3rd February Highlights

China’s master plan, America’s rising fear, Auntie May’s trip to Wuhan, and one town’s obsession with baijiu.


Brewing Trouble Baijiu
Photo Credit: Sixth Tone

Highlights have been sporadic over the past month (thanks for covering last week Axel), so apologies for that. From now on, The China Road’s highlights will be served at more regular intervals, fresh on your digital plate every Saturday, for a more leisurely weekend consumption.

For my part, I’d like to experiment with a new format, so please feel free to tell us what you think – contact@thechinaroad.co.uk.

Academic exposure: Globalisation and Chinese Grand Strategy

It’s contained within the pages of a journal on ‘global politics and strategy’, but this article doesn’t read like a wonky academic piece. That’s probably because it’s pretty light on theory – the best way to be when it comes to theory. Instead, Friedberg relies upon good old common sense, facts, and an intuitive reading of history.

Friedberg’s basic argument is that China has gone through several phases of reaction to globalization, but that all these phases are premised on a kind of hard pragmatism that recognises the dangers and benefits of being plugged into the global economy.

At first, it was fairly dependent on America’s largesse, but China soon found its feet and began learning how to leverage its fast-growing economic weight. China is currently engaged in a hedging strategy that increases its range of options should everything go tits up, but it is also intent on maximising its leverage over other countries. The ultimate goal is to create a global economy that is dependent on Beijing’s largesse.

Some of Friedberg’s more pro-China readers might shy away from the implication that Beijing’s had a long game in mind all along. My reading is that China’s leaders have long been operating whilst maintaining a degree of suspicion towards the international order – Beijing’s  interaction with the outside world has always expressed that skepticism through a natural tendency to maximise China’s leverage.

However you feel about Friedberg’s reading of strategic intent, his ideas make pretty interesting reading, and it’s hard to poke holes in his narrative.

The expert view: China’s Belt and Road Initiative – Five Years Later

If it’s good enough for the US-China commission, it’s good enough for you. I must admit that I haven’t read every single testimony yet, but it’s sure to be a bounty of information and neat summarisation. The testimonies of Nadége Rolland and Jon Hillman are certainly very good, but that’s to be expected.

I’m guessing that the commission’s general takeaway from the hearing will be: China is a strategic rival and the US needs to insert itself in areas covered by the Belt and Road. This message chimes with the mood of those at the top nowadays. Recently, the administration told Congress, in an annual report, that supporting China’s accession to the WTO was a mistake.

Even more significantly, January’s National Defense Strategy basically names China as the biggest current threat to US security. I think the paper is something of a historical watershed moment – the US has gone from being top dog in the early 21st century, with it’s only problem being spreading democracy and killing terrorists (the previous strategy’s explicitly named concerns), to its main motivation being fighting off competitors.

Anyway – Hillman’s report is really good. You should read it. He neatly packages some difficult concepts without losing their nuance, and he accompanies the whole thing with lots of juicy facts. The juiciest of all is the revelation that 89% of all Belt and Road contracts go to Chinese companies.

Biggest news item: Golden Flop?

From a UK-centric perspective, this week’s big happening has gotta be Auntie May’s whirlwind three day trade trip to Wuhan, Beijing, and China.

UK media has been generally negative, implying that May is as unconvincing 5,000 miles from home as she is in Westminster. Politico claims that May ‘lost in China’, Guardian coverage focuses on the sidestepping of human rights and says that the UK-China “golden era” has lost its lustre. The FT makes similar comments about golden era lustre and The Economist calls the visit “awkward”. Even GQ takes a pop at May, claiming that the visit demonstrates Britain’s weak position. Only the Daily Mail is still using ‘golden era’ (although they say golden age) unironically. They do however note that, while Macron bought Xi a prize horse from the Presidential cavalry corps, May handed over a Blue Planet boxset. Chinese coverage has been characteristically beige and generally positive.

No matter what you do, it’s hard to make a fresh impression. I suspect that whatever May could have done in China, nothing would have garnered her praise at home. Is Britain the weak partner in our relationship with China? Yes. Is May politically weak compared to Xi Jinping. Duh, who isn’t? … I don’t think she did too badly.

A few pieces have compared May’s weak stance on human rights with the strongly worded warnings of the stereotypically beige former British PM John Major. Well, yes, but did Macron, whose visit was generally praised, call out China on human rights? No, because that’s not what Western countries do anymore. Whether it’s a sign of collective moral weakness or not, European leaders don’t generally think themselves to be in a position where they can criticise China’s human rights record publicly. The CCP have worked very hard to get to this point.

Another big angle of coverage was inevitably “May goes to China to secure post-Brexit trade deals”. Again, if we’re talking about May’s failure, what could we have expected, other than that the vague expression of hope for better UK-China trade in the future? The idea that a trade deal with China will make up for economic fallout post-Brexit is also one that needs to be squashed. I’ve tried to handle the issue objectively here, but this is the bottom line:

a) trade agreements are best negotiated from within large blocs (like the EU), a post-Brexit Britain is going to be on receiving end of demands from countries like New Zealand, not to mention China. b) There’s not an awful lot a trade deal could do for our trading situation with China – i) we have bargain basement tariffs on Chinese goods, ii) there isn’t much room for reduction on the Chinese side (aside from autos but that isn’t happening), iii) and on the non-tariff barrier side of things, there’s not much hope for China giving us greater access. c) even an awesome trade deal with China would be a drop in the bucket when it comes to replacing the benefits of single market access. TLDR: Trade deal with China difficult and not even a big deal.

Regarding the Golden Era, the same argument applies. What could May have done to prevent the impression of a golden fizzle in relations? It’s not May’s fault that Britain can’t live up to the bombastic rhetoric agreed to in the Cameron-Osborne days. The only obvious thing May could have done to deepen relations would have been to sign the memorandum of understanding (MoU) Beijing was harping on about. This would have constituted the first official European endorsement of the Belt and Road Initiative, making Xi very happy indeed and arguably demonstrating spectacular weakness on May’s part.

In being able to hold the European line and not capitulate to Beijing’s demands, May showed more character and strength than she has for months, though that’s not saying much. The PM put British beef back on Chinese plates, and signed some other deals, but generally had a pretty bland trip. She didn’t make a splash like Macron, but she wasn’t actually as slavish as the UK media seems to depict her as.

Also – here’s the piece in the FT that May wrote before her trip. It’s next to impossible to find through Google or the FT homepage for some reason.


To read over breakfast: Brewing Trouble

Baijiu – the pungent, green-tasting, high-octane liquor that is the fuel for many a laowai’s sordid bender. Pretty disgusting at first sip, many, myself included, develop a taste for the characteristic sorghum based spirit. That being said, I’ve always tended to go for a mini bottle of Red Star (at <£1), over the more prestigious baijiu brands that one can buy.

Moutai, the biggest liquor company in the world, is just such a prestigious brand, and its most expensive bottle sells for around two grand. This article takes a look at the rise and consequent troubles of the liquor company’s home town – Maotai.

Sixth Tone is a solid source for Sunday reads – their articles are usually packed with pretty photos, neat videos, and indulgent formats.

It’s worth mentioning that the parent company of both Sixth Tone and its sister publication The Paper is state-owned. As such, the two publications function with state-backing and under some degree of oversight. This has led many to label Sixth Tone a new brand of insidious propaganda. The argument goes that, unlike the typically turgid state media, Sixth Tone does cover the dodgy stuff like pollution and migrant workers in a captivating manner. However, it does so in a way that subtly reinforces a more affirmative, softer party narrative – pollution is a problem, yes, but this is what the government has done to tackle it, (omitting mention of systemic problems), etc.

Others claim that Sixth Tone operates with less or as much a bias as other international outlets, which tend to defend their own country’s narrative. I think its the state connection that defuses this counter argument. Many in the UK attack the “bias” of the BBC – crucially though, the BBC receives threats from both sides of the political spectrum. The BBC gets public money, but it is free to be directly critical of the ruling party in a way that Sixth Tone is simply not.

Sixth Tone coverage can still be excellent and it is definitely worth reading. They do also operate with a degree of refreshing independence, and exercising this independence isn’t always part of a conscious strategy to appear independent whilst actually pushing a more subtle party message. However, I think it is necessary to be aware of the publication’s ownership structure when reading Sixth Tone content. Context is everything.



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