1. US-China relations
Biden and Xi held a virtual summit [US readout | PRC readout (in Chinese)]. While the US readout is only four paragraphs, the Chinese readout ran to 20 paragraphs, mostly paraphrasing Xi.
Both readouts are very polite, couched in diplomatic rhetoric 外交辞令. Such diplomatic rhetoric has been helpfully translated by Chinese people online previously:
坦率交谈 — 分歧很大，无法沟通
Talked frankly — great disagreement, cannot communicate
交换了意见 — 会谈各说各的，没有达成协议
Exchanged views — each discussed their own views, no agreement reached.
充分交换了意见 — 双方无法达成协议，吵得厉害
Substantial exchange of views — the two sides could not reach an agreement and quarrelled a lot.
增进了双方的了解 — 双方分歧很大
Increased understanding of each other — the parties disagreed a lot
会谈是有益的 — 双方目标暂时相距甚远，能坐下来谈就很好，没有具体成果
The talks were useful — the parties’ goals were so far apart that it was good just to be able to talk, no concrete results
With this in mind, according to the US readout, the two leaders spoke “candidly and straightforwardly”. According to the Chinese side, the talk was judged to be frank, constructive, substantive and productive “坦率、建设性、实质性和富有成效的”.
The meeting allows both sides to claim success — the fact that they can sit down and talk in the context of the tense relationship is seen as a positive signal for their domestic messaging as well as internationally. Both countries emphasised a shared interest in ensuring that conflict does not occur. The US refers to “common-sense guardrails”, while the PRC used the analogy of ensuring two ships do not veer off the course, slow down or collide 不偏航、不失速，更不能相撞.
However, their differences are evident and remain unresolved. China called for the two countries to find the right way to get along 找到正确的相处之道, signalling that it wants the US to accommodate its interests more as a great power and to be respected on an equal footing. Indeed, China repeatedly emphasised the unique responsibilities of the two leaders: 中美两国领导人的共同使命.
While the US readout did not mention what Xi has said. The PRC readout attempted to paraphrase Biden (justly or not). According to the PRC, Biden said:
China was a great power already 5000 years ago. I want to reiterate clearly that the US does not seek to change China’s system of governance, does not seek to counter China through alliances, and has no intention to have conflict with China. The US government is devoted to pursuing the longstanding one China policy and does not support Taiwan independence and hopes that the Taiwan Strait will remain peaceful and stable.
Taiwan formed a substantial part of the short US readout. The US “opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo” and referenced the “one China” policy, the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances. The PRC only mentioned the “one China” policy and reiterated the same messaging as before:
We are patient and will use our greatest sincerity and greatest effort to strive for a peaceful reunification. But if the secessionist forces of Taiwan independence provoke, or even break our red line, we will have to take decisive measures.
On the surface, it seems a compromise is possible — as long as no one disrupts the status quo or provokes the other side, then peace can be assured for now. However, the tricky thing is each side believes that it is keeping the status quo and is being patient while the other side is changing it through their actions and rhetoric.
After the summit, the US and China announced separately an agreement on foreign journalists. Under this agreement, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times can send journalists back to China. The US will provide year-long visas for foreign reporters.
Less official restrictions for journalists is certainly good. However, journalists will still face unofficial barriers to work in China, including harassment. Further, Haze Fan, who works for Bloomberg, remains in detention, underscoring the dangers of being a journalist in China.
The US is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. A diplomatic boycott means athletes could still attend, but government officials would not. For countries wanting to signal their concerns about China’s hosting, it is a good approach.
After all, it is not essential for government officials to attend the Olympics. Olympics should be about athletes, and they could still shine without government officials being present. For spectators, they would hardly notice the difference.
If the US was to proceed with a diplomatic boycott, other countries are likely to follow.
2. Ideology competition
The idea that the US and China are in an ideological competition mirroring the Cold War has become almost an accepted narrative. Just like the previous competition between capitalism and communism, now the competition is between democracy and authoritarianism, or so the narrative goes.
Recently, Anne Applebaum wrote a The Atlantic cover story “The Bad Guys Are Winning” on the decline of democracy around the world, and called for the US to promote democracy.
In these narratives, the US is the beacon of democracy. However, such narratives always ignore the roles the US has played to prop up authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia. The label “bad guys” and authoritarian is usually applied to countries that are not friendly to the US.
Yet, a new study found that the US and its allies “accounted for a significantly outsize share of global democratic backsliding in the last decade”.
They suggest that much of the world’s backsliding is not imposed on democracies by foreign powers, but rather is a rot rising within the world’s most powerful network of mostly democratic alliances. […]
But, often, the trend was driven by a shift toward illiberal democracy. In that form of government, elected leaders behave more like strongmen and political institutions are eroded, but personal rights mostly remain (except, often, for minorities). U.S. allies often led this trend. Turkey, Hungary, Israel and the Philippines are all examples.
Since there is a negative correlation between being a US ally and democratisation, then it indicates that the US is currently not a force for democracy. Of course, this also does not necessarily suggest that the US is a force against democracy.
Both the US and China are willing to cooperate with democracies and autocracies alike. During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the US toppled democratically elected socialist governments to install authoritarian capitalism. In contrast, in the last decade, the US has not toppled authoritarian governments in order to install democracy. The last time it occurred was Operation Iraqi Freedom, which started in 2003. On the other hand, it is continuing to support Saudi Arabia, including through arms sales, as well as refraining from criticising its allies and partners undergoing democratic decline.
In sum, the promotion of democracy/authoritarianism is not at the forefront of US-China competition.
3. Peng Shuai
We’ve been following the story of Peng Shuai for more than two weeks now. The story has become more incredulous as it generated more attention worldwide.
We wrote when the story first broke that “Going against a senior CCP official (who is not already in trouble with the CCP) can ruin Peng’s life.” Unfortunately, it looks like our fear has been realised.
CGTN published a supposed email from Peng to the WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon. This supposed email was intended to reassure, but it had the opposite effect. In fact, this “email” reminds us of the “forced confessions” that CGTN often trots out on national TV. It is unbelievable and indefensible.
Simon as well as prominent tennis players including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Novak Djokovic have come out in support of Peng, asking about her wellbeing and whereabouts. It is a good sign that sporting bodies and individual players are supporting their colleagues. Indeed, WTA has signalled it is willing to lose business in China over this.
We may see retaliation from the Chinese Government on these sporting bodies and players, even though it would only draw more attention to Peng’s case.