China Neican: 31 May 2020

NPC, new US measures, China-India, Chinese students in US

China Neican is a weekly column of the China Story blog.

1. NPC sum up

The “two sessions” is now officially over. The “two sessions” — comprising the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — is an annual event held with much fanfare during March. This year it was delayed until May due to COVID-19. In the words of Baogang He:

The Party and the NPC are in constant tension and often contradict one another. Constitutionally, the NPC should be the highest legislative body. The status and functions of the NPC should theoretically be higher than those of the CCP, which itself should operate within the constitutional framework of the NPC. But in reality the inverse is true, with the CCP controlling the NPC, and the general secretary of the CCP holding greater power than the NPC chairperson.

Economics

No major economic reforms were announced at this year’s NPC. This is somewhat disappointing, as a crisis is usually a good time for implementing much-needed reforms. (Although what “reform” means in China may be quite different from what economists in the West consider as reforms, as Evan Feigenbaum has pointed out.)

For example, despite the focus on employment and poverty elimination this year, there did not appear to be any significant change to welfare or social policies in China. Instead, the initiatives announced are mostly tinkering at the margin. The previous focus on “high-quality growth” has been dropped, with less emphasis on innovation and environment this year.

If you can read Chinese, there are some infographics on Li Keqiang’s Report on the 2020 Work of the Government.

Civil code

The NPC has officially adopted the Civil Code (民法典). The Civil Code has six parts: property (物权), contracts (合同), personality rights (人格权), marriage and family (婚姻家庭), succession (继承), and tort liability (侵权责任). “Personality rights” refers to rights to life, body, health, name, portrait, reputation, honour, and privacy. In some areas, the Code just collates different areas of existing laws and supersedes these laws. It will come into effect on 1 January 2021.

Here are some examples of what was included.

The adoption of the Civil Code marks a substantial achievement for China, as it has been decades in the making. Xi has stressed that the Civil Code will better protect people’s rights and interests. Depending on the implementation, the Civil Code will protect the rights of individuals against other individuals. But it will NOT be able to protect the rights of individuals against the party-state.

2. New US measures against China

On Friday, Trump announced sweeping new measures against China. This comes amid rising death tolls from COVID and nation-wide protests against the death in police custody of an African American man.  

Trump accused China of economic misconduct, industrial espionage, “unlawfully claim[ing] territory in the Pacific Ocean,” malfeasance in relation to COVID, and “smothering Hong Kong’s freedom”. 

Trump announced the following measures:

  1. withdrawal of the US from WHO citing Beijing’s “total control” of the organisation;

  2. suspension of entry of certain Chinese nationals identified as potential security threats to safeguard against industrial espionage (more details below);

  3. revocation of policy exemptions and separate customs and travel status for Hong Kong in response to Beijing’s plan to impose national security law on Hong Kong;

  4. sanctioning of certain PRC and Hong Kong officials for eroding HK’s freedom; 

  5. a study on financial practice of Chinese companies listed on the US financial markets. 

This is a significant escalation in Washington’s campaign against China. The sharp confrontational turn in the US approach to China is troubling, and especially so because, in our view, it is based on a misleading characterisation of the China challenge. Misleading because it is too simplistic, one-sided, and ahistorical. As we noted last week in relation to the White House report on United States Strategic Approach to The People’s Republic of China:

Despite the authoritarian turn under Xi, China in the last decade is closer to US ideals than at any time in history. Certainly, more so than when Nixon and Mao met in February 1972.

Sure there are genuine grievances and competing interests between the US and China. But China is not an existential threat nor the Frankenstein that many are making it to be. 

For the US, effective competition with Beijing does not mean walking away from international organisations or banning Chinese research students from US education institutions. Such measures only weaken US credibility, influence and power.

Today, the US and China have more common interests in economic, security and global governance than ever before. Yet, bilateral relations are in freefall because of the actions of both Beijing and Washington.

3. China-India

Since early May, Chinese and Indian soldiers have been on standoffs against each other in multiple points along their unsettled border, including in Eastern Ladakh and Sikkim. Given conflicting media reports and the lack of corroborated sources, it’s unclear what has happened on the ground and what the current situation is.

China and India share a long land border with parts still under dispute. There is a lack of consensus on the line of actual control, leading both sides to claim that the other is the aggressor and that they themselves are only responding. However, some media reports indicate that at least some of the standoffs are in locations previously not disputed, and that the thousands of People’s Liberation Army soldiers are now in place to continue the standoff. 

The increase in infrastructure development and patrols by both India and China is leading to more friction, but it’s unclear whether the current standoffs are transient or part of something larger and more deliberate. 

India and China are both affected by the pandemic, both have an interest in maintaining peace while focusing on domestic challenges. This is especially so for Beijing, which has plenty of challenges to deal with: Hong Kong, Xinjiang, economic recovery, US-China tensions etc.

Beijing doesn’t need another confrontation with India, but Xi would not want to risk coming off as weak to his domestic audience.

4. Chinese students

Amidst the recent well-publicised cases of Chinese scientists who did not declare their affiliation with Chinese universities, the US President has made a proclamation on restricting entry for certain people from the PRC:

who either receives funding from or who currently is employed by, studies at, or conducts research at or on behalf of, or has been employed by, studied at, or conducted research at or on behalf of, an entity in the PRC that implements or supports the PRC’s “military-civil fusion strategy”.

For the purposes of this proclamation, the term “military-civil fusion strategy” means actions by or at the behest of the PRC to acquire and divert foreign technologies, specifically critical and emerging technologies, to incorporate into and advance the PRC’s military capabilities.

It is unclear at this stage the exact scope of the US Presidential Proclamation and who it will capture. For example, would the “entity” be at the university level or at the laboratory level? If at the university level, does that mean any students or employees from any university that supports PRC’s “military-civil fusion strategy” would be included in this restriction? ASPI’s China Defence Universities Tracker lists 14 universities as “Very High” risk. Among them is Tsinghua University, China’s top STEM university. China’s other top university, Peking University, is rated as “High”. Excluding all students and scholars from certain universities would affect many laboratories in the US.

US Senator Tom Cotton has also introduced a SECURE CAMPUS ACT, which seeks to “prohibit Chinese nationals from receiving visas to the United States for graduate or post-graduate studies in STEM fields”. Last month, Senator Cotton said that Chinese students should study Shakespeare in the US rather than science and technology.

In the current increasingly tense atmosphere, it is unclear whether this bill would receive wide Congress support. However, if implemented, the proposal will significantly slow scientific progress in the United States, and indeed, slow down scientific progress globally. Many laboratories in the United States rely on Chinese scientists. In fact, a US COVID tracker was developed by a team from Johns Hopkins University with the crucial involvement of a Chinese PhD student. Research in the US laboratories supports technology and innovation that gives the US an edge over China in technology competition. If the US places restrictions on Chinese students, it would only be shooting itself in the foot.

In addition to the impact on science and research, this proposal is reminiscent of the US’ Chinese Exclusion Act 1882, which was the first immigration law that excluded an entire ethnic group. The proposal would presume guilt on all Chinese STEM students, rather than assess their risks individually, which is the current framework.

If the US was serious about technology competition with China, then the best thing it could do would be to make it easier for Chinese (and any foreign) students to stay in the US after graduation. That way, the students will help scientific progress in the US rather than their country of origin. But that’s assuming the US administration actually wants to improve its technology and innovation standing.

This week on China Story:

  • Olivia Shen, Coronavirus and techno-authoritarianism

    In my chapter for this year’s China Story Yearbook, ‘AI Dreams and Authoritarian Nightmares’, I explored China’s use of artificial intelligence for public security. Writing that chapter less than six months ago, I thought that a major, nationwide crisis would demonstrate how far the Chinese Communist Party would be willing to go to deploy these kinds of technologies for command and control. What I didn’t anticipate was that the crisis would come so soon or would emerge in the form of an invisible, viral adversary. While China’s technological response to COVID-19 has been undeniably innovative, its approach is unlikely to be adopted by other countries concerned about privacy and potential uses of the data that’s collected.

  • Anthea Mulakala and Hongbo Ji, COVID-19 and China’s soft power ambitions

    For many years, China has been a major contributor to global development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Much of this Chinese South-South Cooperation (SSC) has flown under the radar of Western media and traditional aid discourse. Chinese aid, including its humanitarian assistance, is political and a core element of the country’s foreign policy. In fact, much of Chinese assistance is not traditional aid, but a mix of aid, concessional loans, and other mechanisms to provide needed infrastructure and assistance to countries of interest to China.

  • Malcolm Davis, China’s space ambition – to the moon and beyond

    China has ambitious plans for its space program, that encompass a ‘China Space Dream’ which would see it become the world’s leading space power by 2045, and challenge the traditional leadership in space of the United States from the 2030s. The Space Dream extends from the edge of space, in low-Earth Orbit, to the Moon and beyond, and has a focus on exploiting the economic wealth within resources on and near the moon. The United States will not cede this region – akin to the maritime ‘blue water’ of Earth’s oceans – and the potential for intensifying competition in space is clearly apparent.

  • Jeffrey Gil, Why Chinese can become a global language

    Most commentators, including those in academia and the media, maintain that the difficulty of its character-based writing system will prevent Chinese from becoming a global language. However, much of this discussion is founded on flawed assumptions about ‘proficiency’, technological advances in language learning and usage, an excessive focus on the challenging features of Chinese characters and linguistics. Contrary to popular belief, a character-based writing system will not stop Chinese becoming a global language.