Sat. May 18th, 2024

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief. The U.S. House of Representatives considers another TikTok bill, Chinese Premier Li Qiang won’t meet with foreign CEOs at the China Development Forum, and tensions rise on the disputed China-India border. Sign up to receive China Brief in your inbox every Tuesday. TikTok is under fire again in Washington. A bill that would force Chinese parent company ByteDance to divest from the popular video app or risk a U.S. ban advanced unopposed from the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce last week. However, there may be division in the Republican camp, after former U.S. President Donald Trump flipped and came out against the ban on Monday, after meeting with billionaire Jeff Yass, a TikTok investor. Trump’s U-turn still seems unlikely to be enough to stop the full congressional vote on the bill from passing with a two-thirds majority on Wednesday. It would still have to pass the Senate, but U.S. President Joe Biden has promised to sign it into law if it does. TikTok has repeatedly described the bill as an outright ban, which is not true. But it will be an effective ban if ByteDance doesn’t sell. The firm would face being kicked out of platforms such as the App Store, with Apple and other firms fearing massive fines. Speaking with U.S. China policy staffers in the last week, the consensus was that TikTok was doomed in the United States. There was also general agreement that TikTok’s fate is a good thing given its risks, from China’s access to U.S. users’ data to the threat of election interference. Leaked documents show that TikTok bends its own algorithms to censor videos worldwide. The app is unpopular on Capitol Hill, where CEO Shou Zi Chew’s testimony, both last year and in January, was widely seen as disingenuous. A TikTok campaign that encouraged U.S. users to call their political representatives and protest the bill seemed to worsen the situation. As communications expert Lulu Cheng Meservey pointed out, the strategy may have worked for a U.S. company, but it was counterproductive for a Chinese one—especially when many TikTok users can’t vote yet. Chinese propagandists such as Hu Xijin chiming in only handed TikTok’s opponents more ammunition. There has been a bipartisan desire to take action against TikTok since at least 2019, and efforts to force ByteDance’s divestment go back to 2020. Yet it’s taken five years to become a possibility, in part because of the incompetence of the Trump administration and the transition to the Biden White House. Lobbying has played its part too: TikTok has poured resources into getting access in Washington. There is no doubt a barrage of legal challenges ahead. However, one big change in the lobbying environment is that most Western technology firms are no longer interested in carrying water for China. Companies such as Meta were once keen to find a way into the Chinese market or keep their limited access open. Those prospects have dimmed. Even Apple, still dependent on the Chinese market, has seen sales of key products dip thanks in part to pressure from Beijing. If ByteDance sells TikTok, some Western executives seem eager to pick it up. It seems unlikely that will happen, though. ByteDance can’t act in its own financial interests. Like all Chinese companies, even private ones, it is beholden to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The last time authorities slapped down the firm—banning its humor app, Neihan Duanzi, in 2018—ByteDance’s CEO put out a self-abnegating letter full of praise for the CCP. Since then, the party has made its control over tech companies even clearer. An U.S.-owned TikTok is useless to the CCP, even if its sale would make ByteDance billions of dollars. An app that’s effectively banned from the United States, however, both gives China a useful propaganda vector for much of the rest of the world and lets it play the victim over free speech for once. That is of course hypocritical, given that TikTok is inaccessible within China. The Chinese version of the app, Douyin, has different content and rules, explicitly operating under China’s ever-tightening censorship. Premier bows out of meetings. There seems to be something up with Chinese Premier Li Qiang, who has only held the position for a year. After canceling a press conference with international reporters at the two sessions in Beijing last week, he will not attend meetings with foreign CEOs at the China Development Forum later this month. The event is normally an opportunity for schmoozing, with figures such as Bill Gates and Ray Dalio attending. Li may just have health problems, which are effectively taboo discussion for Chinese leaders. It could be that he is dodging questions about China’s economy, although usually public occasions provide a chance to put forward Beijing’s arguments. But it may also be that he is avoiding even formal contact with foreigners amid internal paranoia about espionage in China—or trying not to raise his own profile, fearing being seen as a rival of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Territorial disputes heat up. China and India are arguing over their disputed border again after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a visit to Arunachal Pradesh, in northeastern India, to open a mountain tunnel that will make it easier and quicker to dispatch Indian troops to the border. India has already reinforced its Himalayan garrisons as tensions with China rise. At sea, India has withdrawn its troops from the Maldives after a pro-China president ordered them out. Meanwhile, China and the Philippines are exchanging heated words after Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos described his country as being on the “frontlines” of a coming conflict. Harsh rhetoric has become the norm for Beijing in these simmering conflicts. Nationalist water frenzy. Chinese bottled water giant Nongfu Spring—whose founder is the richest person in China—is under fire from online nationalists who say that the bottles’ distinctive designs are inspired by Japanese architecture, causing many shops to stop carrying the brand. The company’s stock has dropped by almost 6 percent amid the criticism, and daily sales have fallen by nearly 32 percent. Online frenzies against brands for supposed Japanese influence have become increasingly common, as censorship leaves little room for anything but extreme nationalism. Part of the reason is that Japan has a modern media culture that is globally recognizable, in contrast to some of China’s more insular productions. (Even China’s state media mourned the death of Dragon Ball Z creator Akira Toriyama last week.) Real estate bubble watch. Once-lauded property developer Vanke is the latest colossus to start toppling as the long unraveling of China’s real estate market continues. On Monday, Moody’s downgraded Vanke’s debt to “junk” status, as the Chinese government pressures banks to offer it a financial lifeline. Vanke has enjoyed a temporary rally thanks to the signals of official aid. However, at the two sessions last week, officials echoed the Xi-crafted slogan “Homes are for living in, not for speculation”—a rhetorical blow to developers, who are now dependent on the government for financial survival. The recently concluded annual two sessions in Beijing saw fulsome encomiums heaped on Xi—a habit built in to the CCP hierarchy, where even relatively minor officials expect praise from their underlings and ordinary people. Below, author Wang Shou parodies the logorrhea of praise in his 1989 novel, Please Don’t Call Me Human, describing the reception of an official by a Beijing neighborhood committee. Excerpt from Please Don’t Call Me HumanTranslated by Brendan O’Kane Tears in her eyes, Yuanbao’s mother addressed the Big Guy. “Esteemed renowned revered and dearly beloved helmsman mentor pioneer trailblazer shining beacon blazing firebrand demon-revealing mirror cur-walloping club daddy mommy grandma grandpaterfamilias primal progenitor primate ancestor Supreme Sage on High Ascended Jade Emperor Hearer of the World’s Cries and Generalissimo! […] “We are absolutely overjoyed deeply touched extremely anxious profoundly ashamed utterly delighted jumping for joy sincerely flattered truly grateful genuinely moved to tears just beside ourselves utterly at a loss for words, a thousand words and a million sentences a thousand songs of praise and a million model operas a thousand mountains and a million lakes a thousand phrases and a million little letters all blend into a cry that rises to the heavens top-of-the-lungs rolls forth like thunder … resonating and resounding around the…

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