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Wei To Think Again: The Free World's Huawei Problem, Part 2

Weifeng Zhong
Weifeng Zhong
Dear Watchers of U.S.-China Competition:
To those who signed up recently, welcome to Wei To Think Again. This is my bi-weekly letter for the folks seeking how to think about the nuances in U.S.-China relations intelligibly. If you haven’t done so, please sign up here. If you have, please help us grow by forwarding the letter to a friend.

This is the third in a three-part series on Huawei and the technology challenge it poses to the free world. Check out Part 1 and stay tuned for Part 3.
When South Reviews Went South
“Politicians may benefit in the short term from manipulating public sentiment, but that would jeopardize national interest in the long term. If we kept self-victimizing… and became fixated on seeking revenge, we would eventually alienate the world.” —Chi-hua Tang (2011)
Aren’t these some prescient words for the Russian dictator who’s invading Ukraine in the name of “unity”? (Not that he would listen though.) But this passage wasn’t about Russia; the author, a Taiwanese historian named Chi-hua Tang, was talking about China’s foreign policy in a 2011 interview by a Chinese magazine, South Reviews.
I mentioned this because South Reviews, who’s Chinese title means “a window to southern winds,” was my favorite reading material growing up in China. Despite inevitable state control, the magazine was once upon a time one of the most fearless among Chinese media and, in my view, one of the best.
Well, until it went south. Beijing was apparently not impressed by that 2011 interview. Not only did the government can the magazine’s president and suspend the journalist who ran the story, but the publication was never the same. Now, the magazine is barely distinguishable from typical Chinese propaganda.
Selected covers of South Reviews magazine in 2021.
Selected covers of South Reviews magazine in 2021.
An Increasingly Closed China
I talked about Huawei as an information problem in the last letter because of China’s ambitions to harvest data and, by extension, generate open-source intelligence on foreigners. But on the domestic side, China’s Fourth Estate—if there was ever any—has been consistently shrinking for years.
Beijing started to build out its sophisticated regime of information control as soon as it learned about the liberating potential of the internet in the early 2000s. Late last year, China’s government rolled out a plan to further restrict private capital’s influence in the country’s media, including producing and distributing news, operating news organizations’ social media, and hosting news-related events.
But there’s more to it than just a grim trend.
As I wrote in The Dispatch recently, China’s media clampdown may well have a “silver lining” for policymakers and China watchers around the world. Now that Chinese media are toeing the party line more closely, observers have more official materials from Beijing to work with to gain a better understanding of how its policymaking works—if they embrace the power of open-source intelligence.
Xi Jinping Strengthens His Grip Over Chinese Media
Or, look at it this way: Many China watchers may never be able to observe the country from within like they used to. According to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, Beijing expelled at least 18 foreign journalists from major U.S. newspapers in the first half of 2020 alone, and it expanded the crackdown on foreign press to Hong Kong, too. Many China watchers also don’t feel as safe to visit the country again.
Media Freedoms Report 2021: "Locked Down or Kicked Out"
Readers of this newsletter probably have figured out that I’m a big fan of open-source intelligence. But the reality is that other options are narrowing, and the sooner policymakers and China watchers accept that fact and move forward, the better.
Informational McCarthyism
Moving forward would mean changing the habit of overlooking the value of authoritarian regimes’ pronouncements. In today’s fashionable language, foreign propaganda is often “canceled” because it’s deemed misinformation. It is, but that’s beside the point.
Would you want to listen to Nazi radio if you lived during World War II? Probably not. But that’s exactly what intelligence agencies in Washington and London were monitoring, and such efforts enabled them to successfully predict the deployment of Nazi secret weapons. The practice of making inferences from propaganda continues to this day, and my own research—the Policy Change Index—which mines the Chinese government’s mouthpiece to predict its policy moves, is one of many recent applications.
But when we ignore those pronouncements, we miss out on the opportunity to catch valuable information. Russia watchers like to point at a 5000-word essay Vladimir Putin published on July 12, 2021, which laid out his pretext for invading Ukraine. They can rightfully say “we told you so,” because Putin kind of did. Imagine a world where Russian propaganda is banned, and we’re not allowed to talk about it. We will learn much less about the Russian dictator’s intention—much later.
Anne Applebaum on Twitter:
Some parts of the world are actually quite like that.
South Korea, now a well-functioning democracy, still has a 1948 National Security Act that criminalizes behaviors or speeches that the government considers pro-North Korea. For that reason, many North Korea materials are not easily accessible to the South. In 1994, a South Korean publisher tried to publish the memoir of Kim Il Sung, the North’s founding dictator, and was arrested. Another publisher tried again last year, and the police raided his office and home within weeks.
Curtailing Freedom of Expression and Association in the Name of Security in the Republic of Korea
The point is not that North Korea sympathizers have the right to praise the regime. They do—although I won’t promote them in my newsletters—but this kind of informational McCarthyism blunts efforts to better understand Pyongyang and what its leader might do so he can be countered.
The stakes are much higher when it comes to “reading” Beijing and Moscow. Liberal democracies need to up their game by taking a page out of China’s open-source playbook before it’s too late.
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Weifeng Zhong
Weifeng Zhong @WeifengZhong

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