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July 23, 2021 – Stealth War 47: China’s Cyber Activities; Xi Visits Tibet; New Hong Kong Human Rights Abuses; Wang Yi in Syria; and China Buys Global Properties

By: Jamestown Foundation

Fri July, 2021, Age: 2 years



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July 23, 2021

Welcome to the Stealth War Newsletter, a collection of the top 5 recent news items, collected on The Jamestown Foundation’s new website, To continue to receive this weekly collection, click the button below to subscribe.  

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Strategic Indicator
This issue’s number to watch


The number of 5G base stations that China has built during the first half of 2021, making a total of 961,000. China has made rapid progress in positioning itself as a world leader in next-generation telecommunications technology, and 5G investments in the high-tech manufacturing sector have also increased 47.7 percent year-on-year.

This Week:

* U.S. and Allies Issue Coordinated Condemnation of Malicious Chinese Cyber Activities

* Xi Jinping’s Visit to Tibet Signals Further Repression of Ethnic Minorities and Militarization of Border

* BRI Roundup: Wang Yi Visits Syria as China Seeks Greater Middle East Influence

* Anniversary of National Security Law in Hong Kong

* Chinese Companies’ Property Acquisitions Brings U.S. Legislation

Top Stories


U.S. And Allies Issue Coordinated Condemnation of Malicious Chinese Cyber Activities

On July 19, the United States issued a statement attributing “malicious cyber activity and irresponsible state behavior” to China. It was joined by allies and partners, including the European Union, NATO, the Five Eyes (the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada), and Japan in an unprecedented show of coordination to criticize China’s cyber behavior. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement that China has “fostered an ecosystem of criminal contract hackers who carry out both state-sponsored activities and cybercrime for their own financial gain,” and vowed that the U.S. would work with partners and allies to “promote responsible state behavior in cyberspace, counter cybercrime, and oppose digital authoritarianism.” Monday marked the first time that the U.S. has accused China of abetting ransomware hackers. China has recently implemented a number of measures aimed at improving cybersecurity reporting and threat prevention at home, as well as tightening controls on research into vulnerabilities that could potentially benefit the state in an “arms race in cyber.”  Although foreign experts have praised the U.S. for its coordinated efforts to identify problematic behavior in cyberspace and reaffirm international norms, including a recent UN expert consensus report on cybersecurity that was signed by both the U.S. and China, they also worry that statements without meaningful enforcement will do little to make a difference.

The Biden administration explicitly attributed a far-reaching breach on Microsoft Exchange email software earlier this year to the Chinese intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), and publicized an indictment of four Chinese nationals connected to MSS-related cyber espionage, but did not go as far as to issue any punitive measures. This stands in contrast to its recent sanctioning of Russia for a range of alleged malicious cyber activity, which some experts criticized as a “double standard” that effectively served to “treat China with kid gloves.” News reports emerged that Chinese hackers recently targeted the Norwegian parliament in March and may have stolen data from the Cambodian foreign ministry pertaining to Mekong River water use discussions in 2018. The cybersecurity firm Kapersky has also recently revealed that a Shanghai-based hacking group dubbed LuminousMoth has targeted government agencies in Southeast Asia, particularly Myanmar and the Philippines. China has rejected all hacking charges, and—in a familiar move—returned the accusations of cyber-espionage. A foreign ministry spokesperson said, “China once again strongly demands that the United States and its allies stop cyber theft and attacks against China, stop throwing mud at China on cybersecurity issues, and withdraw the so-called prosecution.”


Xi Jinping’s Visit to Tibet Signals Further Repression of Ethnic Minorities and Militarization of Border

From this Wednesday to Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the first time a Chinese leader has made such a trip in over 30 years. On Wednesday, Xi landed in the strategic border town of Nyingchi, which is near the border of the disputed Indian-administered state of Arunachal Pradesh that Beijing claims as “South Tibet.” Xi inspected multiple urban development projects in the vicinity of Nyingchi before taking a new high speed railway to the regional capital Lhasa.  

Xi’s visit comes as Beijing has placed new restrictions on Tibetan religion, language, and education. Local security forces have instituted some repressive predictive policing systems in the region to identify “people of interest,” a method taken from Xinjiang, a province where China has interned up to a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans are also believed to have been arrested and placed in military-style “re-education” camps. In comments recorded by state media, Xi stated that Tibetan Buddhism needed to “adapt to the socialist society.” Xi is also believed to have pressed local officials in meetings to strengthen national unity and “patriotic education,” as a means to counter “separatism,” signaling that the repression of ethnic Tibetans in the region is unlikely to be relaxed.

The visit has also once again raised Indian concerns for its border security with China. The Nyingchi airport, where Xi began his visit to Tibet, is located only 15 kilometers from the border with India. The airport is one of numerous construction projects that hold military-use capabilities that have raised tensions with India. While in Tibet, Xi pledged further construction projects along the border, and called on Tibetans to help defend the country. “China will strengthen infrastructure construction along the border, and encourages people of various minorities to set their roots at the border, to defend the territory and build the homeland,” said Xi. Beijing has directed the construction of villages on and inside of disputed territory with India and Bhutan in a bid to bolster its territorial claims.

The comments are likely to alarm Indian security planners and confirm the now widely held belief in New Delhi that the current face-offs and confrontations at the border are a new normal in the Sino-Indian relationship. That Xi made these comments on a visit to Tibet, near the border with India, also signals the high-level attention and focus of the central Communist Party leadership on the border issue.

BRI Roundup


Wang Yi Visits Syria as China Seeks Greater Middle East Influence

On his visit to Syria, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged Beijing’s support for the Assad regime and said it would ramp up cooperation with Damascus, including Belt and Road Projects and counterterrorism measures. In response, President Bashar Al-Assad pledged Syria’s  unconditional support for China on its policies on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan. After Beijing declared its support for Damascus, Syria accused Israel of launching an attack in the country, which Israel rejected. Israel has practiced targeting militants operating in Syria, which it suspects harbors Iranian-allied groups.

Analysts have speculated that China’s support of Syria comes from hopes of investments and influence in the region, especially as the United States reduces its presence after its military withdrawal from Afghanistan. During Wang’s trip to the Middle East, China and the Arab League also published a sweeping joint statement that showcased China’s growing geopolitical ambitions in the region, which range from expanding the Belt and Road Initiative to shoring up support for Chinese state policies in Xinjiang and legitimizing its efforts to play a larger role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. As the Assad government reclaims control of Syria in a decade-long conflict, Syria is in dire need of aid and foreign capital to assist in its reconstruction, and Chinese commentary has highlighted the BRI’s ability to rebuild critical infrastructure. Although Assad declared victory and control over Syria after presidential elections in May, the country remains volatile and splintered. Russia maintains a significant presence in Syria’s northeast, with Turkey in the northwest, and China’s growing presence may bring it into competition with traditional powerbrokers in the region. At the same time, Chinese promises of investment have a long way to go before they are manifested. Syria continues to pose high risk to investors given its continued instability and Western sanctions against the Assad government.


Anniversary of National Security Law in Hong Kong

Rule of law and democracy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region continued to erode this week as government officials held a triumphant symposium to mark the one year anniversary of the July 2020 national security law. On Thursday, a Hong Kong court denied bail to four former senior journalists of the now-defunct pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper who are accused of violating the national security law by conspiring to collude with external forces. The journalists are alleged to have asked foreign countries or external forces “to impose sanctions or blockade, or engage in other hostile activities” against Hong Kong or China. Seven former Apple Daily employees are now in custody awaiting trial under the national security law, and face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Their arrests marked significant new restrictions on press freedoms which come alongside ongoing crackdowns on online expression, judicial freedoms, education and civil society.

Some rare accountability has come for assailants involved in the July 21, 2019 attacks at the Yuen Long metro station, where more than 100 men assaulted commuters and injured over 45 people, including pro-democracy protesters. Hong Kong police on the scene did not make any arrests and were heavily criticized for their inaction. This Thursday, seven men were sentenced to prison for three and half to seven years for their roles in the incident.

These events fall against the backdrop of new U.S. sanctions on seven Chinese officials for their role in the continued crackdown on democracy and rule of law in Hong Kong, as well as a recent business advisory issued by the U.S. State Department on the “emerging risks” of operations and activities in the city. These are likely to increase tensions, although Chinese officials responded that they were “just waste paper” and irrelevant to business and political operations in the region. At the time of writing, China issued reciprocal sanctions on six Americans and one entity in response to the U.S. actions on Hong Kong.


Chinese Companies’ Property Acquisitions Brings U.S. Legislation

Chinese companies currently own approximately 6.5 million hectares of land, according to recently released data from a European land monitoring organization. Although data on foreign land acquisitions is piecemeal, China was labelled as the most active country in global land purchases in 2015, buying properties in 33 countries. Chinese companies currently own approximately 6.5 million hectares of land, used primarily for forestry, agriculture, and mining that account for 5 million, 0.9 million, and 0.6 million hectares, respectively. In comparison, UK businesses own 1.56 million hectares of foreign land and U.S. companies are ranked third in overseas acquisitions with 866,000 hectares.

China, as the world’s largest importer of food, has taken a keen interest in the agricultural industries in the developing world. Forestry and mining in Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe for lumber and precious metals also serves to give China ample access to commodities amid rising inflation in those industries and rabid domestic demand for resources amid a growing economy.

The United States has not been immune to Chinese companies’ overseas acquisitions. As of early 2020, Chinese companies have acquired 192,000 acres, or approximately 77,700 hectares American farmland. While this is significant in absolute terms, it is relatively minimal in comparison to the amount of property owned by Canadian and European companies. This reality has not stopped members of Congress from attempting to legislate limits on Chinese property acquisitions. Representative Dan Newhouse (R-WA) recently introduced an amendment to this year’s Agriculture-FDA spending bill that would bar any new agricultural purchases by companies that are wholly or partly owned by the Chinese government, and bar Chinese-owned farms from receiving federal benefits. Overseas property acquisitions by Chinese companies directly reflect their growing clout on the global marketplace. However, as tensions with the United States grow, Chinese companies could run into difficulties purchasing further properties.

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