Apr 29, 2020

Axios China

Welcome back to Axios China. Today we've got a brief history of partisan fights over China, U.S. tech worries, homemade noodles, and a whole lot more.

  • Today's newsletter is 1,776 words, a 6.5-minute read.
1 big thing: A 150-year-old argument about China

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

China will likely be a major issue in the 2020 presidential election, as the coronavirus crisis continues to paralyze large swaths of the U.S. economy.

  • But even without a global pandemic ramping up the geopolitical stakes, Democrats and Republicans have long disagreed over how to deal with the world's most populous country.

Why it matters: Debates from decades ago still echo in today's partisan divide over China policy, revealing entrenched attitudes that complicate America's search for a sustainable relationship with Beijing.

What's happening: Republicans are coming down harder than ever on China, and there are almost no political downsides for them in this campaign season.

  • Administration officials who have pushed for U.S.-China economic decoupling now feel vindicated, as governments around the world are realizing they are dependent on Chinese imports for crucial medical supplies.
  • As the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S. soar, deflecting blame onto China for the pandemic isn't just expedient, it's almost a necessity.
  • It's an approach with wide appeal, as 9 out of 10 Americans now view China as a threat.

Democrats, meanwhile, are experiencing a kind of paralysis.

  • A dramatic rise in anti-Asian racism in the U.S. has led Democrats to rally in support of Asian Americans and to disown rhetoric by leading Republicans that pins blame for the coronavirus on China.
  • But that has made it politically toxic for Democrats to appear tough on Beijing. Many leading Democrats share Republicans' deep concerns over China's increasingly assertive authoritarianism, but China policy is now largely focused on the country's role in the pandemic.

Details: Partisan issues dating as far back as the 19th century still inform the national conversation today:

The 1870s and 1880s: The Chinese Exclusion Act

  • A wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, tied in part to fear of competition in the labor market, resulted in the first U.S. law barring all Chinese nationals from entry.
  • Republicans, who were "still the party of Lincoln" at this time, opposed the act because they believed in "ideals of racial equality," and many supported an expansion of Pacific trade, Gordon H. Chang, a professor of American history at Stanford University, told Axios in an interview.
  • Democrats, on the other hand, supported the act, because they "represented portions of labor, and more racially prejudiced portions of the population," said Chang.

The 1940s and 1950s: The Chinese Communist victory and the start of the Cold War

  • In the early years of World War II, Democrats and Republicans were united in their support of China's Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek and their opposition to the invading Japanese and the Chinese Communists. But this bipartisanship didn't last.
  • Democrats grew dissatisfied with Chiang's ineffectiveness and his own authoritarian tendencies, and their support for Chiang's government waned.
  • Republicans remained strong Chiang supporters and blamed the Democratic administration for the Chinese Communist Party's victory over the Nationalists in 1949. In an early episode of nascent McCarthyism, Republicans spearheaded an investigation into State Department officials whom they accused of secretly supporting China's Communists, leading to a purge of China experts.

That was the moment "China became a sensitive domestic political issue," said Chang. To this day, Democrats have remained deeply fearful of a return to Cold War-era suspicions, which makes them loathe to echo some of the more hardline Republican rhetoric that has become mainstream since 2016.

The bottom line: The divide between Republicans and Democrats on China policy runs deep.

Go deeper: Read the full story

Bonus: Number of Chinese students in the U.S.
Data: Institute of International Education; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

On April 26, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) suggested Chinese students should not be allowed to study science and technology in the United States.

What's happening: Under the Trump administration, the FBI's China Initiative has targeted intellectual property theft at America's research institutions.

  • Chinese students studying in some sensitive fields already face new visa restrictions.
  • Cotton's suggestion takes those measures one step further, proposing that any science-related topic should be entirely off-limits for Chinese students, because they could return to China and “design weapons and other devices that can be used against the American people,” he said.

Context: The number of Chinese international students at U.S. universities has nearly tripled over the past decade, and they comprise the largest percentage of the U.S. international student population.

Related: A recent report from the JASON program at MITRE Corp. found existing ethics and disclosure practices could both preserve and protect the openness of the U.S. research system, my Axios colleagues Alison Snyder and Erica Pandey reported earlier this year.

2. The U.S. rift with China has tech on edge

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For decades, tech's leaders have bet big on China as a manufacturing hub, supply chain provider and, increasingly, a lucrative market — but trade frictions, national-security tensions and now coronavirus blame games are imperiling that partnership, Axios' Kyle Daly writes.

Why it matters: If the "great decoupling" that was already underway pre-virus gets accelerated by the crisis, tech is bound to get caught in the middle.

Manufacturing: Apple and many other electronics companies make most of their devices in China.

  • Changing that could be costly, complicated and tough to scale.
  • Such a transition could prove a competitive boon for multinational companies, such as South Korea's Samsung, that have already moved their supply chains out of China in recent years.

Commercial exports: The U.S. remains the global powerhouse in semiconductors, home to giants including Intel and Qualcomm.

  • Losing China as a market would hobble these companies' businesses and could push China to further ramp up its own nascent chip industry.

Exploring Chinese consumer markets: China has been a key growth region for some U.S. companies, like Apple.

  • But many others, including Facebook, Google, and Amazon, have been largely cut out of the market — or have chosen to not accept the government's rules there.

What's next: The willingness of a Trump or Biden administration to take strong action on decoupling may ultimately rest on how long the coronavirus crisis lasts, said Derek Scissors, Asia economist at the American Enterprise Institute.

  • "We're in a political period, obviously, where it's a strategy for everyone to say, 'I'm the toughest on China,'" Scissors said. "The real test is next year."
3. Beijing's bullying has ruined its relationship with Sweden

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A series of diplomatic incidents has undone decades of work building Sweden-China relations.

Why it matters: Beijing's bullying behavior is a test case in how China treats less powerful countries that refuse to submit to its demands.

What's happening: Rising distrust has led Sweden to shut down cultural exchanges and other long-standing agreements.

  • Gothenburg, the second-largest city in Sweden, canceled its friendship city agreement with Shanghai, which was first signed 34 years ago. Several other cities, including Västerås, Luleå and Linköping, have also ended their relationships with Chinese cities.
  • Sweden closed all of its Confucius Institutes, a Chinese government-funded program that sets up Chinese language and culture centers in foreign universities but which has come under scrutiny for censoring discussion of topics that Beijing considers sensitive.

Background: The breakdown in relations began in 2015, when Chinese authorities kidnapped Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen known for publishing books on sensitive Chinese political topics, and held him without trial for years.

  • The Swedish government expressed outrage in February when a Chinese court announced that Gui had renounced his Swedish citizenship on a supposedly voluntary basis and then sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
  • The case demonstrated a blatant disregard for international norms of citizenship and the rights of foreign governments to protect their citizens.
  • “It is not okay to interfere with what the Swedish government does,” Foreign Minister Ann Linde said at the time.

The Chinese ambassador to Sweden has threatened Swedish media outlets who reported critically on China, and he implicitly threatened anyone who opposed Beijing.

  • “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies, we have shotguns," said the ambassador on Swedish public radio in November 2019.

The bottom line: The Chinese Communist Party has hailed China's rise as a kinder, gentler world power that will deal with all countries with respect. But so far, its treatment of some smaller nations is not reassuring.

4. EU revised China disinformation report, courting controversy

Photo: Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Controversy over revisions that some European Union officials made to a public report under pressure from China is pitting EU staff against each other and against media outlets that have covered the issue.

Why it matters: The furor over the report, which called out China for its coronavirus disinformation campaign, demonstrates how behind-the-scenes pressure from an authoritarian government can sow division within democratic societies.

What's happening: The European External Action Service (EEAS), which acts as the EU's Foreign Ministry, published a softened version of a report calling out China's disinformation around the coronavirus.

  • Leaked emails revealed that Beijing had objected to the report and warned it would harm the EU-China relationship.

And now it's gotten ugly. The EEAS press office has denied that the report was altered and accused media outlets of "disinfo," of "ungrounded, inaccurate allegations" and of "play[ing] into the hands of those who seek to undermine our work."

  • Journalists, EU staff and politicians spent the weekend lobbing criticisms at each other over the issue.

Between the lines: In communications with EU officials regarding the forthcoming report, Chinese officials repeatedly compared EU-China relations favorably with US-China relations — but dangled that comparison as a threat to what might happen if the EU criticized China's coronavirus response.

Yes, but: Those defending the EEAS have emphasized they did not accede to Beijing's demand, which was to not publish the report; that the internal report distributed privately to EU member states was not revised at all; and the changes in the public report were not substantive.

Go deeper:

5. What I'm reading

Beijing bitcoin: China rolls out pilot test of digital currency (Wall Street Journal)

  • "China’s central bank has introduced a homegrown digital currency across four cities as part of a pilot program, marking a milestone on the path toward the first electronic payment system by a major central bank," writes the Journal.
  • Some government workers in the pilot cities will receive part of their salary in the new digital currency, which so far does not have a name.

China's long arm: The end of the Harvard century (The Harvard Crimson)

  • A deep dive by a student journalist into Harvard's relationships with China, suggesting Harvard may no longer hold the upper hand.
  • "Chinese government funding, Chinese students and their tuitions, contracts with Chinese companies, entry into China, collaborating with Chinese scholars, joint programs with Chinese labs and universities — every benefit accompanying China’s rise is also a lever for its long arm, a resource to extend or withdraw. The balance of the asymmetrical relationship has shifted."

Big brother: China's smart city development (SOS International)

  • A new report commissioned by the U.S.-China Security and Economic Review Commission offers a cutting-edge look into China's development and export of smart city technology, a set of surveillance and mass data collection systems that allow local governments greater insight into, and perhaps control over, the activities and habits of residents.
  • Case studies in Germany, Kenya and Ecuador offer a look into how China is exporting smart city technology.
6. 1 food thing: Here's how to make hand-pulled Chinese noodles

Photo credit: Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

If you're stuck at home with extra time on your hands and have a hankering for fresh, chewy Chinese-style noodles, you're in luck. Here's an easy recipe, including simple instructions for how to pull your own noodles, brought to you by the news website SupChina.

"It might sound daunting," SupChina writes, "but the truth is, hand-pulled noodles are one of the easiest handmade noodles for a beginner."