As the war in Ukraine continues, Chinese President Xi Jinping has articulated a new vision for the international order that he suggests will prevent future conflicts. During a video speech to the annual Boao Asia Forum on April 21, Xi proposed a “global security initiative” upholding the principle of “indivisible security.” The concept, which states that no country can strengthen its own security at the expense of others, has been repeatedly invoked by Russia in talks over Ukraine. Analysts note that this is the first time China has argued for “indivisible security” outside the context of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, with implications for future U.S. actions in Taiwan or the South China Sea.
Months of diplomatic language culminated in Xi’s proposal of a new model for a more secure world order—one that centers China’s own geopolitical interests. Xi’s six-point initiative included a familiar call for “sustainable security,” upholding sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs, as well as respect for the policy choices of every nation based on its unique socio-political system. Xi invoked the UN Charter in his address, once again calling upon all countries to “reject the Cold War mentality, oppose unilateralism, and say no to group politics and bloc confrontation,” a reference to NATO expansion.
The speech also reiterated China’s opposition to unilateral sanctions and “long-arm jurisdiction” without directly mentioning the economic sanctions the West has imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The announcement of the Initiative coincided with the signing of a security pact between China and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific shortly before Xi’s speech on April 21.
A failure to secure Putin’s place in the existing world order could threaten Xi’s own position by proxy. With its ground troops forced to pull back from Kyiv and a key Black Sea warship sunk, Russia’s military failings are mounting—and no country is scrutinizing these weaknesses more closely than China. China, like Russia, has been ambitiously modernizing its Soviet-style military. Experts say that Xi is evaluating the current crisis and its implications for his own People’s Liberation Army and future military plans in the Asia-Pacific. The swift response by many nations to impose tough, coordinated sanctions on Russia after its attack on Ukraine could make Xi rethink his approach to Taiwan.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price, in responding to a question about Xi’s Boao Asia Forum speech, stated that the U.S. would continue to uphold the rules-based international system it had built with like-minded partners based on respect for human rights, sovereignty and self-determination. Beijing’s messaging about Ukraine and Taiwan is not winning any friends in Europe, either. Sweden is considering upgrading its office in Taipei to signal the country’s desire to deepen bilateral ties with Taiwan, while German Chancellor Olaf Sholz visited Japan rather than top trading partner China during his first official trip to the region.
The European Union and United States have recently slammed China for allegedly spreading “disinformation” over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman accused Chinese state media of “parroting the Kremlin’s disinformation” and conspiracy theories, including claims that the U.S. was producing bioweaponry in Ukraine, and of having “repeatedly drawn false equivalencies between Russia’s war of aggression and Ukraine’s self-defensive actions.” A translation project called the Great Translation Movement has also exposed that pro-Ukraine posts and hashtags appear to have been suppressed on Chinese platforms and that Chinese state media have amplified disinformation and conspiracy theories that favor Russia, calling into question the supposedly neutral stance that the Chinese government has taken in the conflict.
China’s hard-line propaganda efforts are at a crossroads amid the Ukraine crisis as the country apparently tries to avoid giving the impression that it is becoming too biased in favor of Russia. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “wolf warrior” diplomacy—threatening to impose sanctions in a combative way against the United States, Europe, Japan and others that object to its systems and policies—has played an increasingly important role in Xi’s propaganda war against Western ideology. The indirect criticism of Western nations couched in Xi’s announcement of the Global Security Initiative signals to the rest of the world that this strategy is alive and well. The president’s latest proposal is also likely intended for a domestic audience as Xi prepares to bolster support at home in order to secure a third term as China’s top leader ahead of the CCP’s National Congress this fall.
Questions of China’s Influence Loom Large Over Elon Musk’s Twitter
On April 25, Elon Musk struck an agreement to buy Twitter for roughly $44 billion, which is set to be the largest deal to take a company private in at least two decades. The move has already raised concern among free speech advocates, who fear that the platform under Musk would chill political speech. On April 26, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon mogul, questioned whether Twitter’s acquisition would give China “a bit of leverage over the town square.” While Bezos’s comment may have been motivated by his long-standing business rivalry with Musk, it hinted at long-standing concerns around Musk’s deep business ties to China. With Musk at the helm, critics fear that Musk may cave to Chinese demands for censorship on Twitter in exchange for continued favorable treatment for Tesla in China.
Twitter has been an important platform for both Chinese human rights activists and the Chinese government to communicate their messages to the wider world. Though officially banned in China, Chinese dissidents and ordinary citizens have used VPNs to communicate information outside the firewall about topics from detained activists to life under the pandemic. Conversely, Twitter has also been a major vector for Chinese propaganda, as Beijing-sponsored bots and fake accounts promote pro-China narratives that gloss over China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet. Twitter has also been a major platform for China’s “wolf-warrior” diplomats to push their aggressive Beijing-friendly message to the wider world. Twitter has taken efforts to counter China’s influence campaign by deleting fake accounts en masse, but content moderation remains an ongoing challenge.
Commentators have raised concerns about whether Musk would be able to protect free political expression on the platform in light of Musk’s deep business ties in China. Musk has been described as a “relative dilettante” on free speech, and has a track record of censorship and retaliation against his critics despite his stance as a self-avowed “free speech absolutist.” In addition, Musk’s electric car company, Tesla, has deep business ties in China that Beijing may target if it objects to Musk’s running of Twitter. China is Tesla’s largest source of vehicle production and its second-biggest source of sales. The Chinese government has also given Tesla special treatment over the years, with government subsidies exceeding $325 million, making Tesla the most subsidized electric vehicle maker in the country. Tesla was also the first foreign carmaker allowed to wholly own its auto-assembly plant, rather than partnering with local companies as is normally required.
These business ties could all act as a potential source of leverage for Beijing if it wanted to push for friendlier content moderation policies on Twitter. As Vice News reporter Melissa Chan warned in a tweet: “What happens if Beijing leans on him about say, a Uyghur or Hong Kong activist account? Or about Chinese disinformation bots leveraging this platform?” If Elon Musk runs afoul of Chinese authorities, Chan warns, “he'll find out how efficiently the Chinese state can gobble up that Tesla Shanghai factory, taking with it as much IP as it can.”
The Chinese government has dismissed rumors that it would seek to shape Twitter’s political content by exercising leverage over Tesla. In response to a question from Reuters about the subject, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin dismissed the question as speculation “without any basis.” Still, if the experience of other technology companies in China like Yahoo, Google and Apple are any proof, Musk will certainly have to navigate a delicate balance between his avowed values of free speech, the business and political compromises involved in operating in China, and the inevitable backlash from American legislators for making those compromises. For his part, Bezos predicted that ultimately, Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is likely to create more “complexity in China for Tesla, rather than censorship at Twitter.”
Chinese Dronemaker DJI Suspends Operations in Russia and Ukraine
On Tuesday, April 26, DJI, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial drones, announced that it is temporarily suspending operations in Ukraine and Russia in "light of current hostilities." The move makes DJI the first major Chinese company to openly leave Russia after the war began. The move comes after critics, including Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, called on DJI to stop doing business with Russia and to “geofence” its products from being used in Ukraine, noting that DJI drones were used to kill innocent civilians.
DJI has denied that its move is a political statement regarding the conflict in Ukraine. In a statement on Wednesday, a DJI spokesperson said its suspension of business in Russia and Ukraine was "not to make a statement about any country, but to make a statement about our principles. DJI abhors any use of our drones to cause harm, and we are temporarily suspending sales in these countries in order to help ensure no-one uses our drones in combat." DJI had been accused of leaking data on Ukrainian military positions to Russia, and various reports have shown both Ukrainian and Russian forces using off-the-shelf DJI drones to conduct surveillance and provide overwatch during combat operations.
While some Chinese companies have scaled back their operations in Russia, many have continued to operate in Russia, in line with Beijing's stance of refraining from criticism of Moscow over the conflict. Didi Chuxing, China’s embattled ride-sharing app, announced plans in late February to halt operations in Russia, only to backpedal several days later. Huawei, one of Russia’s largest telecommunications providers, has reportedly suspended new orders in Russia and furloughed Russian staff, but the company has so far refused to comment on its plans. This makes DJI’s exit notable, as it is the first major Chinese company to openly state that it is leaving Russia because of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Congressional Conference Committee Starts Final Negotiations on China Competition Bill
Lawmakers returned to Washington this week to start final negotiations over a comprehensive funding package aimed at boosting American economic competitiveness with China. The Senate passed its bill, the Innovation and Competition Act by a 68-32 vote last June, and the House passed their competing version, the America Competes Act, by a 222-210 vote in February. 107 Democrats and Republican members of the House and Senate are now in conference committee to reconcile the differences between the two bills. There is bipartisan and bicameral desire to reconcile the two bills before the July 4 recess, as passing any legislation will be increasingly difficult closer to midterms in November. However, there remain a number of key sticking points regarding tariffs against China, eligibility criteria for semiconductor subsidies, and funding levels for implementing agencies that need to be resolved before Congress can pass the final legislation.
One of the main points of debate is whether to roll back Trump-era China tariffs. Senate Republicans, led by Sens. Ron Wyden and Mike Crapo, have backed an effort to roll back several tariff restrictions, calling for a more “thoughtful” application of Trump’s China tariffs. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, China tariffs have cost US importers nearly $123 billion since 2018. The current Senate bill would award tariff exemptions to more than 2,200 Chinese imports and direct the U.S. Trade Representative to reopen the tariff exemption process to allow new companies to apply for exemptions. So far, the Biden administration has only awarded exemptions on a narrow list of 352 products, and been reluctant to roll back tariffs any further, in part to maintain pressure on China to follow through on its commitments to purchase U.S. goods and services.
Despite ongoing disputes over the final legislation, Biden has expressed strong support for seeing the bill enacted into law. In a statement released after passage of the House bill, Biden said that the vote was critical “for outcompeting China and the rest of the world in the 21st century.” If passed, the law would be a major political victory for President Biden entering into the midterms, as the law would signal to voters that the administration is taking action on inflation and supply-chain issues. The legislation would also disburse $52 billion of funding to domestic semiconductor manufacturing, providing a large dose of economic stimulus just ahead of the midterms.
U.N. Team Lands in China Ahead of Xinjiang Visit
A United Nations team arrived in southern China on April 25 ahead of a long-delayed visit to Xinjiang by UM High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. Bachelet’s highly-anticipated visit to China, expected to occur in May, will be the first visit by a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights since 2005. It includes a planned trip to the Western region of Xinjiang, where rights groups and some Western governments allege that the Chinese government is committing genocide and other serious abuses against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. According to spokesperson Liz Throssell, the advance team is in China to ensure that Bachelet would gain “meaningful access” to fully understand the human rights situation in China.
The rights chief has long spoken about hoping to visit the region. Her office has also been preparing a much-awaited report into alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang for over three years. The parameters of the visit presented a stumbling block for years, with Bachelet’s office repeatedly insisting that she would require “unfettered, meaningful access, including unsupervised interviews with civil society.” In January, China approved a visit following the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, provided that the trip was “friendly” in nature and merely an “exchange,” not an investigation. Sixty human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch have urged Bachelet to release her report and to ensure that meetings with rights advocates in China are “carried out safely, that her arrangements with the Chinese government are transparent, and that minimum standards for an unfettered visit are met.”
China rejects all accusations of forced labor and other abuses in Xinjiang, describing the camps as vocational centers designed to combat extremism. Perhaps in anticipation of the UN visit, China’s top legislature ratified on April 20 two International Labour Organization (ILO) treaties on forced labor. But China has not escaped allegations of using facial recognition technology and mass surveillance systems to crack down on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, tech that it is now reportedly disseminating beyond its borders. According to a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Chinese companies have exported artificial intelligence surveillance technology to more than 60 countries including Iran, Myanmar, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and others with dismal human rights records—36 of which have signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The U.S. government has indicated its intention to work with its allies to limit exports of surveillance tools and other technologies that authoritarian governments can use to suppress human rights. In December 2021, the Office of Foreign Asset Controls of the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated SenseTime and eight other Chinese firms as part of the Chinese military-industrial complex for their use of biometric surveillance technologies to track ethnic and religious minorities in China.
Matt Sheehan argues in Foreign Affairs that formulating an effective U.S. policy response to China’s technological takeoff requires an understanding of the Chinese perspective on innovation.
On Financial Times’ Tech Tonic podcast, James Kynge explores the Serbian government’s use of Huawei facial recognition tech in public spaces and the broader spread of Chinese influence around the world.
In the Wall Street Journal, Keith Zhai explores speculation that China’s regulators are planning on relaxing their crackdown on Chinese tech giants in order to jumpstart the slowing economy.
In The Atlantic, Michael Schuman analyzes China’s latest coronavirus crisis as a lesson for Beijing in the perils of exceptionalism.
On NPR’s All Things Considered show, Darian Woods and Adrian Ma discuss the implications of China’s tech crackdown on the stability of financial markets.
In Foreign Policy, Bob Davis reviews two recent books that explore the past and future of engagement with an eye toward influencing the United States’ China policy.
Tom Fu warns that blind faith in unrestrained technology may be more dangerous than China’s tech crackdown in the South China Morning Post.
John Authers of Bloomberg cautions against ignoring the severe consequences of the weakening of the yuan and COVID lockdowns in China on global growth.
In Politico, Will Ford describes a graduate student’s efforts to assess academic freedom at Confucius Institutes and determine how much influence Beijing has over their programs.
Andrew Nathan asserts in Foreign Policy that the United States can counter the China threat as long as it invests in alliances, innovation and the appeal of democratic values.
The Editorial Board of the Washington Post investigates a Chinese researcher’s early efforts to sound the alarm to the novel coronavirus in China.
Shirley Yu opines for the Wall Street Journal that the “new cold war” will drive a new wave of technological innovation and growth.
Abishur Prakash observes in Nikkei Asia that the Ukraine war is accelerating a new era of vertical globalization, with many countries approaching technology as a way to lock out China.
Darrell Duffie argues for Foreign Affairs that Washington must advance quickly on cryptocurrency to remain a leader in global finance and payments, ensure the dollar’s continued dominance, and protect privacy.