Xi's Moscow visit, TikTok on Capitol Hill, and Lula's China trip
+ Dalai Lama names Mongolian boy as new Buddhist spiritual leader
Welcome to this week's edition of What’s Happening in China. This week Xi was in Moscow to meet with his counterpart Putin. Keep reading to learn what that means for the war in Ukraine. Plus, TikTok's CEO faced intense questioning from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, failing to assuage concerns over the app's safety. And, despite delaying his China visit due to pneumonia, Brazil's president Lula is set to travel on Sunday. Keep reading to stay informed on these topics and so much more.
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PHOTO OF THE WEEK
Two women who say they experienced and eventually escaped Chinese “re-education” camps provided first-hand testimony to members of the US Congress on Thursday night, offering harrowing accounts of life in detention while urging Americans not to look away from what the US has declared a continuing genocide of Muslim ethnic minorities.
Speaking before a special bipartisan House committee at the start of Ramadan, Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uyghur woman, said she spent nearly three years in internment camps and police stations, during which she was subjected to 11 hours of daily “brainwashing education” that included singing patriotic songs and praising the Chinese government before and after meals.
As Survivors of China’s Genocide, We Must Bear Witness – The Diplomat
Our experience of torture, humiliation, and indoctrination in China’s camps compels us to keep asking the world to never forget.
We are from East Turkistan, which China refers to as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a place that has been in the news for China’s campaign to eradicate our Turkic culture, religion, and languages.
We are among the millions suffering forced labor, enforced disappearances, and coercive birth prevention campaigns. We speak for the many who have suffered torture, forced sterilization, and sexual abuse at the hands of Xi Jinping’s government.
When China suddenly scrapped onerous zero-COVID measures in December, the country wasn’t ready for a massive onslaught of cases. Hospitals turned away ambulances, crematoriums burned bodies around the clock, and relatives hauled dead loved ones to warehouses for lack of storage space.
Chinese state media claimed the decision to open up was based on “scientific analysis and shrewd calculation,” and “by no means impulsive.” But in reality, China’s ruling Communist Party held off on repeated efforts by top medical experts to kickstart exit plans until it was too late, The Associated Press has found.
Instead, the reopening came suddenly at the onset of winter, when the virus spreads most easily. Many older people weren’t vaccinated, pharmacies lacked antivirals, and hospitals didn’t have adequate supplies or staff — leading to as many as hundreds of thousands of deaths that could have been avoided, according to academic modeling, more than 20 interviews with current and former Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention employees, experts and government advisers, and internal reports and directives obtained by the AP.
China has approved its first domestically produced messenger RNA (mRNA) Covid-19 jab, a vaccine that its developer said worked well against some recent variants, including the dominant strain in the United States.
The National Medical Products Administration (NMPA) approved the SYS6006 vaccine, developed by CSPC Pharmaceutical, for emergency use on Wednesday about a year after its clinical trials began, according to the company.
The new jab would be the first of its kind to be rolled out in the mainland market. China has not authorised any foreign-produced mRNA vaccines for its citizens.
POLITICS & SOCIETY
A Mongolian boy born in the US has been named as the reincarnation of the third most important spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism by the Dalai Lama.
The faith’s spiritual leader has been pictured with the eight-year-old boy taking part in a ceremony in Dharamshala in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh – where the Dalai Lama, 87, lives in exile – recognising him as the 10th Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoche, according to The Times.
Mongolian media reports suggest the child is one of a pair of twin boys named Aguidai and Achiltai Altannar, sons of Altannar Chinchuluun and Monkhnasan Narmandakh, a university mathematics professor and a national resources conglomerate executive, respectively.
Beijing’s population has declined for the first time in almost two decades, new population figures have revealed.
In 2022 there were more deaths than births in the Chinese capital, home to more than 21 million people, resulting in a natural population growth of minus 0.05 per 1,000 people. It is the first time the population has gone backwards since 2003.
The report by Beijing authorities said the city’s death rate rose to 5.72 deaths per 1,000 people, while the birthrate fell to 5.67 births per 1,000 people. Demographers said the move into negative territory was in line with national trends, demonstrating the economic and social factors underpinning China’s falling birthrate.
As local governments in China are offering financial subsidies and relaxing housing policies as part of their pro-birth incentives, one city is making high school education free in an attempt to boost the country’s dwindling birth rate.
The city of Weifang in the eastern province of Shandong said families with three children will be eligible for free high school education in addition to the country’s nine-year free compulsory education, domestic media reported Tuesday, citing the municipal government announcement. The rule is only applicable for a family’s third child born after May 31, 2021.
The rate of people testing positive for influenza virus has jumped nine-fold in the past four weeks, according to data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitals are reporting more cases despite warmer weather, and a growing number of schools have suspended classes for short periods to get outbreaks under control.
The swift rise in flu cases seems to have caught drug manufacturers unprepared for the rush to get a hold of Tamiflu — the antiviral developed by Roche Holding AG — as well as its generics, known as oseltamivir. With brick-and-mortar stores, and even hospitals, running short, many residents turned to China’s vast online marketplaces, pushing average daily sales up more than 130-fold from a year earlier in the first two weeks of March.
As domestic tourism gradually recovers following the easing of pandemic restrictions, scenic Buddhist and Taoist temples across China have seen a surge of young people seeking a temporary escape from personal or professional worries. Data from online travel platform Trip.com in late February showed that bookings for temple visits have more than tripled year-on-year, with young people accounting for half of those orders.
“In between asking myself for help and asking others for help, I choose to ask the Buddha for help,” a media analyst surnamed Luo told Sixth Tone, citing a popular line on the internet.
The 25-year-old from Shenzhen said she has visited six temples so far this year. She added that going to temples allowed her to relax after working 10 hours in the office every day.
Chinese authorities have stepped up efforts to regulate the local tourism market as malpractices involving travel agencies and related services resurface along with the country’s tourism revival.
Local police and market regulators in multiple tourist cities, including the southern resort town of Sanya and the mountainous Zhangjiajie, recently opened investigations or punished tourism businesses for offenses ranging from forced shopping to the overcharging of visitors.
Police in Sanya, Hainan province, announced Wednesday that it has arrested six employees of two local car rental companies that tricked one client into purchasing unnecessary insurance. In addition to charging for the car rental and insurance, one of the companies also made the client cough up for repair fees of 4,040 yuan ($590) for scratches one of the companies made intentionally.
Key Developments for Chinese Tourism in 2023 – Dragon Trail
Will the Chinese tourists of 2023 be very different to those of 2019? While some changes – particularly a shift to smaller groups and FIT – are especially pronounced, tourism boards have seen this coming for a long time. Thailand, Switzerland, and South Africa had all shifted to a greater focus on segmentation and high-quality, individual travelers before the pandemic.
Many students in southwestern China have found a new way to rebel against the expensive, unsavory food at their school cafeteria — by ditching them for the lunch boxes sold at construction sites.
A video capturing dozens of university students queuing alongside workers for boxed lunches at a construction site in the city of Yibin, Sichuan province, has gone viral on social media platforms. Many said the food items sold on the site were better value for money and there were more options to choose from — the “site buffet” showed some 30 dishes that could be chosen from for 13 yuan ($2).
The cause of China’s worst plane crash in 28 years remains a mystery after the country’s civil aviation regulator issued a report on Monday – a year after the catastrophe – that stopped short of suggesting a reason for the disaster.
While the report said the probe would continue, no time limit on the investigation is required, according to the agency’s regulations.
China Eastern Airlines flight MU5735 – a Boeing 737-800 – crashed into a hillside near Wuzhou, a city in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, on March 21, 2022, killing all 123 passengers and nine crew members.
Jiang Yanyong, the military doctor who alerted the world to the real extent of the 2003 SARS outbreak, passed away in Beijing on March 11, 2023. Initially hailed as a national hero, Jiang was later imprisoned and then subject to intermittent surveillance and house arrest after publishing an open letter calling for a reappraisal of the 1989 Tiananmen student movement and the massacre that ended it. The state has continued to suppress memories of Jiang even after his death. Official media made no note of his death and his small funeral was monitored by plainclothes police. Those who attempted to commemorate him online found their works subject to censorship. At least four separate essays on Jiang’s life were removed from WeChat.
Chinese authorities have targeted the Hui through three main policy measures: (1) the counter-terrorism campaign in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Xinjiang), which has linked expressions of Hui Muslim identity to extremism and has landed more than 100,000 Hui in re-education centers; (2) a national “Sinicization” campaign to bring religious and ethnic groups under more direct control of the government and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and has led to wide-scale mosque closures and detentions of religious leaders; and (3) scattering minority communities through relocation via “poverty alleviation” programs. Those affected also include Muslim believers of other ethnic backgrounds, including ethnic Dongxiang, Baoan, Salar, Tajik, Mongolian, and Han, as well as those belonging to Turkic-speaking groups (Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tatar).
HONG KONG & MACAO
Hong Kong's government announced a series of measures on Friday to attract wealthy family offices to set up in the financial hub as authorities try to restore business confidence and investor allure after three years of severe COVID-19 rules.
A revamped investment migration scheme, new tax concessions and incentives such as art storage facilities at the city's international airport will be part of the offerings for family offices in the Chinese special administrative region, the government said in a statement.
The screening of Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, a British slasher film due to be released in Hong Kong this week, has been cancelled, its distributor said on Tuesday, without giving a reason for pulling it.
VII Pillars Entertainment said on its Facebook page that it was with “great regret” that the scheduled release of the film on 23 March had been cancelled. It did not give further details.
Chinese censors have in the past targeted the film’s main character, originally conceptualised by the English author AA Milne, due to memes that compare the bumbling bear to President Xi Jinping.
The comparisons began in 2013 when Xi visited the US and met his then counterpart, Barack Obama, and some online commentators seized on their likeness to Pooh and Tigger.
Hong Kong police have told residents planning to join a protest against reclamation on Sunday not to mask up and to wear number tags around their necks to “prevent criminals from mixing” with the rally – the first since all Covid-19 curbs were lifted.
The unprecedented requirements came to light on Friday when a group of homeowners in Tseung Kwan O revealed they had obtained police permission to hold a rally against proposed reclamation for building “obnoxious facilities” such as refuse collection stations.
The demonstration would be the first since authorities removed all pandemic social-distancing restrictions and the mask mandate earlier this month.
At the opening of Art Basel Hong Kong, collectors and museums returned to the fair’s latest edition with dealers reporting success in placing works across private and institutional collections based in Asia.
In sales reports, dealers said that the return to the Asia-Pacific market hub was a healthy one. Works valued as high as $5 million landed with buyers by Wednesday. Despite some fears circulating among dealers that two recent banking crises in the U.S. and Switzerland might hamper business, the effects have yet to reveal themselves on the fair circuit, sources told ARTnews.
Former Taiwan president to visit China in unprecedented trip – The Guardian
Taiwan’s former president Ma Ying-jeou will visit China this month in the first visit by a current or former leader since the defeated Nationalist Chinese government fled to the island at the end of the civil war in 1949.
The high-profile visit has been presented by Ma and his party, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), as a chance to boost friendly cross-strait exchanges at a time of extreme disconnection, which has been driven by Beijing’s plans to annex Taiwan and exacerbated by the pandemic. However, it is also likely to fuel domestic political division between the KMT and ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP) over relations with China.
Ma’s office said the trip was scheduled for 27 March to 7 April, with stops in Nanjing, Wuhan, Changsha, Chongqing and Shanghai.
Taiwan says it has recalled its ambassador to Honduras amid moves by the Central American country to establish formal diplomatic ties with China.
Taiwan and China have been locked in a battle for diplomatic recognition since the sides split amid civil war in 1949. Honduras President Xiomara Castro announced last week that her government will seek to establish diplomatic relations with China, which would imply severing relations with Taiwan.
The switch would leave Taiwan recognized by only 13 countries, as China spends billions to win recognition for its “One China” policy.
German Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger landed in Taipei on Tuesday, making her the first sitting cabinet official to visit Taiwan in decades.
To kick off the two-day visit, Stark-Watzinger signed a bilateral deal with self-governing Taiwan regarding science and technology.
"It's a great pleasure and honor for me to be the first minister heading a specialist government department to visit Taiwan in 26 years," Stark-Watzinger said in the Taiwanese capital.
Taiwan, Germany ink mutual legal assistance pact – Focus Taiwan
Taiwan and Germany have signed an agreement relating to mutual legal assistance on criminal matters that will strengthen bilateral cooperation in judicial investigations and extradition proceedings, the Ministry of Justice said Thursday.
The agreement was signed by Taipei's representative office in Germany and the German Institute Taipei during a ceremony Thursday, according to the ministry in a statement.
A British parliamentary delegation to Taiwan has called for the UK government to give “as much help as possible” to Taiwan to defend itself against China.
The visit by the British-Taiwanese All-Party Parliamentary Group to Taiwan this week included a meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen, and discussions of British defence exports which supply Taiwan’s submarine program.
Bob Stewart, Conservative MP and leader of the delegation, said on Wednesday that Taiwan was “on the front line of democracy, and autocracy”.
Stewart confirmed the group discussed the UK supply of equipment to Taiwan’s submarine program.
Don’t Panic About Taiwan – Foreign Affairs
Fears that China will soon invade Taiwan are overblown. There is little evidence that Chinese leaders see a closing window for action. Such fears appear to be driven more by Washington’s assessments of its own military vulnerabilities than by Beijing’s risk-reward calculus. Historically, Chinese leaders have not started wars to divert attention from domestic challenges, and they continue to favor using measures short of conflict to achieve their objectives. If anything, problems at home have moderated Chinese foreign policy, and Chinese popular opinion has tended to reward government bluster and displays of resolve that do not lead to open conflict.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday concurred with a US intelligence chief’s assessment that China will be able to invade Taiwan by 2027.
“In February, CIA Director [William] Burns said that, as a matter of assessment, China seems to be capable of conducting an invasion by 2027, if so ordered. Do you agree?” asked Senator Bill Hagerty, a Republican from Tennessee and a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.
“I agree with the assessment, yes,” Blinken responded as he appeared before the panel to testify on the State Department’s 2024 budget request. The agency is seeking US$63.1 billion to address what he described as “acute threat from Russia” and “long-term challenge from China”.
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Coming up next:
Xi and Putin's talks in Moscow
TikTok's CEO grilling on Capitol Hill and most recent bans
Lula's China visit
Why Western scholars are worried China just got harder to study
And so much more…