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Pence’s Pounce: The Fiery China Speech, Fact-Checked

Pence’s Pounce: The Fiery China Speech, Fact-Checked

October 19, 2018 | On October 4, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence gave a blistering speech at the Hudson Institute. In addition to accusing China of meddling in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, Pence also raised concerns about religious oppression, censorship, and intellectual property theft. He touted President Trump’s leadership, reiterating that, in the face of Chinese adversity and aggression, the United States “will not be intimidated.” 

Chinese officials and state-run media outlets slammed the speech, calling the accusations “ridiculous” and reaffirming its commitment to international cooperation. “This is nothing but speaking on hearsay evidence, confusing right and wrong and creating something out of thin air,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a statement. “The Chinese side is firmly opposed to it.”

Here at Arbitror, we thought the Chinese response was a little unfair. After all, Pence’s speech was well-researched, and “creating something out of thin air” sounds more like something President Trump would do. In the age of fake news, we thought we would help fact-check parts of Pence’s speech. 

“The dream of freedom remains distant for the Chinese people. And while Beijing still pays lip service to ‘reform and opening,’ Deng Xiaoping’s famous policy rings hollow.”

False. Gaige Kaifang, also known as “reform and opening,” was an economic policy that was never intended to address human rights or democratic political restructuring. The reforms decollectivized agriculture, opened China up to foreign investment, and allowed entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. After Mao Zedong’s death, gaige kaifang jump-started China’s flatlining economy, allowing China to become a major player on the global stage. In other words, the policy is alive and kicking; it is just not what Westerners want. As for the implication that the policy was supposed to give Chinese people more freedom, it falls under the category of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and was rolled out at the same time as the Tiananmen Square protests.

“Over the past 17 years, China’s GDP has grown 9-fold; it has become the second-largest economy in the world. Much of this success was driven by American investment in China. … As President Trump said just this past week, ‘we rebuilt China’ over the past 25 years.”

Exaggeration. Did we rebuild China with trade? The U.S. only accounts for 18.4% of China’s exports and 8.5% of China’s imports. Did we rebuild China with investment? According to Li Kuiwai, a Canada-based economist, capital accumulation from the international community accounted for only 54% of China’s economic growth from 1952 to 1998. The remainder is attributable to an increase in productivity and a growth in the labor force. While the U.S. is a major economic partner, Pence has exaggerated the role the U.S. played in China’s economic growth. Furthermore, the U.S. cannot take full credit for China’s accession into the World Trade Organization, since it is an intergovernmental institution.

“The Chinese Communist Party has also used an arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and industrial subsidies doled out like candy, to name a few.”

True. China has historically used tariffs to protect its manufacturing base, especially in the automotive industry. A BMW 3-series, for example, has a 20% higher base MSRP in China than in the U.S. As the Chinese economy grows stronger, RMB devaluation has kept Chinese exports competitive and affordable in global markets. Through joint ventures, China has gained access to foreign technology, bypassing R&D costs and allowing Chinese goods to be offered more cheaply. Intellectual property theft, which recently made headlines, allows China to surveil and duplicate a wide range of foreign goods, including military software and hardware. Industrial subsidies also allow Chinese companies to reduce their costs and sell their goods more cheaply than their competitors. These are all methods used by the Chinese government to remain competitive, but it should be noted that these policies are not only directed at the U.S.

“Through the ‘Made in China 2025’ plan, the Communist Party has set its sights on controlling 90% of the world’s most advanced industries, including robotics, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. To win the commanding heights of the 21st Century economy, Beijing has directed its bureaucrats and businesses to American intellectual property…by any means necessary.”

True. In 2016, the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), a German think-tank, published a report detailing the implications of the Made in China 2025 plan. “Chinese high-tech investments need to be interpreted as building blocks of an overarching political program,” the report says in its executive summary. “It aims to systematically acquire cutting-edge technology and generate large-scale technology transfer. In the long term, China wants to obtain control over the most profitable segments of global supply chains and production networks.”

“Beijing now requires many American businesses to hand over their trade secrets as the cost of doing business in China. It also coordinates and sponsors the acquisition of American firms to gain ownership of their creations. Worst of all, Chinese security agencies have masterminded the wholesale theft of American technology – including cutting-edge military blueprints.” 

True. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) has gone into overdrive since President Trump took office, blocking a number of Chinese acquisitions of U.S. businesses. This is presumably to prevent the transfer of intellectual property, since these interventions occurred long before the trade war began. Furthermore, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) published a report in March 2018 detailing national security concerns and trade secret theft. In one example, the report states that the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s “acquisition of at least 11 U.S. aviation companies…have facilitated the transfer of engine, avionics, and production processes to China, resulting in…the development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) manufacturing (for both Chinese military use and for export to foreign countries).”

“Chinese ships routinely patrol around the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan. And while China’s leader stood in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2015 and said that his country had ‘no intention to militarize the South China Sea,’ today, Beijing has deployed advanced anti-ship and anti-air missiles atop an archipelago of military bases constructed on artificial islands.”

True. The Senkaku Islands (also known as the Diaoyu Islands) are a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea. They are claimed by China, but as Pence noted, they are administered by Japan. Chinese naval patrols are so frequent, in fact, that the Japanese government is considering launching an array of micro radar satellites to track Chinese ship movements.  

Like the Senkaku Islands, the root cause of the South China Sea conflict is island disputes. All of the claimants have been using land reclamation to bolster their presence in the region, but China has made the most progress. China has constructed military-length runways in the South China Sea, in addition to deploying anti-air and anti-ship missiles. And yes, in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping did say that he had no intention of militarizing the South China Sea.

“China’s aggression was on display this week, when a Chinese naval vessel came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur as it conducted freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, forcing our ship to quickly maneuver to avoid collision.”

True. Here’s the story about two nuclear powers playing chicken in the South China Sea.

“China has built an unparalleled surveillance state, and it’s growing more expansive and intrusive – often with the help of U.S. technology. The ‘Great Firewall of China’ likewise grows higher, drastically restricting the free flow of information to the Chinese people. And by 2020, China’s rulers aim to implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life – the so-called ‘social credit score.’ In the words of that program’s official blueprint, it will ‘allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.’”

Mostly true. We could not find any evidence for the claim that U.S. technology is enabling Chinese surveillance, but that doesn’t mean that the claim is untrue. Much of China’s Skynet is being developed by domestic Chinese companies, but it is possible that those companies have used foreign technology to leapfrog their products. 

The Great Firewall of China is an intricate system of internet censorship within China. The Chinese government essentially blocks any website that incriminates the Party, including Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, to name a few.

The social credit system is being actively developed, and has already been rolled out in certain areas of China. As Pence briefly illustrated, it is the government’s way of determining trustworthiness. The system will give preference to people who are productive members of society, while penalizing those who oppose the party or make questionable life choices. However, we read the program’s official blueprint and could not find the quote that Pence was referring to.

“Last month, Beijing shut down one of China’s largest underground churches. Across the country, authorities are tearing down crosses, burning bibles, and imprisoning believers. And Beijing has reached a deal with the Vatican that gives the avowedly atheist Communist Party a direct role in appointing Catholic bishops.”

True. Pence was correct when he said that a large underground church was shut down, but he did not clarify what that means. Christianity is not illegal in China, but according to the 2004 Regulations on Religious Affairs, churches are required to register with the government. After churches register, sermons are reviewed and edited to paint the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a positive light. In one example, a church choir sings, “Great Chinese Communist Party, you are the core, you are the direction, we will always go with you.” Underground churches, on the other hand, have not registered with the government and are, by extension, illegal under Chinese law.

We found evidence of Chinese authorities destroying crosses and burning bibles, just as Pence described.

Open Doors, a U.S. nonprofit organization that tracks the persecution of Christians, ranked China tenth in its list of most dangerous countries. A Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report also noted that “recent repression efforts target both house and state-sanctioned churches through the harassment and detention of Christian believers, blocking entry to sites of worship, interrupting gatherings, dismantling crosses, demolishing churches, or disbanding congregations.” 

China and the Holy See have not had official relations since Mao severed the relationship in 1951. Before the 2018 deal, the CCP appointed bishops for the state-sanctioned churches, while the Vatican secretly appointed bishops for underground churches. The new deal will reverse excommunications for Chinese bishops chosen without the Vatican’s approval. It will also give the CCP the authority to choose bishops, while providing the Pope veto ability.

“Beijing is also cracking down on Buddhism. Over the past decade, more than 150 Tibetan Buddhist monks have lit themselves on fire to protest China’s repression of their beliefs and culture.”

Misrepresentation. Tibet was a sovereign state until it was invaded and annexed by China in 1950. In 1959, Tibetan spiritual and political leaders fled to India and established the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), also referred to as the Tibetan Government in Exile. The Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader of Tibet, was the political leader of the CTA until 2011

The aims of China’s Tibet policy are to assert political dominance and prevent secession. To do this, they have discredited the CTA and installed a new, Beijing-approved Panchen Lama. Because the CTA is essentially a theocracy, the line between political and religious crackdowns is somewhat blurred. It should be noted that the Chinese government is not cracking down on Buddhism across the country. The self-immolations are mainly protesting China’s oppressive policies in Tibet.

“And in Xinjiang, the Communist Party has imprisoned as many as one million Muslim Uyghurs in government camps where they endure around-the-clock brainwashing. Survivors of the camps have described their experiences as a deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uyghur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.”

True. China has constructed a network of camps in Xinjiang, and have imprisoned an alarming number of Uyghurs. The Chinese government has imprisoned so many people, in fact, that inmates are being transferred to prisons elsewhere in China because the Xinjiang camps are at capacity. People can be arrested for something as small as attending a religious ceremony, and the children of inmates are being taken to state-run orphanages. Survivors speak of the intense psychological pressure of the camps, which includes re-education, self-criticism, and social isolation.

“China uses so-called ‘debt diplomacy’ to expand its influence. Today, that country is offering hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure loans to governments from Asia to Africa to Europe to even Latin America. Yet the terms of those loans are opaque at best, and the benefits flow overwhelmingly to Beijing.”

Misrepresentation. It is true that China is offering huge infrastructure loans to many countries. However, many of these loans are earmarked for China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. It is misleading to claim that all of China’s infrastructure loans (and by extension, the OBOR initiative as a whole) are debt traps. 

“Just ask Sri Lanka, which took on massive debt to let Chinese companies build a port with questionable commercial value. Two years ago, that country could no longer afford its payments – so Beijing pressured Sri Lanka to deliver the new port directly into Chinese hands.”

True. Sri Lanka handed Hambantota port over to the Chinese in 2016 when it could not pay its debts.

“Within our own hemisphere, Beijing has extended a lifeline to the corrupt and incompetent Maduro regime in Venezuela, pledging $5 billion in questionable loans that can be repaid with oil. China is also that country’s single largest creditor, saddling the Venezuelan people with more than $50 billion in debt.” 

True. One can argue that much of Venezuela’s current debt crisis was facilitated by Chinese loans. Additionally, China did pledge $5 billion in loans that can be repaid with oil. However, it should be noted that most of China’s previous loans to Venezuela could be repaid with oil as well.

“Beijing is also corrupting some nations’ politics by providing direct support to parties and candidates who promise to accommodate China’s strategic objectives.”

True. A recent example of this was China’s role in Zimbabwe’s 2017 power transition. Some experts say “it is possible that Beijing shared the concerns of the coup plotters, with [Emmerson] Mnangagwa being perceived as a more reliable partner than Grace Mugabe, who appears to have fewer ties to Beijing.”

“And since last year, the Chinese Communist Party has convinced three Latin American nations to sever ties with Taipei and recognize Beijing.”

True. El Salvador in August 2018, the Dominican Republic in May 2018, and Panama in November 2017.

“Yet previous administrations all but ignored China’s actions – and in many cases, they abetted them.”

False. In response to Chinese island-building, the Obama administration initiated the freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) program in the South China Sea. Before Trump withdrew from it, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement was designed to economically balance against China. The Obama administration also signed a deal in 2015 where “both countries pledged not to steal trade secrets from each other for the benefit of their domestic companies.”

“At President Trump’s direction, we’re also implementing tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese goods, with the highest tariffs specifically targeting the advanced industries that Beijing is trying to capture and control.”

True. According to Fortune, the $50 billion round of tariffs “largely affected products used by U.S. manufacturers in producing goods.” The $200 billion round of tariffs “imposes a surcharge on consumer electronics, kitchenwares, tools, and food.”

“Our actions have had a major impact. China’s largest stock exchange fell by 25% in the first nine months of this year, in large part because our administration has stood up to Beijing’s trade practices.”

Exaggeration. The Shanghai stock market decreased 20%, not 25% in the first nine months of 2018. While Sino-U.S. relations did have a role to play in the decrease, it was not the only factor. According to the New York Times, the bearish market in Shanghai is also attributable to a weak yuan, concerns about Chinese debt, and a rise in U.S. interest rates.

“As President Trump has made clear, we don’t want China’s markets to suffer. In fact, we want them to thrive.”

True. In the words of the eloquent President Trump: “And if you look at what’s going on, our market’s going up like a rocket ship. I don’t want their market to go down, but their market is down 32% in three months. Because we can’t let them do anymore what they’ve done.”

“China is meddling in America’s democracy.”


Possible exaggeration. In a January 2018 interview, then-CIA chief Mike Pompeo discussed Chinese covert activities. “We can watch very focused efforts to steal American information, to infiltrate the United States with spies, with people who are going to work on behalf of the Chinese government against America,” Pompeo said. “We see it in our schools. We see it in our hospitals, medical systems. We see it throughout corporate America.” Notably, he did not discuss political interference or election meddling.

Private security companies have also not been able to corroborate the claims. “We have not yet identified any covert influence activities by China to influence the U.S. elections, though it is possible we haven’t yet detected those operations,” said John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at FireEye.

“Beijing has mobilized covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policies.”

True. A July 2018 Daily Beast article describes the United Front, an arm of the CCP that “amplifies friendly voices and suppresses critical ones,” with the aim of building “party-linked networks in overseas Chinese communities, keep them connected to Beijing, and quash any anti-party organizing.” Helen He, a political organizer, was provided as an example of a CCP liaison capable of influencing the Chinese community in Maryland.

It is important to note that while the Daily Beast article mainly discussed influence campaigns within overseas Chinese communities, there is research suggesting that the United Front has their sights set higher. In a September 2017 report, Prof. Anne-Marie Brady of the Wilson Center named some approaches used by CCP Front organizations, including “appointing foreigners with access to political power to high profile roles in Chinese companies or Chinese-funded entities within the country” and “coopting foreign academics, entrepreneurs, and politicians to promote China’s perspective in the media.”

“And when it comes to influencing the midterms, you only need to look at Beijing’s tariffs in response to ours. They specifically targeted industries and states that would play an important role in the 2018 election. By one estimate, more than 80% of U.S. counties targeted by China voted for President Trump in 2016; now China wants to turn these voters against our administration.”

Misrepresentation. It is true that Chinese tariffs are targeting counties that voted for Trump in 2016. It is also true that retaliatory tariffs from Canada, the European Union, and Mexico are doing the same thing. If that is political meddling, why are our mostly democratic allies using the same tactics? And why isn’t the Trump administration talking about that more?

This claim also begs the question of correlation versus causation. Generally speaking, large metropolitan centers tend to vote Democratic, whereas smaller cities and rural areas tend to vote Republican. In an October 2018 Brookings Institution report, Parilla and Bouchet note that the tariffs were largely aimed at agriculture, metals, and manufacturing. “Large metropolitan areas, on average, have a much lower share of their exports in tariff-affected industries than smaller metro areas and rural communities,” the report says. This is “partly due to their sheer size – and reliance on exports in higher value-added services outside the scope of the tariffs.”

“And China is also directly appealing to the American voter. Last week, the Chinese government paid to have a multipage supplement inserted into the Des Moines Register … The supplement, designed to look like news articles, cast our trade policies as reckless and harmful to Iowans.” 

True. China Daily placed a four-page supplement in the September 29 issue of the Des Moines Register. In China’s defense, though, it does say “China Daily” very prominently at the top of the supplement.

“Beijing now requires American joint ventures that operate in China to establish ‘party organizations’ within their company, giving the Communist Party a voice – and perhaps a veto – in hiring and investment decisions.”

True. Party organizations are real, and they do influence company decision making. They are required for any privately-owned business in China, Chinese and foreign alike, so this is not only directed at U.S. joint ventures. Party organizations have existed for a while, but they were mostly symbolic before the Xi administration.

“Chinese authorities have also threatened U.S. companies that depict Taiwan as a distinct geographic entity, or that stray from Chinese policy on Tibet. Beijing compelled Delta Airlines to publicly apologize for not calling Taiwan ‘a province of China’ on its website. It also pressured Marriott to fire a U.S. employee who liked a tweet about Tibet.”

True. Here is the Delta story, and here is the Marriott story.

“Beijing routinely demands that Hollywood portray China in a strictly positive light, and it punishes studios and producers that don’t. Beijing’s censors are quick to edit or outlaw movies that criticize China, even in minor ways. ‘World War Z’ had to cut the script’s mention of a virus originating in China. ‘Red Dawn’ was digitally edited to make the villains North Korean, not Chinese.” 

True. Here is the World War Z story, and here is the Red Dawn story. Even after they were edited, the authorities still didn’t allow either movie to be showed in China.

“The Communist Party has also threatened and detained the family members of American journalists who pry too deep. And it has blocked the websites of U.S. media organizations and made it harder for our journalists to get visas. This happened after the New York Times published investigative reports about the wealth of some of China’s leaders.”

True. Three ethnic Uyghur journalists, who are U.S. citizens and contributed to Radio Free Asia’s reporting on the Xinjiang crackdown, have reported their families “disappeared or detained.” This has also been reported with other foreign-based journalists with family in China. Foreign media websites are blocked by the Great Firewall. In early October, Victor Mallet, a Financial Times journalist, was denied a work visa into Hong Kong, historically known as the “free press hub of Asia.” After the New York Times published a 2012 article about then-Premier Wen Jiabao, many foreign media sites were blocked.

“At the University of Maryland, a Chinese student recently spoke at her graduation ceremony of what she called the ‘fresh air of free speech’ in America. The Communist Party’s official newspaper swiftly chastised her, she became the victim of a firestorm of criticism on China’s tightly-controlled social media, and her family back home was harassed.”

True. Here is the story about Yang Shuping’s speech, the state-run media’s response, the criticism on social media, and the harassment of her family.

“As for the university itself, its exchange program with China – one of the nation’s most extensive – suddenly turned from a flood to a trickle.”

False. Yang made her speech in May 2017. In the school year following the speech, Chinese students made up more than half of UMD’s foreign student population, and 127 more Chinese students enrolled than in 2016-17. The number of Chinese students has been hovering around 2,000 since 2014.

“China exerts academic pressure in other ways, too. Beijing provides generous funding to universities, think tanks, and scholars, with the understanding that they will avoid ideas that the Communist Party finds dangerous or offensive. China experts in particular know that their visas will be delayed or denied if their research contradicts Beijing’s talking points.” 

True. Cambridge University initially planned to comply with an August 2017 order to block content from China Quarterly, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by the Cambridge University Press that focuses on China and Taiwan. The university justified its decision, saying that its move was “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in China.” It was only after massive public backlash that Cambridge decided to stand up to the Chinese censors.

Constituting part of the Cambridge backlash was Christopher Balding, a U.S. professor teaching at Peking University’s USBC School of Business in Shenzhen. He lost his job after he started an online petition urging Cambridge not to comply with the censorship order. “I know the unspoken reason for my dismissal,” Balding said in a blog post. “You do not work under the Communist Party without knowing the risks.” 

According to Foreign Policy, prominent U.S. think-tanks have coordinated with and received funding from the China-United States Exchange Foundation, which is “a registered foreign agent bankrolled by a high-ranking Chinese government official with close ties to…the ‘united front.’” These institutions include the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council, the Center for American Progress, the East-West Institute, the Carter Center, and the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

“Google should immediately end development of the ‘Dragonfly’ app that will strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers.”

We can’t give this a true/false rating, since it is an opinion. That said, Google is a company with a global footprint, and “Dragonfly” is a project that, at its core, enables authoritarian governments. It is a topic worth exploring further.

All Google products are blocked in China. “Dragonfly” is the codename for Google’s secretive and controversial project, aimed at deploying a CCP-friendly search engine within China. It involves tracking users’ searches, as well as censoring and manipulating search results. Human rights groups have raised concerns that “it could place users at risk of Chinese government surveillance – and any person in China searching for blacklisted words or phrases could find themselves interrogated or detained.” Google’s plan to work with governments to control information is concerning, especially because of the company’s global footprint.

The Arbitror China Team utilizes both deep background knowledge and extensive in-country experience to deliver expository pieces and arguments.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.

Photo credit: “Mike Pence” by Gage Skidmore for Flickr with a CC BY-SA 2.0 license. No changes were made to the original image. Use of this image is not endorsement from its creator.

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