian American Pacific Islander heritage, Axios' Shawna Chen reports.

What's happening: Hate crimes tend to surge around "big political moments" and during election years, Michael Jensen, a researcher at the University of Maryland and author of a 2020 report on hate crimes, told NPR.

  • "When President Trump began and insisted on using the term 'China virus,' we saw that hate speech really led to hate violence," Russell Jeung, creator of the Stop AAPI Hate tracker and chair of the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State University, told USA Today.
  • But Trump "could not have rallied the kind of hatred that he did without this country’s long history of systemic and cultural racism against people of Asian descent," writes Princeton professor Anne Anlin Cheng in a Feb. 21 essay for the New York Times.

That history includes:

  • In 1871, at least 17 Chinese residents of Los Angeles were killed by a mob of 500 people.
  • In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese laborers from entering the U.S.
  • In 1885, white residents set fire to Chinese-owned businesses and expelled the Chinese residents of Tacoma, Washington.
  • During World War II, Japanese and Japanese Americans in California were forcibly interned in camps.
"People attacking Asian Americans during the quarantine ... are not fearing contagion from disease but assigning blame for it. Asian Americans are ... alleged to be culpable for sins ranging from the Vietnam War to an invisible infection. We are guilty by association even if our grandparents lament our alienation from their traditions."
Frank H. Wu, president of Queens College, City University of New York, in a recent report on the targeting of Asian Americans in New York

Fast forward: The geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China today, and some proposed approaches for addressing espionage and intellectual property theft in U.S. scientific research, may exacerbate suspicions toward Chinese Americans.

  • The Department of Justice's recent indictments of some Chinese scientists at U.S. universities for failing to disclose Chinese government-linked projects has raised concerns of racial profiling.
  • Trump-era regulations imposed sweeping visa restrictions that could apply to hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens, and some legislative proposals could prohibit Chinese students from pursuing graduate studies in fields that involve sensitive technology, a controversial approach being pushed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

What to watch: The New York Police Department created a task force last year to focus on hate crimes directed at Asians. If assaults continue to occur, other regions may consider similar measures.

3. Catch up quick

1. Canada's parliament voted to recognize China's repression against the Uyghurs as "genocide," the Guardian reports.

2. European leaders are considering an EU-wide end to extradition treaties with China, Politico reports.

3. Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) has become the first U.S. official to publicly call for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Go deeper.

4. House Republicans push Biden to adopt a Trump-era rule scrutinizing China's Confucius Institutes in the U.S. Go deeper.

5. Estonia warned of a "silenced world dominated by Beijing" in its annual foreign intelligence report. Go deeper.

4. What to make of the Biden administration's first overseas calls

The Biden administration's first overseas calls indicate that the Asia-Pacific region is among its top priorities.

The big picture: President Biden and his top Cabinet officials have together called officials from at least 43 countries, Axios' Dave Lawler writes.

Details: The administration’s first calls generally went to America’s neighbors, Canada and Mexico, followed by the U.K., France, Germany as well as leaders from the EU and NATO.

  • Major U.S. partners in the Pacific (Australia, India, Japan and South Korea) have also taken priority, while Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken have both spoken with their “great power” counterparts in China and Russia.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to wait a month for a call from Biden, and while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman got a call last week from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Zoom in: The administration’s focus on the Indo-Pacific was further underlined by Blinken’s participation Thursday in discussions with his counterparts from the “Quad” strategic dialogue: Australia, India and Japan.

  • Excluding Israel, there have been fewer calls to the Middle East (seven total to Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE) than to Southeast Asia (eight calls to Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam).

Worth noting: There have been relatively few calls thus far to Latin America or Africa. Leaders in both regions are hoping for more attention from Biden than they received from Trump.

5. Rights groups question Columbia over Sachs interview

Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia University, speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in New York

Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia University, speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in New York. Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

After Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, evaded questions about China's genocide against Uyghurs during an interview last month, a coalition of 18 advocacy and rights groups sent a letter to the university but have received no response.

The big picture: The Chinese government is known to punish people who criticize its abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, leading to an epidemic of self-censorship among those with ties to the country.

What Sachs said: In a Jan. 24 interview with The Wire China, Sachs responded to two questions about China's genocidal policies in Xinjiang by accounting America's own human rights failings.

  • "We have huge human rights abuses committed by the U.S. on so many fronts that the first thing we need to do is think of Jesus’s admonition: Why do you look at the mote in the other’s eye, and not the beam in your own?" Sachs said.
  • Sachs said nothing about China's repression of the Uyghurs despite repeated prompting from the interviewer.

In response, 18 advocacy organizations, including Hong Kong Global Connect, Campaign for Uyghurs, and Columbia Stands with Hong Kong, sent a letter to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger expressing concern over the remarks.

What they're saying: "Professor Sachs aligns perfectly with the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ attempts to deny responsibility for their treatment of the Uyghurs by digressing to the history of U.S. rights violations, all the while avoiding discussions of their own," the letter's signatories wrote.

  • "By highlighting the perspective of the PRC government and trivializing the perspective of those oppressed by that government, Professor Sachs betrays his institution’s mission."

Bollinger's office did not respond to a request for comment.

6. What I'm reading

Party-state capitalism: Deep State, Inc. (The Wire China)

  • Opaque conglomerates like China Sam Enterprise Group are "raising uncomfortable questions about the international expansion of China’s model of Party-state capitalism — questions that confound long established norms in the global economic framework, and which Western policymakers have hardly begun to understand, much less grapple with."

Slave labor: U.S. ban on China’s Xinjiang cotton fractures fashion industry supply chains (Washington Post)

Digital divide: A sharper, shrewder U.S. tech policy for Chinese firms (Foreign Affairs)

  • "Although the Trump administration hoped to impose the order to bludgeoning effect, the Biden administration can now use it to push China policy in a more considered direction."

7. 1 gorgeous thing: Kazakhs and eagles

Eagles form a close bond with their hunters during training in Altai Mountain Range, Mongolia.

Photo: Joel Santos/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

A centuries-old western Mongolian tradition and sport of training eagles is beautifully photographed in the New York Times.

  • "Deep in the Altai Mountains, where Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia meet, Kazakh people have for centuries developed and nurtured a special bond with golden eagles, training the birds to hunt foxes and other small animals," writes Claire Thomas.
  • This story was photographed in Mongolia. In China, the government has in recent years embarked on campaigns to forcibly settle nomadic herders and has put Kazakhs into mass internment camps, making it ever more difficult for groups to maintain their traditions.