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Gavin Newsom’s China Challenge    

Decoding transatlantic relations with Beijing.



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Hi, China Watchers.  Today we preview one of the challenges California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces in his China trip next week: whether he can make nice with Chinese officials to advance his climate agenda while also pressing them to release an Orange County constituent wrongfully detained in Beijing for 17 years. We'll also test the mettle of China's Middle East diplomatic corps in a chat with President Joe Biden's new special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues and examine the legacy of the enigmatic Chinese protester known as "bridge man." And with a nod to the 10th anniversary party this week for China's Belt and Road Initiative, we profile a book that notes that the BRI's key advantage over U.S. infrastructure development initiatives is that Washington "cannot force the private sector to pay more attention to Africa."  

Let's get to it. — Phelim

California native David Lin, unjustly jailed in China since 2006, in happier times with his daughter Alice in 1984 | Alice Lin

California Governor Gavin Newsom | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

'Raise my father's case' — Will Gavin Newsom bring David Lin home?

Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom will test his foreign policy chops next week when he travels to China in a bid to deepen climate cooperation between California and Beijing.

Newsom is betting that the recent thaw in U.S.-China relations — punctuated by visits from four Biden cabinet officials in recent months and a congressional delegation led by Senate Leader Chuck Schumer last week — will help connect Chinese expertise in electrical vehicle and renewable energy policy and technology to his ambitious carbon emission reduction goals. Politico's Blanca Begert has the full story here. 

But the real test of whether Newsom has the ear of his Chinese hosts is if he's willing and able to bring home fellow Californian David Lin from 17 years of unjust imprisonment in China. Lin was arrested in 2006 and handed a life sentence on what the U.S. government says are bogus charges of contract fraud. A Chinese court later commuted his life sentence and multiple sentence reductions have him on track for release in 2029. Religious freedom organizations including ChinaAid say Chinese authorities targeted Lin because of his efforts to build a place of worship for an unofficial "house church" forbidden under Chinese law. Lin turns 68 years old next month and is in failing health. 

Lin is one of three Americans imprisoned in China, including Kai Li and Mark Swidan who the State Department's office of the special presidential envoy on hostage affairs designates as "wrongful detainees." The designation authorizes Roger D. Carstens, the special envoy, to seek their release. "We have continually raised the cases of U.S. nationals wrongfully detained in the People's Republic of China in our engagements with senior PRC officials," said a hostage affairs office spokesperson granted anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak on-record.   

The bad news for Lin is that Newsom's office indicated on Tuesday that he will avoid raising human rights issues — which likely includes arbitrarily detained Americans — during a seven-day trip that includes stops in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. "The trip is pretty wholly focused on climate, and we are obviously a state, so I think we look to our federal partners on federal issues," spokesperson Erin Mellon told reporters Tuesday in response to a question on whether human rights were on Newsom's trip agenda. 

The Newsom administration declined to respond to a query about those "federal issues" and referred POLITICO to the State Department. Neither the White House nor the State Department responded to queries about if they had briefed Newsom's team on the administration's China priorities and whether they considered human rights and unjustly jailed U.S. citizens to be issues only for the federal government. 

The governor's agenda instead includes a tour of a Tesla factory, birdwatching in Jiangsu province (we're not making this up) and visiting the Great Wall outside of Beijing. (The Tesla visit could create some blowback for Newsom given the company's China-based operations' links to components sourced in the Xinjiang region where Chinese authorities ensnare tens of thousands of Muslim Uyghurs in forced labor.) 

John Kamm, founder of the Dui Hua Foundation which advocates for the release of victims of unjust jailing in China, argued it would be strange for Newsom not to mention Lin or other hostages.

 "Chinese officials I work with expect him to raise cases of arbitrarily detained Americans — to do otherwise would be shameful and disqualifying," said Kamm. 

In an email exchange with China Watcher, Alice Lin, David Lin's daughter, urged Newsom to "raise my father's case by name as well as the names of other wrongfully detained Americans. …We do not want my dad to be forgotten."

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), whose district includes Lin's Orange Country home, also "supports Governor Newsom doing what he can to bring David home to his family," a Porter spokesperson, Peter Opitz, said in a statement.

Newsom's reluctance to raise human rights and the case of a constituent unjustly jailed in Beijing No. 2 Prison for almost two decades may help smooth his meetings with Chinese officials. But it will likely spark criticism from China hawks on Capitol Hill who are pushing the Biden administration to take a harder line with Beijing for such abuses.

U.S. officials meeting with Chinese counterparts should "stand firm and first and foremost advocate for the American citizens, lawful permanent residents and political prisoners unjustly detained by China," said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. "They cannot be forgotten — and every American official who visits China must demand they be freed."

CALIFORNIA CLIMATE: Follow along with us on the ground with Gov. Gavin Newsom next week in China. Sign up for our daily newsletter on how California's response to climate change is shaping the future — across industry and government and across politics and policy.


President Biden appointed former ambassador David Satterfield on Sunday as his Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues. His task: lead U.S. efforts in addressing the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Gaza. That means he might soon rub elbows with China's special envoy to the Middle East, Zhai Jun, who is headed to the region this week. Satterfield spoke to China Watcher about China's regional diplomatic heft just prior to his appointment.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about China's special envoys to the Middle East.

In my personal experience they are very pleasant, professional diplomats — not individuals coming with an ax to grind or a particular agenda during the years I worked with them, which preceded 2008. People meet with them because it is China, but nobody takes them seriously because China does not exert any meaningful political or security weight on any particular size in the Middle East.

Why does China lack that influence?

Part of the reason is the convoluted way in which China approaches the many complex issues in the Middle East. They often involve international sanctions. They involve designations of groups as terrorists. They involve basically taking a stand. China is enormously sensitive to being compelled on any international issue to take a stand which could indicate, even obliquely, that China is supportive of "international interventions" or applications of international law. Because China so fears that someday, international law, international sanctions, if not interventions, will apply to it for its practices.

What accounts for China's awkward messaging on the Hamas attack on Israel?

The Chinese don't really want to take a stand on any of this stuff. They don't really have much influence, one way or the other. They aren't taken seriously by any of the parties. Nobody wants to offend them, but they're not actors. And that is not new — that is the past 20-25 years. All of which ought to be recalled by those in and out of government who would portray China as the titan bestriding the earth endlessly and existentially challenging everyone. There are places where the Chinese do pose a significant challenge. But let's not exaggerate.


— COMMERCE TIGHTENS CHIP EXPORT RULES: The Commerce Department has strengthened export restrictions on U.S. produced semiconductors to slow China's "development of artificial intelligence and other technologies that could assist its military," POLITICO's Gavin Bade reported on Tuesday. That move won bipartisan praise. The curbs put "national security first," said Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), ranking member of the House Select Committee on China, in a statement on Tuesday. The rules will "cut off Chairman's Xi's access to chips that can supercharge weapons and state surveillance," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement on Tuesday.  

Beijing senses trouble. The Commerce Department's move "disrupts and destabilizes global industrial and supply chains and will eventually hurt the interests of the whole world," Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said on Tuesday.

— U.S., MARSHALL ISLANDS RENEW STRATEGIC DEAL: The U.S. renewed a strategic agreement with the Marshall Islands on Monday two weeks after its expiry last month. That deal "furthers the U.S. commitment to a Pacific that is secure, free and open, and more prosperous," the State Department said in a statement published on Tuesday. The Marshall Islands had resisted that renewal over disagreement about issues including what levels of the Marshall Islands' bureaucracy should oversee the U.S.-provided annual grants and trust fund money that the deal provides. 

RAHM EMANUEL TROLLS XI'S BRI FORUM: U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel was busy this week trolling the BRI Forum — the 10th anniversary party for Xi the Belt and Road Initiative — that closed in Beijing Wednesday. Emanuel accused the BRI — Xi Jinping's signature global infrastructure development program— of being a tool of so-called "debt trap" diplomacy. Beijing has consistently denied such allegations. Emanuel singled out a troubled BRI airport project in Nepal as emblematic of the program's risks. "Beneath the fanfare lies a trail of debt, dubious construction quality, and diplomatic tensions … #BRI #DebtDiplomacy #ChinaDeptTrap," Emanuel posted on the X social media platform on Tuesday.  


XI ASSURES HUNGARY AMID RAILWAY PROJECT WORRY: Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán got a personal assurance from China's Xi on Tuesday that the planned Budapest-Belgrade railway project would be completed as scheduled, amid concerns in Hungary that the Chinese constructors were running out of money to finish a project beyond their technical knowhow. Calling Orbán "a friend," Xi also stressed that "the two sides should work for the on-time completion and operation of the Budapest-Belgrade Railway," according to state media Xinhua. Orbán is the only leader from a European Union or NATO country to attend the event, where he also met Putin (but refused to join a European Council meeting to discuss the Israel-Gaza conflict).

DAVID CAMERON THE NEW BRI POSTER BOY: Former British Prime Minister David Cameron has been enlisted to drum up foreign investment in the controversial Colombo Port City project in Sri Lanka, which is a major part of President Xi's BRI and is billed as a Chinese-funded rival to Singapore and Dubai. While Cameron's spokesperson said he had had no direct contact with either the Chinese government or the Chinese firm involved, critics slammed the G-7 former leader's role in furthering Beijing's geopolitical ambition. "Cameron of all people must realize that China's Belt and Road is not about help and support and development, it's ultimately about gaining control," said Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservative Party, to which Cameron belongs. Elena Courea has the full story.

CENSORSHIP COMPLAINT BY THE GERMAN AMBASSADOR: Chinese social media site Weibo has kept deleting Germany's official messages about the Russian war against Ukraine, according to Patricia Flor, the German ambassador to China. Lodging the complaint on X, Flor said on Wednesday: "Two times we tried to post the following on Weibo — and both times it was deleted after a short time." The initial Weibo message her team posted mentioned "Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, which violates international law, continues unabated." The censorship came as Xi was hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing, one of few leaders who flew to China for an event marking the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road initiative.

EU FLOATS NEW WIND ENERGY BLUEPRINT AMID CHINA COMPETITION: The European Commission is seeking to overhaul project auction designs, accelerate permitting processes and facilitate access to funds in a new action plan that aims to Europe's ailing wind industry, according to a draft proposal obtained by POLITICO. According to the document, the EU's trade balance with China in the wind sector "has been negative with a record deficit of €462 million" in 2022. While China is an important supplier of raw materials and components to global manufacturers, it is "also becoming a serious competitor in third country markets," the EU said, citing a 20-percent-price advantage compared with European and U.S. products, as well as "attractive deferred payments. "An unlevel playing field would negatively affect EU wind equipment manufacturers and could even reduce their competitiveness on the EU market," the document added. Victor Jack has the full story for our subscribers on POLITICO Pro. 


Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin | Pavel Byrkin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

— XI-PUTIN BRI BROFEST IN BEIJING: Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin are keen to deepen their "no limits" partnership. At the BRI Forum on Wednesday, Xi announced that bilateral "political mutual trust is steadily deepening," while Putin urged "close foreign policy coordination" essential to both countries in the "current difficult conditions." You can read POLITICO's Nicholas Camut's full story here. Xi also took an implicit shot at the Biden administration's China policy by decrying "unilateral sanctions, economic coercion and decoupling and supply chain disruption."

— BEIJING BLASTS CANADIAN AERIAL 'PROVOCATIONS': The Chinese Foreign Ministry has accused a Canadian CP-140 military aircraft enforcing United Nations-mandated monitoring of possible illegal oil shipments to North Korea of "adventurist" and "provocative" moves near China's coastline on Saturday. "The Canadian side has sent warplanes halfway around the world to stir up trouble and make provocations at China's doorsteps," Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said on Tuesday. Canada blamed a Chinese fighter jet for the incident. "They became very aggressive and to a degree we would deem it unsafe and unprofessional," said Maj.-Gen. Iain Huddleston, commander of Canada's 1st Air Division, per Global News.  

Such encounters are becoming increasingly frequent. The Pentagon released declassified videos and images on Tuesday of what it says are of 15 recent incidents of airborne harassment by Chinese jet fighters targeting U.S. aircraft. They reflect Beijing's efforts "to impinge upon the ability of the United States and other nations to safely conduct operations where international law allows," a Pentagon statement said.

**Save the date – POLITICO Live's Defense Launch event will take place on November 21 to discuss what is currently shaping Europe's defense policy and the role of NATO. Register now!**


— BEIJING'S 'BRIDGE MAN' UNBOWED: On the morning of Oct. 13, 2022, a Beijing resident named Peng Lifa arrived at the Sitong Bridge in northwestern Beijing where he hung a pair of banners over the railings with slogans criticizing one-party rule ("We want reform … we want freedom … depose the traitorous dictator Xi Jinping.")

Police arrived within minutes and Peng has disappeared into the Chinese gulag. Chinese authorities later removed the Sitong Bridge from online maps, reflecting official nervousness about possible copycat demonstrations. The Chinese embassy in Washington didn't respond to a request for comment on Peng's status. Human rights advocates warn that Peng is at risk of being tortured in custody and that his wife and daughter are under house arrest. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chair of the House Select Committee on China, announced last week that he had nominated Peng for a Nobel Prize.

China Watcher spoke to Yaqiu Wang, research director for China, Hong Kong  and Taiwan at the nonprofit advocacy group Freedom House, about the legacy of Peng's short-lived act of defiance.

The Peng Lifa ripple effect. "His protest was an inspiration to the protesters in the 'white paper protests' a month later, which was an important reason why Xi lifted the draconian zero-Covid policy," Wang said. That makes Peng a potential role model for future resistance to one-party rule. "Many movements in history across the world started with a single act of courage by one individual — think Rosa Parks in the U.S.," Wang said. "History will recognize Peng's central place in the Chinese people's struggle for freedom." 

The Chinese government has scrubbed Peng's protest from the domestic public record. But Freedom House has already documented 11 cases "where people invoked Peng's act in their own protests, such as posting the banners' language in public places," said Wang. And many of the Chinese students studying abroad who have access to uncensored reporting of Peng's protest "will go back to China with the knowledge of this event," Wang said.


China Books Review: Mao to Now

The Wire China: Robert Daly on keeping close to China

The Hill: Prepare for an indefinite future across the Taiwan Strait


Columbia University Press

The Book:  China's Relations with Africa: A New Era of Strategic Engagement

The Authors:  David H. Shinn and Joshua Eisenman

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What's the most important take-away from your book?

Increasingly China offers African countries an alternative model of political governance.  Under Xi Jinping, Chinese leaders have evolved from just disparaging Western liberal democracy to offering China's political system as a better governance model for countries in the Global South. But It is not a given that over the long term most African countries will conclude that China's authoritarian model is the best one for them. 

What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?

The Covid-19 pandemic had a dramatic negative impact on the amount of interaction between China and the 53 African countries that recognize Beijing. High level visits, People's Liberation Army Navy port calls, political party exchanges and other kinds of engagement stagnated, declined, or even collapsed entirely. 

What are the Biden administration's challenges in trying to offset Beijing's significant influence in Africa?

China passed the United States in 2009 as Africa's largest trading partner and in recent years has provided considerably more foreign direct investment than the U.S., along with massive lending for infrastructure projects across Africa. The United States depends on the private sector for advancing trade and investment. While the U.S. government can and should offer more incentives, it cannot force the private sector to pay more attention to Africa.  

The United States encourages liberal democratic ideas, the rule of law and imposes penalties for human rights abuses, but China does not follow comparable principles.  This provides Beijing with an advantage, especially with authoritarian governments, that Washington finds difficult to counter. 

Got a book to recommend? Tell me about it at [email protected].

Thanks to: Heidi Vogt, Blanca Begert, Gavin Bade, Elena Courea, Victor Jack and digital producers Tara Gnewikow and Fiona Lally. Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week’s items? Email us at [email protected] [email protected]

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Gavin Newsom’s China Challenge    


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