On Saturday night in Buenos Aires, Chinese President Xi Jinping sat across the dinner table from President Trump and rattled off a list of 140 promises on trade, intellectual property, and a host of other matters.
It was an impressive performance, one that Trump was soon touting on Twitter. Taken together, Xi’s promises constituted a personal pledge to his American counterpart — man-to-man and face-to-face — that China, after decades of predatory practices, would henceforth begin to play by the rules of the international order.
The U.S. did not wait very long before testing Xi’s sincerity. A few hours later, Canada detained one of China’s leading tech executives.
Meng Wanzhou, the vice chairman and chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, was arrested at the Vancouver International Airport late Saturday by Canadian officials at the request of U.S. authorities. She will be extradited to New York, where she will stand trial on charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Official China is outraged over the arrest. The stridently patriotic Global Times has accused the U.S. of behaving like “a despicable rogue”, while China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for her immediate release.
There are two reasons why Beijing is incensed. The first is that Huawei is not only the top mobile phone maker in China, it is a key player in the country’s “Made in China 2025” plan to dominate high-tech, in Huawei’s case next-generation 5G telecommunications technology.
Then there is the fact that Ms. Meng, who is known as “Sabrina” in English, is the daughter of Ren Zhengfei, the PLA electronics engineer who founded Huawei decades ago with support from senior Communist leaders. Meng is slated to succeed him as chairman when he retires.
In other words, she is not only Communist royalty, she is China’s Tim Cook.
So how strong is the U.S. case against Huawei? Ironclad is the word that comes to mind.
Did her company violate the sanctions? Of course it did. Chinese companies have been violating the international sanctions against Iran for years. U.S. authorities have been investigating Huawei since at least 2016, Reuters reported this April. The company was alleged to have shipped U.S.-origin products to Iran and other countries in violation of U.S. export and sanctions laws.
For years, Huawei has been using front companies in Hong Kong to get around the sanctions. Reuters reported in 2013, for example, on an effort by a Huawei-connected company to sell embargoed Hewlett-Packard computer equipment to Iran’s largest mobile-phone operator.
In fact, the company’s misbehavior in Iran is a case study of how Chinese state-dominated companies – driven in equal measure by the Communist Party’s disdain for the rule of law and the owners desire for profit – operate in the international arena.
For national narcissists like Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, however, whether or not Huawei has violated the law is irrelevant. The only important point is that China and its citizens have been insulted. As Hu posted on Weibo: “It is clear the U.S. is pushing the battle line to our door … We can completely regard the U.S. arrest of Meng Wanzhou as a declaration of war against China.”
Many Chinese citizens are outraged, as well. After all, Party propaganda has drummed into their heads the idea that any foreign criticism is part of a Western plot to prevent China from resuming its rightful role in the world.
That is why any and all criticism from abroad, not only concerning China’s predatory trade practices or its theft of intellectual property but on any subject whatsoever, is routinely denounced as “groundless” or as “an interference in China’s internal affairs,” or as “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.”
In order to bolster its own rule, the Communist Party has pushed patriotism and nationalism at every opportunity. Now, these same superpatriots and ultranationalists are demanding that their leaders act to secure Meng Wanzhou’s release.
I would also wager that her father, the Founder and Chairman of Huawei, has also been on the phone with Xi Jinping himself with the same request.
The state-run Global Times claims that the arrest was a violation of the spirit of the trade truce reached during the Xi-Trump dinner.
If Xi agrees and backs off his promises to Trump, he will be signaling to the American President that everything he said in Buenos Aires was nothing but a strategic deception, intended to lull the U.S. into complacency about China’s cheating. Trump will move ahead with his tariffs and industry will flee China. The American economy, followed by much of the rest of the world, will disengage from China’s economy.
If, on the other hand, Xi keeps his promises, he will be alienating the very people he relies upon for his continued rule. The corrupt kleptocracy that, under the ironic guise of “communism,” continues to rip off its own people and the world, may well turn on him. Public sentiment will turn against him — not that this counts very much in dictatorial China.
There is a lot riding on Xi Jinping’s actions — for him.
As for President Trump, he decided that, if Xi was bluffing in Buenos Aires, better that we find out sooner rather than later.
Beijing’s two-decades-long orgy of lawless behavior needs to come to an end.
Steven W. Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute and the author of Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order.