Oct 13, 2020

Axios China

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

Welcome back to Axios China. Today we've got Taiwan's rising profile, Mark Cuban on Xinjiang (or not), Neil Bush intrigue, and lots more.

Today's newsletter is 1,534 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: As Taiwan's profile rises, so does risk of conflict with China

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Taiwan's success in fighting the coronavirus, along with high-profile U.S. support in recent months, has raised the nation's profile on the international stage. But Beijing views this new prominence as a serious provocation.

Why it matters: Military conflict between China and Taiwan could embroil not just Asia but also the U.S. and other outside players in a larger conflagration.

Driving the news: Over the weekend, China released a video simulating a military invasion of Taiwan, the latest in a recent series of saber-rattling propaganda videos targeting Taiwan.

  • The video came as Taiwan celebrated its National Day on Oct. 10, which marks the founding of the Republic of China, whose government fled from mainland China to Taiwan in 1949 amid a civil war.

The big picture: Taiwan is a full-fledged democracy that has flourished for decades despite the ever-present threat of forced unification with China.

  • The Chinese Communist Party views Taiwan not just as a major crack in its territorial integrity, but also as an ideological threat — Taiwan is living proof that democracy is compatible with Chinese culture and society.
  • As a result, Beijing has waged a decades-long campaign to squeeze Taiwan out of the international community, poaching Taiwan's diplomatic allies and forcing it out of international organizations such as Interpol and the World Health Organization.

But 2020 has seen Taiwan's unexpected resurgence on the international stage.

  • Taiwan's remarkable success in handling the coronavirus — it's had just seven deaths in a country of 24 million — contrasted sharply with China's early cover-up, fortifying Taiwan's global soft power as it promoted its model.
  • In March, President Trump signed into law the TAIPEI Act, which supports strengthened U.S. ties with Taiwan and calls for the U.S. to alter its engagement with countries that have downgraded their relationship with Taiwan.
  • Several U.S. officials have visited Taiwan in recent months, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, the highest-ranking U.S. government official to visit the country in more than 40 years.

Beijing has responded with anger and shows of force, including military drills and numerous incursions into Taiwanese airspace.

Where things stand: "Taiwan is one of those flash points that has never flashed," writes Michael Schuman for The Atlantic. But now, says Schuman, the conditions appear to be ripe for possible conflict.

  • China and Taiwan are edging away from each other, and from satisfaction with the vague status quo that had kept cross-strait relations stable for decades.
  • Beijing has grown more assertive, and it seems to have been emboldened after facing few international repercussions for its brutal crushing of democracy in Hong Kong.
  • People in Taiwan have grown more confident in their Taiwanese identity, and they're largely opposed to unification with China, especially after the "one country, two systems" model failed in Hong Kong.

The stakes: A military conflict could be devastating not just for Taiwan, but also for China.

  • China would almost certainly pay a heavy reputational cost for any attack on Taiwan, shattering any illusion of its "peaceful rise" on the world stage.
  • Though Taiwan is far smaller than China, it boasts a modern military and mountainous terrain that could make for a protracted guerrilla-style conflict that could sap China's money, resources and national will.
2. Momentum shifts against China on Xinjiang
Expand chart
Data: Axios research; Map: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Thirty-eight countries joined Germany at the United Nations last week in condemning China's human rights abuses in the northwest region of Xinjiang, where the government is engaged in a sweeping campaign of demographic genocide against Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities, Axios' Zach Basu writes.

Why it matters: Statements like this one provide a sense of which countries are willing to challenge China over human rights and which are lining up behind Beijing.

The other side: Cuba made a joint statement on behalf of 45 countries expressing support for China's so-called "counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang" and opposing the "politicization of human rights issues and double standards."

The trend: The momentum appears to be against China. Last October, 16 fewer countries signed onto a similar statement condemning the mass detentions, while six more were willing to defend Beijing.

Go deeper: Read the country lists

3. Mark Cuban on why it's OK to do business in China despite repression

Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

In a Monday interview with Megyn Kelly, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he condemns all human rights violations, including those in China, but said he believed it was still OK to do business there. The exchange:

Kelly asked: "Why would the NBA take $500 million-plus from a country that is engaging in ethnic cleansing?"

Cuban's reply: "They are a customer. They are a customer of ours. And guess what, Megyn? I'm OK with doing business with China. You know, I wish I could solve all the world's problems, Megyn. I'm sure you do, too. But we can't."

Go deeper: Listen to the podcast here

4. Catch up quick

1. China has joined the COVAX initiative, leaving Russia and the U.S. as the only major countries yet to sign on. Go deeper.

2. China said it will test all residents in a city of 9 million after 12 new coronavirus cases were found, CNN reports.

3. Pakistan has become the latest country to ban TikTok, citing the platform's failure to block "immoral and indecent" content. Go deeper.

4. The U.S. issued new guidelines banning Communist Party members from immigration, Hong Kong Free Press reports.

5. Company of Chinese oligarch with ties to Neil Bush plunges in value
Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

On Friday, shares of Hong Kong Finance Investment Holding Group Ltd. plummeted, Bloomberg reported. The company is involved in real estate and natural resources.

  • Neil Bush, the brother of former U.S. President George W. Bush, sits on the company's board as deputy chairman.

The big picture: Neil Bush's ties to Chinese-owned companies have drawn public scrutiny and once landed a super PAC supporting his brother Jeb Bush in hot water.

Details: Hong Kong Finance Investment stock fell by up to 90% on Friday, until the company requested that trading be suspended. Bloomberg reported that the drop came in advance of an announcement about “a very substantial disposal of the company.”

Background: Hong Kong Finance Investment Holding Group Ltd. is incorporated in Bermuda, and in April 2020, it announced that it had acquired exclusive mining rights for sand mining in the Kikori Delta in Papua New Guinea.

The intrigue: In August, the company chairman, Hui Chi Ming, was charged with physically assaulting a Hong Kong-based British man in March of this year. Hui was also charged with criminal damage for smashing the British man's cellphone.

Hui is a colorful figure. He often goes by "Dr. Hui," a reference to the doctoral degree he holds from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

  • Hui has served as the Honorary Consul of Madagascar in Hong Kong, and he's served as an adviser to the prime minister of Madagascar.
  • He even has a planet named after him, according to his profile on the company website — the minor planet No. 5390, "Hui Chi Ming Planet."

In 2014, Hui was embroiled in a scandal in Madagascar, when the country’s National Environment Office said that MSPC, a different company owned by Hui, had caused serious environmental damage and had purchased oil land in violation of code (MSPC disputed the claims).

The Bush connection: As deputy chairman, Neil Bush is paid an annual stipend that has ranged from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2019, he was paid approximately $77,000, according to the company's 2019 annual report posted on its website.

  • Hui and Bush did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

What to watch: Perhaps the announcement that Hong Kong Finance Investment Holding Group said it would soon release will shed some light on the stock woes.

6. What I'm reading

Book ban: American authors get the cold shoulder in China (The Wire China)

  • "Beginning in 2019, according to publishing professionals in both countries, as geopolitical tensions reached a fever pitch, the Chinese government started refusing to issue ISBNs to most American books."
  • My thought bubble: I wonder why Beijing is doing this. I had not heard of this de facto block, which means it's unlikely that it was being used as a bargaining chip of some kind in the trade negotiations.

Movie magic: Patriotic movies may have unlocked China's blockbuster machine (Inkstone News)

  • Chinese cinema is moving on from the clunky propaganda films of the past, and it's getting better at "Saving Private Ryan"-style patriotic films — movies that audiences truly enjoy and don't seem like government messaging.

Kiwi controversy: "Dismayed" academics rally behind Anne-Marie Brady over China research paper (Stuff)

  • More than 130 experts from around the world signed an open letter supporting New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady after a China-related research paper she recently published, about how Chinese companies in New Zealand may be involved in technology transfers to the Chinese military, drew controversy.
7. 1 space thing: China's newest astronauts

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

China has chosen a new class of 18 astronauts, another step along its path to explore space in the coming decades, writes Axios' Miriam Kramer.

Why it matters: The nation has plans to build a new space station in orbit and eventually send people to the Moon.

Details: China's new astronauts include 17 men and one woman, according to an announcement released in early October by the China Manned Space Agency.

  • Those astronauts — called taikonauts in China — comprise seven spaceflight engineers, four payload specialists and seven pilots.
  • China has not yet released information about the new astronauts or about the missions they may eventually be assigned.
  • A total of about 2,500 candidates were considered for the prestigious positions.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

P.S. If you're in the D.C. area and are wondering what you can do to support Uighurs amid the cultural genocide they are facing in China, Dolan Uyghur Restaurant on Connecticut Avenue has amazing laghman noodles and "big plate chicken," as the famous dish is known. And they do takeout!

  • Recommended reading: This article from The Atlantic on how the Uighur diaspora is trying to keep their culture alive from afar.

Editor's note: This newsletter's characterization of Mark Cuban's comments in an interview with Megyn Kelly were corrected. It originally said he did not condemn China's cultural genocide of the Uighurs during the interview. He did condemn China's human rights violations but said he believed it was still OK to do business there.