Foreign Policy

Why Are Myanmar’s Protesters Concentrating on China?

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Anti-Chinese sentiment takes hold among protesters in Myanmar, the Biden administration puts some Trump-era actions toward China under review, and why China is now the European Union’s top trade partner.

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Anti-Chinese Sentiment in Myanmar

Widespread protests against the Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar have taken on an increasingly anti-Chinese tone, with rallies held outside the Chinese Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar and calls growing for boycotts of Chinese goods and services. Misinformation is spreading, including rumors that Chinese soldiers have infiltrated Myanmar and that Chinese software will be used to set up a Great Firewall. The Chinese ambassador has attempted to dispel these rumors to little effect.

Beijing’s public statements in response to the coup have been neutral to mildly critical, with state media describing the coup as a “major cabinet reshuffle,” while the ambassador to Myanmar said China was “unhappy with the situation.” On balance, it seems unlikely that China supported the coup, especially given its relatively good relationship with the National League for Democracy.

But one of the reasons why Myanmar’s military allowed limited democracy in the last decade was out of fear that it was becoming too dependent on China as its only backer, since it was cut off from the rest of the world through sanctions. The military now seems to value its own power over the risk of dependence on a giant neighbor.

Anti-Chinese sentiment has a long history in Myanmar, both on the national level and at the local level, due to conflicts among ethnic Chinese communities and others. Chinese investment projects have been major flash points, especially the Myitsone Dam, which was suspended in 2011 following the move toward democracy. Locals have decried the environmental impacts and forced relocations associated with such projects, while Beijing has been keen to get them restarted.

There is also growing anti-Chinese feeling across Southeast Asia. Many young people see parallels between the 2019 Hong Kong protests and their own resistance against local authoritarianism—resulting in the so-called Milk Tea Alliance of online activists. China’s tactless authoritarianism and resentment toward outsiders contributes to that solidarity, but the main driver is the willingness of local autocrats and the uber-rich to suck up to China for their own ends.

That can mean, as in Myanmar’s case, that China is blamed even when it hasn’t actually done much. As with anti-U.S. feelings, resentment follows hegemony.

Executive orders under review. As part of its sweeping review of Trump-era policy, the Biden administration has suspended or reconsidered many actions relating to China, including disclosure requirements on Confucius Institutes at U.S. universities and the attempt to ban TikTok. Despite worries of some China hawks, the review doesn’t necessarily indicate a softer attitude toward Beijing.

Even if the Biden team may broadly agree on the actions, the Trump administration’s implementation was often haphazard. The Confucius Institutes’ disclosure requirements, for instance, were run through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security rather than the Education Department.

Chinese-European trade. China’s early economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic pushed it into first place in trade with the European Union last year, overtaking the United States. The recently signed Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between the EU and China, which has faced criticism on human rights grounds, will likely result in even greater ties as the United States cautiously decouples.

Leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, questioned about Beijing’s atrocities in Xinjiang, seem to talk about engagement in terms that seem more suited to 2001 than 2021. Smaller and more vulnerable European democracies, however, may be sharply alert to the problems China’s reach poses.

Wartime memories. Today marks the 42nd anniversary of the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, one of the bloodiest and least-remembered small wars of the last century. China attacked its fellow communist state in a failed effort to force Vietnamese forces to retreat from Cambodia, where they had overthrown the Khmer Rouge.

China has never fully revealed its losses in the war, which lasted less than a month, but it probably lost 20,000 troops, with similar losses on the Vietnamese side and considerable atrocities committed against the civilian population by the invading People’s Liberation Army.

In China, the war is largely ignored—it goes against the frequent propaganda claim that the People’s Republic of China hasn’t invaded another country. Chinese survivors of the war carry many scars, not least the lack of public acknowledgement or proper pensions. Vietnam, meanwhile, brutally expelled around 450,000 ethnic Chinese after the attack; China still lists around 300,000 of them as refugees.

Strategic chip reserves. Facing down more U.S. technology restraints, China is attempting to build a strategic reserve of computer chips—and again pushing efforts to boost domestic production. Previous efforts to improve chip production in China missed their targets, with Taiwan continuing to dominate the market.

In a sign that the conflict could worsen, Chinese authorities have been asking firms how to target the rare earths supply chain. That may drive efforts to restart domestic rare earths production in the United States, where the problem is not supply but rather the lack of refining and manufacturing facilities due to China’s cost advantages.

‘The long hack.’ Bloomberg has published more material to back up its 2018 report that the Chinese government allegedly implanted bugs directly in server motherboards manufactured by Supermicro. The original story was widely disputed by everyone from the Chinese Embassy in Washington to Apple—and regarded skeptically among China experts.

The sourcing in the story is not strong, with accounts coming entirely from second- or third-hand sources inside the U.S. intelligence community. Intelligence officers’ memories are not reliable on technical details that they didn’t fully understand in the first place.

Party first. A growing number of important Chinese firms are getting so-called dual-headed leadership, with business roles being matched by Chinese Communist Party personnel—and the latter getting the ultimate authority. Internal party organizations, always part of large firms, are receiving ever more prominent roles—a trend that has become more visible during the pandemic.

If experience is anything to go by, that also means family members of senior leadership are being given large slices of the pie behind the scenes.

That’s it for this week.

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