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China In Eurasia Briefing: Beijing And Moscow's Changing Faces


Chinese President Xi Jinping waves after introducing the members of the Chinese Communist Party's new Politburo Standing Committee, the country's top decision-making body, in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 23.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. To subscribe, click here.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

Fresh off extending Xi Jinping's hold on power with a third term, China sent new signals that the Chinese leader could be looking to double down in his "no limits" partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin as both countries deepen their rivalry with the West.

Finding Perspective: In an October 27 phone call, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that China wants to deepen its relationship with the Kremlin "at all levels" and that Beijing firmly supports Putin's moves "to unite and lead the Russian people in overcoming difficulties" and "further establish Russia's status as a major power on the international stage."

In response, Lavrov congratulated Xi on his "utter success" at last month's Chinese Communist Party congress in Beijing, where Xi solidified his hold on power over the world's second-largest economy.

When both leaders met face-to-face in September at a summit in Uzbekistan -- their first meeting since the Ukraine war began -- Putin took a deferential tone and acknowledged Chinese concerns over the invasion, which led some analysts to speculate that Xi would then look to create some distance from Moscow following the congress.

Speaking at the Valdai Club the same day, Putin said he respected Beijing's calls for a peaceful solution to the crisis, but added that "China understands very well what the desire of the West to advance the infrastructure of the NATO bloc to our borders means for Russia."

During the call between Yi and Lavrov, Ukraine was only mentioned briefly as they discussed other "international and regional issues of common concern," according to a readout.

Why It Matters: Beijing has walked a careful line with Moscow since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine in February and despite chatter and allusions to cracks behind-the-scenes, their partnership has proven to be durable.

However, some crucial gaps between the two countries are being created, especially on the technology front.

Chinese telecoms giant Huawei has already stopped direct deliveries of its smartphones, tablets, laptops, TVs, and other equipment to Russia due to fear of violating secondary U.S. sanctions and relocated its Russia-based staff to Central Asia. According to some recent reports from Russian media, the company could soon look to close its Russian operations altogether.

The social-media platform TikTok, which is owned by China's ByteDance, already opened up a new office in Kazakhstan this year and the Russian business daily RBK reported that the company had offered to relocate its Russian staff to Central Asia.

Putin's escalating nuclear saber-rattling is also not sitting well with Beijing, according to Zhou Bo, a retired senior People's Liberation Army officer.

In a recent op-ed penned for the Financial Times, Zhou said that Putin's rhetoric was "raising the stakes for Beijing" and argued that China has a responsibility to stop Moscow from using nuclear weapons.

"If Putin now opens a nuclear Pandora's box that was kept closed even during the Cold War, it would be a moment of infinite stupidity. China can help the world by simply telling Putin: don't use nuclear weapons, Mr. President," Zhou wrote.

Read More

● China and Russia's military have much in common and Tai Ming Cheung, a professor at the University of California San Diego, argues in Foreign Policy that the invasion of Ukraine and Russia's poor showing have been a red flag for Beijing's own fighting force that could delay a potential invasion of Taiwan.

● U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke with Yi following his call with Lavrov. The meeting was reportedly contentious, with Yi lashing out at Blinken over U.S. export controls.

Expert Corner: China's Overseas Policing

Readers asked: "Last edition, you mentioned a report about overseas police stations and now there are lots of investigations launched into their existence. Did governments not know about these before?"

To find out more, I asked Laura Harth, campaign director at the Spain-based NGO Safeguard Defenders, which published the report:

"The investigation is a follow-up to the longer January report outlining Beijing's illegal extrajudicial methods to coerce targets to return to China using threats against family members back home, harassing and intimidating the target directly through covert operations abroad, or even kidnappings from foreign soil.

"Our investigation is based exclusively on direct accounts from local authorities in the two provinces, be it on their websites, in local media reports, or from the overseas organizations linked to the operations. These express accounts include listed tasks such as 'resolutely cracking down on crime' and video evidence of a persuasion-to-return operation taking place through the station in Madrid, Spain.

"Governments or local authorities in the targeted countries had not been informed of the set-up of these overseas police-service centers, and many have already declared they are completely illegal under international law and severely breach territorial sovereignty. Since our report gained global media attention, a growing number of countries -- often spurred by media and politicians -- have announced investigations into the stations."

Do you have a question about China's growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I'll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Damage Control In Serbia

In the face of growing scrutiny and protests over its poor environmental record, China's Zijin Mining Group is making donations to local sports teams in Serbia in what activists and watchdogs allege is an attempt to rehabilitate its reputation, my colleague Sonja Gocanin reported for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

The Details: China's Zijin Mining Group acquired Serbia's only copper-mining complex in 2018 and since then it has been repeatedly fined by the Serbian authorities for pollution violations over the years.

In an attempt to repair its tarnished image, the Chinese mining company has engaged with disaffected communities by funding and rewarding local sporting teams. The latest contribution was a donation of 300,000 euros ($295,000) to Serbia's national women's volleyball team following its gold medal win at the World Championships in October.

"They're trying to show that they are a socially responsible company," Mirko Popovic, the program director for the Regulatory Institute for Renewable Energy and Environment (RERI), a Serbian environmental NGO, told Sonja. "[But] our past investigations of Zijin's work in Serbia shows that it is everything but a responsible company."

Other Chinese companies have also turned to sports to polish their standing in Serbia.

Peak, one of China's leading sportswear and footwear brands, is emblazoned on the national jerseys of Serbia's volleyball and basketball teams. The Chinese company Linglong, which is building a nearly $1 billion tire factory in Serbia and has been embroiled in several scandals in the country, is the leading sponsor for the country's top soccer league, which has been renamed Linglong Tire Superliga.

2. 'Strike Hard' Hits Xinjiang Again

China detained hundreds of Uyghurs in its western Xinjiang Province in the month leading up to the recent Chinese Communist Party congress as a precautionary measure to ensure that there would be no demonstrations or unrest as Xi claimed his third term in power, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.

What You Need To Know: According to the report, the detentions began in July, but intensified in the month leading up to the congress as part of a new round of Beijing's "Strike Hard" campaign.

"Strike Hard" was the name of the crackdown first launched by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang after a series of suicide bombings in the region.

Beijing blamed the attacks on Uyghur terrorists and launched an array of repressive measures targeting the general population that eventually culminated in its internment camp system that indiscriminately rounded up Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities.

Authorities reportedly rounded up Uyghurs who had recently turned 18, those released from internment camps in recent years, and others who managed to elude monitoring in the past.

A travel ban for Xinjiang was brought in at the beginning of October, which came after strict COVID-19 lockdowns were in force from August to September in the region. According to previous RFA reporting, some Uyghurs died of malnourishment or illness while they were prevented from leaving their homes.

3. Scholz Goes To Beijing

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will go to Beijing on November 4 as part of a visit that is proving controversial and could trigger a fierce backlash at home.

What It Means: Scholz will travel along with a delegation of German business leaders and the trip will make him the first European Union leader to visit China since the beginning of the pandemic.

The visit, which comes weeks after Xi assumed a new five-year term as leader, is under fire from other EU members who say that it sends a confusing signal about how Germany, the bloc's largest economy, plans to deal with Beijing as other EU countries harden their stance toward Beijing.

Scholz also pushed through a deal allowing China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) to buy a stake in a terminal at Germany's main port of Hamburg despite the objections of six cabinet ministers.

On November 1, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, whose ministry was critical of the port deal, called for changes to Berlin's China policy.

In other comments believed to be aimed at Scholz, Thierry Breton, the EU's industry chief, said on October 31 that governments and companies must realize China is a rival to the bloc and they should not be naive whenever they approve Chinese investment.

Across The Supercontinent

On Assignment: According to new figures from Kazakhstan's Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, citizens from China and India, respectively, were the leading recipients of work permits in the country, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports.

Russian citizens, who flocked in the thousands to Kazakhstan and Central Asian countries to avoid military service in late September, are not included in the figures.

Welcome To Beijing: Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif arrived in Beijing on November 1 for a two-day visit, where he will meet with his counterpart, Li Keqiang, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal reported.

It's Sharif's first trip to China as prime minister and security issues are slated to be on the agenda. The last year has seen an increase in attacks on Chinese nationals and projects in Pakistan and China has sent investigators to work along Pakistani security forces to probe the attacks.

It's A Deal: China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have agreed on how to divide the financing for an impact study for a long-discussed railway project between the three countries, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.

Tracking Influence: Doublethink Lab and the China In The World network have compiled the China Index, a project designed to "objectively measure and visualize the People's Republic of China (PRC)'s overseas influence through comparable data." They recently released an update with new countries added, which can be seen here.

One Thing To Watch

China's tough COVID-19 lockdowns have been some of the world's most drastic, leading to dramatic scenes of overwhelmed residents and weighing down the country's economy. But could it be coming to an end?

There's nothing confirmed, but speculation on November 1 that the government is putting together a committee to assess ways to exit its Covid-Zero strategy led to a surge for Chinese stocks and the yuan. Wishful thinking or is a change in the works now that Xi's third-term is in place?

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your in-box on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.

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