Fears China ‘closing in on itself’ amid crackdowns, rising nationalism

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From new laws on espionage and public security to fewer foreign films and arguments on clothing, is China turning away from the world?

When 29-year-old accountant Cai Yutong pulled out her iPhone 13 at a Starbucks on the outskirts of Shanghai, her colleague sitting opposite her moved closer.

“You know, they are launching a new Huawei phone, right?” she asked, according to Cai who recounted the episode to Al Jazeera.

Huawei is a giant of China’s telecommunication and consumer electronics industry and a major producer of smartphones.

Before Cai could answer the question, her colleague had pulled out a Huawei mobile from her bag.

“I think to fully support China against America, we all need to switch to Huawei as soon as we can,” she said and gestured towards Cai’s iPhone, before taking a sip of her Starbucks coffee.

“Her nationalism didn’t reach as far as the American coffee in her other hand,” Cai told Al Jazeera a few days after. Starbucks was founded in the northwestern United States city of Seattle.

Cai sees the incident as symptomatic of a new consumer nationalism among Chinese citizens, eager to champion domestic giants over foreign rivals.

Huawei and Apple recently launched new models to their smartphone collections within a few days of each other.

The new Huawei smartphone contains domestically produced advanced microchips and is a source of techno-nationalist pride in China.

And while thousands of Chinese consumers still queued up outside Apple stores on the morning of September 22 to be among the first to buy the iPhone 15, the California-based tech giant has found itself increasingly targeted in a reflection of the simmering rivalry between the US and China.

In September, it was reported that Chinese officials and government employees were being banned from using iPhones – later denied by the foreign ministry. Meanwhile, a picture of an Apple employee on Apple’s website sparked a furore as it was said to reinforce racist stereotypes about Chinese people – it was later found to be a photograph of an employee who was Native American – and popular Chinese actor Liu Jin recorded himself hurling his iPhone against the ground outside an Apple store because he was upset about the customer service he had received.

“The iPhone situation escalated into a showcase for Chinese nationalism,” Yao-Yuan Yeh, a professor of international studies focusing on Taiwan, China and Japan at the US University of St Thomas, told Al Jazeera.

According to the professor, nationalism has been on the rise in China in recent years particularly in the context of China’s growing competition with the US.

Cai agrees.

“Now there is a lot of people saying that if you love China, you buy from Huawei and if you buy an iPhone, you are a traitor,” Cai said.

“And I feel like it is causing China to close in on itself.”

Raising barriers

Chinese nationalistic sentiment has not only been directed at consumer electronics or the US.

Last year, a known cosplayer was approached by police in Suzhou, a city not far from Shanghai, as she was taking pictures of herself on the street wearing a Japanese kimono.

“If you came here wearing hanfu (traditional Chinese clothing), I wouldn’t say this, but you are wearing a kimono as a Chinese. You are Chinese!” a police officer was recorded shouting at the woman before she was taken away.

A few days after the incident, the state-controlled broadcaster CCTV launched a social media topic promoting the wearing of hanfu.

But donning traditional Chinese clothing can also draw unwanted attention.

In early September, a group of Chinese people wearing hanfu in a park in Wuhan were allegedly told to leave by staff who mistook their clothing for traditional Japanese outfits.

Around the same time, proposed amendments to a Chinese public security law became public knowledge. If approved, the changes would criminalise comments, clothing or symbols that “undermine the spirit” or “harm the feelings” of the country.

Both the proposals and the incident in Suzhou and Wuhan have sparked debate on Chinese social media. Some have criticised police and lawmakers for going too far in their regulation of behaviour while others have argued it is important to be mindful of the supposed sensitivities in Chinese society.

“We used to be more open to other cultures but now I sometimes feel like they watch you with suspicion if there seems to be too much foreign influence in your life,” Justin Gou, a 26-year-old architect told Al Jazeera.

Gou, who is from Xiamen in southeastern China, points to an announcement from the Ministry of State Security in August that citizens should be encouraged to join counter-espionage efforts and that it would set up channels for individuals to report suspicious activity along with rewards for those doing so.

“It is like they want us to assume the worst of others especially if the others are foreigners,” Gou said.

The ministry’s words followed a revision of the country’s counter-espionage law which came into effect in July. That legislation expands the definition of espionage and among other things bans the transfer of information deemed related to “national security”.

A few weeks later, the US consultancy firm Mintz Group was fined $1.5 million for conducting ”unapproved” work after a raid on its Beijing offices led to the detention of the local staff.

The action against Mintz Group marked the beginning of a wider crackdown on foreign and international consultancy and due diligence firms in China.

The Chinese authorities have also made it increasingly difficult for foreign entities to gain access to data while outsiders’ access to some databases has been completely blocked. Other types of data have been censored or will simply no longer be released.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for a “solid” security barrier around China’s internet under the supervision of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Rising barriers have also affected the cultural sphere. In the first 10 months of 2022, China allowed just 38 foreign movies to be screened in domestic cinemas, compared with 73 in 2021 and 136 in 2019.

Asserting control

However, it is not necessarily that China is becoming isolationist, according to Steve Tsang, who is the director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.

Chinese engagement with the outside world is becoming selective, he argues.

“Xi has global ambitions and they require China to reach out, not close off from the world,” Tsang told Al Jazeera.

President Xi has recently reached out to countries – especially in the developing world – with new foreign policy initiatives while also laying out a vision for a new global order.

The leadership has also called for China to achieve self-reliance.

This self-reliance centres around forging two separate economic circuits in China to shield the country from potential “containment and manipulation” by unfriendly forces, while at the same time ensuring it secures maximum advantage from the global economy.

That means Beijing must also keep China, including foreign investments and foreign customers necessary to drive an economy still struggling to recover from the prolonged lockdowns of the pandemic, “open for business”.

The CCP wants to create an economic environment within which a company like Huawei can easily export its products to the world while Chinese consumers will choose Huawei smartphones instead of iPhones, according to St Thomas’s Yeh.

At the same time, Tsang sees the steps taken to close off certain sectors as an attempt to enhance the CCP’s strength by rectifying a perceived lapse in control that happened in the years before Xi came to power more than a decade ago.

That was a time when China was seen as joining the global community, most notably with the country’s membership of the World Trade Organization in 2001 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

“Xi is reinvigorating the CCP as a Leninist instrument and selectively closing up in order to ensure that the CCP stays in effective control of all that the party wants to control.”

Tsang thinks if that makes external access to China more difficult, it is a price Beijing is willing to pay.

That cost could be high.

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has already warned that China’s current policy has deterred businesses, with some fearing China has become “uninvestable”.

Yeh warns that could undermine the economy, at a time when it is already weak, and the very security the CCP wants to strengthen.

“It could result in difficult economic time for the Chinese people and a difficult Chinese public for the Communist Party.”


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