Hu Jintao confirms nuclear summit visit

Image by Charles Dharapak / AP

Having agreed to take part in negotiations on drafting UN sanctions against Iran, President Hu Jintao will visit Washington between 12-13 April for a summit on nuclear security.

Hu’s agreement to the talks is seen as a significant step for China during this time of relations strained by US arms sales to Taiwan, the Google-China fallout, Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama and tense trade imbalances. The move also came despite Iran sending an envoy to Beijing and denouncing negotiations as an “ineffective weapon”

China, with its economic ties to Iran, has been hesitant in joining the US, UK, France and Germany in putting together a set of sanctions against the country. While China depends on Iran for 11 per cent of its energy needs, the West has long claimed Tehran is intent on securing a nuclear weapons capability.

Speaking to CNN, US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said: “China has agreed to sit down and begin serious negotiations here in New York…as a first step toward getting the entire UN security council on board with a tough sanctions regime against Iran.”

On China’s side, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said: “I’d like to reiterate that the undue disruption which China-US relations endured not long ago is in the interest of neither country and is not what we would like to see.”

The visit is also scheduled to take place two days before the Obama administration faced a deadline set by Congress and the US Treasury to decide whether to label China a “currency manipulator.” However, the New York Times has said that the administration has decided not to report on 15th April, for fear of embarrassing President Hu and further harming delicate bilateral relations.

Gathering thoughts on Google

Photo by Ng Han Guan/AP

It is safe to say most of us are all Googled out by now. Throughout 23rd March, news of the Internet giant’s dramatic exit from China after it suffered a Chinese-originated cyber attack flowed unwaveringly through feeds, blogs, social media platforms and mainstream news outlets. A total eclipse of Twitter seems to have passed slightly, giving a minute to gather some thoughts on the matter.

The big question, of course, is what are the implications of Google’s move? Business-wise, Google may have inflicted substantial self-harm by pulling out of China. An AP report suggests the company’s market value has been severely dented by the spat, with one analyst predicting a reduction of $10 billion to $15 billion, or $30 to $50 per share. Chinese powerhouses are also set to succeed thanks to Google’s exit.

But the other side of the coin is that these losses come with the territory of taking a principled stand against the demands of an authoritarian government.

For the liberals among us who advocate freedom of expression online, we have seen wider-reaching debates on the issue of censorship. The cyber attack that was the straw that broke Google’s back shed light on the intricacies of the Great Firewall and how far it is isolating China. The response from the US, in the form of Hillary Clinton’s staunch speech, has also helped spurred on a debate on both government and Internet companies’ accountability.

Although in its formative stages, this discussion has by no means been limited to Western commentators. Over the weekend, an open-source letter was published by a group of Chinese activists demanding clarity of the Google/China fiasco. Rebecca MacKinnon translated,

if Google.cn were to no longer exist, or if China were to further block other Google services, has the Chinese government considered how their blocking of foreign websites and censorship of domestic websites violates Chinese citizens’ right to scientific, educational, environmental, clean energy and other information? How will this loss be lessened or compensated for?

Netizens who may well have been apolitical prior to the events were jolted by Google’s tough stance. However, this must be kept in perspective. As MacKinnon says, the events reflect

a recognition that China’s status quo – at least when it comes to censorship, regulation, and manipulation of the Internet – is unlikely to improve any time soon, and may in fact continue to get worse.

The issue of censorship has been, and was always going to be, a non-negotiable for Beijing. The sophisticated techniques used to contain public opinion and the spread of information were always going continue regardless of whatever Google chose to do. An interesting question, as pointed out by C.Custer, is why have people stopped caring about the fact that Google was hacked? Speaking to James Fallows of The Atlantic, Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond clarified the events:

This attack, which was from China, was different. It was almost singularly focused on getting into Gmail accounts specifically of human rights activists, inside China or outside. They tried to do that through Google systems that thwarted them. On top of that, there were separate attacks, many of them, on individual Gmail users who were political activists inside and outside China. There were political aspects to this hacking attacks that were quite unusual.

That was distasteful to us. It seemed to us that this was all part of an overall system bent on suppressing expression, whether it was by controlling internet search results or trying to surveil activists. It is all part of the same repressive program, from our point of view. We felt that we were being part of that.

Playing the victim card (and rightly so) got Google little sympathy from China. The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore spoke to a handful of Shanghai’s upwardly mobile middle class about the fiasco. One sales manager in their mid-twenties said,

Google should have complied and adapted, rather than swimming against the tide. It is really a shame that it has now decided to go, but I do not think it will have a long-lasting effect on us.

A government official in charge of the Internet bureau under the State Council Information Office also showed little mercy:

Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks (…) This is totally wrong. We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts.

But despite China’s desires, the issue was always going to be politicised. Google was forced to take a stand and, in so doing, dealt itself tough cards. Indeed, in this light China could certainly come out as the bad guy. As Foreign Policy’s Blake Hounshell clarifies, the results could include:

exposing the country’s claims of increased openness as hollow, scaring away potential investors, and taking away a valuable source of innovation and healthy competition.

What is also crucial is that, in terms of diplomatic relations, the timing of the saga was particularly tense. With US arms sales to Taiwan, a meeting between the Dalai Lama and Obama, and not to mention the US continually pressing China to revaluate the Renminbi, the Google-China fiasco has done nothing to heal the wounds between East and West.

Indeed, Google’s actions may well have provided fuel for a more aggressive US policy towards China. Google co-founder Sergey Brin certainly wasted no time in calling on the US to put more pressure on Beijing. He said,

Human rights issues deserve equal time to the trade issues that are high priority now … I hope this gets taken seriously.

Since services and information are our most successful exports, if regulations in China effectively prevent us from being competitive, then they are a trade barrier.

Plus, while the White House expressed disappointment that a deal was not reached between the two giants, it would have been foolish to have ever expected an agreement. Google had sealed its fate with its first announcement in January that it was going to stop censoring search results on google.cn: China was never going to back down.

In spite of this, Brin remains hopeful. He told the New York Times, “perhaps we can return to serving mainland China in the future.” And while Google told The Guardian it wants to continue R&D work in China, what happens next remains shrouded in confusion. Drummond told The Atlantic,

We don’t know what to expect. We have done what we have done. We are fully complying with Chinese law. We’re not operating our search engine within the Firewall any more.  We will continue to talk with them about how to operate our other services.

Whether this epic fiasco ends up damaging China more than Google remains to be seen. In the midst of the tense bickering, it can be hard to see what Google has concretely achieved, not least since China’s censorship shows no signs of easing. However, in taking positive lessons from the fiercer debates on free speech online, perhaps some of the political and diplomatic fallout can be eased.

Google and China: open letters and new debates

Photo Credit: Jin/Getty

The potentially final chapter in the Google-China saga may come this week, with the Internet giant close to following through with its threat of pulling out of China altogether. In mid-Janauary, Google announced it would stop censoring search results on google.cn, having being the victim of a sophisticated cyber attack originating in the PRC.

The events triggered an East-West discussion over Internet freedom, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly asserting its importance. Chinese mainstream media has, meanwhile, has been blazing a trail against what they see as an ‘information imperialist’ with intricate ties to the US government. Google was most recently asked not to ‘politcalize’ (?) the conflict, as a Xinhua commentary published on Sunday claimed:

It is unfair for Google to impose its own value and yardsticks on Internet regulation to China, which has its own time-honored tradition, culture and value.

This response has not been surprising: the issue of censorship is a non-negotiable for Beijing. But the saga has gone beyond reminding us of the policing of the Chinese Internet to truly illuminating how different it is from its Western counterpart: simply, Google’s moves could potentially push China closing to harbouring what we now know could be a sprawling Intranet.

This has had ramifications for Chinese web users, both apolitical and not. This weekend, an open-source letter was published by a group of activists demanding clarity over the speculation of the last two months. Rebecca MacKinnon translated,

if Google.cn were to no longer exist, or if China were to further block other Google services, has the Chinese government considered how their blocking of foreign websites and censorship of domestic websites violates Chinese citizens’ right to scientific, educational, environmental, clean energy and other information? How will this loss be lessened or compensated for?

As MacKinnon says, the Google-China incident has sparked some soul searching about the extent to which the Chinese government is causing China to be isolated from the rest of the world. A new debate on accountability stretching to both governments and Internet companies may also be a result of recent events.

Google’s potential departure also holds promise for China’s domestic Internet companies keen to capitalise on the situation. As TIME’s Bill Powell says,

Google’s stock price has declined from $595 to about $567, while Baidu, the leading search engine in China, has seen its stock price rise by 50%.

Michael Schuman, meanwhile, has been pondering over the connection, if there is one, between economic progress and human rights. Specifically, could “China’s stand on human rights…cause it to miss out on crucial opportunities necessary for its future growth”? He concludes,

the real test of China’s political and social policies will come as it attempts to shift from an economy that makes cheap stuff to one that innovates and invents advanced products and technologies. Only then will we find out if the government’s control of information and personal freedoms will hamper its efforts to catch up with the United States, Japan and South Korea. Perhaps then China will realize the importance of having Google in its economy rather than outside of it.

Schuman’s opinion is certainly on point as China nears towards a crucial crossroads in its own stage of development. With regards to its economic shift, as China’s middle class becomes wealthier and commands more purchasing power, the government will also need to readjust itself to accommodate this growing echelon of society.

Whether it does so, at least in part, by heeding to the demands of the authors of the aforementioned letter may well be too far off in the distance. While these tumultuous events have increased the volume in previously quiet discussions, we shouldn’t get too excited, not least if this recent Xinhua commentary is anything to go by:

Whether (Google) leaves or not, the Chinese government will keep its Internet regulation principles unchanged.

Other than Google: bankrupt language schools, warplanes to Venezuela and a word on Gao Zhisheng

While the Google/China drama occupies most of the radar, some other great stories have been surfacing over the past few days. Check them below.

  • Tessa Thorniley has investigated the bankruptcies and “suicidal mismanagement” faced by language schools in China and the foreigners that flee from them. Remember Kai En?
  • Making the US a little more uncomfortable is openDemocracy’s news that China has supplied Venezuela with six warplanes. The official line is that these jets will be used for training missions and to target drug traffickers, and President Hugo Chavez said he was forced to turn to China because of US export controls. On a television broadcast he thanked the PRC: “The empire wanted to leave us unarmed. Socialist China, revolutionary China appeared and here are our K-8 planes.”
  • The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts has given us this horrific account of lead poisoning in China. Chinese authorities defended the six-month detention of lead poisoning victims in Hunan who were seeking medical care, saying the punishment was necessary for “public education”. The 53 villagers who were on their way to get health checks were mistakenly believed to be planning a protest. China Digital Times have also linked to an AFP story detailing the closure of a factory in Sichuan after its pollution caused lead poisoning in 100 people, 88 of whom were children.
  • On Tuesday, China’s Vice Premier Li Keqiang called for greater medical reform in the country, the People’s Daily reported. He put great emphasis on working towards establishing a basic health care service system and improving health care services at grassroots level.
  • The New York Times reported that light has finally been shed on the Gao Zhisheng saga. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said Mr. Gao had been sentenced to prison for subversion. Yang also denied Gao had ever been tortured. That said, we still don’t know where Gao is or what this sentence refers to.
  • There’s been a lot of coverage of China’s hukou system. Tania Branigan has looked at how migrants’ children are bearing the brunt of the household registration, and provided video footage here. Carl Minzner from the LA Times has also written this op-ed outlining the changes necessary in hukou reform. Finally, yours truly has also looked at what bloggers have to say on Global Voices.
  • Ai Wei Wei is still my ol’ reliable. This time, he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that “China’s government has no humanity”, and he has faith that new media can effect change in China. And while we’re on the subject, China Media Project has summarised a talk by popular blogger Yang Hengjun discussing the Internet and social change. Yang said, “I can guarantee that if the Web did not exist I would not find a place to express what I wished to express.”
  • China Digital Times has linked to this piece in the FT summarising the “test of ties” Obama faces with Beijing. Further discussing the currency spat going on between China and the US, this editorial in the New York Times today asks “Will China listen?”
  • On a lighter note, this opinion piece in the Global Times has slammed the 2010 Miss Laowai China beauty pageant. Apparently, it’s female expats’ “inner grace and intelligence that sets them apart from their counterparts back home.” Aw.

China upholds Liu Xiaobo sentence

Liu Xiaobo

This may come as no surprise to most of us, but the sad news reached us today that China has upheld Liu Xiaobo’s sentencing to 11 years in prison for subversion of state power.

US ambassador Jon Huntsman said,

We are disappointed by the Chinese Government’s decision. (…) We believe that he should not have been sentenced in the first place and should be released immediately.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, said China had missed an opportunity to ‘right a wrong’. Roseann Rife, an Asia-Pacific official for the organisation, said,

His harsh sentence is a stark reminder to the Chinese people and the world that there is still no freedom of expression or independent judiciary in China.

This also follows the recent sentencing of Tan Zuoren, who faces five years for seeking to document the poor construction of the schools that fatally collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Today’s poignant decision cast a sombre mood over those caught in the struggle for China’s democratisation. As Michael Anti tweeted,

Feb 11, 1990, Mandela walked out of the jail. 20 yrs later, Feb 11, 2010, Li Xiaobo was confirmed 11 yrs sentence.

Liu Xiaobo’s Trial is the morning call for every Chinese democrat. See you soon, my dear Mr Mandela.

How not to handle China

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/dec/30/west-china-akmal-shaikh

This brief post is a link to this fantastic piece written by Jonathan Fenby in today’s Guardian comment pages. Simply, Fenby argues, the West doesn’t understand how Beijing politics works, making her ill-equipped to deal diplomatically with the PRC. I couldn’t agree more, and have put forward similar (if less detailed and far less esteemed) lines of argument in previous posts.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt:

It might be nice if China was more like us, but it isn’t going to be. Expecting it to fit into the paradigm set by the west is not only futile but positively dangerous. The sooner governments start to work out a meaningful China policy rather than depending on wishful thinking, the better. It would make a good New year’s resolution. But I’m not holding my breath.

Happy New Year!

Akmal Shaikh: China’s final curtain?

2009 has ended on a bitter note for China: obstinate tactics and climate change disagreements in Copenhagen, an international outcry at the sentencing of Liu Xiaobo, and today’s uproar over Akmal Shaikh’s execution in Urumqi.

This tragic story of a mentally ill taxi driver from Kentish Town who entered China with (unbeknown to him) 4kg of heroin has unsurprisingly sparked off the usual head-banging between China and the disapproving West: enraged condemnation came from Amnesty International and Reprieve, and various British ministers called for clemency on the basis of Shaikh’s mental condition.

But none of these outcries were heeded to, and Shaikh fell victim to the hardline politics of the CCP late this morning. The line of argument put forward by China’s Supreme Court was that it had never been provided with any documentation proving Shaikh had a mental disorder. Calls for clemency were futile, and the sad reality was that the exploited Shaikh ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But, moving away slightly from the dominant discourse of human rights and how far China is stuck in the dark ages, Michael White has claimed it is hypocritical for the West to denounce China’s move. White cites the history of Europe coercing China to open up to foreign trade, and the Opium Wars that led to unequal treaties between China and the British:

Result: China was forced to accept the trade with devastating social consequences. In fairness I should add that the stuff was legal in Britain at the time – as readers of Victorian novels can confirm. The Chinese governor Lin Zexu became a hero for opposing the trade – as did young William Gladstone at Westminster.

White’s point is valid: China certainly has a knack for keeping painful memories close, and this is no exception. Her history provides a substantial amount of fuel to run the sovereignty engine I have often referred to: China dislikes being told what to do. As a result, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu responded with the usual line: the West has no right to comment on China’s judicial system.

As 2009’s curtain shuts and 2010’s opens, more voices are calling upon China to change her ways. She can no longer hide from the global magnifying glass that today revealed how she annually carries out 3/4 of the world’s executions.

But will she listen? Or will we still continue to bang heads whilst tragic victims get caught in the middle?