China envoy says US blocks technology exchange, creates global uncertainty

Mark Magnier
·5-min read

China’s top diplomat in Washington has accused the US of restricting the free flow of technology and information and creating “instability” around the world.

In a lengthy interview with CNN on Sunday, ambassador Cui Tiankai said China was “open to all American companies” – despite Beijing’s ban on major companies like Facebook and Google – and said it was unfortunate that technology and information had become politicised between the two countries.

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“All these companies, what they want is a major market share in China. I don’t think their goal is to share technology with China, they just want to make money in the Chinese market,” he said.

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“Of course they could come and we are open to all American companies. But there are existing and even mounting restrictions imposed by the United States government against all this free flow of technology and information.”

It is not clear whether Cui was suggesting that profits were not the primary objective of multinational companies and the Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for clarification.

Cui also pushed back against the idea that a growing number of countries beyond the US – including India, Japan, Vietnam and Australia – are increasingly concerned over China’s more assertive foreign policy.

He added that China was a firm supporter of multilateral institutions, while Washington was the real source of trouble. “The fact is, whenever you have more involvement by the United States, you have greater instability, anywhere in the world,” he said.

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Cui said China had been a responsible power and contributed significantly to global growth, even as the US ratcheted up tension.

“What has been done by the United States, especially in the last few years, has antagonised the Chinese public very much. But I’m still confident if both sides could make the right choice, if we can put the relations back on a stable and constructive track, there’s a great potential and opportunity for our two countries.”

Cui’s appearance on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS programme comes as Beijing seeks to figure out how best to engage the Biden administration; undercut Washington’s strategy of building alliances to counter Chinese assertiveness; and convince the US to drop sanctions imposed under Donald Trump.

A report by New York-based political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said “China has continued a high tempo of trade diplomacy in an offensive to thwart efforts to isolate it”, adding that Beijing was using the media “to signal a desire to work constructively with Biden, while putting the onus on the US to improve the relationship and avoid the “mistakes” of Trump’s China strategy”.

Cui, one of Beijing’s most seasoned envoys and ambassador to the US since 2013, said the US and China should work together on climate change, and that this should not be part of a trade-off involving concessions in other areas. But he also chided the US for inconsistency, having pulled out of the Paris Accord under the Trump administration.

“Of course, we very much welcome the US to come back to rejoin us. But honestly, many people are asking themselves: Will the US change its policy in a few years’ time again?”

Turning to Xinjiang, where China has come under mounting criticism for detaining up to 1 million Uygurs in detention camps – Beijing characterises these as employment training centres – Cui said the policies had worked by stemming terrorism and alleviating poverty.

“People have more jobs, better income, and a better life,” he said. “As for the so-called genocide, the fact is, in the last four decades or so, the Uygur population in Xinjiang has more than doubled.”

It remains to be seen exactly how much of the Trump China playbook will be followed by the Biden administration, but analysts expect technology to remain a key area of contention given the lengthy battle US companies have engaged in for access to the Chinese market.

China has long blocked major US technology firms – including Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook – from entering its market, ostensibly on censorship grounds. But some analysts argue that a second objective of Beijing’s Great Firewall has long been to protect its market against significant competition.

In 2017, an article titled “Censorship or protectionism? Reassessing China’s regulation of internet industry” published in the International Journal of Social Science and Humanity found both objectives served Beijing’s interests.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who made learning Mandarin part of his efforts to court Chinese officials, has made many attempts over the past decade to forge a deal that would allow it into the Chinese market. Not only is the company still blocked in China, its three other social media and chat properties – Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger – are as well.

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In 2018, Facebook announced the establishment of a new “innovation hub” in Hangzhou, supposedly aimed at assisting local start-ups. The initiative was abruptly cancelled, however, and its online registration removed, within a day.

Google was able to launch its Chinese search engine, Google.cn, in 2006 by filtering out material that censors there found objectionable. But, less than four years later, the site was hit by what the company called “a sophisticated cyberattack originating in China”, prompting Google to leave what had already become the world’s largest internet market in terms of user numbers.

At the time, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton urged Chinese authorities to investigate the cyberattacks alleged by Google, and described the Chinese government’s censorship policies as self-defeating.

Google reportedly tried to relaunch a made-for-China search engine in 2018, according to investigative news site The Intercept. That effort was abandoned as a result of resistance from employees concerned about the degree of censorship that would have been needed to pull the project off, the publication said.

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