Eye on China World

Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina

A weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom. This week, we look at the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires — and designer babies.

1. Argentina and Beyond

All eyes are on the weekend meeting in Buenos Aires between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. Leaving for the G20, Trump told reporters: “I think we’re very close to doing something with China but I don’t know that I want to do it.” He believes that the trade war has led to “Billions of Dollars” pouring into the US via tariffs. So there isn’t any real clarity on a deal. Team Trump is likely to include Peter Navarro. The Chinese side, meanwhile, is hoping for “positive results” and the implementation of a “consensus” that Trump and Xi agreed upon during a phone conversation earlier in November. But there’s genuine anxiety about shifting US positions, as evident in this Cui Tiankai interview.

WSJ reports that the two sides have been in touch over the past few weeks and are likely to agree to a deal, whereby the US would hold off on imposing further tariffs till the spring of 2019 in exchange for discussions on “big changes in Chinese economic policy,” i.e., the creation of a new trade “architecture.” That honestly doesn’t sound like a serious breakthrough. But there is one important bit to note here. Shawn Donnan reports for Bloomberg that the Trump administration has “managed to assemble at least a tentative coalition to confront China with Europe and Japan as its main building blocks.”

Whether or not there is a deal in Argentina, the strategic competition between the two sides is unlikely to abate. For instance, Ely Ratner, from the Center for New American Security, writes in Foreign Affairs: “Any agreement in Argentina will be a tactical pause at best, providing short-term relief to jittery stock markets and beleaguered US farmers, but having no material or long-lasting effect on the slide toward a high-stakes geopolitical competition between the United States and China.”

Then there is this report (summary here) by a group of American China specialists on Chinese Communist Party’s influence efforts in the US. The report argues that some of these activities “fall into the category of normal public diplomacy as pursued by many other countries. But others involve the use of coercive or corrupting methods to pressure individuals and groups and thereby interfere in the functioning of American civil and political life.” With this, it is also important to note that the report says: “It is important not to exaggerate the threat of these new Chinese initiatives. China has not sought to interfere in a national election in the United States or to sow confusion or inflame polarization in our democratic discourse with this…”

This is how WSJ talks about the authors of the report: “Many of the people who contributed to the report are prominent scholars with a deep affection for China who held out hope that its government would liberalize. Their disillusionment represents a shift in the debate over the trajectory of US-China relations.”

One of the strands of this debate revolves around Chinese students. And even there, positions in the US appear to be hardening. For instance, Reuters reports that the Trump administration is considering “checks of student phone records and scouring of personal accounts on Chinese and U.S. social media platforms for anything that might raise concerns about students’ intentions in the United States, including affiliations with government organizations.”

All of this involves concerns related to spying and cyber theft. But there are troubling aspects in this, as evident by this remark from an unnamed US official: “Every Chinese student who China sends here has to go through a party and government approval process. You may not be here for espionage purposes as traditionally defined, but no Chinese student who’s coming here is untethered from the state.”

Also read:

2. ‘Pandora’s Box’

Perhaps the biggest news story of the week has been the revelation by Chinese scientist He Jiankui that he’d successfully created the world’s first gene-edited babies. According to AP, He, a researcher at the Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology, used the CRISPR gene-editing tool to alter embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments. The treatment has led to the birth of twin girls. The report says, He’s goal was to try to bestow the children the ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus. Subsequent reportage has claimed that He kept much of his work secret leading to serious issues with regard to regulation and ethics.

The news of He’s research, which hasn’t undergone any review or faced publishing scrutiny, came on the eve of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. At the meeting. He defended his work (full transcript here), offering a few more details at the meeting. The twins, Lulu and Nana, are said to be healthy and normal. He said that the research had resulted in another pregnancy, and that he had submitted his work to a scientific journal for review. On funding, He said that “medical care and expense for the patients was paid by myself. Some of the sequencing costs was covered by startup funding in the university.”

This is significant since He is linked to at least two biotech startups. While there are likely to remain some who will question the veracity of He’s claims, this statement, reported by Reuters, by the organizing committee of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing indicates that scientifically it appears to be legit. “Even if the modifications are verified, the procedure was irresponsible and failed to conform with international norms.”

That’s just one part of the wave of criticism that He’s faced inside and outside China. Reuters, citing a report in The Paper, says that than 100 scientists, most of them in China, have condemned He’s work as “crazy” and unethical.“ “Pandora’s box has been opened. We still might have a glimmer of hope to close it before it’s too late,” the scientists said in their letter. The China Association for Science and Technology put out a statement saying it “resolutely opposes so-called scientific researches and biotech applications that violate the spirit of science and ethics.”

Xu Nanping, a vice-minister for science and technology, told state media that He’s research “blatantly violated China’s relevant laws and regulations,” with the case being “shocking and unacceptable.” From my understanding of the regulations on this, China limits in vitro human embryonic stem cell research to a maximum of 14 days. In addition, a 2016 regulation stipulates that medical institutes should establish an ethical review committee to review and supervise human experiments. But there could be other aspects of the law that I am unfamiliar with.

Xu added that the ministry has ordered relevant authorities to suspend all scientific activity of people involved with the case, and will mete out punishments together with other authorities based on the results of the investigation. A series of investigations have been launched, with authorities at city, provincial and national level working together. The university where he works has suspended him and denied any knowledge of his work. Also denying any knowledge is Harmonicare Shenzhen women and children’s hospital which was key to He’s research. The Global Times reports that He could potentially face criminal liability. But Guangzhou-based lawyer Zhou Xiaoyun argues that criminal action appears unlikely given the loopholes in Chinese law.

Also Watch: My discussion with Dr. Shambhavi Naik on the implications of He’s research.

Also Read: Chinese gene-edited baby row rekindles need for guidelines in India

3. Quest for Huayuquan

An excellent piece this week by Elsa Kania, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, sheds light on Beijing’s narrative on soft and discourse  power (huayuquan). At the heart of huayuquan is the Chinese leadership’s desire to “elevate its national capability to influence global values, governance, and even day-to-day discussions on the world stage, which Beijing believes should be commensurate with its economic and military might.” But defining discourse power can be complex. One way to view it is, “generation of effects by means of the ‘mobilization’ of particular discourses.” So when you hear things like the China mode, a community of common destiny, Asia for Asians or adding notions of national conditions and right to development as part of the discourse on human rights – that’s discourse power being exercised.

Closely linked to discourse power is the concept of soft power. Alas, it is in this context that I believe an own goal was scored this week. The People’s Daily revealed Alibaba’s Jack Ma’s membership of the Communist Party in a list of 100 people it said had helped drive the country “reform and opening up” process. It’s unclear when Ma became a member of the party, but I am in agreement with analysts who find it completely unsurprising, despite the global media reaction. Oddly, I find myself agreeing with this sentence in the Global Times’s response: “It is quite surprising to see the West so astonished over Ma being a Party member.”

Why I describe this as an own goal is because Ma has perhaps been one of this most significant soft power outputs to have emerged from China in the past decade or so. His was the story of humble roots, hard work, rejection, ambition and dogged pursuit of success despite the odds and lineage. Recall that tale of Ma being refused a job at KFC? Now amid all the furore over China’s state-led economic model and suspicions over party-state and private sector linkages in the West, it is revealed that he is politically affiliated. So while it might be some sort of a pitch for private companies to fall in line, it strengthens the view outside that the Party is firmly in charge of businesses.

4. Diplomacy along G20

On the way to the G20 summit in Argentina, President Xi made a quick stop in Spain. On the way back, he’ll be stopping for state visits in Panama and Portugal. In Madrid, the two sides signed 18 cooperation deals. Xi and Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez also pledged their commitment to “building an open, balanced and inclusive global economy” and said that that they’d work together at international fora to support “multilateralism based on the international law and universally recognised norms governing international relations.”

Specifically on BRI, the joint statement says: “The two sides agree that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an important solution to boosting global cooperation, and they will fully leverage the potential of this platform of connectivity and strengthen exchanges and cooperation in third-party markets. They also welcome the cooperation between China and the European Union (EU) on connectivity and infrastructure construction, and stand ready to build synergy between BRI and related EU strategies.” That’s much in line with early speculation that Spain would not sign a BRI MoU. Rather it would seek to work through the EU’s initiative. I don’t not see this as particularly problematic for Beijing.

Also prior to Xi’s arrival in Argentina, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s oped, which has been published in a number of outlets around the world, has set the tone for what’s likely to be China’s approach at the meeting. Recall that Xi’s last outing at such a multilateral forum, the APEC meeting in Papua New Guinea, didn’t go all that smooth. Wang says:

  • The world is suffering from economic shocks brought about by rising unilateralism and protectionism, and the developing countries are increasingly affected by the negative spillovers of shifting monetary policies of the developed economies.
  • Economic and trade tensions are spreading rapidly to the political and security fields.
  • The multilateral trading regime with the WTO at its core should be strengthened.
  • He calls for reform of international financial system with greater representation for developing countries. The international financial order should be “equitable, fair, inclusive and rules-based.”

Prior to the G20 summit, some of that language also reflected in a BRICS joint statement. The BRICS leaders held an informal meeting in Buenos Aires on Friday. The product was a joint statement, which is discussed in the next section.

5. Modi-Xi meeting

Xi engaged in a bunch of meetings at the sidelines of the G20 on Friday. His arrival in Argentina was greeted with orchestrated pomp, as volunteers organized through local Chinese chambers of commerce by the Chinese embassy lined the streets. High of the list for Xi on Friday was a meeting with the leaders of the BRICS nations. The statement issued after the meeting stated BRICS’ “commitment to working together to strengthen multilateralism and promote a fair, just, equitable, democratic and representative international order” It also said that the they: “reaffirm our full support for the rules-based multilateral trading system, as embodied in the WTO, to ensure transparent, non-discriminatory, open and inclusive international trade. The spirit and rules of the WTO run counter to unilateral and protectionist measures. We call on all members to oppose such WTO inconsistent measure.”

Following the BRICS meeting, Xi met with Indian PM Narendra Modi. From the readout provided by Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, the two leaders appeared to review the events of the year. Gokhale, however, concluded saying that the meeting “reflects a new confidence and a new stability in India-China relations. The Xinhua readout of the meeting is very brief so far. It says that the two sides have agreed to “increase mutual trust and bring the bilateral ties to a higher level,” with the relationship showing “increasingly positive momentum.”

The resumption of joint bilateral military exercises from December 10 and enhanced exports from India are the kind of initiatives building this positive momentum. For instance, this week, the two sides signed a protocol on hygiene and inspection requirements on fish meal and fish oil. This will ease the export of these products to China. The deal was inked during Vice Minister, General Administration of Customs of China, Hu Wei’s visit to India to discuss easing market access for exports of agriculture and pharmaceutical products. There’s also talks around India tapping into China’s $630 million grape market.

Also this week, we saw 21st round of special representatives talks being held in Sichuan. The Chinese foreign ministry says there were some “constructive, operable and forward looking” proposals made during the talks between Wang Yi and Ajit Doval. The Xinhua readout of the meeting says “some important consensus” had been reached. The aim is to reach “fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solutions.” The Xinhua report also says that “both sides agreed to implement the consensus of the two countries’ leaders to all levels of personnel, including front-line troops, and further improve the construction of trust measures in border areas, while strengthening the communication and coordination of the two countries’ departments involved in border issues.”

Zhang Jiadong from the Center for South Asian Studies at Fudan University has an interesting piece on the talks in The Global Times. Beyond him laying the blame for frictions on India’s table, there are two important points he makes:

  • First: SR talks “are merely aimed at exchanging opinion, enhancing mutual trust and stabilizing the situation, instead of negotiations to solve disputes or seek solutions.”
  • Second: “Although the border dispute may still be the most sensitive issue between China and India, its importance has reduced and it’s no longer the most important strategic problem. The strategic readjustments of the two countries are turning out to be more noteworthy, especially when India turns away from its non-alignment policy more rapidly and adjusts its relations with powers.”

The second bit is really telling. Based on this, don’t expect any movement towards the resolution of the boundary dispute any time soon.

6. Bytedance in India

The world’s most valuable startup has a problem. Bytedance, the owner of video app TikTok and news aggregator Toutiao, was recently valued at around $75 billion. While the company has shown dynamism in terms of its approach and growth, given that it has resisted China’s big three of Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, its content and business models are deeply problematic. A recent Hindustan Times investigation found located Bytedance’s Helo app, with nearly 5 million users, at the heart of spreading disinformation and fake news.

Drawing on that, this Elliot Zaagman piece breaks down the problems underpinning Bytedance’s approach. The piece says that while a number of social media platforms suffer from the fake news malaise, what makes Bytedance different is that: “it recognizes the types of headlines that get the most clicks, and applies them to the news stories they publish. This often leads to headlines that are more provocative or divisive than the actual content of the article.”

He further adds: “When looking at the content Bytedance’s news platforms throughout the world and in various languages, the algorithms tend to promote the same type of articles: Those that foment anger and divisiveness, running along fault lines such as racial and religious issues, often involving controversial and famous celebrities and political leaders. Its algorithms are designed to get clicks, and it has learned that few things attract eyeballs like outrage. What the algorithm seems unable to determine is whether the content is accurate.”

Another Bytedance product that’s faced some criticism in India is TikTok. The short video app, along with competitors like Kwai – another Chinese app – has been found to be wanting on content moderation. Shadma Shaikh’s Factor Daily piece earlier this month highlights how these apps host disturbing videos of underaged Indian girls and boys. It’s scary that this has remained under the radar of the authorities in India.

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About the author

Manoj Kewalramani

Manoj Kewalramani is a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi. Over the past 11 years, he has worked with prominent news networks in India and China. His news and editorial work includes field reporting, commissioning and managing assignments and producing shows and documentaries along with formulating and executing digital news strategies. Manoj is an alumnus of Takshashila’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy. At Takshashila, he curates a weekly brief, Eye on China, which tracks developments in China from an Indian perspective.