What’s next in U.S.-China relations.
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On left: China’s Ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang. On right: Taiwan’s Representative to the U.S., Bi-khim Hsiao. | Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo and Simon Liu/Office of the President of Taiwan
Hi, China Watchers. This week we unpack the media messaging duel between China and Taiwan’s diplomatic outposts in Washington, D.C. and track the fallout from Beijing’s reprisals for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan trip last week. We’ll also scrutinize threats to “reeducate” Taiwan’s population and profile a book that warns that Beijing’s intentions in addressing climate change are geared to competition rather than cooperation with the U.S.
House Speaker NANCY PELOSI’s Taiwan trip last week exposed stark contrasts in the public messaging strategies of Taipei and Beijing’s Washington, D.C. diplomatic outposts.
The Chinese embassy helmed by Ambassador QIN GANG went loud and hard in a zone-flooding media blitz that included multiple press briefings, a Washington Post oped, a CNN appearance and a social media output mode set to 11. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) under Taiwan’s de facto Ambassador BI-KHIM HSIAO trod more lightly — mostly amplifying statements out of Taipei punctuated by Hsiao’s double header PBS and CBS TV interviews last week. That minimalist engagement suggests the Taiwan Foreign Ministry’s risk aversion to high profile diplomacy may have hamstrung Hsiao at a critical juncture in the decades-long U.S.-China standoff on Taiwan’s status.
There are concerns that TECRO’s public messaging strategy is handicapping Hsiao’s effectiveness. And it’s prompting calls from longtime Taiwan observers for a more robust engagement style to counter Qin’s efforts to dominate the China-Taiwan media narrative in Washington.
“The CCP approach to propaganda is called ‘saturation’ — they use every possible channel. If one channel doesn’t have an effect, another might,” said ANNE-MARIE BRADY, a Chinese politics specialist at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury. “This is completely different from the ROC (Taiwan) approach, which follows public diplomacy and digital diplomacy approaches adopted by many other states.”
During the Pelosi trip furor, the Chinese embassy held two virtual media briefings within a seven-day span backed by Qin’s drumbeat of multiple daily tweets making the case for China’s assertions of sovereignty over Taiwan. That reflected a global Chinese diplomatic offensive.
“Compared with the last week of July, mentions of Taiwan in Chinese diplomats and state media’s tweets were up more than 500% and mentions of the PLA were up more than 200% in the first week of August,” ETIENNE SOULA, research analyst at the non-profit Alliance for Securing Democracy, tweeted on Wednesday.
TECRO hasn’t hosted a public media briefing since Hsiao’s July 2020 D.C. arrival and her visibility on social media —particularly her personal Twitter account — is a fraction of Qin’s. While Qin embraces his role as an aggressive advocate of Beijing’s position on Taiwan, Hsiao has over the past month mostly opted to publicly reiterate the messaging of Taiwan’s President TSAI ING-WEN and its defense ministry.
Observers say that strategy hinders Hsiao’s utility at a time when rising U.S.-China tensions over Taiwan have boosted U.S. public support for a military defense of the island to a 26-year high. They argue that Hsiao — a graduate of Oberlin College and Columbia University and a former legislator in the island’s parliament— would excel as a more publicly accessible face of Taiwanese diplomacy here in Washington.
“Bi-khim seems to be atrophying as an asset for [Taiwan],” said STEPHEN M. YOUNG, career U.S. diplomat and former director of the American Institute in Taiwan. “Bi-khim is very capable, and also quite close to Tsai, so she has the wherewithal to communicate back home at the highest levels and also to Tsai. She would have the confidence to do a lot more if that was what they wanted her to do.”
Hsiao’s public profile channels Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry’s sensitivities toward potential confrontations with notoriously aggressive Chinese diplomats. A tangle between Taiwanese and Chinese diplomats in Fiji’s capital Suva in 2020 sparked a fist fight that hospitalized a Taiwanese representative.
“For many years, if the governments of foreign countries gave Taiwan’s embassy official/equal treatment, or too much exposure, it caused China’s overreaction,” said FREDDY LIM, independent Taiwanese legislator. “In order not to cause trouble to [host] foreign governments, our representative offices are used to working in a relatively low-key way.”
That engagement style reflects the limited diplomatic risk appetite of Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry. “They are deeply conservative (with a small c) in their approach to engagement of the executive and legislative branches” said RUPERT J. HAMMOND-CHAMBERS, president of the Washington, D.C.-based US-Taiwan Business Council.
Qin — who benefits from an established relationship with Chinese President XI JINPING — has retooled the embassy’s press section into a quick-response unit since his arrival in July 2021. His team holds regular virtual press briefings with on- and off-record segments. Those briefings spoon-feed Chinese government messaging to news outlets following every twist and turn of the U.S.-China relationship and spiraling tensions over Taiwan.
“Reporters will fill the pages with the people who talk to them for the most part,” said MARK L. CLIFFORD, president of the nonprofit Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong and a former editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s two English language daily newspapers, The Standard and the South China Morning Post. “Taiwan has a great story to tell … and the fact that they aren’t out there punching and punching hard is really puzzling.”
TECRO insists that Hsiao tirelessly makes the public case for Taiwan. “Ever since Amb. Hsiao began her mandate here in D.C., she has made numerous public appearances and taken or written a total of 37 interviews/opinion pieces with TV networks and newspapers, etc.,” TECRO said in a statement. Hsiao has provided two of those interviews to China Watcher over the past year, while Qin has yet to consent to a one-on-one interview. But Qin’s relentless and multi pronged communications efforts make them feel more pervasive than TECRO’s.
Qin regularly appears at high-profile D.C. events where he accesses influential members of the U.S.-China policy and business community. Over the past year, Qin has appeared at National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and U.S. China Business Council events. Last month, he headlined at the Aspen Security Forum and on Tuesday popped up at the Forbes 4th U.S.-China Business Forum.
Qin also works the post-office hours Georgetown dinner party circuit where he presses the flesh with influential U.S. government officials and corporate executives. At one such dinner attended by your host in February, Qin provided a candid assessment of the lessons of President RICHARD NIXON’s historic 1972 outreach to MAO ZEDONG threaded with a weary dismissal of U.S. government concerns about Xinjiang.
Hsiao either isn’t offered or avoids such opportunities. “Even Hsiao’s predecessor was telling me that there is an unwritten rule whereby the Taiwanese representative would avoid diplomatic dinners where the PRC ambassador will be present, all to avoid causing a scene and creating trouble for D.C.,” a Taipei-based foreign policy expert unauthorized to speak on the record told China Watcher. “Given how media savvy the Tsai administration has become and how often they push out material back in Taiwan, there’s got to be a reason why TECRO is not doing the same — and that’s got to be instructions [from Taipei].”
Hsiao instead focuses on lower-profile networking with federal lawmakers. In recent months, she has briefed members of the conservative GOP Main Street Caucus, House Foreign Affairs sub-committee members and participated in a policy roundtable with the GOP Congressional China Task Force. Those relationships are essential to maintaining goodwill for Taiwan on Capitol Hill.
Hsiao does do some retail politician-style outreach to state governors to push for deeper links with Taiwan. In June, she met with state leaders including Arizona Gov. DOUG DUCEY, Indiana Gov. ERIC HOLCOMB and Delaware Gov. JOHN CARNEY. She also hosts receptions in D.C. with government officials and representatives of the Taiwanese American community at TECRO’s famed Twin Oaks estate. And Hsiao has maintained the tradition of making TECRO’s annual Oct. 10 national day celebration at Twin Oaks a highlight of the D.C. social season for government officials and journalists alike.
Qin’s well-earned reputation for a pugnacious wolf-warrior style detracts from his higher public profile and easier access to the levers of power in D.C. And his role as Beijing’s D.C.-based denier-in-chief for China’s alarming turn toward a totalitarian state state implicated in genocide means that his profile and access don’t guarantee influence.
The bellicose messaging is unlikely to resonate with a U.S. public that has already soured on China. A Pew Research Center survey published in June revealed that 82% of Americans have unfavorable views of China due to human rights concerns.
“[Taiwan] understands that they don’t have to do much heavy lifting on most of their engagements … a light touch is far smarter — honey is better than vinegar,” said Hammond-Chambers.
— PELOSI DENIES PENTAGON OPPOSED TAIWAN TRIP: House Speaker NANCY PELOSI said on Wednesday that the U.S. military never told her not to travel to Taiwan, defending her historic visit amid China’s hostile response and the Biden administration’s warnings, POLITICO’s ANDREW DESIDERIO reported. Pelosi accused Beijing of using her trip to Taiwan last week as a “pretext” for its stepped-up aggression toward the self-governing island.
— BIDEN SANGUINE ON CHINA’S TAIWAN THREAT: President JOE BIDEN expressed optimism on Monday that China’s live-fire exercises around Taiwan in response to Pelosi’s recent visit don’t risk imminent conflict. “I’m not worried. … I don’t think they’re going to do anything more,” Biden said. But COLIN KAHL, undersecretary of Defense for policy, warned that China is seeking to “salami slice their way into a new status quo” with Taiwan, POLITICO’s LARA SELIGMAN reported Monday. China’s military indicated on Monday that its live fire exercises will continue on an oped-ended basis while Taiwan’s two days of live-fire drills are scheduled to end today.
— ONDCP: CHINA’S COUNTERNARCOTICS COOPERATION SUSPENSION ‘UNACCEPTABLE’: The Office of National Drug Control Policy slammed China’s move on Friday to suspend bilateral counternarcotics cooperation as a threat to the lives of U.S. citizens. “At a time when the overdose epidemic continues to claim a life every 5 minutes, it’s unacceptable that the PRC is withholding its cooperation that would help to bring to justice individuals who traffic these illicit drugs,” the agency’s director, RAHUL GUPTA, tweeted Monday. That suspension was one of eight explicit reprisals Beijing imposed for Pelosi’s Taiwan visit.
That cooperation was mostly aspirational. China’s Foreign Ministry published a 25,000 word document in June titled “Reality Check: Falsehoods in US Perceptions of China” which stated: “The US has itself to blame for the root cause of fentanyl abuse in the country.” The suspension didn’t fool lawmakers who have pursued legislation to combat opioid overdose. “China was already extremely irresponsible when it comes to the fentanyl coming across our borders that originates from their country so their move to ‘suspend cooperation’ is a mere formality,” Sen. ROB PORTMAN (R-Ohio) said in a statement.
— KERRY: CHINA’S CLIMATE COOPERATION SUSPENSION ‘MISGUIDED’: Special Presidential Envoy for Climate JOHN KERRY on Friday slammed as “disappointing and misguided” China’s move to suspend U.S.-China climate talks as part of a reprisals package for Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. “Suspending cooperation doesn’t punish the United States – it punishes the world,” Kerry tweeted Friday. “But the US is not the whole world,” China’s ambassador in D.C. tweeted back on Monday. “It definitely stings given the bilateral engagement that is lined up in the coming weeks in the lead up to COP 27. … I would hope and expect to see talks resume well before the end of the year,” said JOANNA LEWIS, an associate professor at Georgetown University and an expert on China’s climate policies.
A tweet from China Xinhua News is shown. | Twitter
— CHINA PUBLISHES NEW TAIWAN ‘WHITE PAPER’: Beijing backed its live-fire military exercises around Taiwan this week by publishing a white paper Wednesday on “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era.” It’s a prose porridge of questionable historical scholarship packaged around aggressive assertions of Chinese sovereignty over the self-governing island. Those familiar with how Beijing has eviscerated rule of law and universal rights and freedoms in Hong Kong will wince at China’s pledge that “after peaceful reunification, Taiwan may continue its current social system and enjoy a high degree of autonomy.” Beijing remains coy on if/when it might attempt a military invasion of Taiwan. “Use of force would be the last resort taken under compelling circumstances,” the document said. Reuters’ YEW LUN TIANnoted Wednesday that the white paper omits a commitment in the 1993 and 2000 versions of the document to not station People’s Liberation Army troops on the island if Beijing took control of the island. That likely reflects Beijing’s view that the PLA will need to act decisively to prevent possible armed opposition to “peaceful reunification.” Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s chief diplomatic representative in Washington, dismissed the document’s relevance. “We will not be intimidated or coerced into sacrificing the hard-earned democratic rights that we have fought so hard to achieve,” Hsiao told MSNBC.
— BEIJING COUNTERATTACKS ON FORCED LABOR: Chinese state news agency Xinhua counterattacked the U.S. Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act on Tuesday with a 5,200-word screed titled “The United States’ Practice of Forced Labor at Home and Abroad: Truth and Facts.” The report documents U.S. forced labor practices from the 246 years of chattel slavery that ended in 1865 to the current widespread exploitation of mostly unpaid prison labor. But Xinhua makes clear that China’s concern is the UFLPA rather than incarcerated Americans compelled to work for pennies a day. “What the U.S. government should do is to stop styling itself as a ‘lecturer’ on human rights, review its own spotty record on forced labor … stop implementing the ‘Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act’, and stop ‘using Xinjiang to contain China.’”
A guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region, Dec. 3, 2018. | Ng Han Guan/AP Photo
— CHINA’S TAIWAN ‘REEDUCATION’ THREAT: China’s ambassador to France, LU SHAYE, sent a chill down Taiwan’s collective spine last week when he called for “reeducation” of Taiwan’s population after “reunification” with China. In two separateTV interviews, Lu said “reeducation” was needed to offset “desinicization” efforts by Taiwan’s government. Chinese policies over the past century suggest that’s no empty threat. “There’s a very long history of the Chinese Communist Party, from before they even took power over most of China, of engaging in mass mental reengineering — all the way from the rectification campaigns in Yan’an on through the anti rightist [campaigns] and Cultural Revolution,” said RIAN THUM, senior lecturer in East Asian history at the University of Manchester.
In Xinjiang, Beijing has proven that it can subject millions of people with perceived dubious loyalties to an ongoing mass “reeducation” campaign. That program has ensnared up to 1 million Uyghur Muslims in detention facilities where authorities subject them to often brutal indoctrination designed to erase their cultural and religious identity. That campaign has reaped China accusations of both crimes against humanityand genocide. China has described those facilities as “vocational training” centers.
“The Xinjiang reeducation system demonstrated that forcibly reengineering an entire population or entire segment of a population’s minds and opinions was not a thing of the past — this tradition was alive, and something that high level members of the Chinese Communist Party thought was both a practical and completely morally acceptable approach to dissent,” Thum said. “Such a violent and all-encompassing reeducation system on a scale as large as Xinjiang means we have to take this government representative’s comments [regarding Taiwan] more seriously than we might if there hadn’t been such a recent precedent of the state actually doing this.”
— CHINA’S PELOSI SLUR LOST IN TRANSLATION: The Chinese government shortchanged foreign audiences the full scope of official invective targeting Pelosi’s Taiwan trip. The Foreign Ministry and Chinese-language state media referred to Pelosi’s trip as “cuanfang” (窜访) which implies underhanded motives. That term was sanitized to the neutral term “visit” in official translations.
Chinese diplomats have coined “cuan fang” to convey official displeasure at travel by individuals beyond Beijing’s control that it considers hostile to national interests. It’s a pejorative “to safeguard national security and national unity, and to condemn and expose separatists,” professor YANG MINGXING and lecturer LI ZHIDAN of Xinyang Vocational and Technical College said in a 2015 Chinese Translation Journal article. They suggested that the Foreign Ministry first deployed the term in 2006 in reference to the DALAI LAMA’svisit to Israel.
Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have used the word “cuan” – which includes the character for “mouse” in traditional Chinese – hundreds of times in recent years in reference to issues including Taiwan Foreign Minister JOSEPH WU’strip to the Czech Republic in 2021 and Hong Kong pro-democracy activist JOSHUA WONG’sSeptember 2019 meeting with the Germany’s foreign minister.
“There simply isn’t a word or expression in English that can capture or convey its full meaning and nuance,” said ZHENGDAO YE, a linguist at the Australian National University. “‘Cuan fang’ has negative connotations including ‘quick and stealthy’ and ‘intending to create chaos and a messy situation,’” she added.
Foreign Ministry sanitization of English translations is routine, said DAVID GITTER, president of the D.C.-based Center for Advanced China Research. “Beijing usually has a specific external goal, and does not want its choice of words for nationalist domestic audiences to undermine that goal,” Gitter said. “More accurate yet counterproductive translations … [often] breach normal diplomatic language.”
New York Times: “I’m Taiwanese and I Want to Thank Nancy Pelosi”
Wired: “Protest Hides in Plain Sight in Hong Kong”
Associated Press: “One year after Afghanistan, U.S. spy agencies pivot to China”
— U.S.-PACIFIC ISLAND SUMMIT IN SEPTEMBER: U.S. Deputy Secretary of State WENDY SHERMAN announced during a visit to Tonga on Saturday that Biden will host a U.S.-Pacific Island countries’ summit in Washington, D.C. next month. Stay tuned for the date.
The cover of the book “China’s Next Act” is shown. | Oxford University Press
The Book: China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology are Reshaping China’s Rise and the World’s Future
The Author:SCOTT M. MOORE is director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.
What is the most important takeaway from your book?
Issues like climate change and Covid-19 present opportunities for intensified economic, geopolitical, and ideological competition between China and other countries — a reality that Beijing recognizes and that we need to take more seriously here in the U.S. On the other hand, we need much more focus on cooperation between the U.S., China and other countries to reduce the risks posed by emerging technologies like gene editing.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?
China has placed big bets on decarbonization and advanced technologies as pillars of its economic and social development strategy. We usually interpret that as a sign that Beijing sees competitive advantage in a greener, higher-tech future. But the truth is, Beijing’s investments have been guided as much by a sense of threat as opportunity. China is massively exposed to both ecological and technological risks — arguably more so than any other large country. And Beijing is facing serious, growing public pressure in areas like data privacy that will be hard to ignore and that may force it to change tack on some major digital and data issues.
What does your book tell us about the trajectory and future of U.S.-China relations?
Unquestionably, the future is about competition. And to do that effectively, we have to think differently. Competing with China usually brings to mind physical things: semiconductors, aircraft carriers and infrastructure megaprojects. But the most important sources of competitive advantage in the 21st century are intangible, including human capital, data and organizational culture. We need to invest much more in norm- and standard-setting processes; data sharing and management; and human capital, including education systems, immigration reform and social inclusion. We need an Intangible Infrastructure Bill!
Got a book to recommend? Tell me about it at [email protected]
Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Matt Kaminski, digital producer Andrew Howard, Nicolle Liu, Lara Seligman, Andrew Desiderio, and editor John Yearwood.
Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week’s items? Email us at [email protected] or [email protected].
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