Mixed Messages From Beijing on the U.S.-China Relationship

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Diplomatic and online rhetoric send mixed messages on the state of the U.S.-China relationship, mourning Li Keqiang is discouraged to avoid a political flash point, and former Minister of Defense Li Shangfu is dismissed from office.

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As President Xi Jinping prepares to attend the APEC summit in San Francisco next month, a series of diplomatic exchanges are good news for the U.S-China relationship. California Gov. Gavin Newsom received a warm welcome in Beijing, while top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi made a successful visit to Washington—the first by a Chinese foreign minister since 2018—and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer talked up “serious engagement” with Xi on his own visit to China.

But these signs of stabilization sit oddly with China’s rhetoric elsewhere.

Despite all the relatively pleasant words behind closed doors, Chinese officialdom and state media remains virulently anti-Western, to a far greater degree than before the COVID-19 pandemic. The recent Belt and Road summit in Beijing saw a full-throated embrace of Moscow, reinforced this week at a meeting of Russian and Chinese military leaders, which also saw both sides denouncing Washington.

The Israel-Hamas war has prompted not only more attacks on the United States, but also an enormous rise in antisemitic comments online (and the stabbing of an Israeli diplomat), including the literal deletion of Israel from maps from major companies such as Baidu, tacitly approved by censors even as pro-Israeli comments are deleted en masse. Constant saber-rattling over Taiwan continues, with Lt. Gen. He Lei saying war would be “just and legitimate.” (He, like most of the more provocative nationalists, is not a commanding officer, but has spent his career as a military academic.) And U.S and Chinese aircraft are getting dangerously close to each other—evoking the risk of a repeat of the Hainan Island incident of 2000.

It may be that Washington and Beijing can keep a steadying hand on critical parts of the relationship even as they shove each other elsewhere. U.S. President Joe Biden’s team is still pursuing the hope that China will offer meaningful cooperation on climate—something that occupied the Obama administration for years and led to a reluctance to get tougher on China in other areas, only to produce a Paris Agreement that the United States immediately ditched and China now seems ready to ditch. The Biden administration doesn’t seem likely to give up hard measures, such as chip sanctions, merely for promises on climate, though.

Xi’s fundamental problem is that he needs a more stable relationship with the Western world, from Canberra to Washington, in order to revitalize a flagging economy and give him the stability needed to pick national fortunes up after several stumbling years. But as domestic discontent and anger grows, he also needs a scapegoat for all of China’s problems—the United States. Scapegoating is hardly a new technique in China, but the intensity and regularity of anti-American language from government officials and state media has grown. There’s a good chance that any clash, even a small one, would turn into angry nationwide protests that blow up relations again.

Strangely, I think the spy balloon incident early this year may have actually made both sides more committed to fixing parts of the relationship. Several U.S. State Department staff members have told me that the balloon story was somewhat overinflated and that the vessel was off-course, rather than being a deliberate provocation—and that Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceling his trip to Beijing in its wake was a mistake driven by U.S. domestic politics. China, meanwhile, seems aware enough of the risk it incurred to have quietly curtailed the balloon program.

The crisis most likely to occur in the near term concerns the ongoing standoff over Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef close to the Philippines. China claims the territory as part of its heavily disputed so-called nine-dash line, which extends far beyond China’s shores. The Philippines beached a World War II-era troop transport there in 1997, creating a permanent outpost staffed by a small group of Philippine Marines; China has been harassing attempts to resupply the position for weeks, risking a dangerous collision with a U.S. treaty ally, while the U.S. has put out several statements affirming its willingness to defend Philippine territory.

No mourning for Li Keqiang. In the wake of former Premier Li Keqiang’s unexpected death last Friday, Chinese authorities have taken steps to make sure that mourning doesn’t become a flash point for discontent. Li will, like most former leaders since the 1990s, receive no national memorial service, only a cremation and relatively small funeral on Nov. 2. Several phrases associated with Li, especially his statement that “the Yellow River and Yangtze do not flow backward” (a reference to the impossibility of turning back reform), have been censored. At least one city required the sale of chrysanthemums, a traditional mourning flower, to be registered with the police.

In the past, the deaths of popular leaders have triggered protest in China, from Zhou Enlai in 1976 to Hu Yaobang in 1989. But the precautions taken around commemorating Li are remarkable because he was a technocratic yes-man who was overshadowed by Xi—not a particularly popular or reformist figure. Nevertheless, the belief that the country is on the wrong course is strong enough that his death became a focus for online grumbling—and the political situation is fraught enough that the authorities are taking heavy-handed measures.

Li Shangfu dismissed from office. Li Shangfu, the minister of defense who mysteriously vanished two months ago, has been officially dismissed from his job and from his role as a state councilor. There’s still no word on why Li was dismissed, although the United States claims that he’s under investigation for corruption linked to defense procurement. It’s strange that he hasn’t yet been kicked out of the party altogether if that’s the case; normally that would come shortly after his disappearance, followed by formal criminal charges anywhere from six to 12 months later.

The government hasn’t announced  a replacement yet, either, as with similarly purged Foreign Minister Qin Gang, whose role was simply taken over by his former boss Wang Yi. (Wang holds the superior position of the director of the party’s foreign affairs commission but is now doing both jobs.) That suggests either indecision or a worryingly thin bench of talent for high-ranking jobs right now.

Kids still gaming. One of the tricky things with crackdowns of any type in China is that they can be brutally effective—such as the repression of the Uyghurs or the crushing of free speech online—or they can be a ton of sound and fury with very little practical effect. The attempt to prevent kids from playing video games that began in 2019 and has continuously tightened seems to have ended up in the second category; despite all efforts, heavy playtime has actually grown since 2019, according to a recent Nature paper using a large dataset provided by Chinese gaming companies.

So why did these measures fail? For one, it’s inherently much more difficult to ban access for a particular group (in this case, those under 18) than for everyone. China has been very successful in blocking foreign content and limiting virtual private networkss (including handing out a recent massive fine for unauthorized VPN usage), despite the damage inflicted; limiting certain types of domestic content is harder. Because each individual gaming company is responsible for implementing the restrictions, kids simply seem to have switched to smaller companies with less strict controls, or they’re using technical workarounds that are widely discussed on Chinese gaming forums.

Compare all this with the restrictions on private tutoring that were supposed to help reduce the cost of child-rearing in a viciously competitive school system. Those measures wiped out an entire business sector but ended up making individual private tuition—effectively impossible to control—into an even more lucrative business. Parents are now paying more for private tutors in a thriving black market, in which middlemen are paid to connect parents with university graduates, than they were before the ban.

FDI plunges. September saw the sharpest drop yet in year-to-year foreign direct investment (FDI) in China, with companies increasingly nervous about both geopolitical tensions and China’s internal treatment of foreigners. FDI into the country fell by 34 percent from last year. Part of the issue is China’s growing emphasis on anti-espionage measures, which both threaten foreign personnel and make doing financial due diligence increasingly tough.

That’s particularly difficult in a very low-trust business environment such as China’s, where obtaining reliable figures is hard even for domestic firms. China’s Ministry of State Security has reassured foreigners that only spies will be arrested; the problem is that the ministry gets to decide who’s a spy.

Chinese FDI in the United States, meanwhile, has also hit record lows, falling from $46 billion in 2016 to less than $5 billion in 2022.

The post Mixed Messages From Beijing on the U.S.-China Relationship appeared first on Foreign Policy.

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