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Supchina: China newsletter by Jeremy Goldkorn

Dear reader,

China’s National Day weeklong holiday continues today. There is not one really big China story, so we’ve compiled a selection of eight timely or interesting items at the top, including our daily trade war update.

As always, just reply to this email to let me know what you think.

—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief

1. China’s biggest private education company buys an English school

Bright Scholar Education Holdings (博实乐教育控 bóshílè jiàoyù) was founded in Foshan, Guangdong Province, in 1994, and listed on the New York Stock Exchange last year. With private schools in Beijing, Shanghai, and 10 of China’s provinces, the company says it is “the largest operator of international and bilingual K-12 schools in China.”

The company today announced that it will acquire Bournemouth Collegiate School (BCS) in Bournemouth, Dorset, England. BCS has two campuses offering day and boarding education for ages 2–18 on two campuses.

It’s an interesting move commercially. Politically, I wonder if there will be blowback. A similar acquisition in the U.S. or Australia right now would be the subject of close scrutiny. But not, perhaps, in Brexit-befuddled Britain?

2. Who am I? Young Chinese seek answer in genetic testing

Life sciences website STAT reports on the growing demand amongst “tech-savvy and college-educated young professionals” for genetic testing services.

23Mofang is a Chinese genetic testing company profiled in the article. Although the name seems to have been cribbed from California-based 23andMe, mofang is not 模仿 (mófǎng, or “imitate”) but rather 魔方 (mó fāng, or “magic cube”).The appeal of genetic testing seems similar to astrology as well as to popular Chinese superstitions about blood type and personality: “Much of Chinese consumers’ interest in genetic testing, though, is rooted in a strong belief that genetics can explain their identity — not only their risk of disease or ancestral origins, but also their personality, their likes and dislikes, and their future. The rhetoric compelling consumers to sequence their genomes sounds like astrology, but with the veneer of science.”The “Chinese customer’s desire to understand their destiny and identity” is the basis of 23Mofang’s marketing: “‘Who am I?’ the bold letters at the top of the homepage read. ‘What special characteristics do I have? What will my future be like?’” Many customers are only children who also want to uncover extended family ties.There are more than 100 companiesin the space, including Shenzhen-based WeGene and Beijing-based Novogene and 360°Gene, which are “also big players.”Related: 5 biggest risks of sharing your DNA with consumer genetic-testing companies on CNBC.

—Jeremy Goldkorn

3. Two foreigners under investigation for racial slurs in private WeChat group

Police in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, are investigating two resident foreigners accused of making offensive remarks in private WeChat groups about Chinese people and Nanjing Massacre victims.

The case was brought to the police’s attention after a few screenshots of WeChat conversations were widely shared on Chinese social media. The two expatriates used racially insensitive language like chink and stated that the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, when more than 300,000 Chinese civilians were murdered, was “over quickly.”

For details and screen grabs, please click through to SupChina.

—Jiayun Feng

4. Why state media fails to make China look good

In yesterday’s Access newsletter (paywall), we looked at the case of the slapping CCTV worker:

China’s central state broadcasterCCTV aka CGTN has an employee in London named Kǒng Línlín 孔琳琳 (on Twitter and Weibo).Kong is an experienced and shrill propagandist. See, for example, China Change’s coverage of her from 2016: The world according to a CCTV journalist based in London.Yesterday, she attended a fringe event at the annual conference of Britain’s Conservative Party about declining freedoms in Hong Kong. Kong began screaming at the speakers and then slapped at a party volunteer who was trying to get her to leave. (Here is video footage of Kong’s outburst from Hong Kong Free Press.)The Chinese Embassy’s response: “The Human Rights Committee of UK Conservative Party should stop interfering in China's internal affairs and stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs. The organizer of fringe event should apologize to the Chinese journalist.” CGTN also complained: China's state broadcaster protests violation of journalist's rights in UK.Kong was arrested and then releasedby British police, “amid stern representations from the Chinese Embassy in the UK,” according to CCTV.“It is the duty of these propaganda workers to dare to ‘draw their swords’ — therefore, it is no surprise that we see high-profile responses from the government and strong support in public opinion,” said Rose Lǘqiū Lùwēi 闾丘露薇, a highly respected former Phoenix TV journalist in Hong Kong. Luwei is quoted in this Hong Kong Free Press piece: Reporter accused of assault released without charge after diplomatic pressure, says Chinese state TV.

As Luwei says, Kong Linlin and her colleagues are propaganda workers: Their main job is to make China look good, to its own citizens and to foreigners. So why would Kong fly off the handle like that, in the process exposing for all her role as propagandist, and damaging China’s image?

James Palmer, a senior editor at Foreign Policy, self-funded his early journalism and book-writing career for several years by working at state-owned nationalist rag Global Times in Beijing, and is very well placed to answer this question. In China’s global propaganda is aimed at bosses, not foreigners, he discusses several factors behind China’s expensive propaganda failures such as CGTN, including what may have been going on in Kong’s brain as she harangued the Tories yesterday:

Kong’s behavior may not have been a spontaneous outburst of outraged patriotism but a deliberately performative event, intended to boost her own career. And the twisted incentives that made that a good idea for her are also the ones that, as I learned in my own time in Chinese state media, continue to hold back CGTN’s attempts to become an effective international propaganda organ.

This makes a lot of sense, and a similar logic may explain some of the intemperate outbursts of Chinese ambassadors we have seen in recent months; see, for example, An undiplomatic diplomat in Sweden and China storms out of Pacific Islands Forum on SupChina. In both cases, the diplomats from Beijing seem uninterested in diplomacy, but rather cared most about scoring points back home for zealotry and ideological purity.

—Jeremy Goldkorn

5. At least Trump didn’t ban all Chinese students — trade war, day 89

Within the past 10 days, U.S.-China relations have been shaken, repeatedly and violently. As we have noted repeatedly in recent weeks, the trade war is just one part of a growing confrontation between the two countries. It is tough to keep track, as it is all happening so fast, but it is hard not to describe this as a downward spiral:

The amount of tariffs more than tripled on September 24 (Access paywall), and tentative trade talks were scorched.China accused the U.S. of “trade bullyism” in an extensive government white paper, and said it refuses to negotiate while the U.S. holds a “knife to the throat.”Trump accused China of election interference, but provided no evidence of a covert campaign.Trump said he “may not be” friendswith Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 anymore — although the Chinese leader never saidthey were friends in the first place.China canceled a diplomatic and security dialogue with the U.S., likely due to a variety of factors, as we wrote on Access yesterday (paywall).

Today brings two big stories, of a further bump to U.S.-China relations, and a previously unreported way in which the relationship was nearly totally derailed earlier this year:

American and Chinese warships narrowly avoid high-seas collision,” the New York Times reports (porous paywall), describing what the Pentagon called an “unsafe and unprofessional maneuver” in which a Chinese navy ship sailed within 45 yards of an American ship in the South China Sea.“US considered ban on student visas for Chinese nationals,” the Financial Times reports (paywall), describing how in the spring of this year, Trump’s immigration adviser Stephen Miller pushed “to make it impossible for Chinese citizens to study in the US.”Terry Branstad, the American ambassador to China, and U.S. embassy staff in Beijing, reportedly played an important role in dissuading Trump from throwing into chaos the lives of 350,000 Chinese students in the U.S. — and derailing U.S.-China relations in the process. But Peter “Death by China” Navarro and others “continue to push for a harder stance.”For more on the complicated debate around Chinese student visas in the U.S., see this piece in MacroPolo: “Who loses from restricting Chinese student visas?

For more trade war and U.S.-China relations news and analysis, please click through to SupChina.

—Lucas Niewenhuis

6. Xinjiang: Beijing hits back with propaganda campaign

“China is mounting an increasingly sophisticated counterattack to criticism of its policies in the restive, heavily Muslim region of Xinjiang, courting foreign media and running opinion pieces abroad as it seeks to spin a more positive message,”reports Reuters. Other new reporting related to the crisis in Xinjiang:

“How is Abdukerim Rahman surviving without his books?” asks Amy Anderson in another horrible but necessary piece of reportage.ChinaFile has a list of the Fortune 500 companies doing business in Xinjiang.Latvia-based website Meduza has published a story titled An internment camp for 10 million Uyghurs: Meduza visits China’s dystopian police state.

7. Marxists at Peking University — update

Last week, the Financial Times reported(paywall) that the prestigious Peking University is threatening to close down its students Marxism society because the students were practicing Marxism by connecting with workers and organizing.

The New York Times has a comprehensive follow-up report: China’s leaders confront an unlikely foe: ardent young communists(porous paywall).Mike Gow, a scholar of Chinese education and culture, tweeted: “Update: while PKU Marxist Society has now received official approval and faculty sponsor, members including Yue Xin remain in detention. Unclear what this means. Administrative, or under investigation by PSB (criminal) prior to formal charges.”See also: Chinese labour NGOs reconsidering their role under pressure from government crackdown on Hong Kong Free Press.

8. ‘China has me’ — today in state media

China is still in slow-down mode for the National Day holiday, and state media editors are taking it easy, too. Top headlines in central state media today:

Run, Zhongguancun! On the 5th anniversary of the Politburo’s collective study of Zhongguancun by General Secretary Xi Jinping” is Xinhua News Agency’s top story today (in Chinese). It’s a bland review of an official study visit to Beijing’s “Silicon Valley” of Zhongguancun five years ago, patched together with quotations from people who think Zhongguancun and China are really great.“China has me, I have China” is the headline of the top story on the People’s Daily website today (in Chinese), a soppy ode to patriotism.Jingoistic rag Global Times leads with an attack on Taiwan today: Opinion: Taiwan buying soybeans to please the U.S. is pathetic and ridiculous (in chinese).Bonus awful Belt and Road propaganda video: Understanding Xi’s Way 2: Solo Vs. Chorus on Xinhua.

—Jeremy Goldkorn


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