October 18, 2022

Welcome back to Axios China. Today we're looking at the Chinese Communist Party's image management surrounding the congress this week, European leaders sounding the alarm about Beijing, and lots more.

Today's newsletter is 1,330 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Attack on protesters highlights CCP sensitivity

Chinese consular staff assault a protester and drag him into the consulate in Manchester, England, as British police try to pull him back out. Photo: Matthew Leung/ Chaser News

An attack on a protester outside a Chinese Consulate in the U.K. this weekend underscores the extreme sensitivity surrounding the party congress currently underway in Beijing.

The big picture: Chinese government officials are highly sensitive to party demands to ensure a perfect image during the congress, as President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a norm-breaking third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party at the meeting this week.

Driving the news: Chinese consular staff tore down protest signs criticizing Xi and pulled a pro-Hong Kong protester into the grounds of the Chinese Consulate in Manchester, U.K., beating him as police and protesters looked on.

  • The protester sustained injuries and spent the night at the hospital.
  • The U.K. summoned the Chinese ambassador in response, and the Manchester police deemed the incident an "assault" and said they would investigate.
  • The Chinese Consulate called the protest "deplorable" and said the demonstrators had "hung an insulting portrait of the Chinese president at the main entrance," per the BBC. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson later said that "troublemakers illegally entered" the consulate grounds.

Between the lines: "The impulse for Chinese diplomats to follow Xi's lead is rooted in fear as well as ambition," Bloomberg reporter Peter Martin wrote in his book on China's wolf warrior diplomacy.

  • "The easiest way for diplomats to work towards Xi's wishes is to assert Chinese interests forcefully on the world stage."

Details: Sensitivity about the party's reputation, and especially Xi's image, is felt across China but is most intense in Beijing.

  • Chinese police have arrested 1.4 million criminal suspects nationally since June, stating it was part of an effort to "create a safe and stable political and social environment for the successful convening of the 20th Party Congress," the New York Times reports.
  • After a lone protester hung a banner across a bridge in Beijing last week denouncing Xi and demanding elections, censors blocked the WeChat accounts of users who had spread images of the protest — a serious repercussion, as WeChat is China's primary "super app" that many users rely on for basic services and communication.

Even economic data is on hold.

  • In an unusual move, China's National Bureau of Statistics delayed releasing third-quarter economic data due to be published today, giving no reason for the delay.
  • Analysts have estimated China's economic growth in recent months has fallen behind the rest of Asia — due in large part to the zero-COVID policy Xi has championed.

What to watch: The lengths the CCP can go to control its image can backfire by drawing more attention to small protests and highlighting the party's extreme actions.

2. Charted: China after 10 years of Xi

GDP of the  <span style="color: white; background-color: #168AA2; padding: 0px 4px; display: inline-block; margin: 5px 0px 0px; white-space: nowrap; font-weight: 900;">U.S.</span> and <span style="color: white; background-color:#DA352F; padding: 0px 4px; display: inline-block; margin: 5px 0px 0px; white-space: nowrap; font-weight: 900;">China</span>
Data: World Bank; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios

Over his 10-year tenure, Xi has turned the world's second-largest economy into a tool to project geopolitical power, Axios' Han Chen and I report.

Why it matters: By making foreign access to the massive Chinese economy contingent upon toeing Chinese Communist Party lines, Xi has pressured companies and governments around the world to support Beijing's domestic and international political goals.

By the numbers: Since Xi first assumed power in late 2012, China's economy has more than doubled, from $8.5 trillion to $17.7 trillion in 2021.

  • During the same period, the U.S. economy grew about 41%, from $16.3 trillion in 2012 to $23 trillion in 2021.
  • Though the U.S. economy is still larger than China's overall, China's GDP overtook the U.S. in 2017 based on purchasing power parity.

Keep reading to see charts on China's military budget, birth rate, domestic box office and more.

3. Catch up quick

1. China's former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli attended the 20th party congress on Sunday, his first public appearance since Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused him of sexually assaulting her. Go deeper.

  • My thought bubble: Peng's accusation was politically unacceptable because under Xi, only the party is allowed to police its own members. By allowing Zhang to appear at Beijing's most important event in five years, the party is sending a message that it is impervious to outside criticism.

2. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China plans to annex Taiwan on a "much faster timeline" than previously thought. Go deeper.

3. The Biden administration last week announced new export restrictions aimed at hobbling China's ability to make advanced semiconductors. Go deeper.

  • At least 43 senior executives at Chinese firms are American, the Wall Street Journal reports. The new rules could require them to leave their jobs.

4. The Federal Communications Commission plans to ban all sales of new Huawei and ZTE telecommunications devices in the U.S. Go deeper.

5. Elon Musk said Beijing sought assurances that he would never provide satellite internet access through his company Starlink in China as he has in Ukraine. Musk did not say if he acquiesced to Beijing's demand, the Financial Times reports.

  • The comments highlight the enormous power one man could potentially have over a population's ability to access the internet — and that an authoritarian government can try to sway that decision.

4. Europe continues to sound alarm on China

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Europe's turn away from Beijing is accelerating, as more leaders are calling for action to preserve a democratic future.

The big picture: Like President Biden, European leaders are increasingly viewing China's rise as ushering in a competition between democracy and authoritarianism.

Driving the news: EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who had previously faced criticism for caving in to Beijing, gave a speech last week presenting China as a "systemic rival" and criticizing Europe's reliance on Chinese markets for its prosperity.

U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss plans to designate China as a "threat," a more hawkish stance than the previous administration's classification of China as a "systemic competitor."

  • U.K. spy chief Jeremy Fleming also recently gave a speech warning that "without the collective action of like-minded allies, the divergent values of the Chinese state will be exported through technology."
  • British defense intelligence warned that China is recruiting current and former British air force pilots to work with China's own air force.

But part of the challenge for some countries is the paucity of government resources dedicated to addressing the challenge from China.

  • In Denmark, a new report reveals there are just nine employees that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has registered as having Chinese language proficiency, compared to 317 for French and 26 for Russian.
  • The report resulted in calls across the political spectrum for more Chinese language speakers in government.
  • "There is no doubt that the Chinese know and understand more about us than we know and understand about them," former Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Martin Lidegaard said.

5. What I'm reading: 20th party congress edition

Xi Jinping attends the opening session of the 20th National Congress in Beijing on Oct. 16. Photo: Li Xueren/Xinhua via Getty Images

Wingmen: Xi Jinping likely to pack party leadership with allies in show of strength (Wall Street Journal)

  • "Chinese leader Xi Jinping is preparing to name loyalists to top positions in the Communist Party hierarchy. ... One of the allies Mr. Xi aims to promote is Li Qiang, currently the top party official in Shanghai."
  • "Others likely to join the Standing Committee include Mr. Xi’s chief of staff, Ding Xuexiang, and the top party official in Guangdong province, Li Xi, who once worked as a secretary to a veteran of the Communist revolution with close ties to Mr. Xi’s family."

"Uncle Xi" to exalted ruler: China’s leader embodies his authoritarian era (New York Times)

  • "The evolution of Mr. Xi’s public face has paralleled his transformation of China into a proudly authoritarian state, scornful of criticism from Washington, increasingly sure that Western democracy has lost its allure, and impatient for a bigger say in shaping the 21st-century global order."

6. 1 propaganda thing: Studying Xi's report

Armed police officers read the 20th party congress report at a training ground in Nanning. Photo: CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images

One consistent feature surrounding any important speech by Xi is the photos of Chinese people from all walks of life reading it.

  • Xi's report at the opening of the 20th party congress on Sunday was no exception. Choreographed photos proliferated in Chinese state media of people gathered in small villages in inland China, elderly people at parks, even Uyghurs in southern Xinjiang all smiling broadly and reading copies of the report.
  • The photo above shows China's armed police, often deployed to put down protests, sitting on a training ground reading copies of the report.

A big thank you to Alison Snyder for edits, Sheryl Miller for copy edits and Axios fellow Han Chen for contributing.