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.

The Shanghai and Rio spring cleans

No more of these to be sold on Ipanema?

It seems it’s not just Wujiang Lu and Shanghai’s historic houses that are suffering a severe shake up, or, in many cases, total demolition. In hastily tidying up the city for the 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro’s beaches are also subject to spring clean at the hands of mayor Eduardo Paes’ “Shock Order” programme, the New York Times reported today.

The Times’ Alexei Barrionuevo said,

Citing health reasons, the mayor has outlawed the sale of boiled corn and freshly cooked foods like steak and shrimp on the sand. And for still less obvious safety reasons, beachgoers are prohibited from playing paddle ball or kicking a soccer ball near the water’s edge between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Pets at the beach? Forget about it.

In the program’s first month, city officials confiscated 2,375 items on the beaches, including portable grills, drinks, push carts, clothes and cooking utensils. Shock Order agents also arrested 62 people over the past two weekends for not availing themselves of the 4,000 chemical toilets that have been set up around the city for Carnaval — twice as many as last year.

For anyone who has hit Rio’s beaches, it’s hard to imagine them without the array of clothing, food and drinks vendors selling everything from towels to skirts, pastries to shrimp, freshly-made caipirinhas to huge coconuts. But it’s not all bad news, as Barrionuevo reminds us: “In the case of maté, a Brazilian iced tea sold by vendors shouldering small metal kegs, the reaction proved too strong and a ban was relaxed.”

The results appear to be mixed: while the jobs of these vendors are clearly at risk, many of Rio’s residents are welcoming the change and asking it be extended beyond Avenida Atlantica to their own neighbourhoods. Unlike in China, then, it seems these attempts at a clean up aren’t based simply on ‘sanitary’ aesthetics.

Saturday briefing

Would-be contestant at Mr Gay China, courtesy of The Guardian. (C) Dan Chung

This hasn’t been China’s quietest of weeks, so here’s a little cyber digest to round up the deets. Where to begin?

First, of course, has been the will-they-won’t-they state of Google in China. Since news broke over their potential withdrawal from China, developments and debate have gone full steam ahead:

  • Wreaths were laid by a saddened few in both Beijing and Guangzhou, but what about those indoors? Roland Soong over at ESWN has translated some Chinese netizen reactions to Google’s stance, and Tania Branigan has covered Internet experts’ opinion in this video.
  • The US has said it will make a formal protest to China over the cyber attacks Google apparently suffered. Expect demands for an explanation in the coming days.
  • In response to the fiasco, China’s Foreign Ministry said foreign internet firms were welcome to do business in the PRC “according to the law.” The Ministry’s spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, also claimed the Internet in China was “open.” Right. Which is precisely why this particular blog was blocked this week, though WordPress is still good to go. But, as the LA Times reported, the Great Firewall has certainly become a lot less sturdy.

Secondly, ol’ reliable ChinaGeeks pointed us to some notable stories that were hidden by Google’s shadow. For example:

sending just one unlawful text message will result in suspension of the texting service. To get it back, the person would have to submit a written promise to the public security authority not to send unlawful messages again.

This week also saw the potential start of a greater acceptance of China’s gay community:

  • As Shanghaiist told us, Chengdu hosted one of China’s first recorded gay marriage ceremonies last week.
  • On Sunday, Tania Branigan reported that the first Mr Gay China pageant was on its way. This was considered a huge feat for a section of society whose sexual orientation was classified as a ‘mental illness’ until 2001.
  • However, news has recently broken of the pageant being shut down by Beijing police just hours before it was due to begin. Branigan says that officers apparently told the venue’s owners that the pageant was “a sensitive issue”.

Finally, the more sombre news also reached us that human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng is ‘missing’, having been seized and detained by authorities last year. He has long been an outspoken critic of the CCP, having had his law license revoked in 2005.

That Gao has been secretly executed certainly seems possible — much more possible than that he escaped or somehow wandered off, as the police have suggested. That no one will tell Gao’s family of his real fate is truly the lowest form of cowardice.

  • For more information on Gao’s activities prior to his detention, such as his representing underground Christian churches and Falun Gong practitioners, check out this NYT report.

Chinese media in 2010

2010 is already off to a chapping start, but things aren’t so icy on the Chinese media front. Tania Branigan has given us this succinct report of how citizen activism, political discussion, tighter censorship and propaganda struggles could well intensify this year. Things have already kicked off, with cyber activism going full steam ahead: recently, netizens have been tweeting away and registering the Internet domain name CN4IRAN.org in support of December’s protests in Tehran.

The kind folk over at China Media Project have translated and served up a guide to this year’s direction of external news and propaganda. According to the country’s State Council Information Office (SCIO), China “must effectively engage the international struggle for public opinion” and “raise our nation’s cultural soft power.”

And, true to form, no time has been wasted in following through. In the past two days, IMDB has been blocked (although access to CN4IRAN.org remains free-flowing), and Tibetan filmmaker Dhongdup Wangchen has been jailed for six years for his documentary, Leaving Fear Behind, which highlighted Tibetan anger with Chinese policies before the 2008 Olympics. In the past week, the New York Times also reported that Liu Xiaobo appealed the 11 year sentence handed to him on Christmas Day, which has 45 days to be considered.

This also may well be a big year for Ai Weiwei (whose 2009 wasn’t exactly quiet, either). Besides setting up the Earthquake Student Names Citizen’s Investigation, which found around 5000 names of children who died during the Sichuan earthquake, the artist has been busy tweeting and speaking out against the CCP’s various moves. Most recently, he has been heralded as the ‘new model for the intellectuals’.

For now, let’s keep a sharp eye on 2010 and see if Ai Weiwei’s following statement (kindly translated by C.Custer over at ChinaGeeks) will be realised through more action, both online and off:

Today, the government is a part of us, and we are a part of the government; society is a part of us, and we are a part of society. Everyone must assume [this responsibility], whether it’s in their consciousness, part of their mentality, or it’s something they do; everyone is expressing how they want society to be.