All posts filed under: China

The ‘Lab Leak’ Inquiry at the State Department

The following essay was originally posted at the author’s Medium blog here. In both journalism and policymaking—if not always in politics, or in the sordid world of score-settling by unemployed, second-rate apparatchiks—facts matter, and intellectual integrity matters. In light of the remarkable quantity of errant nonsense that has been written in the last couple of weeks about squabbles inside the US State Department about how to look into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 in the closing weeks of the Trump Administration, I hope this essay will help set the record straight for those who still care about things such as facts. I write this because, to put it bluntly, I’m tired of being the butt of stupid and paranoid conspiracy theories being promulgated by those who know better. I recognize that some of these conspiracy narratives are, for any thoughtful person, self-refuting even on their face. (As someone who has been warning the policy community since at least 2007 about threats to the United States and the democratic world from the Chinese Communist Party’s geopolitical ambitions—including …

White Lotus, Red Dragon—China’s History of Millenarian Dissent

On a warm Wednesday evening in May 2014, six people walked into a McDonald’s in Zhaoyuan, on China’s north-east coast. Four of the group were members of the same family, including a 12-year-old boy. Within minutes of entering the restaurant, they had cornered a young mother and were beating her to death. The motive for this murder has never been satisfactorily explained, but state media would soon portray it as the latest act in a drama that has been unfolding for almost 2,000 years. The group had been harassing diners, asking for their phone numbers. When one woman refused and snapped at them to “go away,” they attacked her with a chair and mop handle. Bystanders were told that if anyone tried to interfere, they would be killed. Police arrived quickly but the attackers continued to batter the woman’s body, breaking their weapons in the frenzy, until they were arrested. Part of the incident was captured by an onlooker’s mobile phone and uploaded to the video sharing site Sohu, from where it went viral. The …

Europe, China, and the New Global Hierarchy

Seen from Beijing, Europe is an Asian peninsula. ~Angela Merkel For more than 20 years the Chinese Communist Party engaged the world wearing the mask of smiling diplomacy, and for more than 20 years the world was fooled. We believed in such unlikely concepts as “Chimerica” and “Chindia,” and we trusted the sickly-sweet promise of “win-win co-operation.” There were always isolated voices warning us of Beijing’s intentions throughout those years—Cassandras who knew what lay ahead—but we chose to ignore them, for the most part. This began to change in 2017 with the Trump administration, which refused to accept Beijing at face value. And 2020 was the year the Party’s mask finally slipped. It became impossible to ignore the volumes—the libraries—of evidence pointing to genocide in the concentration camps of Xinjiang. Meanwhile 30 years’ worth of promises about Hong Kong’s political and civil liberties proved to be emptier than a Xinjiang mosque, as that once-free city was abruptly swallowed into the totalitarian motherland. By the end of 2020, China’s relationships with the US and Australia had …

China and the Question of Taiwan

There is no reasoning with someone who has built an entire worldview around the conviction that, as George Bernard Shaw put it, a particular country is the best in the world because they were born in it.1 Shaw’s stinging put-down was actually meant as a definition of patriotism, but it works just as well, or better, when applied to what Orwell once called “the great modern disease of nationalism.” No honest debate on world affairs is possible with an interlocutor who keeps switching into competitive mode, deciding in favour of their nation from the outset, and looking only for evidence to support that nation’s supposed superiority. In most situations, this is mildly frustrating; a benign disease. But when heads of state are suffering from the malignant version, then these failures of logic can become everyone’s problem. In modern-day China, nationalism is at its strongest when dealing with the idea—almost an article of religious faith—that the independent island nation of Taiwan is in fact a Chinese state and must be unified with the mainland as soon …

Dictatorship and Responsibility in Hong Kong

Thus, the population was shaken up, forced into silence, and left without any possible leaders of resistance. So it was that ‘wisdom’ was instilled, that former ties and friendships were cut off. ~Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1985). I Can moral life survive dictatorship? When a government intimidates its subjects; when it sows mistrust among them; when it penalizes virtue and incentivizes servility, how might men and women keep faith with themselves and their fellows? Citizens of democratic states tend to ponder such questions, if at all, with a detached, even theoretical, interest. Dictatorships happened then or, if extant, occur over there. But in the once-free city of Hong Kong such insouciance has vanished. For just over two decades Hong Kong lived the life of an anomaly. When Britain, in July 1997, renounced sovereign rule over Hong Kong, the colony became a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Under the terms of the Sino-British Declaration (1984) and the articles of the Basic Law (adopted by the National People’s Congress in 1990), …

A Brief History of China’s One-Child Policy

Liu Fang once had the job of policing the women in her village. She made sure that none of them gave birth to a second child unless their first had been either female or disabled. Whenever she found an unauthorised pregnancy, she would urge the woman to abort. Today, however, Liu Fang’s job has transformed itself. Now she encourages local couples to have a second child as a matter of national urgency. The orders from her superiors in the Chinese Communist Party are very clear on this. In a dizzying volte-face, the world’s most murderously anti-natalist regime has become its most pleadingly pro-natalist. The Party launched its one-child policy in 1980, at a time when misplaced Malthusian fears could be found far beyond China’s borders. India’s government was experimenting with a forced sterilisation programme, the authorities in Singapore were running a campaign telling citizens to “Stop at Two,” and in South Korea they were insisting that “Two’s Too Much.”1 “The battle to feed humanity is over,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968. “By 1980 the …

Making the World Safe for Autocracy

Hong Kong has long ceased to fit the description given it by an envoy of Queen Victoria as a “barren rock.” Since British gunboats secured its jagged shore in the Opium Wars, it has transformed into a vibrant commercial outpost and a premier international metropolis. After nearly two centuries, the city now has new claimants as colonial overlords, who will undoubtedly wreck the special achievements of the crown colony and set new standards of ruination and decline. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” form of government autonomy received a lethal blow earlier this year when the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature passed new national security laws that effectively prohibited dissent in the enclave. The draconian national security legislation allowed Beijing to bypass the territory’s own parliament and crack down on any activity it deems seditious. Hong Kong’s liberal culture and independent judiciary quickly began to suffocate under the weight of China’s rapacious interference. The Chinese Communist Party is now looking to crush the remnants of the old order. Beijing has announced that it will impose …

China’s Stateless Nations

I am from a city owned by a country that I don’t belong to. ~Frances Hui Maps of the global nation-state system show us a simplified picture of the world: “a totalizing classificatory grid,” as the political scientist Benedict Anderson famously put it.1 We need this grid for convenience, but we should always remember that it began as the colonial equivalent of an accountant’s ledger books. National maps provided reassurance to imperial powers that their territory was “bounded, determinate… countable.”2 The real world is much messier, and sometimes it changes in ways that no traditional map can show. China’s borders, for example, will soon bear no resemblance to reality. The Communist Party has begun expanding the concept of the nation, attempting to create a new type of global entity. But back home, large numbers of people within the country’s borders no longer see themselves as Chinese at all. From Kashgar to Causeway Bay, millions of citizens are beginning to define themselves in direct opposition to the status that appears on their passports. Today we find …

From “Who Gets What?” to “Who Are We?”

American politics can be conceptualized through two questions. The first is “Who gets what?” and the second is “Who are we?” Before and during the Cold War, the specter of fascism and then communism kept Americans aligned on fundamental questions of who we are. From the New Deal to the peak of the Cold War in the 1970s, questions of who we are were far less prominent than questions of who gets what. As Lee Drutman shows, the dividing line of politics was principally over economic issues. An unsteady class peace that took shape as “democratic pluralism”—the representation of workers throughout many realms of society—reigned. During this period unions were widely subscribed (35 percent in 1954) and served as a civic and associational pillar in American life. However, once the Cold War peaked, the dividing line in contemporary America became increasingly cultural, and the primary question in America shifted to “Who are we?” As the fear of foreign and existential threats retreated, so too did a sense of common identity and purpose. Without something to …

The Coming Post-COVID Global Order

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated economics in the West, but the harshest impacts may yet be felt in the developing world. After decades of improvement in poorer countries, a regression threatens that could usher in, both economically and politically, a neo-feudal future, leaving billions stranded permanently in poverty. If this threat is not addressed, these conditions could threaten not just the world economy, but prospects for democracy worldwide. In its most recent analysis, the World Bank predicted that the global economy will shrink by 5.2 percent in 2020, with developing countries overall seeing their incomes fall for the first time in 60 years. The United Nations predicts that the pandemic recession could plunge as many as 420 million people into extreme poverty, defined as earning less than $2 a day. The disruption will be particularly notable in the poorest countries. The UN has forecast that Africa could have 30 million more people in poverty. A study by the International Growth Centre spoke of “staggering” implications with 9.1 percent of the population descending into extreme poverty as …