Xinjiang in the Xi Era: Preliminary Remarks

Amb. Vijay Nambiar, Honorary Fellow, ICS, former Indian Ambassador to China,     and Chef de Cabinet to United Nations Secretary General

Image: Cover of Countering Internal Security Challenges in Xinjiang: Rise of Surveillance State?

For many scholars of history, the rule of Qing dynasty over Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjiang did not differ in principle from the European colonial penetration of Asia and Africa. Indeed, Manchu territorial expansion to the north, west and south of China proper was described, in magnitude, as one of the largest territorial expansions in 17th and 18th century world history.

Though the declared aim of the imperial rulers then was to “educate” the Uyghurs without changing their customs, religion, moral principles, food, clothing or language, the induction of Han administrators and the steady policy of population transfers encouraged during Qing times, led inexorably, by the end of the 19th century, to a consolidation of Manchu sovereignty and Xinjiang was turned into a province of China in 1884 bringing it under the Qing junxianzhi or Confucian-trained magistracy.

In the post-1911 (Xinhai revolution) period, Chinese leaders like Sun Yat-sen used the rhetoric of the unity of the “five peoples” [wuzu]—Manchu, Mongol, Han, Muslim, and Tibetan’ —to bring the territory under republican control. During the 1950s, under the PRC, quasi-military Han settlements called Production and Construction Corps were established in northern Xinjiang to exploit the agricultural and mineral resources and to populate the region. Han migration and settlement in Xinjiang continued over the decades and today the Han population in Xinjiang is over 40% as compared to 46% Uighurs.

Comprising one sixth of the country’s landmass, Xinjiang has abounded in natural resources, and provided China connectivity with Eurasia. While the region has faced stability challenges throughout its history, it was since the breakaway of the Central Asian republics from the USSR in 1992 that Beijing began, particularly, to see Xinjiang’s integration as a strategic and economic imperative for advancing its overall position in Central Asia.

For outsiders, the Xinjiang problem is a manifestation of identity politics, marked by the ethno-national resurgence of the Uyghur population.  This has stemmed from a prolonged history of interethnic tensions, discrimination and prejudice that have defined the policies of the Chinese state combined with other elements such as Han supremacism, the suppression of protest or dissent, as well as the repression of all forms of Islamic practice and local culture in the region. 

Within China, however, the troubles in Xinjiang are portrayed against the backdrop of the “three evil forces” (san gu shili) namely, religious extremism, ethnic separatism and terrorism, which have been the major source of internal security challenges in Xinjiang. The Chinese official media has persistently viewed Uyghur political activities through the single prism of their ethno-religious identity. Viewed as a “biological threat”, “a virus” in Chinese society that had to be eliminated, Uyghur identity was consistently projected in binary terms and its affiliation towards Islam was seen as a symptom of the “extremization” of the community and a threat to the national security of China. At the same time the Chinese state, its academics and media have constantly underlined the “sinister designs” of external terrorist organizations and the “anti-China” designs of some foreign countries.

While Hu Jintao’s focus was primarily economic development-oriented, his dictum being that functioning markets, water, electricity and heating were as much part of counter-insurgency operations as “police work and brute force,” with Xi Jinping’s accession to power, a novel approach to governance was adopted in Xinjiang in the light of what was called “new circumstances”. The new focus was firmly on advancing “social stability and permanent order” and the modernization of the Xinjiang governance system and capacity. This shift occurred primarily in the context of Xinjiang’s increased geopolitical importance in China’s neighborhood diplomacy in Central, South, and West Asia. The two main priorities of governance were to advance “ethnic unity” and promote “de-extremization”. Ethnic unity was defined as inter-ethnic relations based on parameters defined by the Party Centre. It stressed patriotism and the subordination of local identity to the larger national purpose determined by Beijing. “De-extremization” effectively meant the redefinition of all local religious and cultural practices from the viewpoint of national unity. It involved the regulation of Uyghur values, beliefs, and loyalties including adoption of dress, appearance and behavior as well as social campaigns, community events, and visual propaganda in public spaces in a manner that was instrumental to the consolidation of political stability. 

The author of Countering Internal Security Challenges in Xinjiang: Rise of Surveillance State? explains that two different trajectories were successively followed in Xinjiang by two senior party officials in the period immediately before and during the Xi Jinping era. Initially, under Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang’s official policy of fighting extremism, violent separatism, and terrorism was pursued with great nuance by delinking religion and ethnicity from extremist ideas. Zhang mingled with people from all walks of life and brought a balanced approach by emphasising improved conditions of the people’s livelihood and by scaling down of the rhetoric of the campaign against separatism and terrorism.

However, the violent attacks inside the region and other parts of China between 2013 and 2014, and especially during Xi Jinping’s visit to Xinjiang in April 2014 changed all that.  In May 2014, Zhang Chunxian, himself in a People’s Daily article called for a “people’s war on terror” and for social stability, in which he declared that terrorists should be “chased down the streets like rats”.  This is hardly the kind of speech that would come from a moderate. In fact, though he was speaking of “terrorists”, his use of dehumanizing references is extremely revealing considering that around the world such references had invariably been used in instances where very grave crimes against humanity had subsequently taken place. Late in May 2014, the party held the famous Second Central Xinjiang Work Forum (XJWF-II) where all seven Politburo Standing Committee members attended and which signaled the new priority attached to Xinjiang by the leadership. 

With the replacement of Zhang Chunxian in August 2016 by a confirmed hardliner Chen Quanguo, it was clear that the central leadership had decided to abandon any kind of moderation in dealing with the troubles of this Muslim-dominated region. Under Chen’s leadership, counter-terrorism, stability maintenance and de-extremisation work were all integrated within a single social control system and surveillance mechanism in Xinjiang. Stern steps were also taken against all elements suspected of providing support to such forces or working against the interest of the state. A whole range of surveillance measures were adopted including physical, electronic, digital and biological surveillance, the setting up of extra-judicial detention camps as well as measures to crackdown on irregular groups mobilising any kind of local religious or cultural symbols and even targeting Uyghur pride.

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping also began to unveil his ambition of an Economic Belt linking China with the rest of Eurasia and Europe along with a Maritime Silk Road linking China through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean all the way to the West, Xinjiang was to become the very fulcrum of this ambitious initiative.  As the main gateway to Central and West Asian as well as European markets through the land, Xinjiang could emerge as a major growth centre in Western China. The plan was to develop the region into a major logistic centre under the Initiative with a railway network in Kashgar connecting eventually to South Asia.

Crucially underpinning such a grandiose vision for the region was the assumption that a secular culture could be nurtured in this region characterized by urbanization, consumerism, education and modern communication. Such a culture, it was assumed, would replace the outmoded religious and ethnic values of the local population of Xinjiang. The new phase of economic development and integration under the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) in Xinjiang was seen as an opportunity to raise the conditions of the local population to a higher level, while, at the same time, establishing the success of the Party’s national and social security policies in Xinjiang.

But things do not seem to be panning out in this manner.  Rather Xinjiang is increasingly becoming the flashpoint of political confrontation between China and the Western powers. On the one hand, a rising China is showing off its economic successes and rise as exemplifying a new model of leadership to the world, one characterised by what Professor Yan Xuetong calls “humane authority” or “Wangdao” (kingly way) of governance, in contradistinction to what he calls the “hegemonic authority” or “Badao” of the “liberal democracies” of the West. But this is belied by the ruthless Chinese policies of detention, forced labour, forced sterilization of women of the minority Uyghur community and Han majoritarian assimilitionism inside Xinjiang.

This has produced a major international backlash, arousing condemnation of China, with calls in the UN Human Rights Council and elsewhere for China to be more accountable, for it to formally adhere to the ILO Convention against Forced Labour and for punitive measures against it including cancellation of the recently concluded investment agreement with the EU, boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics etc.

China’s official response to such charges has, predictably, been to describe them as part of a “deliberate smear” campaign, a sign of anti-China bias and illustrative of the obsolete mentality of ideological confrontation of the Cold War.

Within Xinjiang, however, it is still unclear if the state’s growing determination to control Uyghur minds, to police Uyghur society, and to reorient popular Uyghur attitudes will succeed in bringing local sentiment closer toward Beijing. The present indications, at least are not very promising.

This blog piece is based on the opening remarks by Amb. Nambiar as Chair for ICS webinar on ‘Xinjiang in the Xi Era’  held  on 14 April, 2021.

Do Bilateral Summits Mean Anything Anymore in Diplomacy?

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS

Image: Bilateral diplomacy online course     


“No-show” in Alaska and naked hostility with Moscow at feverish pitch  are raising a big doubt about what President Biden said in his State Department address: “Diplomacy is back at the centre of our foreign policy”.  If Biden chooses to hold a bilateral summit on the sidelines of the upcoming Earth Summit later this month, as is being speculated, who is it going to be with – Xi or Putin? 

Do bilateral summits in diplomacy mean anything anymore? As the Biden administration tries to revive the “American leadership” in the world by signalling “the end of the Trump interregnum, it is largely relying on multilateral and summit diplomacy to achieve the goal. In order to win back trust of its major allies and partners, President Biden has been bellicosely reiterating his “America is back” rhetoric. At the same time, following a spree of virtual foreign policy appearances from Munich Security Conference to G7 to more recently Quad leaders’ summit, “statesman” Biden is now desperately wanting to hold a summit diplomacy with the leader of a major country – not an ally or a friendly leader. The purpose will only be served if a bilateral summit is held with a competitor nation or with an “enemy” power. The sooner it is done, the better. The White House admits its heightened expectations for Biden-Xi summit if the Alaska talks were productive.

Following the World War II, summit diplomacy or conference diplomacy between heads of government became the “New Normal” as the advent of new technology accelerated the tempo of diplomacy. The practice of world leaders calling each other on telephone in the 1930s was epitomized as “hot line” by the Soviet and American leaders. The establishment of the Munich Agreement in 1938 was the result of British Prime Minister, Chamberlain’s flights to Germany – a new trend in diplomacy. Taunting “air diplomacy” of the leaders of the colonial and imperialist powers in the West during the post-war decades, a Ghanaian diplomat once remarked, “Radio enables people to hear all evil, television enables them to see all evil, and the jet plane enables them to go off and do all evil.”

Image: President Biden awaits Xi or Putin?           


But summit diplomacy entails risks too. A point well-articulated by the Burgundian diplomat Philippe de Commynes six centuries ago: “Two great princes who wish to establish good personal relations should never meet each other face to face, but ought to communicate through good and wise emissaries.” 

Trump-Kim summit diplomacy not too long ago, ridiculed by the Democrats as “treason,” serves a good example. Surely, neither Trump (obviously) nor Kim Jung-un (not expected of him) had enough intellectual resources to be aware of the wisdom left behind for modern day diplomacy by the 15th century diplomat and chronicler cited above. Yet even most bitter critics of President Trump’s foreign policy enthusiastically welcomed the prospect of a Trump-Kim first summit in 2018, despite being fully aware the outcome would least lessen (nuclear) tensions on the Korean peninsula. Why? “It’s delightful to watch Donald Trump discombobulate the bipartisan American national security and foreign policy establishment with his impulsive assent to talks with DPRK leader,” is what Jim Kavanagh, the editor of The Polemicist wrote within days after the news of Trump-Kim summit was first made public.

The other good example of risks involved in face-to-face diplomacy, as Philippe de Commynes had warned, is the “2+2” meeting in Anchorage, Alaska between the top “pair” of emissaries of the worlds’ two largest powers two weeks ago. Too much has been already been written on the frothy exchange which was everything but diplomatic for us to chew. For the early reactions on the no-show in Alaska, my two articles – one a couple of days before the talks and one a day after the opening day talks – reflect the heightened tensions produced and not abated by the dialogue in Alaska.

Perhaps, a bigger setback entailed in the anti-climax at Alaska was the dashing of all hopes of much anticipated possible virtual Biden-Xi summit on the sidelines of the upcoming Earth Day global leaders gathering on April 22. “Beijing is seeking a meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping next month if the first high-level U.S.-China talks in Alaska starting Thursday are productive,” a Bloomberg report claimed while the two-day high-level diplomatic tete a tete was still being held in Anchorage. A similar claim was made by VOA news on the eve of the dialogue to be held in Alaska. “U.S. President Joe Biden could meet virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping as early as April 22, as Biden hosts the ‘Global Leaders Climate Summit’ in Washington on Earth Day,” speculated Nike Ching of the US largest broadcaster

Image: Biden’s China policy…?        

Yet the optimists in Beijing welcomed the Alaska outcome and called it “testy opening dialogue”. “Although Antony Blinken was very blunt in talking about a fight between rivals, he did not officially single out China,” observed Professor Shen Dingli of Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, one of China’s globally most respected US affairs watchers based in Shanghai. “The two-day, three-session talks did yield more than symbolic deliverables. Such frank exchanges of dissatisfaction could well become the new normal between China and the U.S.,” Shen Dingli commented.

Who will Biden choose to hold bilateral summit first? A summit with Iran is ruled out at the outset. For two reasons – Biden’s decision to bomb Syria and Team Biden’s condition that Tehran returns to compliance with JCPOA or the Iran deal, i.e. limitations on its nuclear development. Summit with Kim Jung-un was out of question even before Pyongyang fired two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan last Thursday – the first such violation of ballistic missile test ban since Biden became the US President. Two additional reasons are: the DPRK vehemently opposing the US-South Korea joint military exercises; the North Korean refusal to denuclearize without the US first committing to not using nuclear weapons against Pyongyang.

This leaves Biden to choose between Beijing and Moscow. Norman Soloman, who founded the Institute of Public Accuracy in Washington a quarter of a century ago, has appealed for an urgent Biden-Putin Summit in an article last Tuesday. “The spate of mutual denunciations is catnip for mass media and fuel for hardliners in both countries,” Soloman wrote. The urgency in Soloman’s appeal has arisen from the recent outbreak of rhetorical hostilities between White House and Kremlin thanks to Biden’s undiplomatic remark of calling Putin a “killer.” To which Putin replied in his characteristic style, saying “It takes one to know one.” Interestingly, in Moscow’s assessment the Biden remark confirms “He [Biden] doesn’t want normalization” with Kremlin. In other words, this implies no prospects whatsoever of an early Biden-Putin summit.

   Image: Will Biden-Putin summit happen soon?   

On the other hand, despite no-show fiasco in Alaska, there is more than one reason to expect a virtual Biden-Xi summit on Earth Day next month. First, as Professor Shen Dingli, cited above, said: “According to the post-dialogue statements of both sides, Beijing and Washington have agreed to set up a joint working group on climate”. Echoing similar sentiments, senior US officials have described the need for the world’s two largest carbon emitters to cooperate with each other on climate change as a “critical standalone issue”. Second, although ruling out that China is in any kind of hurry to hold summit meeting with Biden, Professor Cui Lei of influential think-tank, China Institute of International Studies, agreed on the likelihood of a virtual summit between the two leaders on climate change: “When positive achievements in these areas take place, there will be ample reason for the two heads of state or senior officials to meet,” Third but not the last, following the appointment of John Kerry as the US Special Envoy for Climate, China followed suit and brought back its most well-known environment official Xie Zhenhua from retirement as special climate envoy. Xie, China’s chief negotiator for the Copenhagen Accord or COP 15 has been described by friend Kerry as “environment man, not geo-politics man.”

Finally, oblivious of the warning by Philippe de Commynes, and going by all positive indications in the spirit of Biden’s earlier remark during Chinese Lunar New Year telcon with Xi on areas of convergence of interest between the two competing powers, Biden and Xi virtual summit in April or in Singapore’s “Davos” WEF from May 25-28 may not promise anything but will be a welcome move to just ease tensions by “opening champagne and celebrating via the internet”. Or, as they in Chinese: “ganbei!”                                             

This is revised, updated version of an earlier article “Biden’s Summit Diplomacy: Who will he choose first, Xi or Putin?” published in Modern Diplomacy on 2 April, 2021.

China’s Art of Thwarting Democracy

Ananya Raj Kakoti, former Research Intern

On 30 June, 2020, President Xi Jinping signed a National Security Law which will drastically curb the freedoms that Hong Kong exclusively enjoys because of its ‘Special Administrative Region’ status. On the very same day, at 23:00 hours local time, an hour before the anniversary of the British handover which happened in 1997, the law came into effect. But, this was only one of the many nails that China has hammered into the coffin of Hong Kong’s ‘higher degree of autonomy’ status.

In 2018, the murder in Taipei, involving two Hong Kongers led to several complications as there is no extradition treaty between Taiwan and Hong Kong. In 2019, Beijing used this opportunity and proposed changes to update Hong Kong’s existing extradition laws claiming that the 2018 murder acted as a catalyst to the formulation of this bill as it highlighted a major “legal loophole”. The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019 allows the Hong Kong government to detain and transfer individuals wanted in territories and countries with no former formal extradition agreement for trial, which includes Taiwan and Mainland China.

This bill triggered the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement 2019, or the popularly known as ‘2019-20 Hong Kong protests,’ causing massive protests to erupt in the city. This bill also caught the attention of many countries which led to diplomatic pressures on the city’s government, with Britain and Canada showing concern for their citizens in the city, the EU issuing a diplomatic note to Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam and the US pointing out that this action will make Hong Kong vulnerable to China’s “political coercion” to which China responded by asking them to not interfere in China’s internal matters and “politicise” the proposal. In September 2019, Chief Executive Carrie Lam formally withdrew the bill, but by then the protests had ballooned into a movement with demands of greater democratic freedom and liberties.

As the protests entered 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak steadily de-escalated the unrests and movements with social distancing became the norm and with it, through voluntary civil society initiatives and legal measure, crowd gatherings were discouraged, giving an impression of apparent “peace” being restored. When the media, in May, announced the drafting of a new bill by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) covering “secession, foreign interference, terrorism, and subversion against the central government,” which was to be added to Annex III of the Hong Kong Basic Law, it caused several diplomatic fallouts. The UK, Australia, Canada and the US, gave a joint statement expressing concern regarding the proposal, as it was understood to violate the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and a dismissal of the “one country, two systems” principle. This draft also ignited the dormant movement and Hong Kong witnessed the largest protest, since the onset of the pandemic.

In March 2021, during the most recent National People’s Congress (NPC), there was a proposal of drastically overhauling Hong Kong’s electoral system, to ensure that city is only governed by “patriots.” While addressing the NPC, Premier Li Keqiang warned the world to not interfere in their matters. Wang Chen, NPC vice-chairperson announced that the changes were necessary as “the rioting and turbulence that occurred in Hong Kong society revealed that the existing electoral system has clear loopholes and deficiencies”. One can say that this is an extremely interesting proposal because the Chief Executive of the city who is responsible for governing and administering the internal matters of the city, implementing laws, deciding policies, and others, is “elected by a broadly represented Election Committee in accordance with [the Basic] Law and appointed by the Central People’s Government” as established by Annex I of the Basic Law of Hong Kong. Thus, ensuring that the electoral college responsible for the election is filled with professionals, representatives, and elites of Hong Kong who are Beijing loyalist, who consequently will elect a pro-Beijing Chief Executive.

These past two years have not been the only time when China has tried to meddle in Hong Kong’s matters. China has tried to encroach on the internal matters of Hong Kong through various means by pursuing policies that could blur the status of Hong Kong being separate from the mainland. In 2003, Hong Kong protested against the city government’s plan to impose controversial and stringent sedition and internal security laws. 2012 saw mass protests when Beijing tried to implement a compulsory Chinese school curriculum, which was later made voluntary, praising Chinese communism and influence the education system of Hong Kong. Protesters said it was to “brainwash” the students.  In 2014, a decision was issued by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), popularly known as the ‘31 August Decision’ in response to the demands of universal suffrage by the pro-democracy activists, which set parameters for the 2017 Chief Executive elections. According to the new framework, had it been adopted, citizens of Hong Kong would have been given the privilege of universal suffrage.However, the nominated candidates will have to be selected by the new nomination committee comprising of pro-Beijing members, ensuring no pro-Democrat candidate could ever get nominated. This proposal enraged the citizens, giving birth to the ‘Umbrella Revolution.’

On the eve of the 23rd handover anniversary, the National Security Law was passed, signed and implemented without informing, the city government or the public, the content of the law. Canada, the UK, Australia, the US, New Zealand and Germany, suspended their extradition treaty with Hong Kong. The US had one of the most severe responses to the law, as it went on to impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, in response to undermining the city’s freedom of speech and political freedom, as a sign of standing with the people of Hong Kong. Considering the souring relations between Beijing and Washington, the US took the opportunity to show its support to the people of Hong Kong in their fight for political freedom and greater democracy.  Steven Mnuchin, the then secretary of the treasury said, that “[they] will use [their] tools and authorities to target those undermining [Hong Kong’s] autonomy.” Mike Pompeo, the then US Secretary of State also stated that Hong Kong no longer enjoys a higher degree of autonomy from China and that the new bill “fundamentally undermines” the autonomy and freedoms of Hong Kong, therefore can no longer receive special treatment under US law. The UK, who was party to the Joint Declaration in 1984 obligating them to ascertain the the provisions of the treaty is adhered to, responsed to this bill by announcing special resettlement policies for the British National (Overseas) Passport holders in Hong Kong from early 2021, in retaliation to which, the Chinese authorities said it will de-recognised BN(O) as a travel and identity document from 31 January 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic also aided China in its decisions, with the world distracted and the pandemic restricting large-scale protests. At the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, on June 2020, Cuba on behalf of 53 countries gave a statement in support of the law and criticised the discussion of the law as it is China’s internal matter, as opposed the 27 countries, represented by UK, who were against the law. According to the Freedom House’s global rating, all the 27 countries against the law are considered “free”, and the countries backing China, which includes Saudi Arabia, Syria, North Korea, are either “not free” or “partially free.” Three small “free” countries also backed China but they, along with several other countries supporting the law are involved in China’s BRI project. Most of the African countries supporting the law are trying to re-negotiate their way out of China’s debt-trap. China’s economic power in terms of its huge investments across continents, could leverage the support of UNHRC for a law it was established to oppugn.

The 2019-20 Hong Kong protests influenced Taiwan’s 2020 election, as it helped the young voters of Taiwan imagine what their future might hold, which finally led to the landslide re-election of President Tsai. Slogans such as “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” resonated among the Taiwanese and Beijing’s offer of “one country, two systems” lost its credibility, as the youth of Taiwan observed the gradual erosion of freedom and autonomy of the Hong Kongers.  China-Taiwan relations and the island democracy’s domestic policies will be drastically affected seeing China impose such draconian laws on Hong Kong.

India has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong through the 1997 Surrender of Fugitive Offenders treaty. Keeping in mind the large Indian community in Hong Kong, along with the many Indian professionals, and students, India can consider re-examining and altering the various extradition and travelling policies with the city. But it must also be noted that the treaty exempts Indian citizens “for an offence of a political character.” India has not released any statement yet from its Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, but its representative at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Rajiv Kumar Chander did point out that India has been “keeping a close watch on recent developments. [They] hope relevant parties will take into account these views and address them properly, seriously and objectively”.  However, if India decides to suspend the extradition treaty with Hong Kong like many other countries, it will indicate India’s position regarding the imposition of the National Security Law.

Hong Kong since its handover in 1997, after Britain’s 99-year lease had come to an end, has been fighting for its political freedom. The signing of a Joint Declaration between Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, at the time of the handover, grants Hong Kong a relatively “high degree of autonomy” for at least another 50 years, until 2047, to “preserve Hong Kong’s familiar legal system and the rights and freedoms enjoyed there,” according to Thatcher, with the intent of Hong Kong’s “continued stability, prosperity and growth”, eventually making the transition a smooth process. Hong Kong did prosper under the “one country, two systems” principle, a feature enshrined in the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, according to which China’s laws cannot be applied to Hong Kong, except for in the matter of foreign affairs and defence, listed in Annex III of the document. The city became an international hub for finance and investments, allowing its economy to boom, a “golden goose” of Communist China. It also helped mainland businesses to raise capital from global investors yet, the current leadership is willing to sacrifice it, and one might wonder why. The reason might be that Hong Kong’s significance in China’s economy has dwindled considerably, compared to what it was in 1997, with Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen leading the race. With Hong Kong becoming an ‘any other city’ in terms of its contribution to China’s rise, Xi Jinping is opting for more control and stability than growth or development. Hong Kong has lost its leverage to maintain its autonomy till 2047, this can only mean that by no means will China allow for more democratic freedom to the city than it already enjoys and no amount of international rebuke will make the country change its decision. As the battle for freedom in Hong Kong continues, with the citizens fighting for their rights hammer and tongs, one can only hope that this city emerges victorious, for now not only its political freedom is at stake, but also its economic future.

US-China Alaska Talks: Substandard Diplomacy, “Dense” Translation-Dual Failure?

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS


The top diplomat “pair” in the Biden administration’s Team China was in Alaska last week to indulge their counterparts from Beijing. As it were, the first high-official talks between the US and China reached anti-climax from the word go. The highlights of two-day drama in Anchorage included hungry visitors, purple hair and Blinken and Yang “going purple in the face.” But why did the first top level diplomatic show since President Biden took office two months ago ended in a no-show?

 Image: US-China talks in Alaska     

The US and Chinese delegation concluded two days of talks in Alaska on last recently. The two sides’ first in-person contact since the Joe Biden administration came to office ended as abruptly as the “strategic dialogue” was suddenly announced. For China, the Party politburo member and director of the CPC Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi and foreign minister Wang Yi attended the summit in Anchorage, Alaska. The US side was represented by secretary of state Antony Blinken and White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan. Interestingly, despite prevailing tensions on both sides, the snow-covered, quiet Alaskan capital was brought alive all thanks to sparks flying between the top diplomats – something as theatrical and as spectacular the world had not witnessed for a very long time. The other highlight at the talks, or rather a “duel” just short of a fistfight, was the “purple hair” woman – an instant hit with millions of Chinese netizens than with people in America still struggling to cope with fast spreading corona pandemic.

Amid two sides accusing each other of not observing diplomatic protocols, the most controversial features in talks in Anchorage was the so-called translation follies committed by the “purple hair” woman sitting next to Antony Blinken. While analysts in the US criticized the presence side-by-side of the woman at the high-level dialogue as “unprofessional.” In China, on social media – reports claim the Alaska talks had remained the “hottest” agenda on WeiBo with 28.2 billion clicks during the two days – “purple hair” woman, identified as the official US translator, was blamed for inadvertently adding fuel to the uncharitable beginning of the talks. Allegedly, her Chinese language expressions were found to be far more “attacking” and “aggressive” than what Blinken actually said in his opening two-minute remarks. 

  Image: US-China trade angry words…     

To commit diplomatic faux pas is one thing; strategic miscalculation quite another. During the Cold War early phase, the US Ambassador George Kennan was “punished” by the USSR as persona non grata in 1952 for comparing Stalin’s Moscow to Hitler’s Berlin. Calling Kennan’s folly a colossal gaffe – “unthinkable for a trained diplomat” – an article in The American Prospect a decade ago cited the legendary Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis describing Kennan as the only American ambassador “to be ejected during more than 230 years of the US diplomatic relations.” Gaddis is also well-known for writing the outstanding biography of the US diplomat who most hated the Russian communism, entitled George F. Kennan: An American Life. Not surprisingly, Gaddis wrote of Kennan’s recall from Moscow “an inglorious conclusion to an illustrious career.”

It is not known if Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s level of hatred for Mao’s or rather Xi’s China, matches George Kennan’s for communist Russia. Indeed, what is certain is unlike the then US President Eisenhower or his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who told Kennan after he returned home “there was no position for him in the administration,” Blinken need not worry about “inglorious end” to his career. For Biden, a seasoned Cold War Warrior himself – as the Chinese address the US President – has applauded his secretary of state for “tough and direct” face-to-face in Alaska. According to a Reuters report cited by the USNEWS, when asked about the outcome of the talks on the first day, President Biden told reporters at the White House the following morning: “I am very proud of secretary of state.”

However, notwithstanding Blinken-Sullivan being given a clean chit by the White House, the first reactions to a rare and fiery kick-off on the opening day when the two sides publicly   “skewered each other’s policies in front of TV cameras” have been mixed and varying to say the least. Referring to “unusually pointed remarks” in the course of both Blinken and Yang Jiechi taking aim at each other’s country’s policies, the Washington Post termed the talks as “staid diplomatic meeting.” In the words of Nick Wadhams of Bloomberg, the talks were a no-show from the start. “Several current and former State Department diplomats said they were horrified, saying we lost control of the meetings from the start and gave the Chinese an easy opportunity to tee off on them,” Wadhams wrote.

Image: Zhang Jing, China’s star interpreter in Alaska    

In China, on the other hand, the government, the media and scholars have reacted from measured and sober tone to hyperbolic and angry outbursts. However, at the end of the talks, Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat who led the Chinese side at the talks said: “The dialogue was candid, constructive and helpful.” State councillor and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi expressed confidence that “the door for China-US dialogue would always be open.” Usually not cited in the international press, the English-language China Daily headlined the outcome of two-day talks absolutely miserly: “High-level talks ‘constructive’”. Wang Fan, vice-president of China Foreign Affairs University, told China Daily: “Dialogue is better than confrontation, and such a dialogue itself means a positive impact.”

  Image: A purple-haired US translator   

Notably, reactions from China’s nationalist commentariat and some non-official media backed by the Party were in sharp contrast as compared with the press release issued after the talks concluded on the second day. For the early sharp anti-US reactions, my two articles – one a couple of days before the talks and one a day after the opening day talks – reflect the Chinese leftist perceptions on the US as well as on the dialogue in Alaska. Following the dialogue, as the Chinese media prefers to refer to Alaska talks, more commentaries have been appearing in the leftist news online platforms and media websites.

Surprisingly, a leading Chinese leftist website carried a signed commentary on Wednesday, entitled “Is Thucydides trap Finally Here?”. Surprising for two reasons, namely during his first official visit to the USA as China’s president six years ago, on the day Xi Jinping arrived in Seattle, President Obama’s use of the term Thucydides trap to describe the US-China competitive rivalry took the leader of the world’s second largest economy by surprise. Next day, after sufficient briefing from his accompanying aids, Xi rejected his hosts’ mistaken analogy and said: “There is nothing called Thucydides trap in the world.” The second reason being the Chinese Communist Party itself dismissed the concept as nothing but a “discourse trap.” Soon after President Xi embarked on his second term as China’s and the CPC’s top leader, the party’s leading theoretical journal Qiushi called upon the party ideologues to avoid falling into trap and instead “construct an IR theory with Chinese characteristics.”

  Image: Icy US-China relations and hot spat   

In a strange and unusual way, another commentary signed under a historian’s blog and posted on the website – China’s equivalent to – justifies Beijing abandoning its taoguangyanghui or “keep a low profile” practice in foreign policy in the face of all-round “attack” on China, especially as was on display in Alaska. The article “Goodbye, taoguangyanghui” applauded the aggressive stance of Yang Jiechi. The article opens with quotes from Yang’s 16-minute “counter charge” – “The US is not qualified to condescendingly speak to China,” “This old disease of America needs to be cured” and “the Chinese people will not swallow this anymore.” The article concludes by saying [the Alaska talks] was an equal dialogue between two major powers, and what China said was the diplomatic discourse of a sovereign nation. “Ours is a call to the world that China has said goodbye to the era of keeping a low profile,” the article emphatically stated. (Emphasis given)   

Finally, let us return to the “spectacle” of “purple hair” woman translator. Not only Lam Chung-Pollpeter, the official White House translator went viral on WeiBo for her translation “misdeed,” she was declared no match as compared to “translation beauty” or “translation wonder-woman” or “translation goddess” – Zhang Jing, China’s own official interpreter at the talks. Commenting on the quality of interpretation by the two top language professionals representing America and China at the talks respectively, a popular Chinese digital news platform wrote: “there were several bright spots in the performance of Zhang Jing; whereas her American counterpart, Lam Pollpeter, looked dwarfed.”

Image: T-shirts carrying “China won’t be bullied anymore”   

Blaming America’s diplomatic gaffe and American substandard translation for the dashing of hopes in Alaska that exposed the growing rift between the two powers, the news platform expressed disappointment over the outcome and evaluated Biden administration as “insincere”. China’s English language “independent” online daily, Caixin Global, while refraining from commenting on Lam’s translation, termed the ties between the two largest economies not only as “frosty” but caught in Thucydides trap. “No matter whether Democrats or Republicans win the US presidential election in 2024 or 2028, we are going to see at least 10 years of frosty ties between Beijing and Washington” Caixin Global commented.               

This is revised, updated version of an earlier article titled “No-show in Alaska: Diplomatic or Translation Failure?” published by NIICE, Kathmandu on 1 April, 2021