A weekly digest of the stories you should be following in China this week, plus exclusive analysis. Delivered Wednesday.
School Death Stirs Rare Scandal in China
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Protesters call for missing surveillance footage after a schoolboy’s death in Chengdu, U.S. filings show an increase in Chinese influence spending, and the government cracks down on fan culture.
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Protests Question Missing Footage After School Death The mysterious death of a 17-year-old boy in Chengdu, Sichuan province, has resulted in a fierce protest at his school and outrage online. The student, whose surname is Lin, fell to his death at No. 49 Middle School on Sunday. The authorities say it was suicide, but the boy’s parents have denied the possibility, pointing to the rapid autopsy and cremation and the lack of camera footage from the place he allegedly jumped.
Parents, students, and other locals gathered in protest outside the school on Tuesday chanting “Truth, truth,” while the news consumed online forums—though many comments were rapidly censored. Nationalists accused the protesters of being “hostile foreign forces” paid to smear China, but state media has now taken up the case thanks to the online attention, possibly resulting in further investigation.
Local protests once commonly got national coverage in China, at least on social media, but censorship and police retaliation have recently limited impact of such scandals. The boy’s death in Chengdu hit a sore spot. It follows other suspicious deaths of teenagers in China, and there are probably more that haven’t made the news in China.
School suicide is a recurring problem in China, which the country’s state media has attributed to the stress placed on students to pass exams or because of bullying by both classmates and teachers. Especially in rural areas, teachers are often inexperienced, and the children of migrant workers often find themselves in cheap private schools with even lower standards. Corporal punishment is still common, although new rules theoretically abolished it in March.
The protests demanding the release of the video footage in Chengdu are particularly telling. Before President Xi Jinping’s accession, sousveillance—the monitoring of the authorities from below by a public equipped with phone cameras and online tools—seemed possible. Cases like that of Lei Zhengfu, a party secretary whose sex tape went viral, provided relief to the public and a way for higher-up officials to monitor lower-level corruption. But as the surveillance state grew, the authorities cracked down hard on unauthorized reporting.
But when deaths occur in a country now more covered with cameras than ever before, the mysterious absence of footage can suggest a problem in itself.
What We’re Following
Chinese influence spending increases. Chinese foreign agent filings, compulsory for state-linked media in the United States, show a significant rise in spending in 2020: $64 million, nearly double the 2019 figure and up from just over $10 million in 2016. The filings for Xinhua, China’s official state media agency, say that while the company is owned by the state, it isn’t directed by it—a strange claim, given that Xinhua is run by party officials and Xi has repeatedly said media must take its orders from the Chinese Communist Party.
The bulk of the reported funding went to CGTN America, a wing of China’s ubiquitous state television station. It’s questionable whether this money buys anything worthwhile: Although CGTN is available in 30 million households, its viewership is likely tiny. Chinese state influence in the United States mostly doesn’t work through obvious propaganda but instead through the gravitational pull of China’s vast market and the possibility of losing access to it.
It’s much more significant that Hollywood refuses to touch Chinese human rights issues than that CGTN broadcasts reports no one watches.
Coronavirus conspiracies. A 2015 text that touches on the use of coronaviruses as bioweapons has received dramatic coverage from some Western media and politicians, including being described as “bombshell documents” in Britain’s Daily Mail. But what is being presented as secret documents is actually a published book purveying a conspiracy theory about the United States being behind the first SARS outbreak in 2002.
Although the book’s author is a senior military doctor, Chinese presses regularly turn out similarly paranoid texts. In the Age, read Anthony Galloway and Eryk Bagshaw on how the book, available online for 50 yuan, was portrayed as a scoop.
Population statistics published. The Chinese government has finally released its 2020 population figures, showing a slight increase last year. But after recent leaks suggested the population may have declined, the official numbers have a credibility problem—not least because they were delayed for weeks. Even the public figures show a significantly aging population and a critically low birthrate.
The statistics have caused populist propagandist Hu Xijin to hint that new government measures to increase births are on the way. What those policies will look like is up in the air. China could offer better financial incentives and child care assistance, or it could restrict abortion and engage in anti-feminist propaganda. Meanwhile, a new report confirms that while birth restrictions were loosened for the Han majority, they were tightened for Uyghurs, leading to a drop in birthrates.
Tech and Business
Fandom crackdown. The Chinese government’s latest target is online fan culture, which it describes as chaotic and disorderly. It’s true that Chinese fan groups, largely devoted to stars or bands, can be extremely dramatic online. But using the power of the state against them is like breaking a butterfly on a wheel. It’s also economically risky: Fandom is a $16 billion industry in China.
The authorities have long been nervous about the influence of South Korean pop culture, but previous crackdowns have focused on stars’ images rather than their fans. But one of the underlying causes of these over-the-top campaigns is that the state has built a huge machinery of repression and censorship. With so many people already silenced, it still needs to justify its existence.
Tesla in trouble. Electric carmaker Tesla has seen sales slide sharply in China after a rash of bad publicity and government scrutiny. An April scandal in which a Tesla executive accused an angry customer of being part of a conspiracy against the company caused a public relations nightmare, and Chinese media has run story after story about the company’s issues. Tesla has halted a significant land purchase in China, blaming the state of U.S.-China relations, and may back off from further investments.
Owner Elon Musk’s perpetually eccentric behavior probably doesn’t help the company’s image with the authorities, who prefer more clean-cut businessmen.
Xiaomi strikes deal with U.S. Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi has been removed from U.S. blacklists, following a series of court battles after the Trump administration listed it as a military-run company. The case was always weak and a little strange, given that Xiaomi isn’t known for its high tech but for its cheap phones and good PR. The move may encourage other Chinese firms to further press their legal challenges to policies left over from Donald Trump’s presidency.
What We’re Reading
A blockbuster report by Robert Barnett in Foreign Policy shows that China has occupied key Bhutanese territory over the last six years. Using Chinese documents, satellite images, and deep research into the region’s history, Barnett and his team detail an attempt to force the small Himalayan country into making concessions that would improve China’s strategic position on the Indian border.