China’s new vassal: Vladimir Putin

“When Chairman Mao Zedong visited Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in the winter of 1949, he was very much the junior supplicant. Stalin packed him off to wait for weeks in his snow-bound No. 2 dacha, 27 kilometers outside Moscow, where the humiliated and constipated Chinese leader grumbled about everything from the quality of the fish to his uncomfortable mattress.

When the two Communist leaders did get to business, Stalin bullied his way to a very favorable deal that put Mao on the hook to buy Russian arms and heavy machinery with a loan on which Beijing would have to pay interest.

Seven decades later, the power dynamics reveal a radical reset. Shortly before invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to the Winter Olympics in Beijing to proclaim the “no limits” friendship with China’s Xi Jinping, but there’s no doubting who the real superpower is in that duo these days. China’s $18-trillion economy is now 10 times mightier than Russia’s. Beijing will hold nearly all the good cards in setting the terms of any financial lifelines from big brother.

As Russia faces a sharply contracting economy under sanctions and an impending oil embargo from Europe, China is the obvious potential benefactor for Putin to turn toward.

Xi shares Putin’s hostility to the West and NATO, but that doesn’t mean he will be offering unalloyed charity. Xi’s overriding strategic concern is China’s prosperity and security, not saving Russia. Beijing is likely to buy at least some oil diverted from Europe, but only at a hefty discount from global benchmarks. China will only help Russia to the extent that it doesn’t attract sanctions and imperil its own ability to sell goods to rich countries in North America and the EU.”

“For years, Chinese officials have been quietly lobbying their Russian counterparts to cut arms sales to India, which has had a sometimes bloody border dispute with Beijing.

Between 2017 and 2022, India was the largest arms export market for Russia, followed by China, according to statistics from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Fighting Indian soldiers armed with Russian equipment may not be fun for China, but it’s certainly a lucrative business for Russia.

Before the war, “Russia was very stubborn and [would] say, ‘Oh, you’re not in a position, China, to dictate us our choices to whom we sell weapons. But I think that China will be in this position probably five years down the road,” said Alexander Gabuev, an expert on Russia-China relations with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank.

India, for its part, is trying to keep an open relationship with Putin. New Delhi, like Beijing, is snapping up cheap oil, even though it’s also eager to maintain strong ties with the U.S.”

Why Biden’s off-the-cuff comment about defending Taiwan matters

“at a news conference in Tokyo, Biden was asked by a journalist: “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

“Yes,” said Biden. “That’s the commitment we made.”

Biden’s remark might be a big deal. US policy toward Taiwan has been one of “strategic ambiguity” for four decades — supporting Taiwan’s independence without quite saying so. As part of the “One China” policy, the US does not recognize the democratic island nation of Taiwan, but maintains “a robust unofficial relationship” with it, according to the State Department. (The US supports Taiwan with weapons and has deep economic ties with the country.) In a phrase, Biden broke down that convention.

At the same time, it wasn’t a particularly revelatory moment. It was actually the third time that Biden has said something along these lines. In October 2021, Biden stated a similar “commitment” to Taiwan. In August 2021, Biden compared the US approach to Taiwan to its pledge to defend NATO countries. (An official then walked back those remarks).

All of those comments reveal a lot about Biden’s tendency for undisciplined, off-the-cuff responses — another example is his remark in late March that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” — but don’t necessarily represent major policy shifts.

Today, once again, the White House quickly disavowed Biden’s statement. “As the president said, our policy has not changed,” a White House official said.”

The Pandemic Killed Dissent in Hong Kong

“When Great Britain returned control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, a condition of the transfer was that Beijing would allow the territory to maintain its own government until 2047. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has never liked this agreement, and the COVID-19 pandemic provided the excuse to all but erase the “one country, two systems” distinction.

The CCP began its authoritarian assimilation of Hong Kong in 2019, when Beijing encouraged CCP loyalists in Hong Kong’s legislature to pass a law allowing extradition of residents to mainland China. That proposal sparked pro-democracy protests and a police crackdown in Hong Kong, which captured the world’s attention.

In June 2020, Beijing responded to the pro-democracy movement by requiring Hong Kong to implement a national security law that “introduc[ed] ambiguously defined crimes such as separatism and collusion that can be used to stifle protest,” as The New York Times put it. But the pandemic provided Beijing with an even bigger opportunity to suppress dissent.

Citing public health concerns, Hong Kong postponed its Legislative Council (LegCo) elections for a year. In the interim, Beijing changed LegCo election rules to reduce the number of directly elected seats and to require that candidates pledge their loyalty to mainland China.

With only Beijing-aligned “patriots” on the ballot, CCP loyalists swept the 2021 LegCo elections. Many leading opposition politicians went into exile, while others were jailed. Voter turnout was a paltry 30 percent—the lowest since the handover in 1997. By comparison, a record 71 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2019 district council elections. The high turnout was reportedly driven by opposition to the extradition treaty, and pro-democracy candidates won 85 percent of the available seats.

The pandemic also has facilitated suppression of pro-democracy protests. Every June since 1990, residents of Hong Kong had marched and held a vigil in memory of the Tiananmen Square dead. But in 2020, Hong Kong announced that it would extend social distancing restrictions until June 5, the day after the massacre’s anniversary.

Hong Kong’s COVID-19 rules banned public meetings of more than eight people, with a potential penalty of six months in jail. As a result, only a small vigil was held. Organizers nevertheless were arrested and sentenced to up to 14 months in jail. The sentencing judge remarked that they had “belittled a genuine public health crisis.””

America is trying to fix the chip shortage one factory at a time

“Making chips is an intricate process, but building a factory that can do this type of manufacturing is even more complicated. For one thing, fabs can’t go just anywhere. They need to be close to a reliable source of electricity, since they can use as much energy as 50,000 homes in a single year (they release a lot of carbon emissions, too). These factories also need to be near a large body of water, which they use to clean and cool down their equipment, which, in turn, produces wastewater that needs to be treated. And it’s better if they’re not particularly close to any airports or geological fault lines; seismic activity can disrupt the incredibly precise machinery they use.

Then there’s the matter of the supply chain. Beyond the fab, making a chip can involve 70 different border crossings and more than 1,000 steps, and a single disruption in one country or during a particular step can throw the entire process off course. That’s because there are usually very few, if any, other options for supplies when something goes wrong. For example, just one company in the Netherlands, ASML, makes the specialized, $200 million lithography tools that many advanced chip fabs rely on. And just two firms, both based in Ukraine, supply about half of the specialized neon gas that fabs throughout the world use to control these lasers. Of course, securing all this equipment has gotten even more difficult during the pandemic.”

“concern is based, in part, on fears that China may invade Taiwan at some point and attempt to take control of its chip-manufacturing capacity. But there are other reasons to be worried about the state of US semiconductors. The US doesn’t currently make very many of the most basic, or legacy, chips, which are typically produced where they can be made for less. These are the chips that became unavailable during the pandemic, and that made lots of technology hard to find and drove up car prices. The US will also need to manufacture more chips to maintain its hold on the auto industry, since EVs will likely need at least twice as many chips as their gas-powered counterparts do.”

Hong Kong ushers in a new era of restriction under John Lee

“John Lee is the new chief executive of Hong Kong. The 64-year-old ran the only approved campaign to succeed Carrie Lam, the embattled head of the Chinese territory who oversaw a dramatic degradation to democratic institutions throughout 2019’s pro-democracy protests. Lee’s tenure will likely bring more of the same: a former deputy chief of Hong Kong’s police force, he was instrumental in the brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy activists.

As the sole Beijing-approved candidate to replace Lam, Lee’s victory was all but assured as soon as he announced his candidacy. While Hong Kong doesn’t have what Americans would recognize as a democratic electoral system, previous elections have seen multiple candidates vie for Hong Kong’s top job. But this year, Lee was the only person Beijing apparently deemed sufficiently loyal to China’s Communist Party under its new electoral policies for Hong Kong, unveiled last March. He won handily with 99 percent of the votes from the 1,500-member electoral commission.”

Despite the Strange New Respect for Mitt Romney, He Still Was Wrong about Russia

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made Sen. Mitt Romney winner of the latest “strange new respect” award. When running for president in 2012 Romney insisted that Russia was “without question our number one geopolitical foe.” He’s being held up as a geopolitical prophet even though he was ostentatiously wrong then and remains wrong today.”

“Despite Moscow’s unhappiness with US policy, only in Georgia had Moscow responded violently toward a military threat. And that appeared to be a one‐off event. The Putin government did little to obstruct Washington’s imperious, incompetent interventions despite Putin’s 2007 criticism. And the two countries were nowhere at existential odds. Indeed, cooperation even seemed possible on regional issues, such as addressing the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.
Nor had the Russian army performed particularly well in Georgia, exhibiting “structural and technological weaknesses,” according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. IISS also noted that “the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff remain on the whole reluctant to reform and modernize.” The Putin government sought to reform its armed forces, but the process was nowhere near complete by 2012. Prior to the US election IISS noted that despite claims modernization objectives had been largely achieved, “the reforms have not always run smoothly.” In particle, “personnel issues continue to bedevil the modernization process.” Finally, “modernizing the equipment used by military personnel is another challenge.” Although the Russian armed forces were improving, they did not threaten the US in any significant way, nor should they overmatch European capabilities, at least if America’s allies contributed meaningfully to their own defense.

There was nothing that justified calling Russia a geopolitical foe, let alone America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” And there probably wouldn’t have been reason to make that argument today absent events of 2014.”

“Yet even his terrible war on Ukraine doesn’t directly threaten America. At least so long as both Washington and Moscow avoid a clash that could escalate. Putin may grow more reckless having presumably miscalculated in expecting an easy victory. The Biden administration might grow more aggressive in supporting Kyiv to maximize Russia’s distress. Putin’s nuclear alert is a reminder of the global stakes, especially if he feels he has painted himself in a corner.

Thankfully, unlike during the Cold War, Moscow and Washington are not playing a winner‐take‐all ideological game. The US remains vastly stronger militarily and America and Russia still have no essential territorial disputes. Although their objectives sometimes conflict in areas such as the Middle East, that has been exacerbated by the steady deterioration of their relations over the last eight years, which has encouraged Moscow to challenge the US globally. Another unfortunate consequence: The Putin government also has turned to Beijing, but additional American pressure only pushes them closer.

Moreover, Moscow lacks the power to dominate Europe, let alone Eurasia. Europe still should be defended, but it is long past time for the Europeans to take over that responsibility. Indeed, Russia’s attack on Ukraine should be the famed fire bell in the night for Europeans. Already Moscow has unified both NATO and the European Union against his country. He even has provided a demonic figure, not quite as dramatic as Adolf Hitler, but still sufficient to enrage his opponents.

The US can be most effective not by rushing more forces to Europe, but rather by calling its allies to account. Washington should make clear that Putin’s criminal aggression has not changed the fact that for America China remains a far more significant challenge. Their security is ultimately their responsibility.”

” Russia’s lawless attack is an atrocity but does not change basic geopolitical reality: Moscow is principally a problem for Europe, not America. Since the end of the Cold War Russia stopped being a significant geopolitical foe of the US and has not turned into one since. Dealing with the ongoing war still won’t be easy. However, while punishing Russia for its criminal conduct Washington must ensure that neither it nor its alliance partners get drawn in. That could turn a limited conflict into a nuclear confrontation and a world in which no one would be debating geopolitical threats anymore.”

Sony loses millions after rejecting China’s demand to remove Statue of Liberty from new ‘Spider-Man’ film

“In China, films are reviewed by the China Film Administration under the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Chinese authorities initially wanted Sony and Marvel Studios to take out the American landmark, which is prominently featured during the film’s third act, according to multiple sources.

Chinese regulators reportedly modified the original request to remove the action-packed sequence, instead asking for the removal of certain shots from the sequence that they deemed too “patriotic,” such as the scenes where Tom Holland’s Spider-Man stands on the Statue of Liberty’s crown. The regulators also suggested dimming the parts when the statue is shown to make it less noticeable.

Sony ultimately rejected the request, resulting in Chinese authorities preventing the latest Spider-Man film from being released in the biggest film market in the world. The film lost a potential $170 million-$340 million in sales from China, according to reports.”

How China’s zero-Covid policy is failing Shanghai

“Shanghai, China’s bustling cosmopolis of 26 million has been under lockdown since late March under the nation’s strict “dynamic zero-Covid” protocols, a system so poorly managed that residents are frequently unable to access basic necessities like food, medications, and medical care, prompting fairly widespread, spontaneous protests both online and in real life.

The government has touted the zero-Covid strategy, the government’s system of containment using intensive testing and tracing, combined with partial or complete lockdowns when a case is detected, has kept case counts and deaths low over the past two years. But the reports coming out of Shanghai suggest that the local government was unprepared for an outbreak in the country’s economic center and cast doubt on the feasibility of zero Covid at this point in the pandemic. That’s translated into serious struggles for residents, including hours-long ambulance wait times, dwindling savings, and inadequate or rotten food supplies, among others. Although the central government is reportedly stepping up efforts to get supplies to the city, the overall policy is driving many residents to criticize the government’s policy — and Shanghai’s implementation of it — despite serious potential risks to their safety and freedom by doing so.”

“The Shanghai outbreak is thus far China’s most serious since the beginning of the pandemic; a staggering 200,000 cases have been reported since the outbreak started in March, though that’s likely under-reported, according to the New York Times. What started as a patchwork of temporary lockdowns to limit the spread of disease quickly turned into an interminable, city-wide shutdown with people only allowed out to take PCR tests, as a New York magazine piece explained earlier this week. Shanghai’s lockdown, two years into the pandemic, is rivaled only by those in Wuhan in 2020 and Xi’an at the end of last year in terms of strictness.

Shanghai residents’ outrage — which they’ve expressed by singing and chanting from their balconies and co-opting anti-American hashtags used by government officials to criticize the US — is borne from the fact that the government isn’t providing the stability it promises in exchange for personal freedoms, according to Rui Zhong, program associate at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “I think what makes people angry in Shanghai, and what made people angry in Xi’an is, Covid has been a problem for years,” she told Vox. “I think they’ve been really stunned at the degree to which their local officials haven’t necessarily prepared, including non-supply-chain issues,” like hospital admissions.”

“Shanghai’s local government enjoys a degree of relative autonomy in the context of President Xi Jinping’s China; it’s technically directly under the control of the central government, as a province-level city, but enjoys special status as the country’s financial hub and a showpiece for the rest of the world. Until March, the local government had handled the pandemic well, with no major outbreaks. But the rapid onset of the omicron variant and the corresponding draconian government measures are pushing some citizens to the brink.

“I have no more money … What am I to do? I don’t care anymore,” one man shouts to his whole building in a viral video on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. “Just let the Communist Party take me.””