Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: China confirms that four troops died in last year’s border skirmish with India, Canada’s Parliament votes overwhelmingly to declare genocide in Xinjiang, and the Biden administration responds to Beijing’s tacit threats to the rare-earths supply chain.
If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.
China recently confirmed that three privates and one officer died as “martyrs” in the clash with Indian forces in the disputed Galwan River Valley last year, and it may have lost more than four troops. The People’s Liberation Army rarely admits its casualties and had not previously admitted to any losses in the clash. For example, China still maintains that there was not a single COVID-19 case among military personnel, including those sent to Wuhan last year during the initial outbreak there.
Chinese state media has named the young soldiers and attributed patriotic quotations to them, such as “One should make accomplishments wherever he is needed by the party.” The Chinese Communist Party sometimes requires soldiers to write testimonies full of approved drivel as part of indoctrination efforts, but the lines recall the case of Lei Feng, a 22-year-old soldier whose diary of Maoist exertions was supposedly found after his accidental death in 1962.
The announcement may again inflame tensions between Beijing and New Delhi, which had decreased since last summer but remain much higher than before the Galwan clash. Both sides recently agreed to withdraw troops from around Pangong Lake, and China may see the new spate of nationalism as politically necessary to justify the withdrawals. Anti-Indian feeling has proliferated on the Chinese internet in the last week, with little intervention from censors.
Previously, sketchy reports suggested that the toll on the Chinese side was more than four deaths. India stated immediately after the clash that it lost 20 soldiers, and Indian media has reacted with skepticism to China’s announcement. So have some Chinese, including at least three bloggers arrested for expressing their doubts publicly.
Challenging official accounts of martyrdom, whether recent or historic, has become increasingly risky under President Xi Jinping: Defaming “heroes and martyrs” was made illegal in 2017.
Canada says genocide. The Canadian Parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of declaring the atrocities in Xinjiang genocide. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abstained from voting on the motion, which passed 266-0. China has responded with the usual vitriol. The decision follows former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration of genocide, despite a split memo from the State Department. Some U.S. lawyers argue that the atrocities are crimes against humanity but not genocide.
The Canada-China relationship is already fraught. Two years ago, China detained two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on spying charges after Canada detained the CFO of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou, following a U.S. extradition request. The Canadian government has described China’s actions as “hostage diplomacy.” The new genocide bill includes a provision calling for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be moved from Beijing if the atrocities continue—a significant move given Canada’s influence in winter sports.
End of Hong Kong’s local democracy. With pro-democratic politicians already out of the Legislative Council and many opposition members arrested, the Hong Kong government is now looking to eliminate local representatives opposed to Beijing’s policies. The government suffered a shock defeat in 2019 when pro-democrats swept local elections, angering Beijing—something the city government appears determined not to repeat.
New patriotism tests will preemptively rule out any representative who doesn’t follow the official line, and pro-Beijing figures will likely replace elected representatives in their limited role in choosing Hong Kong’s leader.
Xi personality cult. An entire page of the Monday edition of the People’s Daily was dedicated to a hagiographic depiction of Xi’s anti-poverty work, followed by a double spread the next day—featuring no fewer than 139 mentions of the president’s name. (An accompanying English-language piece is here.) Since 2015, China has spent significant money on the target of eliminating extreme poverty—those making less than around $600 per year. It officially hit that goal last November, making anti-poverty work likely to be a key part of Xi-ism going forward.
U.S. rethinks supply chains. Chinese authorities have begun questioning firms about their role in the supply chain for rare-earth elements to the United States, and the Biden administration has begun a major review of U.S. manufacturing and defense vulnerabilities, including computer chips (now mostly manufactured in vulnerable Taiwan), rare-earths, and batteries. The review could lead to a U.S. government-led push for domestic production—or a turn toward allies that are themselves renegotiating their political and trade relationships with China, such as Australia.
Ambassadorial prospects. U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to announce his pick for U.S. ambassador to China, creating a guessing game in Washington. Currently, long-term Biden ally and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is being talked up, as are several other figures who largely lack Chinese language skills or experience living in the country.
But the truth may be that the role simply doesn’t matter that much. In an era of acute tensions, the U.S. ambassador’s ability to gladhand their way into Chinese officials’ hearts is more fragile than before. The position is also a potential poison chalice for careers, given the extent to which any relationship with China is going to be scrutinized by the Republican Party.
Boris talks up China. While U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come out strongly in favor of increased relations with China, members of his cabinet, such as Dominic Raab, are raising concerns about human rights issues. Campaign groups such as the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China have had a significant influence on the Conservative Party, despite Johnson’s opposition. Meanwhile, the U.K. House of Lords has again insisted that a proposed trade bill contain a genocide clause—aimed largely at China—before they will pass it.
A series of recent assaults against Asian elders, especially on the U.S. West Coast, reflects the rise in anti-Asian racism in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, former Trump administration officials continue to use terms such as “Wuhan virus” that aggravate racism. Some on Chinese-language social media have responded with fears about crime—and anti-Black sentiments.
The Oaklandside and Oakland Voices have a strong two-part series from a local perspective diving into the attacks, the impact on the community, and attempts to build Asian-Black solidarity.
That’s it for this week.