Dec 15, 2020

Axios China

Welcome back to Axios China. This week we've got bad news in Hong Kong, Democrats on China, John Kerry's China tightrope, and lots more.

  • 🎧 I spoke with Niala Boodhoo, host of our "Axios Today" daily news podcast, about the situation in Hong Kong. Listen here.
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Today's newsletter is 1,212 words, a 4½-minute read.

1 big thing: Hong Kong's worst-case scenario is happening

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The national security law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong is playing out in line with the worst-case scenario its critics feared.

Driving the news: A slew of arrests under the draconian law culminated last week with the denial of bail to pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

  • On Dec. 11, Lai, who publishes the Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily known for its open criticism of Beijing, was charged on suspicion of "colluding with foreign forces" under the law.
  • He was also denied bail, and court proceedings were delayed until April.
  • Prosecutors said they needed this extra time to go through more than 1,000 posts on Lai's Twitter account — a bald-faced admission that what's on trial is Lai's free speech.

The backstory: The national security law, which was forced on Hong Kong by China's legislature in Beijing, subverts the city's own once-independent judiciary and imposes harsh penalties for vaguely defined crimes, including secession, terrorism and sedition.

It's now clear how Beijing is implementing the law. Beyond its general chilling effect, which resulted in a wave of self-censorship, the new law has already been invoked to charge over two dozen people, including numerous pro-democracy commentators and activists.

  • The imposition of the law, and the atmosphere of fear it has created, has emboldened authorities in Hong Kong to crack down on protests and free speech.
  • That atmosphere has made it easier for authorities to issue harsh sentences even without invoking the law. Pro-democracy activists Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong, known around the globe for their leadership during the 2014 "umbrella protests," were sentenced in early December for protest activities they led in 2019. Chow has also been charged under the national security law.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has repeatedly defended the law, saying it will only be used against "radicals" and "enemies of the people," while Zhang Xiaoming, a top Chinese official tasked with Hong Kong affairs, said the law would only "punish a tiny number of criminals who seriously endanger national security."

  • But Hong Kong and international law experts warned the law could be applied very broadly and used to crush civil society and organizing.
  • Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law, wrote in July that the law's impact on Hong Kong would be determined by how Beijing chose to implement it.

What to watch: Hong Kong activists seeking asylum or refugee status in the U.S. currently face numerous obstacles. There is strong interest in Congress and the Trump administration to help Hong Kong residents find safe haven in the U.S.

  • The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on border security and immigration will be holding a hearing on this topic on Dec. 16, with activist-in-exile Nathan Law and others as witnesses.

The bottom line: Lai's arrest shows the power and true intent of the law — to legally charge the pro-democracy movement with sedition, and to crush it accordingly.

2. Leading Democrats warn of China's spying

Nancy Pelosi answers questions at a Dec. 10 press conference. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

In recent weeks, both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) have said publicly they are concerned about China's espionage activities.

Why it matters: Though Democrats oppose some of the Trump administration's China policies, there is significant bipartisan agreement around the national security challenge China poses.

What they're saying:

  • In a Dec. 10 press briefing, Pelosi warned of China's "undue influence at universities in our country and the overtures they try to make to members of Congress."
  • Schiff said in a recent statement that "it’s imperative the Intelligence Community rebalance its focus and funding to more effectively address the vast array of challenges that China poses to our national security. ... This is an area of substantial bipartisan agreement, and a challenge we must rise to meet."

The big picture: Tougher China policies have been a cornerstone of the Trump administration. As President-elect Biden prepares to assume office in January, many around the world are wondering if he will continue Trump's policies.

  • Agreement from top Democrats suggests that, at least on the issue of China's spying, the answer may be yes.
3. Catch up quick

Lots and lots of China news this past week:

1. Chinese authorities detained a Bloomberg staff member on suspicion of national security endangerment. Go deeper.

2. French soccer star Antoine Griezmann said he has ended his sponsorship deal with Huawei over suspicions of its complicity in China's repression of Uighur Muslims. Go deeper.

3. TikTok parent company ByteDance is set to become the world's most valuable venture capital-backed company. Go deeper.

4. The U.S. imposed strict visa restrictions on Chinese Communist Party members and their family members, NPR reports.

5. China imposed restrictions on U.S. diplomatic travel to Hong Kong, in retaliation for U.S. sanctions imposed on Hong Kong. Go deeper.

4. John Kerry's China tightrope

John Kerry, recently named special presidential envoy for climate. Photo credit: Mark Makela/Getty Images

John Kerry is beginning to signal how he'll approach his new gig as President-elect Joe Biden's special envoy on climate change — including the fraught relationship with China, the world's biggest carbon emitter, Axios' Ben Geman writes.

Driving the news: Kerry tells NBC News he sees an opening to work with China even amid tensions between the countries on trade and other topics.

  • "History is full of opposing nations, nations that are competitors and potentially adversaries coming together around things that are imperative," he said.
  • "We will continue to try to address critical issues between us regarding trade, regarding theft of intellectual property, regarding access to market."
  • And in remarks to NPR, Kerry said he will talk to China about their financing of coal-fired power in other nations, but in a way that "doesn't force people into a corner to hunker down and head towards conflict."
5. What I'm reading

Arrest by algorithm: Big data program targets Xinjiang’s Muslims (Human Rights Watch)

  • Another blockbuster report from HRW's Maya Wang about a predictive policing platform in Xinjiang called IJOP, which is hugely important but very difficult to find information on.
  • This new report, based on a leaked list of around 2,000 people in Aksu who were all detained in mass internment camps through IJOP, demonstrates the "vast majority of the people flagged by the IJOP system are detained for everyday lawful, non-violent behavior."

Party matters: How China’s Communist Party trains foreign politicians (Economist)

  • A good look at the CCP's International Department by Gady Epstein.

More party matters: Leaked files expose mass infiltration of U.K. firms by the Chinese Communist Party (Daily Mail)

  • The language in this article was overly sensational, but the data they analyzed — a list of 2 million CCP members and the CCP branches they comprise in Western firms — is useful. I hope lengthier and more scholarly reports will soon be forthcoming.

And one tweet to read about a U.S. action that flew under the radar last week:

  • Several weeks ago, senior administration officials told my colleague Jonathan Swan and me they would be targeting China's coercive labor practices in the fishing industry as part of a final push on China. This appears to be part of that action.
6. 1 fun thing: China's most popular AI girlfriend

Illustration: Sarah Grillo, Rebecca Zisser/Axios

An AI-based emotional computing system known as Xiaoice has become very popular in China since its creation in 2014, China-based news site Sixth Tone reports.

  • If you've ever seen the movie "Her," where the protagonist falls in love with an AI personal assistant, the program works kind of like that.
  • Xiaoice (this is a lot of vowels in a row but it's actually two words put together, "xiao" and "ice") appears as an 18-year old young woman who learns over time to fulfill the emotional needs of those who chat with her.

But there's a China-specific wrinkle: Somewhat incredibly, Xiaoice has ended up falling afoul of China's censors on several occasions — in one instance saying she dreamed of moving to America, and in another case sending racy photos.

P.S. I'm collecting quotes and scenes from "The Simpsons" that could conceivably be interpreted as relevant to any discussion of the U.S.-China relationship. If any come to mind, send them my way!