Axios China

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January 11, 2022

Welcome back to Axios China. Today we're looking at free speech and surveillance at the Beijing Olympics, China's investments in Israel, U.S.-Australia ties, and lots more.

  • Which Chinese Olympian will you be following most closely at this Winter Games? Reply to me at [email protected] with your answer, or just hit reply.

Today's newsletter is 1,715 words, a 6½-minute read.

1 big thing: China opens internet for Olympics

Illustration of text message bubbles forming the Olympic rings.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The Chinese government has promised Olympic athletes free access to social media platforms and other websites in the Olympic Village in Beijing, but internet use may still be fraught with restrictions and risks, I write with Axios' Ashley Gold and Ina Fried.

Why it matters: China's aim in temporarily opening its "great firewall" is simply to boost its global reputation ahead of the Games, not to champion an open internet, experts say.

  • And they expect heavy surveillance of online activity to continue, even for visitors who are allowed to access sites that would otherwise be blocked.

State of play: Chinese authorities have said Olympic participants and foreign media will have uncensored access to the internet through special SIM cards.

  • The U.S. Olympic organizing committee is warning athletes and officials that "performing mission-critical business and personal communications will be difficult at best while operating in China," according to a technology advisory being shared with athletes and national sport organizing bodies.
  • "[I]t should be assumed that all data and communications in China can be monitored, compromised or blocked," the advisory states.
  • Security experts recommend using a separate phone, a virtual private network, SIM cards not obtained in China, and avoiding logging into services or sharing other sensitive information.

As for what athletes can say on the internet from Beijing, that's another matter.

  • The International Olympic Committee has touted athletes' right to free online speech as long as they don't violate local laws, but Chinese law gives authorities the flexibility to prohibit whatever online speech they deem to be illegal.
  • Chinese athletes will face intense scrutiny, as authorities have arrested dozens of Chinese citizens for content they posted on foreign social media. But it's not clear how authorities view non-Chinese citizens posting freely on foreign websites.
  • Chinese authorities also frequently use denial of market access to punish speech by non-Chinese citizens.

Context: Numerous governments, including the U.S., have announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics due to the Chinese government's ongoing genocide against the Uyghur population in the northwest region of Xinjiang.

Some athletes anonymously told the New York Times in December that they are afraid to criticize the Chinese government publicly for fear of reprisal.

  • But some are speaking out anyway. “To be silent is to be complicit,” Clare Egan, a biathlete from Maine, told the Times.
  • U.S. pairs skater Timothy LeDuc said on Sunday that Uyghurs in China faced a "horrifying" situation. "I read somewhere the other day that it's the largest number of people held in internment and labor camps since World War II," LeDuc said.

What to watch: "Even though they allow access to social media, I don't think any athlete is going to tweet out something about Hong Kong or Taiwan," said Victor Cha, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • Beijing "will work with the IOC to clamp down on any athletes that do say anything, and then they'll count on the Games to sort of capture everybody's imagination," Cha said.

2. Australia's key role in the Indo-Pacific

Photo illustration of Charles Edel and flags of the US, Australia and China.
Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Courtesy of Charles Edel

Australia is forging new security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific and playing a more important role than ever in U.S. foreign policy — in large part because of China's rise.

The big picture: "Australia has leapt to the front of the queue in terms of importance and relevance," Charles Edel, Australia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Axios.

  • "There is broad recognition in Washington that Australia is oftentimes the first country to be on the receiving end of China’s coercion efforts and malign influence, and often the first to respond," Edel said.

Driving the news: CSIS just launched the new Australia chair, the first DC-based think tank to create such a position.

  • "There’s a very well-developed think tank scene in Washington that focuses on all things Indo-Pacific," Edel told Axios. "What is underdeveloped is a conversation about Australia and its role in the region. There are Japan experts, Korea experts, a plethora of people on China, but very few voices on Australia and the greater Pacific region."
  • Edel previously taught at the University of Sydney and the U.S. Naval War College, and he served on the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff from 2015 to 2017.

Details: Last year, the U.S., U.K., and Australia announced a new security pact, known as AUKUS.

  • As part of the agreement, the U.S. said it would help Australia acquire nuclear submarines — "only the second time ever in our history we’ve ever decided to share the crown jewels" of nuclear propulsion technology, Edel said.
  • The agreement represents more than just technology transfer, however. The larger goal is to persuade more allies and partners to collaborate more often and more closely in the Indo-Pacific.
  • "The more states get involved and take action, the more convincing becomes the argument that China is no longer operating in a permissive environment," Edel said.

Yes, but: It's not all about China. The U.S. is the top investor in Australia in foreign direct investment and is also a huge job creator there, Edel said, and there is a lot of interest in further strengthening bilateral economic ties.

What to watch: "I'm watching for new U.S. forces and capabilities, and new U.K. forces in and around Australia," Edel said. "I'm also watching how quickly Australia can get its infrastructure and industry up and running to support these efforts."

3. Catch up quick

1. The city of Tianjin, close to Beijing, is testing all 14 million residents for COVID ahead of the Olympics. Go deeper.

2. Taiwan announced $200 million in assistance to Lithuania after Chinese economic sanctions hit the Baltic nation. Go deeper.

3. Sri Lanka's president asked China for debt restructuring amid economic woes, AP reports.

4. China offered Kazakhstan help fighting "external forces" as protests engulf the Central Asian country, Reuters reports.

5. Two Democratic lawmakers questioned Airbnb over its Xinjiang rentals on land owned by a sanctioned Chinese paramilitary group. Go deeper.

6. Activists plan to open a Tiananmen massacre museum in the U.S. after the famous Hong Kong museum was forced to close, Nikkei Asia reports.

4. Exclusive: U.S. voters concerned about solar panel forced labor

Data: Morning Consult; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

A majority of U.S. voters are concerned about forced labor in China's solar panel industry, a new survey of registered voters conducted by Morning Consult finds.

Why it matters: China produces about three-quarters of the world's solar panels, which many view as vital to reducing carbon emissions.

  • But some of China's top solar panel producers have been linked to coerced labor in Xinjiang, leading the U.S. first to ban importing polysilicon from Xinjiang used in the panels, and later all products made there.

Details: Survey respondents consistently expressed support for domestic U.S. production of solar panels and for avoiding solar panels made in China with inputs from forced labor, Morning Consult found.

  • 83% of respondents said it was very important or somewhat important that U.S. lawmakers ensure federal tax dollars aren't used to buy solar panels from China that are made with inputs from forced labor.
  • 80% of respondents strongly agreed or somewhat agreed the U.S. should rely on solar panels made domestically through methods that produce lower carbon emissions than factories in China, some of which are coal powered.
  • 79% said they were very concerned or somewhat concerned about forced labor in Chinese-made solar panels.

The bottom line: U.S. voters want an ethical transition to green energy.

5. What I'm reading

Hong Kong struggles: Journalists remain defiant despite crackdown on media (Deutsche Welle)

  • "A journalist surnamed Kiu, who also does not want to reveal his first name for fear of reprisals, works for a pro-establishment media outlet. He told DW that the government's definition of sedition is 'wider than the Red Sea,'" William Yang writes.

Containing crisis: Strategic concepts for coercive economic statecraft on China (Center for a New American Security)

  • "As the United States and China seek to manage an increasingly tense relationship, both sides have turned to coercive economic statecraft as a core part of their broader foreign policy, with disruptive impacts on the global economic order," the authors write.
  • "China may be willing to deploy the widest range of economic tools in response to a geopolitical conflict."

6. Biden administration presses Israel on Chinese investments

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, and Naftali Bennett, Israel's prime minister, meet in the Oval Office of the White House
President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Bennett meet at the White House on Aug. 27, 2021. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Biden administration and the Israeli government held low-profile consultations last month on China — a sensitive issue given U.S. concerns about Chinese investments in Israel, Axios from Tel Aviv author Barak Ravid reports.

Why it matters: The meeting on Dec. 14, led by deputy national security advisers from both sides, was the first wide-ranging consultation between the two countries on China since President Biden took office. The Israeli side aimed to keep it very discreet, fearing a backlash from Beijing.

The backstory: Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked over the past decade to build closer ties to China and court Chinese investments in Israel's infrastructure and tech sectors.

  • Chinese involvement in projects like the new port at Haifa became a rare point of contention between Netanyahu's government and the Trump administration.
  • The new Israeli government has signaled that it will take U.S. concerns more seriously and view China more through a national security lens.

What they're saying: A senior Israeli official said the Israeli government faces a major dilemma as to whether to maintain a balancing act in order to preserve trade relations with China or to more actively side with the U.S.

  • “We have no dilemma about who is our most important ally, and we are more mindful about U.S. concerns and more transparent than we were in the past. But we are not going to avoid doing things with China that the U.S. is not avoiding," the senior Israeli official said.

Read the full story and subscribe to Axios from Tel Aviv.

7. 1 essay thing: New student contest calls for Xinjiang proposals

a Uighur woman beside a propaganda painting showing soldiers meeting with a Uighur family
A Uyghur woman stands beside a propaganda painting showing soldiers meeting with a Uyghur family, outside a military hospital near Kashgar on June 2, 2019. Photo: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

Nonprofit news organization 100Reporters is holding a student essay contest on the topic "How should the United States respond to genocide in China?"

  • Undergraduate and graduate students studying in the U.S. are eligible to submit essays between 1,000 and 1,500 words.

What they're saying: "As the international community builds more courage to speak out and sanction Chinese officials and companies, only a few nations, including the United States, have officially declared Xinjiang a genocide," 100Reporters states in the contest announcement.

  • "As the rest of the world gains insight into what is happening in Xinjiang, what can and should the United States do?"

What to watch: The deadline for submissions is Feb. 28.