Jul 28, 2020

Axios China

By Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

Welcome back to Axios China. Today we've got consulates and spies, John Oliver on Uighurs, protests, and more.

  • Download the Axios app on iOS or Android and follow me on Twitter to get updates on important breaking news throughout the week.

This week's newsletter is 1,475 words, a 5.5-minute read.

1 big thing: China's consulates do a lot more than spy

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Every country spies. And many countries — including the U.S. — use their diplomatic outposts to do so. But for years, China has used its embassies and consulates to do far more than that.

Why it matters: The Trump administration's recent hardline stance against China's illicit consular activities is a public acknowledgment of real problems, but it comes at a time when U.S.-China relations are already dangerously tense.

Driving the news: Last week, the U.S. demanded that China close its Houston consulate in order to "protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information," White House National Security Council spokesperson John Ullyot said in a statement.

  • In response, the Chinese government ordered the closure of the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, a facility nestled in China's more remote inland region that served primarily as a visa-issuing office for Chinese hoping to visit the U.S. It was not a major hub for U.S. intelligence activity.

Yes, but: The Houston consulate wasn't China's most important espionage hub.

  • "San Francisco is the real gem, but the U.S. won’t close it," a former U.S. intelligence official told Axios. "The Houston consulate is definitely involved in spy stuff, but it’s small potatoes compared to the others."
  • That matters, because it indicates that the Trump administration is likely making an example of the Houston consulate in a bid to achieve its goal of a reduction in Chinese espionage activities without taking an even harsher measure, such as closing the San Francisco or New York consulates.

The Chinese government has long used its embassy and consulates in the U.S. to exert control over student groups, collect information on Uighurs and Chinese dissident groups, and coordinate local and state-level political influence activities.

Surveilling Uighurs: Leaked classified Chinese government documents have revealed that Chinese embassies and consulates are complicit in the ongoing cultural and demographic genocide against Uighurs.

  • The Chinese Communist Party has sought to track down Uighurs who have left China and force them to return, with orders to place them in mass internment camps “the moment they cross the border."
  • In order to accomplish this, China's embassies and consulates have collected information on Uighurs abroad and submitted that information to Xinjiang police.
  • Consular officials have frequently refused to renew Uighur passports, telling them they must return to China in order to obtain new documents — only to be disappeared into camps as soon as they do.

Controlling Chinese students: The Chinese Embassy and consulates keep close tabs on Chinese students in the U.S., occasionally sending them political directives and quietly organizing demonstrations.

  • The Chinese Embassy and consulates have paid students to demonstrate in support of visiting Chinese leaders, instructing them to crowd out anti-CCP protesters. They have also asked Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) presidents to hold study sessions on party thought and to send back photos of the sessions to ensure compliance.
  • “I feel like the tendency is that the consulate tries to control CSSAs more and more,” one CSSA president told me in 2018.

Supporting United Front organizations: Chinese diplomatic officials regularly meet with leaders of U.S.-based organizations tied to the United Front Work Department, the political influence arm of the CCP, and preside over the ceremonies and banquets held by these organizations.

  • One such organization, the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification, has branches in more than 30 U.S. cities. Its members issue statements in support of China's official foreign policy positions, and the Chinese Embassy and consular officials encourage them to engage in local U.S. politics.

The bottom line: Dealing with bad behavior by diplomats is a highly sensitive geopolitical issue that can easily result in damaged relations.

Bonus map: Mapping the embassies and consulates
Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The number of consulates and embassies that the U.S. and mainland China respectively have is currently equal.

  • In addition, the U.S. has a consulate in Hong Kong, which until recently was largely autonomous.

Both Houston and Chengdu are located in inland regions that are distant from the most densely populated coastal areas in both countries — making the Chinese closure of Chengdu in retaliation for the U.S. closure of Houston a roughly reciprocal act.

2. A view of Portland and Hong Kong from Asia

Photo credit: Photo (left to right) by Nathan Howard/Getty Images and May James/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

One of the two photos above depicts protests in Hong Kong and the other protests in Portland, Oregon. But which one is which? Without looking at the English on the protest sign, it's hard to tell.

  • That's become an increasingly common experience for journalists who have followed both the Portland Black Lives Matters protests and the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

The big picture: Both movements are taking place in an interconnected world where dangerous but nonlethal police weapons — and bystander livestreaming — have become almost universal.

What's happening: Journalists with experience in China are taking to Twitter to point out the similarities.

Photos from both cities show standoffs between heavily armed police and protesters with improvised protective gear, such as helmets, umbrellas and even gas masks.

How the photos are shared, and by whom, is yet another similarity:

  • Those who support the protests, in either city, post and retweet photos of protesters with bloodied faces and eyes damaged from tear gas canisters fired at close range.
  • Those who oppose the protests share photos of improvised weapons that protesters are alleged to have carried, including bricks and Molotov cocktails.

Some prominent lawmakers, including Ted Cruz, have rejected these comparisons.

And one final parallel: In both the United States and in Hong Kong and China, those who opposed the causes championed by the protests defended the police response and characterized the protesters as violent radicals.

3. Watch: John Oliver blasts China's campaign of forced Uighur labor

Photo: "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver"

In the latest segment of his show "Last Week Tonight," British American comedian John Oliver takes aim at the CCP's campaigns of mass internment and forced assimilation of Uighurs.

  • Oliver highlights the recent New York Times investigation that revealed that many medical masks exported from China during the coronavirus pandemic come from supply chains tainted by forced Uighur labor.
  • He compares the "pre-crime" platform IJOP — used in Xinjiang to detain people based on an algorithmic calculation of their potential to commit a crime — to the plot of the 2002 Tom Cruise film "Minority Report." (For more about this "arrest by algorithm" program, read the China Cables, an investigative project I led last year).

This isn't the first time that Oliver has dedicated a whole segment to China.

  • In 2018, Oliver made fun of Xi Jinping's fear of being compared to Winnie the Pooh.
  • Chinese authorities promptly blocked HBO's website in China after the show aired.

In this latest show on the unfolding cultural genocide in Xinjiang, Oliver also said that the U.S.' deeply imperfect record was no reason to avoid calling out China for its abuses in Xinjiang.

  • "It's also completely possible for two things to be wrong at the same time," he said. "Human rights should be completely non-negotiable."

Watch the segment

4. What I'm reading

Great flood: China's mighty Yangtze is heaving from rain and the Three Gorges Dam will be tested. (Wall Street Journal)

  • In the past 2 months, historic floods have impacted 45 million people across southern China, and 35,000 houses have collapsed.
  • The floodwaters are putting pressure on the world's largest dam, long a point of concern for engineers who warned it should never have been built.

Huawei in Rome: New 5G security measures impair Huawei and ZTE. (Formiche)

  • The government has asked Italian telecoms operators to implement "a series of draconian measures requiring extra oversight for non-European 5G components suppliers, including continuous access to the system’s source code and weekly security reports to be handed to the government."
  • In other words, Huawei's out of luck.

Chinese students: The China Scholarship Council: An Overview. (Georgetown CSET)

  • This new report looks at Chinese government funding provided to Chinese students studying in the U.S., putting this program in the context of Beijing's attempts to increase its control and influence abroad.
5. The U.S. has an international image problem

A Gallup poll of 135 countries finds virtually equivalent rates of approval for U.S. (median of 33%), Chinese (32%) and Russian (30%) global leadership, writes Axios' Dave Lawler.

Breaking it down: The U.S. approval rate is down from 48% in 2016, and it slides even lower among democratic allies like Canada (20%) and Germany (12%). Any significant improvements, the report notes, have tended to come in "some of the world's least democratic societies."

  • Approval of German leadership, meanwhile, has jumped to 44%, though Germany plays a more limited global role than the U.S. or China.

In Asia, particularly in the Middle East, views of U.S. leadership have long been mixed, though disapproval (39%) has now surpassed China's level (37%).

  • By the numbers: Germany (39% approval), U.S. (32%), China (31%), Russia (30%).
  • The big picture: Approval of U.S. leadership is worryingly low in Afghanistan (17%), almost nonexistent in Iran (6%), Yemen (10%), and the Palestinian territories (10%), and sky-high in Israel (64%).
  • In Hong Kong (31%) and Taiwan (40%), two territories looking to the U.S. for protection from China, more respondents disapprove than approve of the state of American leadership.
6. 1 fun thing: Famous for modeling lost laundry

Photo: Instagram/Reef Chang

An octogenarian couple in Taiwan was getting bored during the pandemic, until their grandson suggested they open an Instagram account to model the various items of clothing that were inevitably left behind in the laundromat they run.

Now the couple has more than 136,000 followers on Instagram, writes Chris Horton for the New York Times.

  • “My grandson is very creative,” the 84-year-old Ms. Hsu said. “His creativity has made us happy, and other people, too.”
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

P.S. For your Tuesday afternoon enjoyment, here's a video of someone playing a piano that is floating on a pond full of lily pads in Ricquebourg, France. The China angle is that it was Ian Bremmer who tweeted this. That counts right?