The China Edition: is confrontation inevitable?

🏀 Everyone's extra mad this March

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Good morning! A warm welcome to our 41 new intriguing subscribers. We continue to grow organically which is down to you sharing our work with your friends - thank you!

We'll cut straight to the chase this week - we're not happy. Here we all are, toiling away at our day jobs, gathering experience and expertise along the way. All the better to one day reach the top, we say to ourselves. Now this:

*Allegedly 29. Faking it until you make it has its merits, but this is just taking the piss. No one's buying it Piotr, we know you’re just bum-puffing cos the older boys told you you'd look cool.

This week, we’ve got a special China edition for you:

  • Our Two Cents on the ‘Two Sessions’: what’s next on the cards for China?

  • 🚔 Xinjiang: Is it genocide? Part one of a two part series on what's going on in Xinjiang.

You might have noticed our newsletters are getting more in-depth and analytical than when we started - none more so than this edition! That’s intentional and we’ve got plans to launch a separate product soon. If you’d like to learn more, we’d love feedback on what you like and don’t like about International Intrigue currently. And do please share it!

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☭ China: our two cents on the Two Sessions

By Helen

With the exception of 2020, the month of March is generally an uneventful one. The awards season comes and goes and daylight savings returns just as you’d adjusted to the ‘falling back’.

But in Beijing, March marks the start of the Two Sessions, the biggest annual gathering of 5000 of China’s political, business and social elite.

For those who’ve lived in Beijing, you’ll recall this as the time when the city’s pollution magically cleared, skies turned an artificially-seeded turquoise blue, and your local jianbing street vendors were temporarily disappeared for ‘national security’. (If you ask me, the real threat to national security was denying Hangry Helen her rightful jianbing.)

First up, what is the ‘Two Sessions’?

Put simply, it’s a huge political pageant designed to demonstrate China’s successes and ambitions as well as their supreme talent at endurance clapping. (Test your own endurance clapping skills in a game called ‘Clap for Xi🤣).

The Two Sessions is shorthand for the back-to-back meetings over two days of China’s two major political bodies:

  1. The National People’s Congress (NPC)

  • What: China’s ‘rubber stamp’ legislature which ‘votes’ on policies already decided by party leadership.

  • Who: ~3000 officials representing China’s 29 provinces, 5 autonomous regions and 4 municipalities.

  1. The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)

  • What: Top civil society body that advises China’s leadership on a large range of issues.

  • Who: ~2000 participants from non-political sectors of society such as academia or business (including Jackie Chan!)

(Here’s a great infographic of China’s political system that John wished he had while working in China).

The Two Sessions run the gamut of China’s domestic and foreign policy priorities. From social issues and the economy, to internal security and the military, everything is fair game (and heavily pre-scripted).

This year, the Two Sessions was important for a few reasons:

  • China unveiled their 14th Five-Year Plan, the country’s economic and social roadmap.

  • 2021 is the 100-year anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), so there’s extra pomp and circumstance.

  • China used the occasion to showcase and consolidate its economic lead in the post-pandemic comeback.

Key takeaways from 2021’s Two Sessions

  1. Hong Kong’s political system was radically remodelled: its election laws were changed by the CCP to allow only pre-vetted ‘patriots’ to run for elected office. Critics of the CCP will not be allowed to run. Public officials (including judges) will need to pass tighter patriotism tests too.

🤔 Our take: Even though things were trending this way, these changes are really the last nail in the coffin of Hong Kong’s political autonomy and independent rule of law.

  1. The US-China relationship won’t be defrosting anytime soon: the tone of the first official meeting between the US and China's top diplomats in Alaska last week reflected their surroundings: cold and icy. Each side berated the other for human rights abuses and bullying - China cited the race riots and BLM movement and the US raised err... see our second story below.

🤔 Our take: This is hardly surprising. The US’ stance on China is the one thing that unites Democrats and Republicans. Neither Xi nor Biden want confrontation (yet), so they will compete economically and technologically and, hopefully, cooperate to combat climate change. China is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2060.

  1. The tech wars are just beginning: China plans to upgrade its manufacturing capabilities across eight areas to sharpen its competitive edge and become more self-sufficient by 2025. The key focuses include rare earth and special materials, robotics, aircraft engines, high-speed rail and other high-end technologies. Reflecting the global trend for re-shoring supply chains, China stated that key parts of China's value chain must stay in China.

🤔 Our take: China has demonstrated that it can see ambitious plans through. While it still relies on foreign markets for high-tech imports such as semiconductors, China is closing in on developing its own ability to produce crucial parts for sensitive industries. As China’s supply chain decreases its dependence on foreign markets, competitors will have even fewer ways to influence Chinese behaviour.

  1. But it’s not all tickety-boo; China’s got a lot of domestic issues to deal with too: the Two Sessions devoted a whole lot of attention to China’s social and economic issues. These include China’s ageing demographics and diminishing labour force, continuing the war on poverty and inequality, and reforming state-owned enterprises to be more competitive.

🤔 Our take: The CCP can only sit pretty if the Chinese economy stays afloat. But these days, China’s economy is much more integrated with the global economy, and similarly exposed to global shocks and downturns.


🚔 Xinjiang: is it genocide?

Part one
By John

This is part one of a two-part series on Xinjiang. Partly because we think it's really important to understand what's going on, partly because we did so much research and don't want to waste it 😂.

  • This week: Is it genocide? Xinjiang's history, the Uighur independence movement, and what we know about re-education camps and forced labour.

  • Next week: Should we call it genocide? How realpolitik, economics and propaganda work, and what should the private sector do in response?

This one's going to be hard to find jokes about 😖

There's a lot of misinformation on this topic, so I'm keeping a running list of the sources I'm using to write this series in case you'd like to deep dive on this stuff yourself. Let us know if you find this useful!

Where is Xinjiang, and who are the Uighurs?

Xinjiang is China's largest province and lies about a four-hour flight west of Beijing in the far northwest of the country.

Xinjiang is home to about 25 million people, about 50% of whom are Uighurs - a significant proportion considering Han Chinese make up ~92% of China's overall population.

The Uighurs are a Central-Asian ethnic group who practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam. They speak a Turkic language and make the most delicious food in China (don't even @me).

🕌 Xinjiang's long history

The region has been settled for at least 2500 years and was once a key gateway between the Roman Empire and China along the Silk Road. The Uighurs have long considered themselves independent; the Chinese government in Beijing not so much:

  • The Qing Dynasty in China took control of the region in the 1750s. It was named Xinjiang (literally 'new border') in 1884 and since then has been under Chinese control.

  • Uighurs established their independence as the East Turkmenistan Republic twice - briefly in 1933 and then again between 1944-1949. The second republic ended when a plane carrying Uighur leaders crashed on the way to negotiations with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing.

  • Many Uighurs remained focused on independence and in the late 1980s a group called the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) emerged. The group has been linked to around 200 violent attacks in China.

As violent as the ETIM often was, Beijing was in a bind. The CCP was already paying a heavy political price for repressing the Tibetan independence movement (remember that?) and couldn’t afford to repeat their efforts in Xinjiang.

💣 Modern Xinjiang: 2001-2016

The West's 'Global War on Terror' changed all that. The CCP arguably saw an opportunity to crack down on the troublesome Uighurs while the world was looking the other way:

What changed [on 9/11] was that the United States granted Beijing its wish — US confirmation of the Uyghurs’ ‘terrorism’ — in exchange for China’s broader support for the Global War on Terror.
- Charles Dunst, reviewing 'The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang’s Muslims'.

As the Chinese state increased pressure on the Uighurs, violent attacks became more frequent, culminating in a deadly spike of attacks perpetrated by Uighers in 2014:

  • In March, eight terrorists stabbed and killed 31 people and injured 140 more at Kunming railway station in Yunnan province.

  • In May, five terrorists threw bombs from cars in Urumqi, killing 43 people and wounding 90.

Overall, 322 people died from terrorist attacks in China in 2014, a 530% increase from 2013. The two incidents above were widely covered by Chinese and international media, and sowed the seeds for the current situation in Xinjiang.

🚔 2016 onwards: what we know

There’s no shortage of media coverage about human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The US, UK, EU and Canada all recently sanctioned senior CCP officials:

Mounting evidence points to systemic, state-led human rights violations by Chinese authorities… including the mass arbitrary detention of more than 1 million Uyghur… on the basis of their religion and ethnicity, as well as political re-education, forced labour, torture and forced sterilization.
- Statement from Global Affairs Canada, March 22 2021

You know you done f***ed up when the Ned Flanders of countries is pissed at you.

I spent many dirty hours this week exploring dark corners of the internet, reading the claims of those who dispute what's going on in Xinjiang. I don't recommend it for your mental health.

The result of my masochism is that I found almost no credible arguments that refute Canada's general position above. It's highly likely that:

In the words of a Chinese official:

[The purpose is to] break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.
- CCP internal documents

The intricacies of the system will likely never be known to anyone other than the most senior CCP leaders. That secrecy creates just enough doubt for the rest of the world to claim ignorance about what might be the largest internment of an ethnic and religious minority since WWII.

If you have 30 mins, this clandestinely shot Vice documentary is remarkable and will help you get a feel for the situation on the ground in Xinjiang.

Key takeaways:

  • Xinjiang has been controlled by China since the 1750s, but Uighurs have always thought of themselves as independent. Uighurs have a very different history, culture and language from the Han Chinese.

  • There was a lot of separatist violence in Xinjiang and China generally which reached a crescendo in a series of violent terrorist attacks in 2014. Beijing cracked down on these attacks as part of the Global War on Terror.

  • Since around 2016, a vast police state has been built in Xinjiang including a system of prisons, re-education camps, forced labour and constant surveillance. It’s highly likely there have been systemic and horrific human rights abuses.

So, is it genocide?

We'll let you make up your own mind.

Part two next week will explore the question: if it is genocide, should we call it genocide? We’ll look at the international reaction, the ramifications for international supply chains, and what business leaders need to know.


➕ Extra intrigue


🔎 Intriguing recommendations

👩‍🦱  Helen: At the risk of overloading you guys on Xinjiang-related materials, I highly recommend this beautifully written and graphically-stunning story on Xinjiang's prisons from Ben Mauk in The New Yorker. Using animation and words, it tells the region's history and current complexities in a most engaging way. It expands on our story and illustrates it in a personal way. An amazing long read.

👴 JohnTo my fellow Aussies: know the sound at pedestrian lights that helps blind people cross the road? Know Billie Eilish's 'Bad Guy'? Prepare for 🤯. Also, last week an old friend of mine emailed, a little sceptical about my idea that Antarctica could teach us something about how to manage conflict. In his words: “penguins don’t have problems” 😂. Touché Nick.


That’s all for now - thanks for reading! Don’t forget, give us a big ❤ if you enjoyed this. It will somewhat compensate for the fact that John’s probably on a blacklist in China now.

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Until next week!

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