Tuesday, 15 January 2019


China has made social media an instrument of oppression.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks in Paris, May 24, 2018.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks in Paris, May 24, 2018. PHOTO: CHARLES PLATIAU/REUTERS
Social media faces a dilemma: Mark Zuckerberg or Xi Jinping? Despite the many drawbacks, I’d go with Mr. Zuckerberg.
The moral panic surrounding social media and Facebook in particular now stretches from horizon to horizon. “Social media are doomsday machines,” writes Jason Pontin in Wired. “They distract, divide, and madden; we can no longer hear each other, speak coherently, or even think. As a result, our social, civic, and political ligands are dissolving.” This sort of agitation may make almost any measure seem preferable to letting Instagram impose cretinism and anarchy on society.
In reality, social media poses a nest of problems, but it is not the source of them. Racism, sexism and stupidity were possible before it. So were otherwise-unaccountable victories of whatever political party one happens to oppose, And government regulation of social media is liable to be—is already proving to be—an even bigger problem. That’s clear in China, which has turned regulation of the internet to the purposes of a simultaneously traditional and innovative 21st-century totalitarianism. 
The European Union last year enacted sweeping internet privacy protections. But Europe and its member states are also pretty far down the road of regulating content, including material that the authorities regard as “hate speech” or “fake news.” The European Commission, like the government of China, may eventually conclude that, given the disastrous dissolving of civic ligands, communication must be taken out of private hands entirely. And given the moral panic about social media, many have suggested similar “reforms” in the U.S.
WeChat , the Chinese state social-media operation, has managed to eliminate almost everything the Communist Party regards as hate speech, fake news or threats, however vague, to the social order. These include any expression of pride or religious identity by members of the Muslim Uighur community, or support for that community, as Beijing annihilates its culture. A million or more Chinese Muslims are in re-education camps. The unfolding nightmare is as invisible on Chinese social media as on Chinese television. There will be no Arab Spring-style resistance, organizing itself on each participant’s cellphone. Whatever liberating possibilities social media might have held, state control has turned them into instruments of oppression.
In the West, it is disturbing how much commercially useful information the tech giants harvest from their users and customers, how little control we have over our own information and how we can potentially be manipulated by its use. But what the government of China does with people’s information makes the activities of Google and Amazon look trivial. State control of the internet permits the party to rank every person among its 1.38 billion for the extent of their capitulation, and to reward or penalize them—and their families—accordingly. 
This “social credit” system, slated to be fully in place next year, would make every life prospect—education, residence, employment, health care, mere physical freedom—subject to the results of the thorough surveillance that internet regulation makes possible. This policy is supported by everyone in the People’s Republic, on pain of a hit to their social-credit rating.
What’s likelier in the U.S. than federal annexation of Facebook is the sort of close continual regulation and regulatory capture that would make social-media companies increasingly entwined with the federal government, open to surveillance by it, and sensitive to how political content generated by private citizens can present a threat to their profitability as well as “public order.” In a panicked attempt to solve a problem, lawmakers risk creating an entirely new problem that cannot be solved at all.
Mr. Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.


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When Donald Trump sat down to dinner with Xi Jinping last month at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, the US president did not know about the diplomatic bomb that was about to explode. At about the same time, police in Canada arrested a Chinese telecoms executive after an extradition request from Washington. The detention of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, was extraordinary because the US justice department had not told the White House about the warrant to arrest the daughter of the founder of the telecoms group, one of China’s most successful and influential companies. But the importance of the arrest went well beyond the immediate circumstances. It is the most striking symbol yet of the dramatic deterioration in relations between China and a US that is increasingly suspicious of Beijing’s motives and actions. Reinforcing the rupture, the US several weeks later charged two Chinese nationals with conducting a global hacking campaign to assist the Chinese intelligence services. Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was released on bail while she awaits a hearing on extradition to the US © AP While the trade war has received the most attention, the economic tussle is part of a much more profound shift in the US that has seen Washington reverse important elements of the strategy of engaging with its Asian rival that was first introduced more than 40 years ago by Richard Nixon. Support for this change in approach has a broad base in the US. Officials across the US government have become significantly more hawkish towards China— over everything from human rights, politics and business to national security. At the same time, US companies and academics who once acted as a buffer against the harshest views are now far less sanguine. “China has for some time underestimated the extent to which the mood in the US has shifted,” says Hank Paulson, the former US Treasury secretary. “The attitude that they would implement reforms at a timetable that made sense to them missed the fact that this was no longer sustainable if they wanted the US to keep its markets open to them. And the US business community now supports a harder line.” Former US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson: 'The mood in the US [on China] has shifted' © Bloomberg While Mr Trump likes to describe China’s president Mr Xi as his friend, his White House signalled a major shift away from China when it labelled the nation a “revisionist power” in its December 2017 National Security Strategy. In October, Mike Pence, vice-president, hammered home that message in a speech at the Hudson Institute that charged China with a litany of offences — from political repression at home to coercive diplomacy abroad. The rhetoric has been matched with action. In the South China Sea, the US navy is now conducting frequent freedom of navigation operations to push back against Chinese sovereignty claims over disputed reefs and islands. Meanwhile, the justice department created a “China initiative” task force to crack down on espionage. While Ms Meng was arrested for allegedly helping her telecoms company violate US sanctions on Iran, US officials have long worried that Huawei could help China spy on rivals. Those concerns escalated last year, culminating in the US convincing its Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners — Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain — that they needed to take a much tougher line on Huawei, according to one person familiar with the situation. Donald Trump likes to describe Xi Jinping as his friend, despite the escalating rhetoric © AP While concerns about China have risen in parallel with its emergence as a rival to the US, Washington has concluded that it has underestimated the speed at which it has caught up with the US in terms of technology — particularly technology with military applications. Dennis Wilder, former head of China analysis at the CIA, says that as the US war on terror has receded in urgency, intelligence and national security officials have now woken up to the fact that China was using a “whole-of-society” approach to collecting intelligence, and that the openness of the west to Chinese scientists, students and business people had become an “Achilles heel”. “The Chinese intelligence operations were astoundingly successful in providing the military and other state-owned enterprises with the secrets to enable technological leaps that could only be possible with the theft of advanced critical technology from the US, Japan and Europe,” Mr Wilder says. Mr Trump and his trade war have done a lot to change the mood but many experts say China would have faced a harsher climate regardless of whether he had won the 2016 election. One of the few areas where Democrats and Republicans are united is over the need to adopt a tougher stance towards Beijing. Lindsey Ford, a former Pentagon official under Barack Obama, says US military officials started to become much more concerned about China in the second half of his administration, when it appeared that Mr Xi was abandoning the “hide and bide” low-profile approach espoused by former leader Deng Xiaoping. Recommended Global Insight Edward Luce The new era of US-China decoupling This was most striking in the rapid land reclamation in the South China Sea, where it installed weapons systems on some islands despite Mr Xi having pledged to Mr Obama in 2015 that China had “no intention to militarise” them. Ms Ford says the South China Sea activity was “the clearest signal that the game seemed to have shifted and that China’s own calculations about how much risk it was willing to accept . . . was no longer the same”. At the same time that its navy has become more assertive, China has developed weapons-related technologies at a much faster pace than many US analysts once thought likely. Underscoring how the gap between the US and China has shrunk, General Paul Selva, vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, warned in June that “if we sit back and don’t react, we will lose our technological superiority in 2020”. The Pentagon is also concerned about the vulnerability of its military supply chains because of components made in China. Donald Trump and Xi Jinping at a state dinner at Beijing's Great Hall of the People in November 2017 Washington is raising red flags about activities aimed at stealing US technology — whether via Chinese nationals working in American university labs or cyber espionage. One person familiar with the situation says US officials realised how much more vigilant they needed to become when they discovered just how much similarity there was between the Chinese J-20 stealth fighter jet and the American F-35. To tackle the threat, the US has significantly stepped up the vetting of Chinese nationals who apply to study sensitive subjects in America. Christopher Wray, FBI director, last year warned Congress that US universities were naive about the potential for Chinese nationals to collect intelligence on their campuses. John Demers, head of the justice department’s China Initiative, recently told the Senate judiciary committee that 90 per cent of economic espionage cases over the past seven years involved China. When the US charged the hackers in December, it said Beijing had breached a 2015 deal that neither nation would steal intellectual property for commercial advantages. John Demers, assistant attorney-general for national security at the justice department, says 90% of economic espionage cases against the US in the past seven years have involved China © Bloomberg The US is also concerned about China trying to recruit American spies. In his testimony, Mr Demers said the justice department had an “unprecedented” three cases against former US intelligence officers accused of spying for China. In May, the US charged a former CIA operative named Jerry Lee with illegally possessing secret information. The CIA believes he provided Beijing with details about its spying operation in China. One person familiar with the situation says his actions dealt a catastrophic blow to the CIA’s network — as many spies were arrested or executed. The US also believes that two suspected Chinese cyber attacks in recent years — one on the Office of Personnel Management which maintains government employee records, and another on the Marriott hotel group — were part of an operation designed to help China identify covert US intelligence operatives in the country. Recommended Huawei Technologies Co Ltd Huawei founder breaks silence to dismiss claims of spying by company As the US strikes a tougher tone, China is losing constituencies that once helped balance the more hawkish views in security circles. US academics who were seen as friendly to China are becoming warier as Beijing cracks down on human rights, not least those of the Uighurs held in mass detention centres in Xinjiang, fails to follow through on economic pledges, presses US scholars to be less critical and moves backwards in terms of political reform. “People I’ve known for decades have given up on China,” says Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st century China Center at the University of California San Diego. “There’s a widespread view in the academic community that the overreaching China has done both domestically and internationally is hard-baked into the system and that there’s no hope of getting them to adjust their behaviour to our interests and values.” Mike Pence, US vice-president, has hammered home the American message that China is a 'revisionist power' © AP A turning point that alarmed Washington came in late 2017 when Mr Xi did not name a successor at the Communist party’s 19th congress. He also pledged that China would become a fully modern economy by 2035 — picking a date that some saw as another sign that he intended to remain in power following his second five-year term. In a further sign of centralising power, the National People’s Congress approved last March a change in the constitution to remove the two-term limit on the presidency. More recently, Mr Xi reignited concerns that he was moving backwards on promised reforms when he used a speech commemorating China’s economic opening 40 years ago to stress the primacy of the party. “No one is in a position to dictate to the Chinese people what should or should not be done,” he said in December. One senior US administration official says China has misread the change of mood in the US, adding that “even more disturbingly, they just don’t care”. The official says the fact that Mr Xi’s speech had focused on “the growing role of the Communist party in every aspect of economic, political and personal life in China” suggested that Beijing was not taking the US concerns seriously. The American F-35. China's J-20 stealth fighter has a similar specification © Getty “I don’t see signs of a course shift by the top leadership,” says the official. “I never thought China would aspire to be a Jeffersonian democracy or espouse the western liberal order,” says Mr Paulson. “I always thought the Communist party would be paramount, but I didn’t see the clock being turned back.” Ms Shirk says a major reason for the growing US backlash is that the business community has “really soured on China”. “Right now, it is totally out of balance because the national security concerns are completely dominating the process and the business community isn’t resisting,” she says. Ryan Hass, a former White House official now at the Brookings Institution, says many US companies had “promise fatigue”. While many did not agree with the approach Mr Trump was taking on trade, they wanted him to be tough on China on market access and were “trying to use Trump’s instincts for disruption [to] their advantage”. “The Chinese leadership has promised for years that reform was around the bend and then you see things like President Xi’s speech where he emphasised the central role of the party,” says Mr Hass. “Members of the business community see the Trump administration as an opportunity for the US to rattle the cage in Beijing.” Former state department official Susan Thornton says the wider relationship with China is being ignored inside the administration © Bloomberg Susan Thornton, the top Asia official at the state department until last summer, says many of the grievances had existed for years but Mr Trump was giving them impetus because there was no one inside his administration who was weighing those concerns against the broader China relationship. “There is no one imposing discipline right now. Everybody has now got a hunting licence. It is open season on China,” says Ms Thornton. One reason the Chinese may have been blindsided by the changing US approach is that Mr Trump rarely raises security issues. “Trump never brings up any of that stuff in meetings with the Chinese,” she says. “He won’t bring up Taiwan or the South China Sea, or nuclear missiles or arms control, or espionage.” Just before New Year, Mr Trump tweeted that he had spoken to his Chinese counterpart and that there had been “big progress” on trade. But the landscape has changed so dramatically that most China experts believe the relationship will become much more rocky even if there is an agreement on trade. “I am cautiously optimistic that President Trump will be able to declare a trade victory and end the tariff war,” says Mr Paulson. “But there will still be so many intractable economic and security issues that this will continue to be a very fraught relationship.”


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A Chinese employee at a construction site in Angola. The economic downturn in China’s industrial rust belt has provided a steady stream of workers willing to journey overseas © Reuters Share on Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) Share on LinkedIn (opens new window) Share Save Save to myFT Emily Feng in Beijing 25 MINUTES AGO Print this page0 Desperate for cash because he had not been paid for two months and fearing he could be deported because he lacked official papers, Jiang Wei and two colleagues turned up at the Chinese consulate in the Zambian capital of Lusaka in search of help. “Our subcontractor held our passports and visas. We had no formal work contract,” said Mr Jiang. Their passports were returned and they were given their pay and tickets home. But two years later and they are still out of pocket. Now back in China, both are seeking the return of the Rmb15,000 ($2,200) in fees they paid to a third-party labour contractor. Their experience is not unusual: as China has become a global infrastructure builder, more and more Chinese workers have gone to work on projects in south-east Asia and Africa. The economic downturn in China’s industrial rust belt has provided a steady stream of workers willing to journey overseas in the hope of higher wages. With the economy increasingly under pressure and fewer jobs available at home, workers will be even keener to go. “The slowdown in the construction sector in China has not only led to a spillover in terms of building materials and construction machinery, but also human resources, both rank-and-file workers and professionals,” said Miriam Driessen, a research fellow at Oxford university. But a rapidly growing informal economy of contracted labour has left such workers vulnerable to abuse, warned experts. “Chinese construction companies operating abroad often also export domestic workers and business practices — including long Recommended Special Report: China’s Belt & Road Initiative hours, unsafe conditions and deferred or non-payment of wages,” said Aaron Halegua, a lawyer and research fellow at New York University School of Law. “Even workers that obtain a visa to work abroad legally are often compelled to pay fees or security deposits, forced to sign one-sided contracts restricting their rights, of which they rarely get a copy, and experience abuse,” he added. Since China announced its plan to link more than 65 countries along a modern Silk Road — its so-called Belt and Road Initiative — it has hugely expanded its portfolio of state-funded infrastructure projects abroad. In 2017 alone, China committed to more than $23bn to infrastructure projects in Africa according to the most recent figures available from the American Enterprise Institute. While 89 per cent of employees at Chinese companies in Africa are locally hired, according to McKinsey, a consultancy, many larger infrastructure projects backed by Chinese financing are built by Chinese workers. “When the crunch comes where the project has to be completed in a very short time and is important politically to the host government, that’s when there will be a lot of Chinese workers who will be flown in to do the last stretch of projects,” said Barry Sautman, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Chinese construction workers are also heading in greater numbers to south-east Asian countries including Malaysia and Indonesia to service a real estate boom driven in part by a surge in mainland Chinese demand for property. Forest City, a China-backed compound in Malaysia that will eventually house 700,000 people, faced accusations that it was reliant on Chinese workers there on tourist visas. The Malaysian government is now trying to put illegal workers on the right work permits. Some construction workers say they continue to work on tourist visas. “Our labour contractor said we would switch our tourist visas to working visas when we arrived but that has not happened yet,” said Liu Wei, a Chinese construction worker. Without legal work status, Mr Liu has been unable to demand the Rmb20,000 in pay he said his manager has withheld from him. One of Ren Zhiji's friends, Sun Houlun, was told this letter would get him into the UK Country Garden, the Chinese property developer, said it did not hire workers directly because “contractors and sub-contractors are responsible for the recruitment, hiring and payroll of local and foreign workers in related projects”, but that it did not allow contractors to use illegal informal labour. Those eager to work abroad usually turn to an informal network of subcontractors who charge rates as high as Rmb30,000 to match workers with construction projects abroad. Dozens of intermediaries operate in Ren Zhiji’s home town in Hebei province, just outside Beijing. Lured by the promise of earning Rmb12,000 a month, almost three times as much as he would at home, Mr Ren, a life-long construction worker, paid one of them to help him get a job overseas. Ren Zhiji's first foray into working overseas ended when the project was raided by the FBI Mr Ren’s first foray, to the US territory of Saipan to build a Chinese-funded casino, ended when the project was raided by the FBI last spring after a worker fell to his death. Six Chinese workers are now suing the Chinese contractor — Gold Mantis Construction Decoration — in Saipan district court over their working conditions. “The conditions were terrible, with discarded materials and trash everywhere. We did not have safety harnesses either,” Mr Ren said. Undeterred, he agreed last year to go abroad again, only this time to be scammed out of Rmb2,000 he had paid to an intermediary for work on a UK telecoms project that did not exist. “We have never gone abroad before, so we rely on friends to recommend destinations,” said Mr Ren. “We never imagined that the same people would deceive us.” He added: “Salaries in China have not grown. By working abroad for a few months, you can live a year in China.”


Canada is advising citizens to "exercise a high degree of caution" if they travel to China amid a deepening diplomatic dispute between the two nations.
Hours later, in response, China issued its own advisory to its citizens travelling to Canada.
The updated risk assessment from Ottawa came soon after a Chinese court sentenced a Canadian man, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, to death for what China said was his role in a drug smuggling scheme. Schellenberg initially received a 15-year prison term, which he appealed as too harsh. 
China issues its own travel warning for citizens headed to Canada, as the diplomatic dispute between the two nations deepens. AP
The risk update also comes after Chinese authorities reportedly detained at least 13 Canadians since Canada arrested Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver's airport on December 1 at the request of the US. Most of the Canadians detained in China have been released, according to Canadian media reports. Ms Meng was released on bail on December 11 and is reportedly living in a luxury home in Vancouver as she awaits the outcome of her extradition hearings.
Canada has four levels of risk assessment and the new one for China is the second level:
"There are identifiable safety and security concerns or the safety and security situation could change with little notice. You should exercise a high degree of caution at all times, monitor local media and follow the instructions of local authorities."
The third level of risk would see Global Affairs Canada advising Canadians to "avoid all non-essential travel" to China.
"There are specific safety and security concerns that could put you at risk. You should reconsider your need to travel to the country, territory or region. If you are already in the country, territory or region, you should reconsider whether or not you really need to be there. If not, you should consider leaving while it is still safe to do so. It is up to you to decide what 'non-essential travel' means, based on family or business requirements, knowledge of or familiarity with a country, territory or region, and other factors."
The highest level advises Canadians to "avoid all travel" to a country or area of the world.
"There is an extreme risk to your personal safety and security. You should not travel to this country, territory or region. If you are already in the country, territory or region, you should consider leaving if it is safe to do so."
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
On January 3, the US State Department lifted its travel advisory for China to level 2: "exercise extreme caution".
Overnight, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, speaking at a regular news briefing in Beijing, expressed "strong dissatisfaction" with comments made by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on news of the death sentence for Schellenberg.
"The remarks by the relevant Canadian person lack the most basic awareness of the legal system," Hua said.
"We urge the Canadian side to respect the rule of law, respect China's legal sovereignty, correct its mistakes, and stop making irresponsible remarks," Hua said.
Hours later, the ministry issued its own travel warning.
Citing the "arbitrary detention" of a Chinese national in Canada at the request of a "third-party country", it urged its citizens to "fully evaluate risks" and exercise caution when travelling there.
With Reuters

Sunday, 13 January 2019


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Clouds loom over global business as Chinese economy falters From cars to smartphones, signs of weakening demand worry multinationals Softness in Chinese consumption is worrying global luxury brands © Reuters Share on Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) Share on LinkedIn (opens new window) Share Save Save to myFT Lucy Hornby in Beijing and Chris Giles in London 2 HOURS AGO Print this page0 Emma Liu has a good job in Beijing, but she has decided to forgo her normal Giorgio Armani face cream and started buying cheaper sweaters online. Her choices are reverberating in boardrooms around the world. A slowdown in the Chinese economy — and flagging consumer expectations — are clouding the outlook for foreign brands. From VW to Apple, the Chinese economy is now the world’s business. No international brand can safely ignore China’s economic prospects. On a market exchange-rate basis, China accounted for 16 per cent of the global economy in 2018. But for global businesses, what matters more is growth. China’s rapid development and 1.4bn consumers have helped it to account for about 30 per cent of worldwide growth for the past decade even as its domestic expansion has slowed. If the Chinese consumer decides to hold back, companies around the world will tremble. “I don’t feel any pressure at work,” the 20-something Ms Liu told the Financial Times. “I just feel like I need to use my money more wisely because saving would give me a greater sense of security.” China’s rift with the US has compounded fears for the global economy. The trade war may have had little direct effect on global trade volumes, but it has undermined business confidence. Manufacturing has been particularly affected, with sentiment and output indicators in the US, Europe and Asia performing poorly. Financial markets are worried and economists are rapidly revising down global growth forecasts. The World Bank said on January 8 that “storm clouds are brewing for the global economy”. There have been sharp drops in stock and oil prices over the past three months while there is a widely held expectation that interest rates will rise.  Although there are also reasons not to be alarmed — European employment growth remains strong, most US data are still robust and there are many one-off reasons for recent weakness in Asian and European economic data — few look at the signals from the Chinese consumer and feel reassured. Chinese automotive sales fell for the first time in 28 years in 2018, official data are expected to show, after tax breaks expired early in the year. “The willingness to buy big-ticket items such as cars has come down substantially,” said Louis Kuijs, head of Asia for Oxford Economics. The car sector represents about 5 per cent of China’s gross domestic product and 30 per cent of the global market.  It is one of many warnings that the Chinese consumer can no longer be counted on to drive global sales for multinationals struggling with lacklustre demand in their home markets. The gloom extends to real estate, the ultimate barometer of Chinese consumer confidence. The property arm of China Merchants Group, a conglomerate, recently offered to throw in a BMW for anyone who bought an apartment in a soggy industrial district of Shanghai. Regulators quickly squelched the gimmick. The offer “no longer stands”, a local salesman told the FT glumly. In Beijing, developers who once demanded a 30 per cent downpayment now accept deposits of 10 per cent to spur sales. “I think this time is different,” said Mr Lu, a property salesman who declined to provide his given name. “This time I think customers are truly out of money.” When Apple blamed China for its revenue warning early in January, it made headlines. But the slowdown in the tech group’s sales has also hit the share prices of its supply-chain companies, including Foxconn, the world’s largest private employer. Overall, smartphone sales are down and Samsung too has projected its first drop in operating profit in two years. Other indicators are also bearish. Hong Kong jewellery sales — a traditional yardstick for spending by wealthy mainlanders — are down, Jefferies, an investment bank, wrote in an analyst note. Furniture sales growth of about 6 per cent through November 2018 is half that of the previous year. Growth in cosmetics sales slipped to 10.5 per cent, from 13.5 per cent the year before. The number of overseas trips by Chinese tourists stagnated in the second half in 2018, although domestic tourism fared better. Only 69m tourists, roughly equal to the second half of 2017, travelled abroad, according to initial estimates released this week by the state-run China Tourism Academy. That was sharply down from growth of 15 per cent in the first half of 2018. Recommended The Big Read Nervous markets: how vulnerable is China’s economy The sharp drop in global oil prices from $85 a barrel in October to $60 on Friday will increase the purchasing power of global consumers, but that might fail to raise growth rates sufficiently to offset other headwinds. Chinese oil companies led by Sinopec are reeling from a slowdown in second-half domestic consumption, coupled by an unexpected glut of global crude supply that has pushed prices to 18-month lows. The trends, especially in the face of the trade tension, have worried Beijing. China’s central bank has loosened monetary policies to stimulate growth. The Chinese government has promised new loans to small businesses and measures to extend credit deep into the countryside, following several years of credit tightening. “We think policymakers will aim to halt the slowdown in growth, rather than try and engineer a significant pick-up in growth,” Mr Kuijs said. Even if successful, China’s stimulus policies have traditionally helped the large industrial sectors rather than encouraged consumers to spend. Until the mood in China changes, foreign brands will have to look elsewhere for growth.


China’s Communist party is intensifying religious persecution as Christianity’s popularity grows. A new state translation of the Bible will establish a ‘correct understanding’ of the text
Rush hour in the centre of Chengdu, home to the Early Rain Covenant Church, which has just been closed.
 Rush hour in the centre of Chengdu, home to the Early Rain Covenant Church, which has just been closed. Photograph: Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

In late October, the pastor of one of China’s best-known underground churches asked this of his congregation: had they successfully spread the gospel throughout their city? “If tomorrow morning the Early Rain Covenant Church suddenly disappeared from the city of Chengdu, if each of us vanished into thin air, would this city be any different? Would anyone miss us?” said Wang Yi, leaning over his pulpit and pausing to let the question weigh on his audience. “I don’t know.”
Almost three months later, Wang’s hypothetical scenario is being put to the test. The church in south-west China has been shuttered and Wang and his wife, Jiang Rong, remain in detention after police arrested more than 100 Early Rain church members in December. Many of those who haven’t been detained are in hiding. Others have been sent away from Chengdu and barred from returning. Some, including Wang’s mother and his young son, are under close surveillance. Wang and his wife are being charged for “inciting subversion”, a crime that carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Now the hall Wang preached from sits empty, the pulpit and cross that once hung behind him both gone. Prayer cushions have been replaced by a ping-pong table and a film of dust. New tenants, a construction company and a business association, occupy the three floors the church once rented. Plainclothes police stand outside, turning away those looking for the church.
One of the officers told the Observer: “I have to tell you to leave and watch until you get in a car and go.”

Wang Yi, pastor of the Early Rain church, who was arrested and detained three months ago, along with his wife.
 Wang Yi, pastor of the Early Rain church, who was arrested and detained three months ago, along with his wife. Photograph: Early Rain/Facebook

Early Rain is the latest victim of what Chinese Christians and rights activists say is the worst crackdown on religion since the country’s Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong’s government vowed to eradicate religion.
Researchers say the current drive, fuelled by government unease over the growing number of Christians and their potential links to the west, is aimed not so much at destroying Christianity but bringing it to heel.
“The government has orchestrated a campaign to ‘sinicise’ Christianity, to turn Christianity into a fully domesticated religion that would do the bidding of the party,” said Lian Xi, a professor at Duke University in North Carolina, who focuses on Christianity in modern China.
Over the past year, local governments have shut hundreds of unofficial congregations or “house churches” that operate outside the government-approved church network, including Early Rain. A statement signed by 500 house church leaders in November says authorities have removed crosses from buildings, forced churches to hang the Chinese flag and sing patriotic songs, and bar minors from attending.
Churchgoers say the situation will get worse as the campaign reaches more of the country. Another church in Chengdu was placed under investigation last week. Less than a week after the mass arrest of Early Rain members, police raided a children’s Sunday school at a church in Guangzhou. Officials have also banned the 1,500-member Zion church in Beijing after its pastor refused to install CCTV.
In November the Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church was shut for the second time in three months. “The Chinese Communist party (CCP) wants to be the God of China and the Chinese people. But according to the Bible only God is God. The government is scared of the churches,” said Huang Xiaoning, the church’s pastor. Local governments have also shut the state-approved “sanzi” churches. Sunday schools and youth ministries have been banned. One of the first signs of a crackdown was when authorities forcibly removed more than 1,000 crosses from sanzi churches in Zhejiang province between 2014 and 2016.
“The goal of the crackdown is not to eradicate religions,” said Ying Fuk Tsang, director of the Christian Study Centre on Chinese Religion and Culture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “President Xi Jinping is trying to establish a new order on religion, suppressing its blistering development. [The government] aims to regulate the ‘religious market’ as a whole.”
While the CCP is officially atheist, Christianity is one of five religions sanctioned by the government and religious freedom has been enshrined in the constitution since the 1980s. For decades, authorities tolerated the house churches, which refused to register with government bodies that required church leaders to adapt teachings to follow party doctrine.

Members of the Early Rain Covenant Church pray during a meeting in their church before it was shut down in December 2018.
 Members of the Early Rain Covenant Church pray during a meeting in their church before it was shut down in December 2018.

As China experienced an explosion in the number of religious believers, the government has grown wary of Christianity and Islam in particular, with their overseas links. In Xinjiang, a surveillance and internment system has been built for Muslim minorities, notably the Uighurs.
Xi has called for the country to guard against “infiltration” through religion and extremist ideology.
“What happens in Xinjiang and what happens to house churches is connected,” said Eva Pils, a professor of law at King’s College London, focusing on human rights. “Those kinds of new attitudes have translated into different types of measures against Christians, which amount to intensified persecution of religious groups.”
There are at least 60 million Christians in China, spanning rural and urban areas. Congregation-based churches can organise large groups across the country and some have links with Christian groups abroad.
Pastors such as Wang of Early Rain are especially alarming for authorities. Under Wang, a legal scholar and public intellectual, the church has advocated for parents of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake – deaths many critics say were caused by poor government-run construction – or for families of those affected by faulty vaccines. Every year the church commemorates victims of the 4 June protests in 1989, which were forcibly put down by the Chinese military.
“Early Rain church is one of the few who dare to face what is wrong in society,” said one member. “Most churches don’t dare talk about this, but we obey strictly obey the Bible, and we don’t avoid anything.”
Wang and Early Rain belong to what some see as a new generation of Christians that has emerged alongside a growing civil rights movement. Increasingly, activist church leaders have taken inspiration from the democratising role the church played in eastern European countries in the Soviet bloc or South Korea under martial law, according to Lian. Several of China’s most active human rights lawyers are Christians.
“They have come to see the political potential of Christianity as a force for change,” said Lian. “What really makes the government nervous is Christianity’s claim to universal rights and values.”

Catholics wait to take communion during the Palm Sunday mass at a ‘house church’ near Shijiazhuang.
 Catholics wait to take communion during the Palm Sunday mass at a ‘house church’ near Shijiazhuang. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

As of 2018, the government has implemented sweeping rules on religious practices, adding more requirements for religious groups and barring unapproved organisations from engaging in any religious activity. But the campaign is not just about managing behaviour. One of the goals of a government work plan for “promoting Chinese Christianity” between 2018 and 2022 is “thought reform”. The plan calls for “retranslating and annotating” the Bible, to find commonalities with socialism and establish a “correct understanding” of the text.
“Ten years ago, we used to be able to say the party was not really interested in what people believed internally,” said Pils. “Xi Jinping’s response is much more invasive and it is in some ways returning to Mao-era attempts to control hearts and minds.”
Bibles, sales of which have always been controlled in China, are no longer available for sale online, a loophole that had existed for years. In December, Christmas celebrations were banned in several schools and cities across China.
“Last year’s crackdown is the worst in three decades,” said Bob Fu, the founder of ChinaAid, a Christian advocacy group based in the US.
In Chengdu, Early Rain has not vanished. Before the raid, a plan was in place to preserve the church, with those who were not arrested expected to keep it running, holding meetings wherever they could. Slowly, more Early Rain members are being released. As of 9 January, at least 25 were still in detention.
They maintain contact through encrypted platforms. On New Year’s Eve, 300 people joined an online service, some from their homes, others from cars or workplaces, to pray for 2019. Others gather in small groups in restaurants and parks. One member, a student who was sent back to Guangzhou, said he preaches the gospel to the police who monitor him.
The church continues to send out daily scripture and posts videos of sermons. In one, pastor Wang alludes to the coming crackdown: “In this war, in Xinjiang, in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Chengdu, the rulers have chosen an enemy that can never be imprisoned – the soul of man. Therefore they are doomed to lose this war.”