Even Alibaba Entrepreneur Jack Ma Cannot Speak His Mind in Communist China

(p. A1) Chinese President Xi Jinping personally made the decision to halt the initial public offering of Ant Group, which would have been the world’s biggest, after controlling shareholder Jack Ma infuriated government leaders, according to Chinese officials with knowledge of the matter.

. . .

In a speech on Oct. 24 [2020], days before the financial-technology giant was set to go public, Mr. Ma cited Mr. Xi’s words in what top government officials saw as an effort to burnish his own image and tarnish that of regulators, these people said.

At the event in Shanghai, Mr. Ma, the country’s richest man, quoted Mr. Xi saying, “Success does not have to come from me.” As a result, the tech executive said, he wanted to help solve China’s financial problems through innovation. Mr. Ma bluntly criticized the government’s increasingly tight financial regulation for holding back technology development, part of a long-running battle between Ant and its overseers.

. . .

During his 21-minute speech, he criticized Beijing’s campaign to control financial risks. “There is no systemic risk in China’s financial system,” he said. “Chinese finance has no system.”

He also took aim at the regulators, saying they “have only focused on risks and overlooked development.” He accused big Chinese banks of harboring a “pawnshop mentality.” That, Mr. Ma said, has “hurt a lot of entrepreneurs.”

His remarks went viral on Chinese social media, where some users applauded Mr. Ma for daring to speak out. In Beijing, though, senior officials were angry, and officials long calling for tighter financial regulation spoke up.

After Mr. Xi decided that Ant’s IPO needed to be halted, financial regulators led by Mr. Liu, the leader’s economic czar, convened on Oct. 31 and mapped out an action plan to take Mr. Ma to task, according to the government officials familiar with the decision-making.

For the full story, see:

Jing Yang and Lingling Wei. “China’s President Personally Scuttled Record Ant IPO.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Nov 13, 2020): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 12, 2020, and has the title “China’s President Xi Jinping Personally Scuttled Jack Ma’s Ant IPO.”)

Censored Chinese Liberals Admire Trump’s “No-Filter Approach to Free Speech”

(p. A27) People like the Hong Kong-based media tycoon Jimmy Lai think a return of the Washington consensus would be a mistake. A fervent supporter of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, Mr. Lai is also a staunch Trump supporter.

“Biden will try to make progress through trade-offs, but that hasn’t worked in the past,” Mr. Lai told me by phone recently. “Trump has succeeded by playing hardball.”

Mr. Lai pointed out, for example, that Mr. Trump had dramatically increased weapons sales to Taiwan, a self-governing island off China’s coast that China claims as its own, a move that could help deter an attack from the mainland. Past U.S. administrations had tiptoed around weapons sales for fear of angering Beijing, arguably weakening Taiwan’s defenses in the process.

Yet these diplomatic issues are secondary to what really interests many Chinese liberal intellectuals: the American culture wars, in which some see a reflection of the debates about the limits of free speech in China. Given how robust public discussion is in the United States, the comparison may seem overdrawn. But it speaks to the intensity with which many Chinese thinkers want Western liberal democracies to remain free.

The issue of political correctness in particular fascinates them, with many seeing in it uncomfortable echoes of their own experiences in a society where speech is severely constrained. They perceive Mr. Trump as embodying the sort of no-filter approach to free speech that they dream of, while viewing American liberalism as having strayed from its core values.

For the full commentary, see:

Ian Johnson. “Why Chinese Liberals Like Trump.” The New York Times (Friday, November 20, 2020): A27.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 18, 2020, and has the title “Why Do Chinese Liberals Embrace American Conservatives?”)

Chinese Communists “Denounced Pet Dogs as a Self-Indulgent Trend Imported From the West”

(p. A13) HONG KONG — In a southwestern corner of China, walking a dog can potentially get the animal killed by the authorities.

After receiving complaints of dogs biting children in Weixin County in Yunnan Province, officials have said they would ban dog walking and put in place a harsh three-strike penalty system.

For pet owners who flouted the ban the first strike would be a warning. Caught a second time, they would be fined. For a third offense, their dogs would be seized and killed, according to the new rules, and apparently regardless of the dogs’ behavior. The ban is set to take effect on Friday [November 20, 2020].

. . .

As recently as 2014, an op-ed in People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, denounced pet dogs as a self-indulgent trend imported from the West and a blight on “social peace and harmony.” It said that the animals’ droppings were like “land mines” on China’s streets.

For the full story, see:

Tiffany May and Amy Chang Chien. “For Some Dogs in China, A Walk Is a Capital Crime.” The New York Times (Friday, November 20, 2020): A13.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 19, 2018, and has the title “A Chinese County Aims to Curb Dog Walking by Threatening to Kill the Dog.”)

Grandma Wong Waves a Union Jack as “a Symbol of the Rights Protected by the British Government”

(p. A11) HONG KONG — When protests swept Hong Kong last year, Alexandra Wong, better known as “Grandma Wong,” always seemed to be there. Day after day, she stood out among the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators as a small woman with short gray hair waving a large British flag.

Then, during a few tumultuous days in August [2020] when the police fired tear gas in a subway station and protesters shut down the city’s airport, Ms. Wong, 64, suddenly vanished.

. . .

Ms. Wong said she had been detained while crossing the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen on Aug. 14, and spent 15 days in administrative detention without being told of her crimes. Investigators grilled her about the protests, the British flag and whether she used violence, she said. They showed her photos of protesters and asked her if she knew them.

. . .

She was eventually released on a form of bail that prevented her from leaving Shenzhen.

. . .

Before she was released, she said, she was forced to say on video that she had not been abused while in custody, that she would not talk to the news media about her experience and that she would never protest again.

Last month, one full year after the initial bail period began, she was given the necessary paperwork allowing her to leave Shenzhen and return to Hong Kong.

. . .

For Ms. Wong, protesting now comes with greater risks. Waving a Union Jack — in her mind a symbol of the rights protected by the British government, not an endorsement of colonialism — has become “very dangerous,” she said. But detention has only strengthened her resolve for democracy.

Despite the pledges she made under duress, she continues to protest, and recently took the subway for an hour to the northeast corner of Hong Kong Island, where a trial is scheduled to begin for six young demonstrators charged with illegal assembly.

She walked to the courthouse carrying a handwritten sign: “Save HK Youths.”

For the full story, see:

Austin Ramzy. “After Vanishing in August, ‘Grandma Wong’ Returns to Hong Kong Protests.” The New York Times (Wednesday, November 11, 2020): A11.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Nov. 12, 2020, and has the title “Hong Kong Protest Icon Mysteriously Vanished. Then She Returned, Unbowed.”)


Piketty Stands Up to Chinese Communist Censorship

(p. A11) PARIS — With his in-depth critique of Western capitalism, detailed in a 700-page book that enjoyed record sales in 2014, France’s rock-star economist Thomas Piketty was well regarded by Chinese leaders.

That was until he turned his attention to China.

Mr. Piketty said Monday that his follow-up book, “Capital and Ideology,” which broadens his study of the rise of economic inequality to non-Western countries such as China and India, is unlikely to be published in mainland China because he refused requests from Chinese publishers to cut parts of it.

“For the time being, there will be no book in China,” said Mr. Piketty, one of the most high-profile academics to stand up to China, calling the requests “ridiculous” and equating them with censorship.

“They shouldn’t be afraid of a book like that, it’s a sign of weakness,” Mr. Piketty said in a phone interview.

. . .

The requested cuts include parts that point out the “extremely rapid rise of inequality” in China, to levels comparable to those seen in the United States. Others highlight issues like China’s lack of an inheritance tax, which Mr. Piketty says results in a significant concentration of wealth.

“It is truly paradoxical that a country led by a Communist Party, which proclaims its adherence to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ could make such a choice,” Mr. Piketty wrote in a paragraph that he said Citic Press asked to be cut.

. . .

Among the requested cuts were sections critical of the Chinese government, which Mr. Piketty wrote, “has yet to demonstrate its superiority over Western electoral democracy.”

The appearance of Mr. Piketty’s book comes as China has been confronted with an unprecedented economic slowdown. A trade war with the United States and the effects of the coronavirus crisis have brought China’s nearly half-century-long run of growth to an end.

Mr. Piketty said that censoring his book “seems to illustrate the growing nervousness of the Chinese regime and their refusal of an open debate on the different economic and political systems.”

. . .

“If they’re afraid of a book like this, what are they going to do with the demonstrators in Hong Kong or one day in Beijing or Shanghai, as it will eventually happen?” Mr. Piketty asked.

For the full story, see:

Constant Méheut. “Rejecting Censorship of His Book, French Economist Stands Up to China.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 1, 2020): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date August 31, 2020, and has the title “Rejecting Censorship of His Book, a French Star Economist Stands Up to China.”)

The book Thomas Piketty is defending against communist Chinese censorship is:

Piketty, Thomas. Capital and Ideology. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2020.

Epidemic Showed Limits of China’s “Government-Driven, Top-Down Solutions”

(p. B1) WULONGQIAO, China — A devastating disease spreading from China has wiped out roughly one-quarter of the world’s pigs, reshaping farming and hitting the diets and pocketbooks of consumers around the globe.

China’s unsuccessful efforts to stop the disease may have hastened the spread — creating problems that could bedevil Beijing and global agriculture for years to come.

. . .

The epidemic shows the limits of China’s emphasis on government-driven, top-down solutions to major problems, sometimes at the expense of the practical. It has also laid bare the struggle of a (p. B6) country of 1.4 billion people to feed itself.

. . .

When the swine fever began to spread 16 months ago, the Ministry of Agriculture told the country’s local governments to cull all pigs in herds if there was even one sick animal, and to compensate the farmers. The ministry authorized local governments to pay up to $115 for the largest pigs, a cap later raised to $170. Before the epidemic, however, many pigs sold for $250 or more apiece, particularly breeding sows, according to government data. With the epidemic, the price has soared to $600 or more.

To get that partial reimbursement, many farmers had to deal with tightfisted local officials. The ministry said it would reimburse local governments only for between 40 percent and 80 percent of their costs. Local governments also had to provide proof, often including laboratory tests, that pigs died of African swine fever and not some other ailment.

As a result, culling has been slow. Official data show only 1.2 million pigs, or less than 0.3 percent of the country’s herds, have been culled. It is not clear where the rest of the country’s vanished herds went, but food experts say many were likely butchered and turned into food. That would worsen the spread, because the disease can lurk in meat for months.

For the full story, see:

Keith Bradsher and Ailin Tang. “China Flubs Effort to Halt Lethal Turn Of Pig Illness.” The New York Times (Thursday, December 26, 2019): B1 & B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 17, 2019, and has the title “China Responds Slowly, and a Pig Disease Becomes a Lethal Epidemic.”)

Opposed by China and WHO, Trump Administration Declared Covid-19 Public Health Emergency on January 31, 2020

(p. A1) The U.S. imposed entry restrictions on foreign nationals and quarantines on Americans returning from the Chinese province at the center of the coronavirus outbreak, as markets tumbled over fears about the impact on global growth.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency Friday [Jan. 31, 2020]. He said foreign citizens who have traveled anywhere in China within the past 14 days would be denied U.S. entry, while Americans who visited Hubei province would be quarantined for up to two weeks.

. . .

(p. A8) “Many countries have offered China support in various means. In sharp contrast, certain U.S. officials’ words and actions are neither factual nor appropriate,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “Just as the WHO recommended against travel restrictions, the U.S. rushed to go in the opposite way.”

For the full story, see:

Alex Leary and Brianna Abbott. “U.S. Curbs Entry to Combat Virus.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, February 1, 2020): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 31, 2020, and has the title “U.S. Imposes Entry Restrictions Over Coronavirus.”)

W.H.O. Helped Authoritarian Communist Chinese Leaders Conceal Origin of Covid-19

(p. A1) GENEVA — On a cold weekend in mid-February [2020], when the world still harbored false hope that the new coronavirus could be contained, a World Health Organization team arrived in Beijing to study the outbreak and investigate a critical question: How did the virus jump from animals to humans?

At that point, there were only three confirmed deaths from Covid-19 outside China and scientists hoped that finding an animal source for the coronavirus would unlock clues about how to stop it, treat it and prevent similar outbreaks.

“If we don’t know the source then we’re equally vulnerable in the future to a similar outbreak,” Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization’s emergency director, had said that week in Geneva. “Understanding that source is a very important next step.”

What the team members did not know was that they would not be allowed to investigate the source at all. Despite Dr. Ryan’s pronouncements, and over the advice of its emergency committee, the organization’s leadership had quietly negotiated terms that sidelined its own experts. They would not question China’s initial response or even visit the live-animal market in the city of Wuhan where the outbreak seemed to have originated.

Nine months and more than 1.1 million deaths later, there is still no transparent, independent investigation into the source of the virus. Notoriously allergic to outside scrutiny, China has impeded the effort, while leaders of the (p. A8) World Health Organization, if privately frustrated, have largely ceded control, even as the Trump administration has fumed.

. . .

. . . , the health organization pushed misleading and contradictory information about the risk of spread from symptomless carriers. Its experts were slow to accept that the virus could be airborne. Top health officials encouraged travel as usual, advice that was based on politics and economics, not science.

The W.H.O.’s staunchest defenders note that, by the nature of its constitution, it is beholden to the countries that finance it. And it is hardly the only international body bending to China’s might. But even many of its supporters have been frustrated by the organization’s secrecy, its public praise for China and its quiet concessions. Those decisions have indirectly helped Beijing to whitewash its early failures in handling the outbreak.

. . .

China’s authoritarian leaders want to constrain the organization; President Trump, who formally withdrew the United States from the body in July, now seems intent on destroying it; and European leaders are scrambling to reform and empower it.

The search for the virus’s origins is a study in the compromises the W.H.O. has made.

. . .

The W.H.O. has repeatedly said that investigations are underway but has done little to clarify the uncertainty. Chinese health and diplomatic officials did not respond to repeated interview requests and have been publicly silent on what happened.

“This is part of the Chinese psyche — to demonstrate to the world that they do the very best science,” said Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and president of EcoHealth Alliance in New York. “But in this case, it didn’t work. And I think that is the reason why we don’t know much more.”

. . .

. . . Dr. Tedros, . . . decided against declaring an international emergency after convening a committee to advise him.

What was not publicly known, though, was that the committee’s Jan. 23 decision followed intense lobbying, notably by China, according to diplomats and health officials. Committee members are international experts largely insulated from influence. But in Geneva, China’s ambassador made it clear that his country would view an emergency declaration as a vote of no confidence.

China also presented data to the committee, portraying a situation under relative control.

Half the committee said it was too early to declare an emergency. The outcome surprised many countries, as did Dr. Tedros when he publicly praised both Mr. Xi and China’s pneumonia surveillance system.

“It was that system that caught this event,” he said during a news conference.

That was wrong. China’s surveillance system had failed to spot the outbreak, a failure that experts now say allowed its spread to accelerate.

. . .

(p. A9) On the origins of the virus, the experts mostly shifted the onus to China, asking the government to prioritize a “rigorous investigation.” But they also assured people that numerous investigations were underway.

“It was an absolute whitewash,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. “But the answer was, that was the best they could negotiate with Xi Jinping.”

. . .

In January, Dr. Tedros had announced that China had agreed to share biological samples. Nothing ever came of it.

Then the thesis about the origin of the outbreak suddenly pivoted.

Dr. Gao, the director of China’s C.D.C., told the journal Science in March that the virus may not have originated at the market. Maybe, he said, it “could be a place where the virus was amplified,” meaning it began elsewhere but spread wildly there.

Then Dr. Gao told a local TV station that animal samples from the market did not contain the virus. That indicated at least that samples had been taken from animals. Yet the details remained concealed.

For the full story, see:

Selam Gebrekidan, Matt Apuzzo, Amy Qin, and Javier C. Hernández. “W.H.O. Ceded Control to China In Murky Hunt for Virus Origin.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 3, 2020): A1 & A8-A9.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 2, 2020, and has the title “In Hunt for Virus Source, W.H.O. Let China Take Charge.”)

Chinese Communists Have Failed to Reform Toward Free Markets

(p. B6) China is the only major world economy reporting any economic growth today. It went first into Covid-19 and was first out, grinding out 3.2% growth in the most recent quarter while the U.S. shrank 9.5% and other advanced economies endured double-digit declines. High-tech monitoring, comprehensive testing and aggressive top-down containment measures enabled China to get the virus under control while others struggled. The Middle Kingdom may even deliver a modest year-over-year economic expansion in 2020.

This rebound is real, but behind the short-term numbers the economic restart is dubious. China’s growth spurt isn’t the beginning of a robust recovery but an uneven bounce fueled by infrastructure construction.

. . .

An honest look at the forces behind China’s growth this year shows a doubling down on state-managed solutions, not real reform. State-owned entities, or SOEs, drove China’s investment-led recovery.

. . .

For years, the world has watched and waited for China to become more like a free-market economy, thereby reducing American security concerns. At a time of profound stress world-wide, the multiple gauges of reform we have been monitoring through the China Dashboard point in the opposite direction. China’s economic norms are diverging from, rather than converging with, the West’s. Long-promised changes detailed at the beginning of the Xi era haven’t materialized.

Though Beijing talks about “market allocation” efficiency, it isn’t guided by what mainstream economists would call market principles. The Chinese economy is instead a system of state capitalism in which the arbiter is an uncontestable political authority. That may or may not work for China, but it isn’t what liberal democracies thought they would get when they invited China to take a leading role in the world economy.

For the full commentary, see:

Daniel Rosen, and Kevin Rudd. “China Backslides on Economic Reform.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, September 23, 2020): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sep. 22, 2020, and has the same title as the print version.)

Chinese Communists Try to Intimidate U.S. Universities

(p. A1) The effect of the new national-security law that China imposed on Hong Kong is extending far beyond the territory to American college campuses.

Classes at some elite universities will carry a warning label this fall: This course may cover material considered politically sensitive by China. And schools are weighing measures to try to shield students and faculty from prosecution by Chinese authorities.

. . .

(p. A6) “We cannot self-censor,” said Rory Truex, an assistant professor who teaches Chinese politics at Princeton. “If we, as a Chinese teaching community, out of fear stop teaching things like Tiananmen or Xinjiang or whatever sensitive topic the Chinese government doesn’t want us talking about, if we cave, then we’ve lost.”

. . .

Concerns about China’s influence on academics around the world have grown over the past two decades, as some educational institutions set up campuses in China and many increasingly rely on fees paid by Chinese students, who account for more foreign students in the U.S. than any other country.

There are indications that Chinese students in the U.S. could fall afoul of Chinese laws. A University of Minnesota student was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment after returning home to the Chinese city of Wuhan last year. He was convicted of “provocation” for tweets he wrote while studying in the U.S. that allegedly mocked Chinese leaders.

For the full story, see:

Lucy Craymer. “Hong Kong Law Makes Top U.S. Colleges Wary.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, August 20, 2020): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 19, 2020, and has the title “China’s National-Security Law Reaches Into Harvard, Princeton Classrooms.”)

Shanghai Immunologist Says Phase 1 and Phase 2 Tests Show Chinese Vaccine Is Safe and “Highly Likely” to Protect Against Covid-19

(p. A8) The United Arab Emirates has become the first country outside China to approve emergency usage of a Chinese Covid-19 vaccine candidate, in a vote of confidence for a state-backed drugmaker racing global rivals to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

. . .

Tao Lina, a former immunologist with the Shanghai CDC, said in an interview that it makes sense for authorities to approve the usage of Chinese vaccines that have proved safe during the first two phases of clinical trials, given the scale of the Covid-19 crisis. Unlike medical drug treatments, vaccines work by triggering a person’s own immunity, he said. “I’m not at all worried about the safety of the vaccines,” Mr. Tao said.

While the level of efficacy of the Chinese vaccines being used including those of Sinopharm isn’t yet clear, Mr. Tao said the Chinese vaccines’ ability to induce the body to produce antibodies during previous clinical trials meant that they were highly likely to confer some degree of protection from the virus.

For the full story, see:

Chao Deng, and Rory Jones. “U.A.E. Approves Use of China-Made Covid-19 Vaccine.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, September 16, 2020): A8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Sep. 15, 2020, and has the title “In Global Covid-19 Vaccine Race, Chinese Shot Receives First Foreign Approval.”)