Hello, Flying Sesame readers! Welcome back to the 2nd edition of our bi-weekly China Newsletter, Sesame Express. There is a lot going on but these are the five topics and related commentaries which we find most interesting. Enjoy!
1. Trump v.s. Biden – who would China vote for?
Those of us whose life have been caught up by the free-falling Sino-US relations are watching this year’s US presidential race closely. Some may have asked ourselves a hypothetical question: who would China vote for on 3 November? Well, most experts seem to think that the answer is neither. (“China braced for lose-lose scenario as US election fuels unease”, Financial Times)
- Few believe that a Biden victory will reverse anti-China sentiment in the mainstream American politics, where efforts to curb China’s rise enjoy bipartisan support. So unfortunately, whether we like it or not, the tension will persist regardless who wins the White House. The key difference though, according to The Guardian, will be in approach (“Whether Trump or Biden wins, US-China relations set to worsen”).
- In fact, one may even argue that with Biden looking to restore the US leadership in the western world, and to rally its allies collectively putting pressure on China, he could potentially become a more thorny problem for the administration in Beijing (“China warms to idea of four more years of Trump presidency”, Bloomberg).
“We need to be having the rest of our friends with us, saying to China: ‘We play by the rules. You play by them or you are going to pay the price for not playing by them, economically’.”
Said Joe Biden during the second presidential election debate.
2. China set to beat Trump on Covid vaccine race and “vaccine diplomacy”
To President Trump’s bitter disappointment, China has become the latest frontrunner in a global race for the coronavirus vaccine. The latest guidance from health officials is that a fully approved vaccine could be ready as soon as November.
- Apparently, hundreds of thousands of Chinese people have already been inoculated under an emergency use provision, including employees of state-owned companies, staff and students going abroad, essential workers and government officials. In all honesty, I would never contemplate getting a jab without having the full clinical go-ahead. But interestingly, people in China appear to be much more relaxed about it and the vaccine itself has been received rather positively in contrast to Russia’s earlier fast-track attempt. (“Chinese Citizens are already receiving a coronavirus vaccine”, The New Yorker)
- Another encouraging news is that China has finally announced to join Covax, a global vaccine initiative, and to turn its vaccine into a “global public good” in President Xi’s own words. While I certainly applaud China’s decision, questions remain on how quickly capacity can be scaled up to meet its commitment. According to the government’s vaccine task force, China has capacity to produce 600m doses of vaccine by the end of this year, which is still no match to a population size of 1.4 billions. (“What China’s speedy COVID vaccine deployment means for the pandemic”, Nature)
3. How bad can Disney’s “Mulan” (木兰: 横空出世) be?
The Chinese audience’s verdict is loud and clear: very bad, and actually, cannot be worse. It’s 5.0 out of 10 rating on Douban (豆瓣), China’s version of Rotten Tomato, says it all.
- Disney’s car crash, especially considering its calculated move of wooing its most important market, was staggering. From the bizarre plot (Mulan with superpowers, excuse me?), lamentable action scenes and special effects, to flawed historical context, there is almost nothing in the show that resonated with the Chinese audience. And it is really a shame, as a lot of Chinese, including myself, have fond memory of the 1998 animation, despite it being distinctly American. Well, the review from Variety sums it up, “China hates Disney’s Mulan, but it has nothing to do with politics”.
- For those who are interested in knowing the real Mulan, the figure comes from an ancient Chinese poem called the Ballad of Mulan (木兰辞), something all Chinese kids learn at school. It was set in the Northern Wei Dynasty (北魏), between 386 to 534 AD, a time when China was ruled by a non-Han ethnic group called Xian Bei (鲜卑) of nomadic origin. The story tells of a girl who disguises herself as a man to join the army in place of her father. Its original theme of filial piety has been made and remade countless times in the name of nationalism, anti-imperialism, feminism, and more, says Jessie Lau from The Diplomate. (“Who is the real Mulan?”)
4. Behind China’s “pork miracle”
“As Chinese demand for pork grows and grows, traditional small-scale farms are being replaced by vast, AI-assisted operations that feel more like smartphone factories than bucolic countryside havens.”
I chanced upon this brilliant report by Xiaowei Wang from The Guardian the other day. While it certainly was not helpful in alleviating my craving for Char Sui Bun (叉烧包) and Xiao Long Bao (小笼包) during the lockdown, it offers a fascinating look into China’s insatiable appetite for pork and how that ever growing demand, together with technological innovations has transformed the hog farming industry in the country. (“Behind China’s Pork Miracle: how technology is transforming rural hog farming”)
- Interesting fact: do you know that China is the only country in the world that has a pork reserve, made up of millions of live pigs and tonnes of frozen pork? I certainly didn’t. But I am glad to find out that my Char Sui Bun (叉烧包) and Xiao Long Bao (小笼包) are in safe hands.
5. 70th anniversary of Korean War and its ever changing narratives
There has been a flurry of western press coverage recently on President Xi’s Korean War 70th anniversary speech.
- In China, the Korean War is more widely known as the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea (抗美援朝). The narratives about the war, often seen as a bellweather for Sino-US relations, have seen ups and downs over the past decades. When I was in school in the 90s, “Who are the most beloved people” (谁是最可爱的人), an essay written by journalist Wei Wei (巍巍) about the Chinese people’s volunteer army fighting in Korea, was something everyone needed to learn by heart. Apparently it got quietly removed from school textbooks at some point. This year, it was not hard to decipher what President Xi was trying to say, when he proclaimed that “The Chinese people will not create trouble but nor are we afraid of them, and no matter the difficulties or challenges we faced our legs will not shake and our backs will not bend.” If you only have time to read one article on this matter, my favourite is the entry from Jennifer Conrad from SupChina. (“70 years on, how China sees the Korean War”)
- On the other hand, I cannot help but think the western media is reading too much into all the fanfare by the Chinese state media. The truth is that, if you talk to the average person on the street in China, they really couldn’t care less about this. People are busy working 996. When they are not working, there are more than enough to keep them entertained, from short videos, live-streaming shopping to countless TV shows. My parents are the only ones I know who actually went to watch Jin Gang Chuan (金刚川), the patriotic movie featuring the Korean War released in conjunction with the anniversary. And the reason they went was because my mom adores the lead actor Wu Jing (吴京), the popular Chinese action star.