27 January
Written by Rachel Cheung

Beijing timed its parting shot perfectly, not wasting a second to serve its revenge on the outgoing Trump administration, with which it had sparred for the past four years. Less than five minutes after Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Jan. 20, China’s Foreign Ministry announced sanctions targeting 28 members of Donald Trump’s Cabinet and White House staff, as well as other outgoing officials. Accusing them of having “seriously violated China’s sovereignty,” the Chinese government barred them and their family members from entering the country and doing business with Chinese entities.

First on the list was former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had announced a flurry of China-related decisions just before his departure. These included designating China’s repression of the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang province as a “genocide”; lifting decades-old restrictions on contacts between American and Taiwanese officials; and imposing sanctions on more Chinese and Hong Kong officials over their roles in the crackdown in Hong Kong. The inflammatory moves were seen as a way of saddling the incoming Biden administration with the choice of reversing the measures and appearing weak on China, or letting them stand to the detriment of bilateral ties.

Also on China’s list of sanctioned officials were the White House aides who have shaped the Trump administration’s hawkish policies toward China, such as deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger and trade adviser Peter Navarro. Beijing made sure not to leave out several other high-ranking officials who were seen as having cozied up to Taiwan, including Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary who made a historic visit to the island in August, and Kelly Craft, the ambassador to the United Nations whose scheduled trip to Taiwan ended up being canceled.

Biden’s National Security Council spokesperson, Emily Horne, criticized the sanctions as an “unproductive and cynical move,” painting them as an effort by China to play on partisan divides in Washington. But with their antagonists from the Trump administration now comfortably out of the picture, officials in Beijing are courting a new relationship with the Biden team.

Hua Chunying, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson who called Pompeo “a doomsday clown and joke of the century” last Wednesday, took a rare positive tone on the bilateral relationship in a press briefing days later. “With joint efforts of both sides, the better angels in China-U.S. relations can defeat evil forces,” she said.
Behind the scenes, China might be extending an olive branch to repair frayed ties. The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Beijing had used backchannels to propose sending Yang Jiechi, its top diplomat and a member of the Politburo, to Washington, in the hopes of paving the way for a summit between the two countries’ leaders. The Chinese Embassy in the United States, however, promptly denied the report.

Eager as it may be to improve bilateral ties, China has made it clear it will not compromise on issues it views as related to its sovereignty. For two days in a row over the weekend, Chinese bomber planes and fighter jets flew into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The move was widely seen as a provocative muscle-flexing exercise to send a signal during Biden’s first week in office. In response, the U.S. State Department called on Beijing to stop intimidating Taiwan, but it will certainly not be the last time China tests America’s commitment to the island, which Beijing considers a breakaway province.

Trade, the cause of such acrimony under Trump, will be another issue that continues to present obstacles on the road ahead. At her Senate confirmation hearing, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called China the United States’ “most important strategic competitor” and pledged to tackle its “abusive, unfair, and illegal practices.”
The numbers lay bare the fierceness of the two countries’ economic competition. China surpassed America as the world’s top destination for new foreign direct investment last year. And the Center for Economics and Business Research in London now predicts that China will overtake the U.S. as the largest economy in nominal value by 2028. That’s half a decade sooner than the center had predicted just last year, due to China’s rapid economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. China’s economy is already bigger than that of the U.S. when valued in Purchasing Power Parity, although the U.S. per capita GDP is still more than five times that of China.

Beijing clearly seems to feel the wind at its back. Speaking at the World Economic Forum by video connection this week, Chinese leader Xi Jinping stressed unity and extolled the virtues of multilateralism, but not without issuing a veiled warning. “To build small circles or start a new Cold War, to reject, threaten or intimidate others, to willfully impose decoupling, supply disruption or sanctions, to create isolation or estrangement, will only push the world into division and even confrontation,” said Xi, without a hint of irony in his voice.

The shortcomings of the Justice Department’s “China Initiative”: Last week, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly failing to disclose his relationships with Chinese entities when he applied for grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. Chen’s case is the latest prosecution under the Justice Department’s two-year-old China Initiative, which is aimed at “disrupting and deterring the wide range of national security threats posed by the policies and practices of the People’s Republic of China government.” Colleagues of Chen, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in China, have come to his defense and challenged the merits of the case. Writing for SupChina, Maggie Lewis, a professor of law at Seton Hall University, argues that Chen’s case highlights how the China Initiative subjects defendants to disproportionately harsh punishments and could lead to “discriminatory and stigmatizing investigations of people of Chinese descent.”

The Economist published a special report this week on China’s youth in their 20s—the jiulinghou, or “post-90s” generation. Many of the 188 million Chinese people in this generation “are defying social convention, often to their parents’ alarm,” according to The Economist. In addition to being “China’s best-educated cohort yet,” they are also seen as “apolitical, except in their naive and brash patriotism; concerned with getting ahead, but only to buy the latest iPhone. Many see them as materialistic and entitled, a generation of ‘little emperors’ doted on by their parents.” But this does not always describe the jiulinghou, as the report, titled “Generation Xi,” argues.

“Yes, there has been no direct youth-led challenge to the regime. But young people speak out for social causes. Many join volunteer groups or donate to charity. No generation has been more vocal in its support of lgbt and women’s rights. Students have backed factory workers trying to unionise, and staged silent street protests about climate change. This takes guts. Under Xi Jinping, China’s president since 2013, intimidation and arrests of activists have become common.’”