Welcome to Foreign policy‘s China Brief.
Highlights this week: Recent reports raise concerns about government use COVID-19 health apps to crack down on dissent, China’s navy launches its third aircraft carrierand the United States Uighur law on the prevention of forced labor enters into force.
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Are China’s COVID-19 restrictions permanent?
Critics have long warned that China could reverse its COVID-19 restrictions against controlling disagreement. Travel in China now relies on loosely integrated health apps that vary between cities and provinces, causing concern. Since last week, there have been several reports that these systems were used to block people from protesting in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, following a bank fraud scandal. Meanwhile, a local woman sued Henan’s provincial government for allegedly altering her COVID-19 status, which prevented her from attending a court hearing.
It’s easy to imagine a scenario where illness becomes a permanent excuse for political control – but it does not seem so likely. First, the apology only works when people see the restrictions as necessary and it seems to cease to be the case in China. Although there is still decent public support, frustration over government restrictions is becoming more and more obvious both online and offline. Shutdowns in Shanghai gave a big blow to the zero-COVID policy, but the daily intrusion of apps and tests also flares the nerves.
Furthermore, the debate over the Zhengzhou cases has unfolded in public with major media and pro-government figures such as Hu Xijin criticizes the municipality. This suggests that the central government wants to maintain the credibility of restrictions and that it is possible that local officials may have consequences. The debate over a particular topic – and especially a sensitive topic – may change rapidly in China, but so far there is not much to suggest that the central government approves controls like those used in Zhengzhou.
Anti-protest measures often involve difficult negotiations between local and central governments. Local governments generally want to repeal dissent, while the central government may want to know what people are protesting against – especially if it involves local officials. This tension traditionally unfolded throughout petition system, a route for locals to bring their complaints to Beijing. Local authorities sought to stop petitioners from reaching the capital. Even if individual petitions were unsuccessful, the amount of petitions reaching Beijing could poorly reflect a particular local area.
But tools for top-down control – like COVID-19 health apps – can easily become weapons for local authorities, even if that’s not their explicit purpose. When the central government introduced real naming policies to buy train tickets in 2012, local authorities found a new mechanism to control potential petitioners: putting their names on blacklists at the station, making it impossible for them to travel to Beijing.
Instead of health apps remaining in place in the long-term future, I expect elements of the COVID-19 control system to be integrated into China’s existing network of monitoring and control. After all, the first COVID-19 restrictions often involved existing systems operating at full capacity: locking gates that were normally open, turning on face recognition systems where they were previously too inconvenient, and using the right train system for to keep track of who had traveled through Wuhan.
These systems are generally too expensive – in terms of time, effort and money – to keep running all the time. One recently New York Times investigationusing documents provided by ChinaFile, shows how much money China is already spending on such initiatives. Even in Xinjiang, where the government has pushed the system to its limits to control and imprison the Uighur people, some controls have now been relaxed for the sake of tourism.
How long tough restrictions remain in place after COVID-19 outbreaks disappear depends on how much the central government fears dissent, how far public tolerance can be pushed, and how much an already strained economy can take.
Beijing, Shanghai updates. When it comes to controlling COVID-19, outbreaks in both Beijing and Shanghai have apparently returned to simmering. Half-lockdowns and sudden closures are likely to be the norm for a while. The authorities are also working hard to vaccinate the elderly and are addressing more coercive measures in some localities, such as threatening to cut off services. (For several months, they have struggled to reach especially the elderly in the countryside.)
China may soften the ground for a more relaxed policy, both by ensuring that vaccinations prevent deaths and convincing the public of the idea that the omicron variant is relatively mild. A new study approved by Beijing’s top COVID-19 tsar claims that only a small fraction of people hospitalized during Shanghai’s major eruption evolved serious illnessbut it is not clear how true these figures are, given the official death toll at the time raised questions.
When China opens up, it is likely that official statistics will downplay the inevitable deaths and hospitalizations that result.
Launch of aircraft carrier. Last Friday, China launched Fujianits third aircraft carrier after the domestic produced Shandong (launched in 2017) and the Soviet era Liaoning (purchased from Ukraine and relaunched in 2012). The ship will not be ready for battle for several years, but it marks an important step in upgrading China’s fleet – by using newer launch methods, which even US airlines have just begun to integrate.
However, the Chinese navy is still some distance behind its US counterpart, and its aircraft carriers may be aimed at smaller third-party states, such as Sam Roggeveen. argue in Foreign policy. Nevertheless, the launch came with one strong portion of nationalism.
Tangshan attacked fallout. After one video of a brutal attack against three women by local gang members spurred nationwide outrage, Tangshan has been deprived of his status as a “national civilized city”. The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party awards the honorary title, which is relatively routine: Almost half of all Chinese cities can claim to be a national civilized city. The move nonetheless reflects the central government’s attempts to divert history away from women’s safety to Tangshan’s alleged wrongdoing.
Some local police officers have already been subjected to discipline and it is possible that other Tangshan officials will too. The attack also sparked an outburst of fear and outrage over women’s rights in China, although authorities censored some feminist accounts. The public’s main concern now is that Tangshan attackers will escape justice thanks to their local connections – and about the women who were attacked. Is ok.
The United States implements Uighur forced labor legislation. Following its adoption in December last year, the US Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act entered into force this week, which may cause further disturbance in trade between the United States and China. Hundreds of thousands of Uighurs work under efficient slave labor as part of the Chinese government attack on Uighur society and culture. Many American companies source materials from the region, and the law places a burden on them to prove the absence of forced labor in their supply chains.
Not surprisingly, China is furious. It is likely that companies, especially those based outside the United States that still have to comply with US law, will come under pressure: China has passed several anti-sanctions aimed at U.S. rules since 2015. Beijing can also use unofficial boycott against US companies changing their sourcing, as it has done in the past against Australia, South Korea, Lithuania and Norway – just to name a few.
Read about the struggles to get the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act passed in Congress here.
Cryptocurrency. China is pushing a position against cryptocurrency after the recent market downturn with state media warning that bitcoin is “heading towards zero.” The social media platform Weibo has prohibited many prominent cryptocurrency accounts and censored discussions about bitcoin and other tokens. The government cracked down on cryptocurrency miners in September last year after years of general hostility to the currencies, which Beijing sees as a means of fraud and money laundering.
China Brief gives credit where it should: It is difficult to blame China for these policies. Although Silicon Valley continues to invest massively in a Web3 vision that seems both unclear and costlyChinese markets were already burnt by peer-to-peer lending fraud. China has invested in its own plans for the digital yuan, which does not use blockchain technology, but they remain on a early and experimental scene.
Alibaba is relaxing. Online retail giant Alibaba and Ant Group, which controls the payment service Alipay, are under pressure to interrupt their operations further apart. Both companies, which separated 11 years ago, are owned by founder and billionaire Jack Ma. At the end of 2020, Ant Group tried a listed offering that would have been the world’s largest, but was blocked by regulatorswhich marks the beginning of a government’s crackdown on the technology industry.
Ma, once critical of the government’s policy to a limited extent, has since been silent in public, and that is the company edges closer to a possible agreement to allow a new listing. The concerns of regulators were not only political: the merging of monopolized services on individual platforms is a major concern.