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Jeremy Goldkorn | SupChina Weekly Briefing

India and Australia deal with China

SupChina Weekly Newsletter
Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Hello, readers!

“How my mother and I became Chinese propaganda” is a personal essay in the New Yorker by Jiayang Fan that is really worth a read. Pair it with this less tortured piece in the New Yorker by Peter Hessler — How China controlled the coronavirus — and this extremely salty rebuke of Hessler from scholar Geremie Barmé.

A quick takeaway from these three pieces: It is very difficult to write about China these days.

Harbor from the Holocaust is a documentary film that will be screened on PBS tonight at 10 p.m. New York Time and then available for streaming. It’s about the story of around 20,000 Jewish refugees who fled Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II and found refuge in Shanghai.  

If you like what we do, please consider supporting our journalism by signing up for SupChina Access. Group and corporate subscriptions are also available — please email for more info.

—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief

1. Shots fired on India-China border

Indian army trucks move along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer in Kashmir’s Ganderbal district on September 3, 2020. Reuters/Danish Ismail.

There was another clash on the India-China border yesterday, and shots were fired.

A spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army accused (in Chinese) the Indian army of illegally crossing the border and “outrageously firing warning shots” at Chinese soldiers. The Indian army denied that its soldiers crossed the border “or resorted to use of any aggressive means, including firing,” and said Chinese troops “fired a few rounds in the air in an attempt to intimidate.”

This is a real escalation: It’s the first use of firearms on the border since 1975, and seems to indicate that troops on the India-China border are now carrying loaded weapons. That was not true in June, when the most deadly confrontation between the two militaries since the 1960s was the result of entirely hand-to-hand combat.

  • Hú Xījìn 胡锡进, the mouth-frothing editor of nationalist rag Global Times, tweeted: “Is India going to change the agreement that restrains Chinese and Indian soldiers from using firearms at border? PLA’s weaponry has great upper hand in quantity and quality. If the two sides engage in military showdown, Indian troops will suffer a more disastrous defeat than in 1962.”
  • “Things are going to get tense,” said Lt. Gen. Deependra Singh Hooda, a retired senior of the Indian army.
  • “The structure of relations that the two countries had built over the last three decades — the modus vivendi — has come apart,” said Nirupama Rao.


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2. Australian journalists flee China after diplomatic standoff

Australian journalists Michael Smith, left, and Bill Birtles, right. Image via Birtles on Twitter.

A week after news broke that a Chinese-born Australian citizen and journalist, Chéng Lěi 成蕾, had been detained without explanation in Beijing, the only two China-based reporters for Australian news outlets have fled the country. It is the latest sign of a severely damaged Australia-China relationship.

Both reporters — Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review — were placed under exit bans last week, and only allowed to leave the country after five days of high-level diplomatic negotiations and a one-hour police interview, ostensibly connected to the case of Cheng Lei.

Here is a rough timeline of how and why the two Australian journalists left, based on reporting from the New York Times and the Guardian:

  • August 14: The Australian government is notified of Cheng Lei’s detention.
  • August 27: Consular officials contact Cheng via a video link.
  • August 31: The Australian government announces that Cheng has been detained.
  • “Early last week” — probably August 31 — Australian diplomats “cautioned Birtles that he should leave China,” and that warning was “repeated two days later” — probably September 2 — and ABC scheduled a flight out of China for him for September 3.
  • September 2, midnight: As Birtles had a farewell party with friends in Beijing, seven police officers knocked on his door to inform him that he was under an exit ban, and that they would talk with him the following afternoon.
  • At the same time, in Shanghai: Seven police officers visited the only other accredited Australian journalist in China, Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review, at his apartment.
  • September 3: Birtles took shelter in the Australian embassy in Beijing, and Smith went to the Australian consulate in Shanghai. Diplomats advised both men to refuse to be interviewed, citing their personal safety.
  • September 7: Both men complete one-hour interviews with the police.
  • September 8: Birtles and Smith arrive back in Sydney.
  • Hours after they arrive: China confirms that Cheng Lei is being investigated for (still unspecified) national-security-related crimes.

Birtles, in his recounting of the police interview, says it was “very superficial stuff,” and that while he had met Cheng Lei, he did not know her particularly well and that he “certainly wouldn’t be the first person you would interrogate about her.”

Smith told the New York Times that “there was no good reason to draw him or Mr. Birtles into the case other than an attempt at intimidation,” and that they also asked him only basic questions about Cheng.

Smith’s employer denounced “heavy-handed intimidation” in an editorial, and noted that the exit of the two Australians “takes to 21 the number of foreign journalists forced to leave China since last year, mostly from American news organizations.”

More journalists at American outlets to be expelled?

“The Chinese government has stopped renewing press credentials for foreign journalists working for American news organizations in China,” the New York Times reports, and Beijing has “implied it will proceed with expulsions if the Trump administration takes further action against Chinese media employees in the United States.”

The affected outlets could include CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Getty Images.

Earlier context on SupChina:

3. Ethnic Mongols protest Beijing’s push for Mandarin-only classes

A petition against changes to education policy signed by all the residents of Dalanhua Village, Chifeng Municipality, Inner Mongolia. The circular style imitates that of duguilang resistance groups in pre-revolutionary times. Photo via Made in China.

Widespread protests erupted last week in Inner Mongolia, the expansive region of northern China that straddles the border with Mongolia, in response to new education policies that further deemphasize the use of Mongolian language in schools.

“The policy change, enacted September 1, requires all ethnic minority schools in Inner Mongolia to teach core subjects — politics, history, and language and literature — in Mandarin rather than Mongolian, echoing similar moves in Tibet and Xinjiang,” reports AFP.

Millions of ethnic Mongols live in Inner Mongolia, and in recent days and weeks, many communities have reportedly signed petitions, held protests, and boycotted classes at schools to object to the policy change.

  • Petitions: “Within two days of the public announcement of the policy on July 6, 4,200 petitions had already been circulated… Nine of Inner Mongolia’s most popular bands have also shared petitions against the new proposal on social media,” according to Christopher Atwood in the Made in China journal.
  • Protests: The New York Times summarizes: “Images of the protests shared on social media sites showed crowds of parents and students amassing peacefully outside schools, singing and shouting slogans as the authorities looked on. In one video, a woman was shown flipping through the pages of a textbook, decrying the absence of Mongolian language. In another, students in blue and white uniforms shouted, ‘Mongolian is our mother language! We are Mongolian until death!’”
  • Boycotts: According to Khubis, an ethnic Mongolian now living in Japan, 1,950 of 2,000 primary students at a school in the regional capital, Hohhot, had boycotted classes, per Radio Free Asia.

Why is this happening?

Christopher P. Atwood, a scholar of Mongolian history, has written an excellent explainer on language policy in Inner Mongolia, giving historical, cultural, and political background to what is happening. To understand the situation fully, read his whole piece.

Two key takeaways from Atwood’s analysis:

  • Inner Mongolia policy is connected to policies for other ethnic minority regions in China, like Tibet and Xinjiang. A so-called “second-generation ethnic policy” (第二代民族政策 dì èr dài mínzú zhèngcè) concept, which regards China’s constitutional protections for ethnic minorities as a mistaken holdover from the Soviet system, appears to have significant support in Beijing.
  • Mongolian is genuinely at risk of becoming a “kitchen sink” language in China, where it “can only be used for in-family conversations and lacks vocabulary and rhetorical sophistication for public written and oral use.” This is true even if the change in language teaching is gradual and is not accompanied by outright bans on the use of Mongolian.

Chinese government reaction

Police in the Inner Mongolia region have detained at least 23 people following the protests last week, reports the Associated Press.

This is probably just the beginning of the crackdown.

4. The birth of a chemical leviathan — Sinochem and ChemChina merge

Chairman of Sinochem Níng Gāoníng 宁高宁 speaks at a September 2 conference. Image from China’s State Council.  

China’s two biggest chemical manufacturers, both state-owned, are formalizing a merger, more than three years after it was first reported. Níng Gāoníng 宁高宁, the chairman of Sinochem Group — which has now absorbed ChemChina — confirmed the consolidation of the two companies at a government press conference in Beijing last week.

  • “Both companies are going forward with the merger… It’s highly necessary to collaborate on upstream and downstream technology and in markets at home and abroad,” said Ning, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.

The two companies combined have annual sales of about $146 billion from an enormous range of chemicals. Nikkei says the global industry needs to brace “for a major disruption, as the combined sales of the companies dwarfs that of prospective runner-up BASF, the German competitor that took in $70.7 billion.”

  • This was the public confirmation from Ning of the consolidation, says Nikkei, although in 2017, Reuters reported that the two companies would merge, and in January this year, the two companies combined their agricultural assets.
  • Ning was already chairman of ChemChina: He took over when the company’s former chairman Rén Jiànxīn 任建新 retired in 2018.
  • ChemChina came to global attention in 2016, when it successfully bid $43 billion to acquire Swiss seed and pesticide group Syngenta. ChemChina also owns around 45% of iconic Italian tire company Pirelli.

The U.S. Department of Defense added Sinochem to its list of “Communist Chinese military companies” operating directly or indirectly in the United States.  

  • Ning reacted to the move by saying it has shaken his faith in free trade: He had “taken it for granted that technology imports, exports, and outbound investment were positive,” says the South China Morning Post. “‘But now all these thoughts have changed.’”

What’s next for the leviathan?

The Sinochem-ChemChina conglomerate is enormous, and very powerful in nearly every market and sector of the chemicals industry around the globe. The company is bound to face further scrutiny all over the world in the years to come.

But in the meantime, watch out, DowDuPont; be careful, BASF!

5. Backlash after Guangxi University tells women to dress modestly to avoid ‘temptation’ from male students

Guangxi University in the southern Chinese city of Nanning has come under fire after telling female students not to wear revealing clothes for the sake of their safety on campus.

The controversial advice was included in an article (in Chinese) published on the school’s website on August 31, as part of a safety education program designed for first-year students.

  • While most of the suggestions offered by the college were common sense — such as being vigilant during nighttime travels and avoiding scenarios where excessive drinking is encouraged — the advice on how female students should dress stood out to Chinese internet users: “Don’t wear overly revealing tops or dresses. Stay away from clothes with plunging necklines. Don’t expose your waist or back. This is to avoid creating temptation.”

The immediate response to the advice was overwhelmingly negative, with many slamming the university for being “oppressive” and “sexist.” Many critics also raised questions about the lack of “education” for male students, saying that if the university wants a thorough and effective solution to the problem of sexual assault on campus, it should teach male students to be respectful of women and not treat them as sex objects.

Click through to SupChina for the full story


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