Jun 3, 2020

Axios China

By Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

Welcome back to Axios China. Today we've got genetic surveillance in Xinjiang (and maybe elsewhere), Hong Kong vs. U.S. protests, a Chinese space station, and lots more.

  • A quick note: Starting next week, you'll find Axios China delivered to your inbox on Tuesdays, instead of Wednesdays.
  • Today's newsletter is 1,685 words, a 6-minute read.

⚡️ Situational awareness: The U.S. Department of Transportation has suspended all passenger flights by Chinese carriers to and from the United States, effective June 16.

  • The department said the move comes after China's failure to permit U.S. carriers to resume flights to China amid the coronavirus pandemic.
1 big thing: Chinese coronavirus test maker agreed to build a Xinjiang gene bank

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A leading Chinese gene sequencing and biomedical firm that said it would build a gene bank in Xinjiang is supplying coronavirus tests around the world, Zach Dorfman of the Aspen Institute and I write.

Why it matters: U.S. officials are worried that widespread coronavirus testing may provide an opportunity for state-connected companies to compile massive DNA databases for research as well as genetics-based surveillance.

  • These concerns are particularly salient when it comes to companies that collect and monetize genetic information — and especially if they apply that research to forensics, the use of DNA evidence for law enforcement purposes.

What's happening: U.S. officials are particularly focused on BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute), which has distributed more than 10 million COVID-19 tests to over 80 countries worldwide.

  • BGI’s tests are being used within the U.S., and officials are worried that data could be used in ways that could compromise privacy.
  • BGI’s connections to Beijing have led Israel’s largest HMO to decline to use its COVID-19 tests.

What they’re saying: "With all of the COVID-19 laboratory solutions we provide worldwide, including tests, BGI has no access to patient data. BGI only supplies the products and know-how, but does not receive, process or manage patient data. This situation applies in the U.S. as it does worldwide," a BGI spokesperson told Axios in a statement.

  • “BGI is an independent company owned by shareholders and employees. It is not owned or controlled by the government,” the spokesperson added.

Yes, but: BGI does have significant and long-standing ties to the Chinese government.

  • The firm was founded with government support in 1999.
  • It runs China’s national gene bank, a massive, government-owned facility.
  • It received a $1.5 billion loan in 2010 from a Chinese state development bank.
  • Its researchers have collaborated with a Chinese military academy; in one case, an academic maintained formal ties with both institutions simultaneously.

New details: BGI or its subsidiaries have contributed to efforts to document the genetic material of ethnic minorities, including the forensic applications of such sequencing, Axios has found.

  • In 2016, BGI chairman Wang Jian signed an agreement with party leaders in Urumqi to lead the creation of a “Xinjiang gene bank” in order to support “health, medicine, and legal justice” in the region, according to an announcement posted to a Xinjiang government website that has since been deleted.
  • BGI’s Urumqi headquarters would include a “judiciary collaboration innovation center” and a “forensic expertise center,” according to an April 2017 article in party newspaper People's Daily, and its work would contribute to Xinjiang's "stability," a common euphemism often referring to repression by force.
  • Beijing Liuhe Huada, a subsidiary of BGI, sequenced some samples for a 2017 study comparing Han and Uighur subjects.
  • A 2017 study of the Dong ethnic minority stated that BGI had done the genetic sequencing; the study said the results could potentially be used for both medical purposes and forensics.

The big picture: The Chinese government, and the private Chinese companies that often work hand in glove with government ministries, have already pushed human genetics research beyond what many consider to be acceptable ethical boundaries.

  • In Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have constructed a high-tech security state aimed at controlling Muslim ethnic minorities, authorities have collected DNA samples from wide swaths of the minority population under circumstances where informed consent was unlikely to occur.
  • Scientists affiliated with the Chinese public security bureau have sought to use DNA from China’s Muslim minorities to create facial reconstructions that could possibly be used for facial recognition surveillance.
  • Chinese scientists affiliated with public security bureaus frequently publish genetics research targeting Chinese minorities, one study in the scientific journal Nature found.

What to watch: The U.S. government has placed export bans on several Chinese companies deemed complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including surveillance tech manufacturers Hikvision and Dahua.

  • BGI has not been placed on the U.S. export blacklist.

Read the full story

2. China claims double standard as protests rock U.S.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Some U.S. elected officials who expressed support for the Hong Kong protests have now called for military suppression of the ongoing protests in the U.S. — a fact that Chinese state media and government officials have been happy to call out.

Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party is eager to convince a domestic audience that democracy is dangerous and that U.S. support for human rights is cynical.

What they're saying: Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam slammed the U.S. this week, saying the recent protests show that Washington has applied "double standards" in its criticism of Hong Kong and Beijing.

  • Party newspaper The People's Daily published a cartoon showing the Statue of Liberty crushing houses like Godzilla. The caption read "Under human rights."

Context: Hong Kong pro-democracy protests paralyzed the city for much of the past year, often peaceful but with notable episodes of violence as police ratcheted up their own response.

  • Hong Kong police, once known as "Asia's finest," became increasingly violent over the course of the movement, drawing intense global scrutiny for their ready use of tear gas and rubber bullets that blinded several protesters and a journalist in one eye.
  • In August 2019, after several months of protests, Beijing said the Hong Kong protests showed "signs of terrorism." China's leaders increasingly cast the protests as a national security threat needing a firm military response.

U.S. elected officials, meanwhile, have consistently expressed support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, even when some protesters became violent.

  • Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) tweeted in November 2019 that "police violence against protestors in Hong Kong in unacceptable."

Chinese media outlets have been swift to point out that some of those same U.S. government officials have not supported a domestic protest movement that has also been characterized by intense moments of both police and protester violence.

  • Cotton's comments regarding the U.S. protests have been markedly different from his comments about Hong Kong. He issued a statement on June 2 that "the only way to end this insurrection is the overwhelming display of force," and he tweeted about "terrorists."

The big picture: The Chinese Communist Party has long sought to convince people in China that democracy is inherently chaotic.

  • U.S. gun violence often gets prime coverage in China's heavily censored media environment.
  • The party has carefully controlled coverage of the Arab Spring and other pro-democracy movements around the world, censoring images of solidarity and information about gains made through protest, while putting images of violence and anarchy on the front page.

But what's largely missing from Chinese state media commentary is a discussion of the pride that many people feel at seeing so many fellow Americans rise up against racial injustice.

The bottom line: Chinese Communist Party leaders are elevating the U.S. government response to protests to their own benefit, but they can't talk about the wave of popular support these protests in the U.S. have received. To do so would grant legitimacy to a political model the party fears.

Bonus: State of the outbreak
Expand chart

The epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic has moved from China to Europe to the U.S. and now to Latin America, writes Axios' Dave Lawler.

Why it matters: Up until now, the pandemic has struck hardest in relatively affluent countries. But it's now spreading fastest in countries where it will be even harder to track, treat and contain.

3. China's big launch plans

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

China has an ambitious new plan to build a space station in orbit by 2023, writes Axios' Miriam Kramer.

Why it matters: The U.S. sees China as a rival in space, so any large undertaking like this one will be watched closely.

  • The space station also represents the evolution of China's space program, which made use of two smaller test stations in orbit that hosted crew before moving on to this more complex design.

Details: China plans to launch the first module of its new space station next year, with a total of 11 launches needed to complete the station by 2023, according to a report from SpaceNews.

  • The station is expected to eventually play host to crews of three astronauts aboard for six months who can perform experiments and other activities from orbit.
  • "It's quite possible that maybe even their first but probably their second or third crew for their space station will include a foreigner," Dean Cheng, a space analyst focusing on China at the Heritage Foundation, told Axios.
4. What I'm reading

Obstruction: China delayed releasing coronavirus info, frustrating WHO (Associated Press)

  • A blockbuster report from the AP, which obtained recordings of internal WHO meetings showing that WHO officials were troubled by China's reluctance to share vital information with them.
  • "WHO officials were lauding China in public because they wanted to coax more information out of the government, the recordings obtained by the AP suggest."

Fair's fair: Banning covert foreign election interference (Council on Foreign Relations)

  • “The United States should work to create a global norm against covert election interference by unilaterally banning the U.S. intelligence community from such activity."
  • CFR's Whitney Shepardson points out the obvious double standard that our national debate on foreign influence in U.S. elections has largely failed to address — the U.S. has a long and sordid history of doing just that.

Huawei out: Downing Street plans new 5G club of democracies (The Times)

  • "Britain is seeking to forge an alliance of ten democracies to create alternative suppliers of 5G equipment and other technologies to avoid relying on China."
  • It's a remarkable about-face from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had drawn heavy criticism from the U.S. and Australia for his earlier decision to allow Huawei into Britain's 5G network.
5. 1 herbal thing: Beijing looks to criminalize "defaming" traditional Chinese medicine

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Beijing Municipal Health Commission just released a set of draft regulations for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), a huge industry of mass-produced, over-the-counter remedies based on herbal ingredients.

But buried in those draft regulations is a surprising rule: Article 54 states that "denigrating and defaming traditional Chinese medicine" will be "punished by public security organs according to law."

  • The eagle-eyed Chen Du, a journalist with Chinese news outlet PingWest, flagged the draft rule on Twitter.

Why it matters: The Chinese government has increasingly sought to promote TCM internationally as a form of Chinese soft power.

  • In 2019, at China's urging, the World Health Organization included a chapter on TCM in its influential diagnostic compendium for the first time.
  • But TCM methods and remedies have undergone relatively little scientific study, and their efficacy and side effects are largely unproven, though widely consumed in China.

With that background, it's not hard to imagine why local Chinese authorities might want to suppress criticism of something as seemingly apolitical as a package of foul-smelling pills.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

P.S. Restaurants in Washington, D.C., are opening back up, with some social distancing restrictions. I wonder if the new Chinese tea place in Dupont Circle has weathered the storm. Anybody know? The owners are from Xiamen, and they serve up some truly fine 铁观音。