Brushed off from spending the tens of billions of dollars that it borrows from China on infrastructure it would actually like to build, Pakistan saw U.S. Ambassador David Blome tour the port city of Gwadar, Balochistan, a centerpiece of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and the longstanding site of a superpower tug-of-love. In comments to leave Beijing silently seething, Blome extended the United States’ “steadfast and robust” commitment to the people of Balochistan, a restive hotbed of opposition to perceived Chinese imperialism.
While Pakistani security assurances and subsequent China-Pakistan ministerial meetings that promise to more deeply immerse Islamabad in a Russo-Chinese media ecosystem will no doubt lower China President Xi Jinping’s blood pressure, the sudden pop up after 15 years of a U.S. ambassador at a strategic hub that is supposed to assure the Middle Kingdom unimpeded resource flow from its East Turkestan (Xinjiang) colony to the Arabian Sea will still have him glowering into his Fujian tea.
In fairness to Xi, Blome’s comments could realistically be dangerous to innocent Chinese citizens if interpreted as an encouragement by violent groups. Nonetheless, one-off visits in a country where Beijing arguably holds more cards than anywhere else in the world will only cause him limited consternation. Not so in Belgium where the State Security Service is investigating Chinese entities for possible espionage and interference, as reported by the Financial Times.
With Alibaba at the center of Belgium’s investigation, the outcome has the potential to be both politically and commercially damaging. Since 2021, the company has been controversially operating a 100 million euro ($106 million) hub at Liege, one of Europe’s largest logistics centers, but, it seems, perhaps also hoovering up vast swathes of data for the non-commercial use of China’s Communist Party, which is not a good look.
Reputationally, much damage is already done by the news reports alone, which add to allegations of a $300-million tax fraud at the same location, so other Chinese firms rolling out similar hubs can expect scrutiny to ratchet up. Then, there is the signal from Brussels that the days of porous entry to the European Union for Middle Kingdom entities are well and truly gone. And, of course, Beijing’s efforts to strategically control supply chains are going to suffer either due to closure of operations or the shut down of data flow. Gnashing of the great leader’s teeth is almost audible.
Still, lengthy security probes of arcane cybersecurity issues that can be brushed over by diplomatic sweet talk are one thing; your profound traditional friend literally diving into the ocean with a knife in hand to physically sever your hold over a stolen reef is quite another. Yet this is exactly what the Philippines has done in the West Philippines (South China) Sea to detach a Chinese barrier that was preventing its fishermen access to the Scarborough Shoal.
The stunning action, for which Manila even made a TikTok-friendly video, comes as China continues to occupy and militarize various maritime locations within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, to which China has no valid claim, according to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. It follows the August cancelation of one of Beijing’s most ambitious Belt and Road projects in Manila Bay on environmental grounds, after the U.S. had raised concerns about it and other, similar projects. China-Philippines friendship bridges and goodwill Chinatown arches be damned!
If these moves suggest that the Belt and Road may not be entirely having the influence that Beijing hoped, at least Pakistan and the Philippines remain firmly within its scope. The same cannot now be said for Italy, which has signaled its intention to exit the global project, as per reports in multiple outlets. One reason appears to be a China-favorable trade deficit that widened by $23.9 billion from 2019 to 2022 alone.
While much commentary has focused on the tightrope Rome must walk to leave without the people of China trashing its tourism and luxury goods industries, Italy’s decision is no less of a conundrum on the other side of the divorce. If Beijing releases the full might of its economic wrath, it will reinforce fears that its global infrastructure splurge is a hegemonic trap. Inaction, meanwhile, augurs more potential walkouts further down the line. Either way, the situation is embarrassing, especially since Italy was perhaps the Belt and Road’s most high-profile signup. Heads are aching — or being bashed together — in the State Council of China as we speak.
Incidentally, one of the early figureheads for the Belt and Road expansion was China’s former vice-premier and retired State Council head Zhang Gaoli (張高麗), who shot to international ignominy in 2021 when he was publicly accused by grand slam tennis champion Peng Shuai (彭帥) of coercing her to have extramarital sex with him. Peng has since been walled off from the wider world.
Yet China is now welcoming the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) back to host professional tournaments like the Beijing Open, after the WTA capitulated on its initial support for Peng and ended a boycott of the country. Elsewhere, China is also prosecuting the most visible figurehead of its #MeToo movement, Sophia Huang Xueqin (黃雪琴). Therefore, it ought to be kicking back and basking in the impunity of its leadership and the destruction of yet another social movement demanding equality for the forcibly marginalized.
Infuriatingly, however, women will not simply retreat home to accept sexual assault and make babies for the good of the Communist Party. No sooner has #MeToo been censored and crushed, than a wave of “everyday feminism” is flowering. Bad enough is that, in the absence of other protest methods, women are refusing to help solve China’s demographic crisis and thereby exposing the limits of its repressive techniques, but — even worse — they are being inspired to do so in part from a book written by a Japanese sociologist!
The sociologist in question, Chizuko Ueno, escaped a ban on her book perhaps on the presumption that Chinese readers would nurture a hatred of Japan from its contents, not apply its observations to their own daily lives and experiences. Instead, they are drawing parallels between the two male-dominated societies. Meanwhile, aside from allowing all kinds of opinions to be inconveniently expressed, Japan has strengthened security ties with Taiwan by dispatching a serving official to act as a defense attache there.
Evidently and, from Beijing’s perspective, exasperatingly, this is the kind of placement that might occur between independent allies on the country-to-country level and serves as a de facto recognition not only of Taiwan’s sovereignty, but also of resolve to protect it. It comes as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), a cornerstone of chip dominance outside the Chinese Communist Party’s sphere, steams ahead with a Japanese plant, insurance for its supply line to the world in case of war or other mishap.
Moreover, as 42 Chinese companies are named and shamed for supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, not a little blowing apart Beijing’s paper-thin projection of itself as a benign peacemaker in the conflict, Taiwan’s independent, democracy-based statecraft and — god forbid — civil society are performing well. It is hosting human rights festivals that center Ukrainians’ struggle, rumored to be deepening its ties with Kyiv, celebrating Asia’s number one spot for internet freedom in 2023 and brokering the Chinese dissident Chen Siming’s (陳思明) escape to asylum in Canada after he had petitioned for help at Taipei’s Taoyuan Airport.
Per The Guardian’s Helen Davidson, Chen described his treatment “in the spirit of humanitarian care” by Taiwan, Canada and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as “kindness [that] will be remembered forever.” With Taiwan demonstrating rights-respecting competency and another voice at large to advocate for democracy in China, fists will be banging on politburo desks for nearly as long.
BEIJING ANGER-OMETER: 75/100 Wrath fills the sky (怒氣沖天)