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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: military and social media responses to Nancy Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan, a strange wave of anti-Japanese sentiment, and a top official detained over failures to build homegrown semiconductors.
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Ripple Effects From Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit
Taiwanese crowds greeted Nancy Pelosi’s plane with cheers, fireworks, and flags yesterday as the U.S. speaker of the house touched down for the highest-level visit by a U.S. official to Taiwan since 1997. Pelosi conducted a series of meetings with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and various human rights leaders. Her agenda was intended to poke Beijing in the eye and affirm support for Taiwan as well as human rights in China. Her speech, however, emphasized Taiwan without mentioning China.
The Taiwanese public has been considerably calmer than U.S. pundits about the trip. Wild predictions that China might attempt to intercept Pelosi’s plane or otherwise stop the visit never materialized. While multiple Chinese authorities condemned the visit, none of the language used suggested an immediate threat of invasion. Instead, they repeated the theme that reunification is inevitable, and it deployed familiar phrases like “strongly condemn,” “heading down the wrong road,” and “playing with fire.” They also reiterated Chinese claims regarding past U.S. declarations on Taiwan, which Beijing says supports China’s control of Taiwan, an interpretation Washington denies.
Nevertheless, the implications of the visit will likely ripple out over the next few weeks, raising tensions in the strait and worsening an already dire U.S.-China relationship. As expected, China declared live-fire military exercises around Taiwan. Maps showing the scope of the proposed exercises published in the party-owned Global Times and then in Xinhua, the official state media source, marked several areas around the island that appeared to cross into Taiwanese territorial waters. Initial statements said that the exercises would begin on Thursday, after Pelosi left; after she landed, that became a claim that the exercises would begin Tuesday evening. (As of Wednesday morning, videos of exercises had been posted, but not yet at the scale promised.)
If the maps are accurate, the exercises are much more provocative than those conducted during 1995-1996 crisis, triggered by the then-Taiwanese president’s visit to the United States to attend a college reunion. They are closer to Taiwan and will involve a much larger scale of military firepower. That’s not surprising, in that China’s military strength has increased by orders of magnitude since the 1990s. But it’s not clear yet whether the exercises will actually cross the 12-mile nautical limit from international waters into Taiwan’s territorial waters for the first time—or whether they’ll fire missiles over the island itself, which would be a particularly provocative move. (One missile was fired directly over the island in 1996.)
Moving up the exercises to Aug. 2 indicates some sensitivity among the military and party that China’s response hasn’t been the fire and fury that many Chinese expected. The volume of comments on the trip was so heavy it partially crashed Weibo, China’s main social media platform, for several hours. Most online comments, even before censorship kicked into high gear, were aggressive in their support of harsh measures and even war with Taiwan. One particularly common message was “When do we start bombing?” There was a strong streak of mockery and skepticism in responses, too, resulting in a stream of soon-removed jokes at the government’s expense for promising too much. (“I accept that we’re not going to attack, but can’t we at least make her take the mandatory COVID test at the airport.”)
Some of this criticism came from supporters of aggression against Taiwan, angry that the government wasn’t following through on its rhetoric. Nationalist pundit Hu Xijin, who had predicted that Pelosi’s plane might be shot down, was a particular target, including by other prominent ultranationalist bloggers such as the popular “Chairman Rabbit.” One of the underlying problems is that Chinese propaganda emphasizes how supposedly quick, easy, and unstoppable a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be. That’s highly unlikely to be the case in reality, but it seems to be believed by most Chinese—creating a credibility gap when war keeps failing to come.
The actual military action was matched with announcements of trade bans on Taiwanese goods, though largely on marginal items like citrus fruit and some species of fish, as well as limiting imports of sand from China. Economic warfare is nothing new for Taiwan, which has been under pressure from Beijing since its independence-minded president, Tsai, was first elected in 2016. (Beijing went after Taiwan’s grouper fish industry last month.) Tsai responded in 2016-2019 with a careful reshoring plan, as well as the “New Southbound Policy,” which looks to diversify Taiwan’s economy. Both measures, along with Taiwan’s increasingly key role in the semiconductor industry, have resulted in strong growth despite Beijing’s best efforts.
Yet the two economies are still deeply intertwined, with over 30 percent of Taiwanese exports going to China. And more serious measures are likely to be rolled out, including one of Beijing’s favorite bludgeoning tools: unofficial boycotts heavily encouraged by state media, joined by unannounced restrictions by officials, which have been wielded in the past against firms like South Korea’s Lotte supermarkets following Seoul’s decision to install a U.S. missile defense system, and Swedish retailer H&M after it stopped using Xinjiang suppliers.
Measures imposed from the top will be bolstered by spontaneous actions from both government and private institutes. Even in normal times, saying the wrong thing about Taiwan in China is costly. In moments like these, it not enough for institutions to merely parrot the government line; to feel politically safe, officials and business leaders must take action themselves to cancel ties. News portal Sina closing its Taiwan sites yesterday, for instance, could have been the result of a direct order from the government, but it’s equally likely that Sina took action itself as self-protection.
But this type of action, done out of fear rather than a direct mandate from the government, makes it more difficult for Beijing to carry out targeted moves, such as going after businesses based in constituencies that support Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Suppliers canceling Taiwanese orders don’t care whether the business backs the ruling party or the more China-friendly Kuomintang; they’re just worried about association with anything Taiwanese.
None of this is without cost to China—both reputationally and economically. The attempt to coerce Taiwan’s public into submission has largely backfired; support for independence is at record highs, and Taiwanese self-identification as “Chinese” is at record lows, driven mostly by Beijing’s behavior. And while Taiwan represents only a small portion of Chinese exports, much of China’s high-tech industry is dependent on sourcing chips, machine tools, and other key items from Taiwan.
An actual invasion of Taiwan remains impossible in the immediate future and highly unlikely in the short term, as it would require a logistical trail impossible to hide from U.S. or Taiwanese intelligence. The fundamental problem remains: Beijing is increasingly convinced that Taiwan will not be persuaded to return peacefully, but it has to live up to its own revanchist demands—and the implicit promise to the public that it can deliver them. Ironically, one of the best hopes for peace may be the conviction among many Chinese leaders, prevalent since the 2008 economic crisis, that U.S. power will collapse as Soviet power did, depriving Taiwan of its patron and leaving it far more vulnerable to coercion. Holding on to that idea allows for the indefinite postponement of a risky and costly invasion.
What We’re Following
Anti-Japanese sentiment. A wave of anti-Japanese feeling crashed across China this week, sparked by one woman’s act of misplaced Buddhist devotion. Back in 2017, in an idiosyncratic attempt at spiritual reconciliation, Wu Aping, a former nurse and Buddhist layperson in her late 20s who was haunted by nightmares about the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, placed memorial tablets for five Japanese war criminals who participated in the massacre, along with another tablet for Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who protected Chinese refugees, in a minor Buddhist temple in Nanjing. The tablets, which are common in Buddhist temples, went unnoticed for five years until a visitor noticed the names and took photos, which then went viral online.
Anti-Japanese feeling is intense in China, and it’s heavily encouraged by state education and government propaganda. Religious memorialization is a particularly intense issue because of visits by Japanese leaders such as the recently assassinated Shinzo Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto temple dedicated to the Japanese war dead—including, among the 2.4 million names, over 1,000 convicted war criminals. Yasukuni, and the ultra-right museum nearby, are a potent symbol to the Japanese far right, which continues to deny Japan’s many atrocities in China from 1931 to 1945.
The discovery attracted over 600 million views on Weibo, mostly harshly condemning Wu but with some dissenting voices. It also prompted a witch hunt by the local authorities, who sacked the abbot and the monks of the temple as well as punishing local officials. Wu herself faces criminal charges under the vague but commonly used schema of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” potentially carrying a 10-year sentence.
Normally, a local fuss might have been the end of the affair. But China is also in the middle of a yearslong crackdown on religious practice, including Buddhism. Government officials, who oversee officially recognized religious institutions, thus ordered new restrictions on Buddhist temples across the country. (Let me emphasize that this is absurd—the equivalent of, say, the French government insisting on purging Catholic churches because somebody snuck the names of SS men into a parish priest’s prayers.) Chinese diplomats and academics also condemned recent Japanese actions in support of Taiwan and the United States.
With Abe’s assassination—which drew cheers and praise from many people in China online—on their minds, nationalists also took up the incident and called for a widespread boycott of Japanese cultural products. Bans on foreign books, movies, and TV shows have become much more common, especially since 2020. The central government, focused on dealing with multiple actual crises, has largely downplayed these feelings, but many Japanese cultural events and animation festivals have been canceled for fear of backlash.
China in the Pacific. China’s growing influence in the Pacific, from a security pact with the Solomon Islands to its influence-building efforts in Papua New Guinea, has rung alarm bells in Washington. A region long neglected by American diplomats is now a new battlefield with Beijing. As U.S.-China relations steadily deteriorate under mounting economic, military, and technological competition, island nations already battling coronavirus-ravaged economies and the impact of climate change are caught between global superpowers vying for regional influence. A new FP Insider Brief explores Chinese and American strategic and security interests in the Pacific region, the potential economic and security impacts of climate change, and the role of climate development finance in Pacific island countries’ economies.
Tech and Business
The great semiconductor purge. The detention of Xiao Yaqing, China’s minister of industry and information technology, on July 28 is the first fall of a serving, as opposed to former, high-ranking government minister since 2017—and part of what seems to be a wider purge of officials connected to the failed attempt to create a domestic semiconductor industry. Detention by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party’s internal secret police, inevitably leads to a formal arrest several months later, followed by a show trial.
Xiao is one of a group of at least five people who are now under investigation due to links to the “Big Fund,” officially the National Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund, set up in 2014 as part of the government’s push to create a domestic semiconductor industry. The fund raised $21.8 billion in 2014 and another $30.19 billion in 2018, mostly from Chinese local governments and state-owned enterprises. The fund was just one part of the government investment in the industry, but a significant one. The people under investigation as a result include, as well as Xiao, Lu Jun, who oversaw the fund; Ding Wenwu, the president; Lu’s deputy Yang Zhengfang; and Zhao Weiguo, a billionaire semiconductor boss.
As political expert Victor Shih pointed out, the sheer amount of money involved created numerous opportunities for rent-seeking by the directors. That would be business as usual in China. But you can get away with corruption a lot more easily if you deliver results. The Big Fund—and the semiconductor program as a whole—fell dramatically short of the government’s 2020 target of 40 percent domestic production of semiconductors, instead managing just 6 percent.
That became particularly embarrassing thanks to the global semiconductor shortage that started the same year, exposing China’s deep dependency on foreign suppliers—including Taiwan, a global leader in semiconductors. China has stepped up headhunting efforts to Taiwanese talent, as well as corporate espionage against the Taiwanese chip industry; Taiwan has responded with legal changes and police investigations into Chinese firms this year. That failure seems to have demanded scapegoats at home.