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TL(PM) DIGEST: Everything China Everywhere All At Once
Xi Jinping's ominous war preparations, Beijing's fake research crisis, the Belt and Road bailout, and strange bedfellows in defense of TikTok
1. Is Xi Jinping preparing for war over Taiwan? Sure looks like it
What happened? John Pomfret and Matt Pottinger—a former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief and former Trump administration official who resigned in protest over January 6 and then testified before the January 6th Committee, respectively—argue that recent statements and policy moves by the Chinese government show a distinct willingness on the part of dictator Xi Jinping and his ruling Chinese Communist Party to go to war in an attempt to conquer Taiwan. Xi’s aggressive statements in recent annual party gatherings and legal changes intended to grease the wheels of military mobilization all suggest that Beijing appears to be preparing for war—possibly with the United States.
Why does it matter? It’s important to take what Xi says seriously, Pomfret and Pottinger contend, because his earlier rhetoric about economic and technological decoupling, campaigns against domestic economic institutions, and zero-COVID policy have all been followed up with action. Though Xi “is clearly willing to use force to take” Taiwan, they note that it “remains unclear is whether he thinks he can do so without risking uncontrolled escalation with the United States.”
TLP’s take: War with China over Taiwan remains a frightening but all-too-real possibility given Xi’s rhetoric and moves—one that the United States should work diligently to prevent. But maintaining Taiwan’s status quo also remains a vital American national interest, both in terms of protecting a vibrant democracy from the depredations of its autocratic neighbor and in safeguarding a critical node of the global semiconductor manufacturing industry.
2. Tons of bogus Chinese research undermines prospects for international science
What happened? As the Financial Times reports in a recent Big Read, China has increased its output of scientific and technological research papers massively in the past 7 years (see chart below). But international experts seriously question the quality and reliability of this work.
Why does it matter? Unofficial, for-profit, and illegal Chinese “paper mills” churn out reams of bad data and fake findings in research journals designed to look like official intellectual work—gravely undermining international scientific collaboration in the process. One prominent California-based microbiologist, Elisabeth Bik, examined 20,000 biomedical papers from around the world and found that China had a higher-than-average chance of publishing “problematic” images:
Bik says she uncovered 50 papers by a well-known immunologist working in China “with varying problems from small to heavily manipulated images.” The Chinese government decided after a review that “he was not responsible for any of these manipulated images,” Bik adds. “He got a little slap on the wrist but nothing serious. He is still publishing.”
The problem is so bad now that leading international scientists say they won’t even read papers from China anymore since they don’t have the time or patience “to determine what is junk and what isn’t.”
TLP’s take: One possible way to improve relations with China is for the U.S. to help broker improved standards for collaboration with Chinese scientists and researchers by circumventing rigged Chinese journals and relying more on neutral, third-party vetted peer collaborations. There are plenty of things scientists on both sides can learn from one another—but only if experts in the U.S. and elsewhere can trust the veracity of the work coming out of China.
3. Beijing’s Belt and Road Bailout
What happened? Recent research by a team of economists working for the World Bank found that the Chinese government and its associated financial institutions have spent some $240 billion bailing out more than twenty debtor countries around the world over the past two decades. The vast majority of these bailouts—some $185 billion—happened in the five years between 2016 and 2021, and they’re given almost entirely to countries indebted to China via Beijing’s Belt and Road scheme.
Why does it matter? These Chinese state bailouts amount to a fifth of the International Monetary Fund’s rescue lending, the authors note, making Beijing a major lender of last resort for countries in financial distress. But the terms of these bailouts remain opaque, and they’re largely intended to help these countries keep repaying loans to Beijing taken out to service Belt and Road infrastructure projects—projects that all-too-often start falling apart as soon as they’re finished. Still, Chinese state finance now stands as an “international crisis manager” comparable to the U.S. Treasury or various European Union financial institutions.
TLP’s take: Beijing’s emerging and evolving role in the global financial system remains poorly understood—in part due to the Chinese government’s lack of transparency—but what we’ve seen so far doesn’t look good. Though the Chinese government has pared back its Belt and Road lending, too many countries have already been saddled with debts they can’t pay for projects that deteriorate almost immediately—and Beijing shows no interest in backing away from its “debt imperialism” even as its costs mount.
4. Progressives and the far-right forge a united front to defend TikTok
What happened? As Chinese-owned social media company TikTok faced fierce congressional scrutiny last week ahead of potential government action to ban or restrict the app, leading progressives spearheaded by Congressman Jamaal Bowman (D-NY-16) mounted a counterattack to defend the video-based app, decrying “anti-China hysteria” and “racism” and potential violations of free speech. Leading right-wing figures including Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson have now joined in the defense of TikTok, producing an unusual but not necessarily uncommon left-right ideological front in defense of the company.
Why does it matter? The Chinese government has banned or blocked nearly all American-based internet and social media companies from operating in its territory: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and others. In response, U.S. officials and legislators are heavily scrutinizing the Chinese government’s control of ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, as a potential security threat given the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to demand private data on American citizens and promote propaganda through the app.
TLP’s take: It's not America's obligation to offer Beijing unfettered access to its own digital marketplace, especially when the Chinese government blocks nearly every U.S.-based Internet and social media platform in China. Restricting TikTok is a prudent and reciprocal step to protect ourselves against a foreign security and economic threat. Likewise, the First Amendment doesn't guarantee U.S. citizens a right to an iPhone and access to TikTok in order to uphold free speech—and it doesn't extend to the Chinese Communist Party in any case.
Congress should, of course, better protect Americans from our own tech companies. But that’s not an argument for giving the Chinese state security apparatus free rein in America—it’s an argument for passing more robust tech privacy laws.
Just one more thing…
It’s opening day for Major League Baseball! Here’s who we’ll be rooting for at TLP:
The Minnesota Twins—We somehow managed to re-sign shortstop Carlos Correa after some major off-season drama while bolstering our starting rotation, but as always the big question remains whether or not outfielder Byron Buxton can stay healthy through the whole season.
The Washington Nationals—Another rebuilding year in which the Nats should give its up-and-coming young arms in the farm system a shot rather than rely on fading workhorses like Patrick Corbin.
The Philadelphia Phillies—The team surprised everyone last year by making it to the World Series, and more surprises are ahead this year for a team that's starting the season without two big stars Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins because of injuries.