Quad, Party History, Rule of Law, Protecting Big Banks, Taiwan Tensions, Mideast Power Play, E. Asian Diplomacy

Sunday, April 4, 2021

India-China Ties

April 1 marked the 71st anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations between the Republic of India and the PRC. But there was really no fanfare. This week the MEA called on Beijing “to ensure that disengagement in the remaining areas is completed at the earliest.” But there’s still no clarity on the next round of talks between the two sides on this issue. India’s Army chief General MM Naravane also spoke about the situation in Ladakh this week. He said that it is important to look at the larger picture when it comes to the current disengagement in that “it serves the interest of both the countries to have a very stable LAC (Line of Actual Control), with less chances of any confrontation taking place.” He then reasserted that “not an inch (of territory) has been lost” and that “we are where we were before this whole thing started.” I find that last bit perplexing. If we are where we were, then what are we discussing?

Anyway, there’s little that’s being heard about the talks process from Beijing. But what’s clear is that 2020 also marked a turning point in even Chinese public imagination of the relationship with India. And such reports by the Global Times are not only indicative of this but will also reinforce this change. It is Qingming Festival or tomb sweeping day in China on Sunday. Global Times tells us that on Saturday “relatives of martyr Wang Zhuoran, a People’s Liberation Army soldier who sacrificed himself in China-India border clash in June 2020, cried at Wang's tomb located in the martyr's cemetery in Luohe, Central China’s Henan Province.” The report says that while Wang’s parents came to the cemetery, they saw that “streams of local students, police, residents and villagers from Wang's home village, had gathered at the square of the cemetery early Saturday to pay respect to Wang.” The video linked to the story shows Wang’s bust and his letters to his parents preserved in a memorial hall.

Moving on, Reuters reported this week that the Indian government has blocked at least two of ByteDance’s bank accounts for alleged tax evasion. This was done in mid-March. The report, citing an unidentified source, says that “the directive to freeze ByteDance India’s bank accounts came after tax authorities last year inspected documents at the company’s office, scrutinised documents and questioned some executives in relation to the advertising and other transactions with its parent entity.” Bytedance approached the High Court in Mumbai, challenging the government’s decision. At the hearing this week, the company’s counsel revealed that four of their accounts had been blocked. There was no immediate relief for the company, with the next hearing scheduled for April 6. Just as an aside, there’s talk about ByteDance being valued at more than $250 billion. That makes it among the biggest companies globally.

Next up, a quick wrap of a few other noteworthy reports. This one from the Hindu BusinessLine talks about India and China tussling at the WTO over Chinese restrictions on Indian shrimp and buffalo meat exports. The report says that “India’s exports of seafood in 2019-20 were valued at about $6.8 billion and China’s imports, at $1.3 billion, accounted for approximately 20 percent of it. However, there has been a sharp decline in imports of Indian seafood, including shrimps, by China in 2020-21, as per industry estimates. On the issue of buffalo meat, India expressed its disappointment that China was not allowing shipments despite signing of an MoU in 2013 and the country clearing 14 centres in 2017 in India for exports.” Second, responding to a question about China-Pakistan friendship on Monday, MoFA’s Zhao Lijian slipped in a comment about the recent Delhi-Islamabad talks. He said: “China is happy to see Pakistan's recent positive interactions with India. We are ready to work with Pakistan, and continue to inject positive energy into regional peace, stability and development.”

Finally, let’s look at some of the commentaries and pieces from Chinese media. First, here’s a wonderful translation of remarks by Professor Zhang Baijia at the “China’s Frontier and Asian Studies” at Tsinghua University in October 2020. Zhang is the former Deputy Director of the Party History Research Office of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. He talked about the weakness of Chinese research and understanding of its neighbours like India. He says this is because “deep in our bones we are very sinocentric. We think of our neighbors as belonging to the Chinese cultural sphere. Such a simple view is wrong. The history of China’s neighbors is very different from China’s. This is especially true for those of our neighbors which have been colonies of European powers.” He further talked about the challenges of India-China border talks. Zhang said that:

“When pre-1949 Chinese negotiators discussed the China – India border with the UK, foremost for the UK was what borders would best support its control of India and curb the northward expansion of the princely states tubang 土邦. After India became independent, borders became tied to nationalism and so negotiations became much more difficult...At the time of the 1962 China-India War, the PRC seriously overestimated India’s military strength. The result of the war was a deep resentment on the Indian side that made border issues even harder to resolve. Another problem is that China does not understand India. Border issues require long-term engagement on the issues. Opportunities to resolve border issues are fleeting. If one waits for a better opportunity to resolve them, some even may occur such as a change of government and the disappearance of a leader who wanted to make a contribution to history by resolving the issue. That will make that opportunity for a solution vanish.”

Next, there are the pieces issuing warnings about Indian foreign policy. So Long Xingchun writes in Global Times that the US is declining and India hitching its wagon to Washington is not going to help it with regard to dealing with China. The article gave me a hearty chuckle. Throughout the tone is one of finger wagging and warning India from getting too close to the US, and then he ends saying that “New Delhi has made major mistakes in its strategic judgment of Beijing, perceiving that the latter has the intention of threatening it.” Anyway, Long’s basic argument is that the US is declining; China is very powerful; Delhi can have a relationship with Washington but not at Beijing’s cost; and Washington isn’t going to come to Delhi’s aid to fight its wars.

There’s also this piece by Senior Colonel (retd.) Zhou Bo. One can disagree with him, but I think he makes a few good points that should be noted. Zhou argues that the Quad is essentially about China, but it faces many contradictions. His conclusion is that “Unless the Quad takes common strategic issues in the region as driving forces and proves itself to be inclusive rather than exclusive, the future of the small group is not bright. It can survive, but it will not thrive.” Meanwhile, here’s his analysis of India’s role:

“India is at the core of the "Quadrilateral Security Dialogue" because the other three countries are already allies. Although India regards the Indian Ocean as its ‘backyard’ and is unwilling to see the presence of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean, there is no evidence that there is a conflict of interest between the two parties. The Chinese Navy has only one base in Djibouti, and the Chinese navy only conducts anti-piracy operations. In May 2011, the Chinese and Indian navies cooperated with NATO to rescue the Chinese merchant ship ‘Fucheng’ hijacked by Somali pirates. If India chooses to fall into the arms of the United States, it will incur two unbearable consequences. First, it will threaten India's strategic autonomy and room for maneuver among major powers. This is important because India is one of the founding countries of the Non-Aligned Movement. Second, it will lead to a decline in India-Russia relations. India is the world’s second largest importer of weapons, while Russia is its largest supplier of weapons, accounting for half of India’s market share. Any move by New Delhi towards Washington will arouse Moscow’s vigilance. Like Beijing, Moscow is regarded by Washington as one of its strategic competitors.”

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II. Party History, Rule of Law & Trial Regulation

Two key speeches were made public this week, and each of these tell us something about Xi Jinping’s authority and the sense of concern but also confidence among the top leadership. First, the Party’s journal Qiushi published Xi’s speech on the Party history learning campaign. The speech was delivered in February 2021. I’ve done a detailed breakdown in my People’s Daily Tracker here, but a quick wrap is that in the speech, Xi outlines the key goals for the campaign. He says that cadres must study “the party’s struggle and great achievements to inspire morale, clear direction, use the party’s glorious tradition and fine style to strengthen beliefs and gather strength, use the party's practical and historical experience to enlighten wisdom and sharpen character.”

He also argues that studying Party history is critical to having conviction in the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics. And then he says: “This great fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic has fully demonstrated the significant advantages of the party’s leadership and my country’s socialist system, and has greatly enhanced the confidence and belief of the entire party and the people of all ethnic groups throughout the country. In today's world, if you want to say which political party, country, and nation can be confident, then the Communist Party of China, the People's Republic of China, and the Chinese nation have the most reason to be confident!”

Then on Friday, we had a speech by Chen Yixin, the Secretary-General of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Committee. Chen has had a phenomenal rise under Xi, and is leading the rectification of the political-security apparatus. I’ve also done a breakdown of this speech in my People’s Daily Tracker blog. But in a nutshell, Chen talks about the evolution of Xi’s thought on rule of law; how it draws from and furthers China’s civilisational thought; why it is significant to China today; why it must be adhered to; what are the key tasks that must be carried out; and why cadres must have confidence in the Chinese system.

One of the key points that Chen makes is that at the heart of Xi’s Thought on Rule of Law, of course, is the primacy of the party along. He argues that China will “never copy the models and practices of other countries, and never take the path of the so-called ‘constitutional government’, ‘separation of powers’ and ‘judicial independence’ of the West.” There’s also an emphasis on the Marxist nature of Xi’s Thought and its blending of law and morality. 

For example: “Marxism believes that politics determines the rule of law, and the rule of law serves politics. The practice of the rule of law at home and abroad shows that there is politics in the rule of law, there is no rule of law divorced from politics, and there is no rule of law that transcends politics. In our country, law is the unified embodiment of the party's proposition and the people's will. The Party leads the people in formulating the Constitution and laws, the Party leads the people in implementing the Constitution and laws, the Party itself must operate within the scope of the Constitution and laws, and the Party's leadership and the rule of law are highly unified.” 

Another quote worth keeping in mind given the focus on Core Socialist Values is this: “Law is written morality, morality is inner law. Both law and morality have the function of regulating social behavior, regulating social relations, and maintaining social order, and both have important positions and functions in national governance. On the one hand, it is necessary to strengthen the supporting role of morality in the rule of law. Legislation, law enforcement, and judiciary must reflect the requirements of socialist morality, and must penetrate the core socialist values ​​to make the socialist rule of law a good rule of law.”

Finally, on Sunday, the Central Committee issued new “trial regulation on organizational punishment” Xinhua reports that “organizational punishment is an essential means to educate and administer cadres, as well as a significant measure to ensure full and strict governance over the Party.” So this is about Xi Jinping keeping Party cadre in line. The entire regulation (full text) covers areas like “infidelity to the party and political participation,” corruption, failure to act, and misconduct. A lot of the focus is on “leading cadres,” with the Organisation Department being empowered under this regulation rather than any disciplinary organ like the CCDI or the National Supervision Commission. The document outlines a list of problems that need to be fixed. These include:

  • Not maintaining belief in Marxist beliefs, and engaging in feudal and superstitious activities or participating in religious activities in violation of regulations, or believing in cults.

  • Irresponsible work, improper performance of duties or neglect of management, major mistakes or major production safety accidents, mass incidents, public safety incidents and other serious accidents or incidents; inaction at work, perfunctory responsibilities, indolence and procrastination, failure to complete tasks for a long time, or serious delay in work;

  • Abandoning the original mission of the party, weak awareness of the masses, prevaricating on issues that have been strongly reflected by the masses.

  • Indulging in formalism and bureaucracy are prominent and pursuing ‘image projects’ and ‘achievement projects’ that are divorced from reality.

  • “Violating the principle of democratic centralism, individuals or a small number of people decide major issues, fail to implement or change collective decisions without authorization...” There’s irony lurking here somewhere.

  • Slander, intervention and nepotism in the appointments of people; engaging in gang formation, cultivating personal power, and disrupting the “political ecology.”

  • Violating the spirit of the eight central regulations, and the relevant regulations on clean government

The punishments for these actions range from demotion to removal. Disciplinary action could also be taken later on. 

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III. Economy & Tech

Let’s begin this section with a look at some key data that came out this week. First, WSJ reports that for all of 2020, China’s four largest banks reported that annual net profit rose between 1.2% to 2.9%, according to filings released Tuesday and late last week. Next, the National Bureau of Statistics reported this week that China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers index hit a three-month high of 51.9 in March, topping February’s reading of 50.6. The official non-manufacturing PMI surged to 56.3 from February’s 51.4 reading. 

Moving on, Bloomberg reports that the People’s Bank of China is planning to impose additional capital requirements on the nation’s systemically important banks. The report says that “Banks considered too big to fail will be put into five categories and face a surcharge of between 0.25% and 1.5% on top of the mandatory capital adequacy ratios, the People’s Bank of China and the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission said Friday in a draft rule. Lenders will also need to make detailed plans on how to recover from a crisis as well as draft living wills with disposal plans in case they can’t operate as an ongoing entity.” The CBIRC currently requires big state-owned lenders to have a minimum capital adequacy ratio of 11.5%, while smaller rivals need 10.5%.

Meanwhile, Keith Bradsher reports for NYT that “new Chinese rules have sharply limited the ability of foreign banks to do business in the country, making them less competitive against local rivals.” The report cites unidentified sources to say that one set of rules enacted in December and January restricts how much money foreign banks can transfer into China from overseas. Another, which took effect on Wednesday, required many foreign banks to make fewer loans and sell off bonds and other investments. Meanwhile, on Thursday, Zou Lan, director of the People’s Bank of China’s financial markets department, warned of “oscillation risks” in the stock, bond and commodities markets.

Three more economy-linked stories that I’d like to highlight are: First, the new plans to reign in the development of high-speed railway connectivity. Essentially, this puts a usage limitation for new lines to be built. This tells you a bit about the desire to contain local government debt. 

Second, the weekly State Council meeting saw Li Keqiang focussing on employment. He said that “it is critical to maintain stability on the six priority fronts and provide protections in the six key areas.” The meeting decided on policy steps to create a more enabling employment environment. The number of professions requiring government-approved licenses will be reduced, while the certification of vocational skill grades by private actors will be promoted. The sound development of new forms of employment will be supported. Occupational injury insurance for flexible employment will be piloted, and the coverage of work injury compensation insurance extended, to safeguard the lawful rights and interests of people engaged in flexible employment. In addition, PD reports that there were other focus areas, such as reducing certain fees, digitisation of certain compliance processes, development of elderly care services, easing restrictions on cross-city registration of used cars, etc. On broader support policies enacted last year, there’s a commitment of taking no “hard turns.” This is followed by details of a range of measures to ease the tax burden on enterprises.

Finally, Xi Jinping celebrated the crackdown on organised crime, with a 3-year campaign leading to taking down over 3600 crime groups. At the same time, as Trivium China’s Tip Sheet noted, Guo Shengkun is promising a leading small group to deal with organized crime in the future across sectors like financial lending, transport and logistics, construction, natural resources, environmental protection, tourism and healthcare. Amid this, there are concerns about the impact on small businesses. Jun Mai reports for SCMP that “China’s small and micro businesses – which account for 80 per cent of the country’s jobs – obtained up to 40 per cent of their finance from the private lending market, according to a 2018 estimate by Yi Gang, chairman of the People’s Bank of China.” How would the crackdown on crime in the financial sector impact these folks?

Moving on to the tech sector, a few stories to note. First, Technode reports that Chinese tech giant Xiaomi is throwing its hat into the red-hot electric vehicle market with a RMB 10 billion ($1.52 billion) investment to set up a fully owned subsidiary for its auto business. Just a sense of how hot this market is: Shenzhen-based EV-maker BYD’s net income surged 162% to 4.2 billion yuan ($644 million) in 2020, with operating revenue climbing to 153.5 billion yuan, according to its annual report. The company also estimated first-quarter profit will rise as much as 166%. Finally, Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, meanwhile, is feeling the pinch from American sanctions. Huawei’s revenue for 2020 totaled 891.4 billion yuan ($136.7 billion), a 3.8% year-on-year rise in yuan terms. That was slower than the more than 19% revenue growth Huawei saw in 2019. China was the only region where Huawei operates that saw positive revenue growth. Sales in China totaled 584.9 billion yuan ($89.7 billion), up 15.4% year on year and accounting for over 65% of total revenue.

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IV. Region Watch

Today is among the rare Sundays when I’ve gone deep in my search for updates for this edition of Region Watch. A slow news week is good? I wish I could be like the BBC's news announcer who on 18 April 1930 had nothing to communicate. "There is no news," was the script of the night news bulletin. Piano music was played for the rest of the 15-minute segment. 

But there is news. Pakistan President Arif Alvi last week described China as the country’s ‘closest’ friend. Not news, per say but it is the reply I would like to draw your attention to. In response to the comment and the recent developments on the India-Pakistan ceasefire agreement, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian expressed Beijing’s satisfaction:

“(China) supports Pakistan’s foreign policy of peace and good-neighbourliness as well as its commitment to advancing the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan”. 

Stability in the region will yield multiple benefits for both China and Pakistan. Political analyst Andrew Korybko argues that a stable neighbourhood with enhanced regional connectivity is in Islamabad’s interest, a goal which can be achieved by expanding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Case in point, according to Koryboto, is the recent Chinese-Iranian Strategic Partnership deal

“While Chinese-Iranian economic relations will continue to be dominated by the energy sphere, their inevitable diversification into other domains will lead to more bilateral trade being conducted across CPEC. Pakistani entrepreneurs can easily take advantage of this to enhance their own trade ties with both countries.”

While Pakistan will be glad to benefit from expansion, Tibet is concerned. President of the Central Tibetan Administration, Lobsang Sangay remarked recently that Chinese expansionist policies threaten the world community

“(The) Tibet occupation was just the beginning. You saw the Galwan incident, how many soldiers lost their lives. Tibet is just a beginning as it is the palm but five fingers are still out there which Chinese CPC (Chinese Communist Party) is trying hard to get,”

He added that in the name of poverty alleviation, the Chinese government was propagating mainland Chinese discourses in minority regions such as Tibet. This, he fears, might endanger Tibetan identity. Lobsang called on the whole world to recognise the human rights violations of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang and stand up against China. 

In Sri Lanka, senior medical practitioners, both in the government and private sectors, have expressed concerns over using Sinopharm vaccines. It was only two weeks ago that Sinopharm vaccines were approved for emergency-use in the island-nation despite political tensions caused by the lack of data to support efficacy claims. According to official statements, the Chinese vaccines will be administered only to Chinese nationals in Colombo, Kandy, Puttalam and Hambantota for now. The authorities are waiting for approval from WHO before using it with the Sri Lankan public.

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That’s all for this week. Now that we’ve got some news and analysis, it’s time for music: Movement - Variation II ft. Ayanna Witter-Johnson

V. China-US Ties

After a brief lull following Joe Biden taking charge in the White House, increasingly Chinese media commentaries are returning to a harsh and combative tone when it comes to the relationship with the US. There’s tremendous contestation with regard to values. So there have been pieces on democracy and human rights. So on Monday, there was People’s Daily commentary comparing Western and Chinese democracy. It said:

“It is not difficult to find that in the democratic practice of some Western countries, people only have the right to vote but not the right to participate widely. Only when they are awakened during voting, they enter a dormant period after voting. The limitations of national governance caused by this formalist democracy are obvious and even inevitable. The crux of the problem is that we must insist on relying on and for the people in everything. Facts have proved that Chinese-style democracy not only guarantees and supports the people to be the masters of the country, but also effectively transforms the people’s wisdom and power into governance efficiency, so that the people's sense of gain, happiness, and security are more substantial, more secure, and more sustainable.”

Then on Thursday, we had another Zhong Sheng commentary about US “double standards” on human rights. It says that “the U.S. frequently discredited the human rights situation in other countries, but downplayed the human rights issues in its own country. This fully exposed the hypocritical nature of American democracy. U.S. politics has fallen into divisions, and it is difficult to introduce substantive measures to heal racial trauma and restore racial justice. Some politicians even openly embrace the ultra-right ideology and contribute to ‘white supremacy’. The international community has become increasingly aware that the racial crisis in the United States has intensified in recent years, and that political inaction is to blame.” I’d say that it would be foolhardy to dismiss this as mere propaganda for domestic purposes. It is a sign of Beijing’s confidence that it can compete and rather believes that it has a strong hand in competing on norms and values to reshape them.

This piece came as the US released its 2020 human rights report on China. It talked about “genocide and crimes against humanity” targeting Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang. It also discusses practices like “arbitrary detention,” “politically-motivated killings,” “torture,” “denial of fair public trials,” “reprisals against individuals located outside the country,” privacy, freedom of expression, press and the Internet and so on. There are also specific sections on Hong Kong and Tibet. MoFA’s Hua Chunying picked on the “genocide” allegation in her response. She lashed out at the US for relying on “lies and disinformation produced by a handful of anti-China forces.” She attacked researchers like Adrian Zenz, and said that “the few so-called ‘witnesses’ are just ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’ the US has used and trained.” She ended with this: “The US has no right whatsoever to criticize China on human rights issue. Let the curtain fall on this US-staged play. It's time for US politicians to wake up from their Truman Show.”

Moving on, tensions are rising along the Taiwan Strait. There have been increased sorties by PLA jets over the past few weeks.  On Monday, Reuters quoted a senior Taiwanese official as saying that they are no longer scrambling each time Chinese aircraft encroach on its air defence identification zone but tracks the intruders with ground based missiles. A few days before this, 20 Chinese military aircraft had entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. Soon after the report of using missiles to track jets, on Wednesday Reuters reported that Taiwan has decided to buy an upgraded version of Lockheed Martin Corp’s Patriot surface-to-air missile. An unidentified official told the agency that they’ll be buying the Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) missiles, with deliveries to start in 2025 and deployment the following year. A couple of more interesting developments related to Taiwan were this report in the Financial Times, saying that the Biden administration is preparing to issue guidelines that would make it easier for US diplomats to meet Taiwanese officials by adopting some of the changes introduced by Donald Trump. At the same time, on Monday, John Hennessey-Niland, US envoy to Palau, visited Taiwan. Hennessey-Niland traveled with the Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr, becoming the first sitting envoy to travel to Taiwan in an official capacity since Washington cut formal ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing in 1979. Finally, Nikkei Asian Review is reporting that the upcoming Biden-Suga summit in DC will likely have a strong statement on Taiwan. Tokyo has been uncharacteristically assertive on the issue of Taiwan over the past month or so. This has created some friction with Beijing.

Two more reports worth noting. First, new USTR Katherine Tai has made it clear that while the Biden administration is open to talking to China, it isn’t ready to lift tariffs on Chinese imports in the near future. “No negotiator walks away from leverage, right?” she said. Second, US NSA Jake Sullivan caught up with counterparts from Japan and South Korea. They sought to coordinate a position on North Korea, but WSJ reports that the talks also likely touched upon China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea, semiconductor manufacturing and the integrity of the global supply chain. The statement issued after the meeting, however, didn’t mention China. That, however, is understandable, given that the recent US-ROK 2+2 also didn’t mention China. 

What’s also noteworthy is that at the same time, ROK Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong was traveling to Xiamen for talks with Wang Yi. This was part of China’s ongoing effort to host East Asian foreign ministers in Fujian, as it seeks to push back against US diplomacy. Xinhua says that they talked about North Korea, pandemic-related cooperation, safeguarding the international system with the United Nations as the core, trade, digital economy and the 2022 Olympics and so on. There’s also going to now be a China-ROK 2+2 dialogue. At one point the report says that Wang told his counterpart that “China and the ROK are highly integrated and have become a community of interests.” Apart from this, Wang this week also met with his Philippines counterpart Teodoro Locsin, Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi, Singapore’s Vivian Balakrishnan, and Malaysia’s Hishammuddin Hussein, whose reference to Wang as “elder brother” at their press conference created quite a stir.

Also the Chinese foreign minister issued a statement this week, backing ASEAN in handling the situation in Myanmar. He outlined the “three supports” and “three avoids.”

The supports are:

  • support for all parties and factions in Myanmar to seek political solution based on the constitutional framework

  • support for ASEAN in upholding the norm of non-interference in internal affairs

  • support for the holding of a special ASEAN leaders meeting as soon as possible to jointly explore effective ways to ease the situation and solve problems within the ASEAN framework

The avoids are:

  • avoid continued bloody conflicts and civilian casualties and prevent the situation from deteriorating further.

  • avoid improper intervention by the UN Security Council

  • prevent some external forces from adding fuel to the flames

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VI. WHO COVID-19 Origins Report

The WHO released its report on the origins of COVID-19 this week. It’s a 120-odd-page report, which I haven’t yet read in its entirety. But some of the conclusions highlighted in the summary are as follows:

  • “Evidence from surveys and targeted studies so far have shown that the coronaviruses most highly related to SARS-CoV-2 are found in bats and pangolins, suggesting that these mammals may be the reservoir of the virus that causes COVID-19. However, neither of the viruses identified so far from these mammalian species is sufficiently similar to SARS-CoV-2 to serve as its direct progenitor.” It also adds that the specific SARS-CoV-2 virus “has not been detected through sampling and testing of bats or of wildlife across China.”

  • “Many of the early cases were associated with the Huanan market, but a similar number of cases were associated with other markets and some were not associated with any markets...No firm conclusion therefore about the role of the Huanan market in the origin of the outbreak, or how the infection was introduced into the market, can currently be drawn.”

  • The report rules out any “substantial transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection” in Wuhan in October and November 2019. But it also says that “based on molecular sequence data, the results suggested that the outbreak may have started some time in the months before the middle of December 2019. The point estimates for the time to the most recent ancestor ranged from late September to early December, but most estimates were between mid-November and early December.”

  • It says that there is a “possibility of missed circulation in other countries” prior to Wuhan’s outbreak but that “the quality of the studies” regarding this “is limited.”

Finally, the document says that four pathways of transmission or theories were examined by the team. “The joint team’s assessment of likelihood of each possible pathway was as follows:

  • direct zoonotic spillover is considered to be a possible-to-likely pathway;

  • introduction through an intermediate host is considered to be a likely to very likely pathway; 

  • introduction through cold/ food chain products is considered a possible pathway; 

  • introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway.”

Basically, there’s very little that we now know. Yet, we had WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus being critical of China, backing researchers’ complaints about not having access to raw data and saying that the lab-leak hypothesis will require “further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts.” In addition, 14 countries, including the US, UK, Israel, Japan, Canada, and Australia, voiced “shared concerns that the international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.” Note: no France or Germany in the list of 14.

India’s MEA responded to a media question on the report, calling it “an important first step in establishing the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.” The MEA further said: “It is pertinent to note that the Director General of the WHO has separately raised the issue of delays and difficulties in accessing raw data for the team conducting the study. We fully support the Director General’s expectation that future collaborative studies will include more timely and comprehensive data sharing. In this connection, we also welcome his readiness to deploy additional missions. We join other stakeholders in voicing their expectations that follow up to the WHO Report or further studies, including on an understanding of the earliest human cases and clusters by the WHO on this critical issue, will receive the fullest cooperation of all concerned.”

Beijing’s response to the report was not one of disappointment. MoFA’s Hua Chunying commended the scientists and added that the “study of origins is a matter of science, which should be jointly conducted by scientists all over the world. To politicize this issue will only severely hinder global cooperation in study of origins...”. She also took on the bit about the lab-leak theory, arguing that “no suspicious signs have been found.” She then said: “In addition to Fort Detrick, certain country has more than 200 biological bases around the world. So I think, if necessary, scientists should be allowed to work in a scientific spirit with relevant laboratories around the world.” 

VII. The Long & Short of It…

A. Wang’s Mideast Tour: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has had a busy week or so. He returned from a long trip to the Middle East and then began hosting his counterparts from East Asia. Wang traveled to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman. Upon returning, he gave a fairly detailed interview about his visit and what he believes was accomplished. He talks about his five-point initiative on achieving security and stability in the region. This includes:

  • mutual respect

  • upholding equality and justice

  • achieving non-proliferation

  • jointly fostering collective security

  • accelerating development cooperation

He argued that this initiative was premised on the following thought process.

  • First, China supports regional countries in excluding external parties from interfering in their internal affairs and supports their adherence to independence and exploration of social systems and governance models with their own characteristics. 

  • Second, “China supports regional countries in getting rid of the shadow of geopolitical competition among major powers...and building a security framework that takes into account the legitimate concerns of all parties.”

  • Third, “China does not seek self-interest in the Middle East, does not engage in geopolitical competition, does not divide the region into spheres of influence, upholds the spirit of equality and friendliness, respects the independent choice of regional countries, and is willing to make China's contribution to the peace and development of the Middle East through sincere cooperation.”

He talked about pushing for a two-state solution, getting the JCPOA implemented and creating new dialogue mechanisms to talk about issues like “securing oil facilities and waterways.” He then said that “in 2020, China-Arab trade volume is nearly 240 billion U.S. dollars, and China is the largest trading partner of Arab countries; China imports 250 million tons of crude oil from Arab countries, accounting for half of China's total imports in the same period. The key projects of China-Arab ‘Belt and Road’ are being resumed in an orderly manner, and the cooperation in 5G, big data, artificial intelligence, aerospace and other high technology is flourishing, and the recognition of Chinese products, Chinese technology and Chinese standards is increasing in the region.”

While on the theme of technology, there’s a new China-Arab States Data Security Initiative that’s been inked. There are no details about the agreement. But Chinese deputy foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu said that deal was intended to create an “open, fair, non-discriminative” environment for digital development and would help give developing countries a bigger voice in global governance. He added that “the prominent risks and challenges on data security posed by personal information infringement and massive cyber-surveillance on other countries have made it urgent [to find] a global solution.”

Also a PD commentary on this argued that “China and Arab countries have been passive recipients of international rules for a long time due to historical reasons. Both sides have realized that they must strive to be important participants in global governance and active makers of international rules. The publication of the China-Arab Data Security Cooperation Initiative is conducive to promoting the building of a peaceful, safe, open, and cooperative cyberspace on the basis of multilateralism, setting an example of developing countries’ participation in global governance, and helping countries around the world to participate in global digital governance.”

The same is the case with the issue of human rights for Wang Yi. He doubled down after his visit to say that “the six countries visited and China are both developing countries and share similar views on human rights issues. We believe that the human rights views of certain Western countries do not represent the international view of human rights, and that the human rights views of developing countries should be listened to, respected and absorbed more, so as to enrich the connotation of human rights, promote the progress of society and maintain the harmony of the world.”

B. HK Elections & Convictions: This week the NPCSC cleared the changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system. Among the many changes, the key shift is in the Election Committee of the HKSAR.

  • Committee membership has been expanded from 1,200 to 1,500. The number of sectors has been increased from four to five.

  • Apart from its original function of nominating and electing the chief executive, the committee will have two more key functions: electing a relatively large proportion of LegCo members and participating in the nominations of all LegCo candidates.

  • District Councils had 117 seats on the Election Committee previously. These are now scrapped. Remember, the pro-democracy opposition had swept the District Council elections in late 2019.

According to the new annexes, a candidate eligibility review mechanism shall be established to review and confirm the eligibility of candidates for the Election Committee, the office of chief executive, and the LegCo. SCMP reports that the vetting committee, which will screen candidates, will pick them based on information provided by the police’s national security unit, and no judicial review or appeal of the decision will be allowed. The fundamental objective of this is to ensure that Beijing’s control remains firm. Another change worth noting is that the LegCO has been expanded from 70 to 90 seats. But out of this, only 20 seats will be set aside for direct elections. Previously this was 35 out of 70. Of the remaining seats, 40 will be chosen by a pro-Beijing election committee that currently selects Hong Kong’s chief executive and 30 will be picked by groups representing various professions and interests.

In response to this, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed a determination made last year by the Trump administration that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous and remains undeserving of special treatment by the United States. Meanwhile, seven of Hong Kong’s veteran pro-democracy leaders, including Martin Lee, Jimmy Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho and Margaret Ng, were convicted of participating in and organizing an unauthorized march in 2019. NYT reports that they each face up to five years in prison, and sentences will be handed down on April 16. Also noteworthy is this interview by Oscar Kwok, the Hong Kong Police Force’s deputy commissioner for management, in Bloomberg. He warns that people should not “tempt the law,” and lashes out at the US, saying: “There are countries on Earth whose basic DNA is aggressive...I’m talking about the United States. And I think it’s also clearly stated what their intent is, OK? To suppress the development of China. It’s an open secret.” 

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