leading Chinese scholar discusses Greenland’s independence

My latest on China and Greenland, written for China Brief, discusses the two major mining projects with (or awaiting) Chinese investment and the rather peculiarly “launched” plans to set up a satellite ground station near Nuuk, revealed last year on this blog. The Brief piece also mentions, I believe as the first English-language source to do so, a mid-2017 paper with Guo Peiqing 郭培清, a well-known scholar of polar politics at the Ocean University of China (中国海洋大学), as lead author, on the geopolitics of Greenland’s independence. Guo’s paper openly talks about the “inevitability” (必然性) of Greenland’s independence as seen by Denmark, analyses its significance for the interests of Denmark, the EU, South Korea and the US (stressing the latter’s military presence), describes various economical and social challenges faced by Greenland, and concludes with the necessity of help from the “international community”. The article carefully avoids discussing China’s own interests. As I mention in the piece, Guo’s past statements, and Greenland’s importance within China’s Arctic strategy, warrant a reading of the piece as advocating China’s involvement in such international cooperation with a nascent Greenlandic state.

This would be entirely unremarkable, were it not for the extreme caution Chinese officials and academics exert, at least in public, on the delicate issue of Greenland’s independence. Although an independent Greenland with China as a major economic partner would be geopolitically advantageous to the PRC, any sign of support would generate unwelcome debate in Greenland, potentially hurt relations with Denmark, and trigger the feared “China threat theory” (中国威胁论, a propaganda term used to refer to discussion of negative aspects of PRC influence abroad). In fact, Greenland’s authorities appear interested in ‘talking up’ the relationship with China, which doesn’t quite reciprocate. The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs once publicly reminded Greenland it “should follow the foreign policy upheld by Denmark”, after a minister had been forced to cancel a planned visit to Taiwan on a trade mission. When a high-level delegation led by Greenland’s premier Kim Kielsen visited China right after the 19th Party Congress, it was not invited by a state organ, but by the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (中国人民外交学会), a state-affiliated think tank; Kielsen was received by a foreign-affairs vice-minister, Wang Chao 王超, the same protocol accorded to a Danish parliamentary delegation a few days later. The Greenlandic government, however, called the visit “official“. Greenland’s main interlocutors are, in fact, the Ministry of Land and Resources and its subordinate the State Oceanic Administration (responsible for Arctic affairs).

Protocol aside, Greenland’s apparent interest in ‘upgrading’ its relationship with China stems from its need for foreign investment, specifically in mining projects. Although (largely state-driven) Chinese interest in Greenland’s minerals is real, as documented on this blog, and is often related to national resource-acquisition strategies, a Chinese mining boom capable of powering Greenland’s economic independence has failed to materialise. As I say in the Brief piece, talks with Chinese SOEs on infrastructure development, including controversial airport projects, have so far not resulted in any announcements of Chinese interest, something probably related to the financial uncertainty that surrounds these plans. China is still of minor importance for a crucial industry, tourism, although there is clear growth potential. China is, on the other hand, a major destination for Greenland’s only major export, seafood (most of it reexported through Denmark; based on a recent estimate of yearly seafood exports to China and official export statistics for 2016, China’s share of seafood exports could be around 40%).

Besides the actual level of trade and investment, the perception of increasing Chinese interest can help Greenland’s position in negotiations with Denmark, in such aspects as having a greater say in, e.g., defining the Kingdom’s Arctic policies. The obvious answer to any Danish concerns about ‘sensitive’ Chinese investments and other activities in Greenland is that China is simply filling a vacuum left by other actors. Chinese activities in Greenland are mostly state-driven; it’s hard to imagine how other actors could compete for economic or other influence without clear state policies. The Brief piece mentions, in particular, the extent of MLR-led efforts to identify and study mining projects of interest and promote them to Chinese companies.

The modest scale of the economic relationship and the potential pitfalls of any overt support for independence will likely continue to define China’s cautious approach, but the publication of Guo’s paper could be a sign of more open discussion of the issue in academic and policy circles.

The paper is also a window into how knowledge is made: just like much ‘Arctic studies’ literature continues to rely on second and third-hand sources and blissfully ignore Chinese-language materials, Guo’s article contains a telling mistake. The paper gives “April 2017” as the date for the Danish rejection of General Nice’s plans to buy the abandoned Grønnedal base. In fact, the events took place before the summer of 2016, and were widely reported in Danish and English in December that year (I discussed them in January 2017). Guo’s source is a Chinese-language reporting based on a Reuters story that arrived much later.

I will discuss these and other aspects of the China-Greenland relationship in a forthcoming report.


Icy Xi-speak and northerly exoprop: the Arctic White Paper

[These jottings on the much-hyped Paper are still under revision. Further notes can be expected next week.]

The Arctic White Paper released last week (中国的北极政策, China’s Arctic Policy) is perhaps the first unified presentation of the PRC’s Arctic activities for foreign audiences. A product of the Party-state’s foreign propaganda (外宣, ‘exoprop’) apparatus, the document does not set policy guidelines or announce new plans. More than for what it says, largely confirming well-known policies, the paper is interesting for what it doesn’t. Some key themes of PRC Arctic strategy (natural-resource acquisition, alternative trade routes, state support for investment, tourism development, participation in Arctic governance) are there, while the national-security motivation and the Arctic’s integration within larger polar and maritime policy, both present in Chinese-language materials, are left out of this document. Xi-speak tropes and slogans (the Arctic version of the New Era’s New China Newspeak) are selectively translated based on their international adequacy, diluting two China-as-a-power items and mixing them with regionally and globally fashionable vocabulary. While the Paper, a straight-forward text supplied with an authoritative translation, doesn’t require a deep analysis, the way its presentational aspects have become the focus of much Western coverage of the document can help assess its effectiveness as a PR product. Western commentary’s lingering passiveness and dependency on English-language input leave a vacuum that exoprop is eager to fill. After a brief overview of the Paper’s vocabulary, assertions and omissions, based on the Chinese original with reference to the official translation, this post will turn to its function as a ‘discourse power’ (话语权) tool.

An Arctic strategy document had long been expected. Internationally, China’s silence contrasted with Arctic policy papers published by fellow non-Arctic players: South Korea’s 2013 Arctic Strategy Master Plan (북극정책 기본계획), the Arctic sections of Japan’s 2013 Ocean Policy Master Plan (海洋基本計画) and the 2015 Arctic Policy (我が国の北極政策), the German and Italian Guidelines, among others. This generated a lack of trust and, perhaps more importantly, left officials and analysts without Chinese skills short of documents to talk about. The document also caters to domestic needs. A public strategy can help state and non-state players competing for funds and backing a way to justify their projects by anchoring them in national policy.

What it says

As behooves a propaganda document, the Paper is peppered with Xi-speak items. A favourite with worldwide BRI-touters, ‘Humankind’s Community of Shared Destiny’ (人类命运共同体), is surely there, while two Xi-isms pertaining to the China-rise narrative, ‘Chinese wisdom’ (中国智慧) and ‘strength’ (中国力量) are collapsed into just ‘wisdom’ in the official translation. Another two invocations specific to Arctic exoprop will be discussed in the last section.

Proper emphasis is placed on opening trade routes and exploiting natural resources, recapitulating two known pillars of Chinese polar policy. Notable Chinese extractive activities in the Arctic include the Yamal LNG project in Russia, as well as mining investments in Russia, Greenland and Canada. CNOOC (中海油) was the main, then the only player in oil and gas exploration in Iceland before giving up its licence last week.

The PRC asserts its rights to fishing and extractive exploitation in the high seas (公海) and “international seabed areas” (国际海底区域, translated as “the Area”) of the Arctic Ocean. Commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean is to be forbidden until 2033 by an agreement China was involved in drafting. Its renewal beyond that date can be stopped by the objection of a country, and China’s expanding fishing fleet and explicit intentions make it clear that the long-term goal is to fish in those waters. Given known Chinese fishing practices and a history of fishing rights disputes in the region, this could become a point of contention in the medium term. Unlike fishing rights, China’s rights to some sub-sea resources could be limited if any of the competing extended continental shelf claims by Arctic states as part of the implementation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) were to succeed. Canada, Denmark (on behalf of Greenland) and Russia have presented overlapping claims extending all the way to the North Pole. (The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf has already issued a positive recommendation endorsing a more modest Norwegian claim that includes the remarkably named ‘Loophole’ (Smutthullet/Smottholet, later covered by a treaty with Russia) and ‘Banana Hole’ (Smutthavet/Smotthavet or (seemlingly less often) Bananhullet/(?)Bananholet).) While China has little need for international law and multilateralism in the South China Sea, it commits to them as its only road to leverage in a region where it’s a new, external player.

Regional organisations are paid due acknowledgment, with a few sentences devoted to the Arctic Council, where China has been a permanent observer since 2013. Lesser forums are also mentioned. The order matters, as it’s not lexicographical (by pinyin or stroke count). Pride of place is given to Putin’s “The Arctic—Territory of Dialogue” (Арктика—территория диалога), followed by former Icelandic president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson’s Arctic Circle (whose advisory board includes the head of China’s polar institute, and two scientific and business partners of PRC entities as Icelandic representatives), then the Tromsø event Arctic Frontiers, and China’s own Sino-Nordic research centre.

Repeated expressions of state “encouragement” (鼓励) for enterprises to invest in infrastructure, natural resources and tourism accurately reflect current policy. The tourism industry, prominently mentioned, provides good examples of private enterprises in the Arctic working in tandem with state policy-making. One of its key roles is to communicate China’s polar-powerhood and national strategies to a domestic audience. In a rather spectacular example I researched last year, Guangzhou-based ‘élite’ travel club Souluniq (心友汇) provided a public for the ‘official’, yet surreptitious, launch of a project to build a satellite ground station in Greenland and the first known Chinese UAV flight there.

What it doesn’t say

Another pillar of PRC Arctic policy is national security. Part of the significance of Arctic trade routes stems from the possibility of avoiding conflict-prone areas and solving the ‘Malacca dilemma’ (马六甲困局). Defending them will require the involvement of the PLAN. As a senior Chinese scientist recently put it, “threats to China come from the Arctic”. China doesn’t still have enough satellite ground stations in the Arctic as required by research purposes, in particular, for the dual-use Beidou 北斗 navigation system. The new Greenland project is therefore an important addition to the existing station in Kiruna, Sweden. Speculatively, a site under consideration for China’s first permanent research station in Greenland, at around 83°N, could provide an interesting location for satellite reception.

Institutionally and in terms of staff, China has an integrated polar strategy. The natural-resource motivation asserted in this Paper applies to Antarctica as well. In turn, polar policy belongs under maritime policy, with its increasing emphasis on becoming a ‘maritime superpower’ (海洋强国). Resource acquisition also involves global, rather than regional, policies. Some (near-)Arctic activities are best analysed within larger frameworks. E.g., a recent proposal by a state, Party and Army-linked consortium to build a deep-sea port in Sweden was cancelled after controversy that indeed highlighted its significance in a global context; similarly, state-controlled investment in Greenlandic rare earths is linked to ministerially-defined long-term strategies on the domestic production and export and overseas development of those minerals.

Greenland isn’t mentioned by name; Denmark is. Greenland is increasingly important to China, with two mining projects near production, high-level contacts, infrastructure talks and scientific cooperation, and the topic of Greenland independence (of potential benefit to China) now openly discussed in Chinese academia. Officially, though, China avoids being perceived as supporting independence in any way and treats its authorities as a regional government. Again, this shows diplomatic savvy on a sensitive topic for Denmark.

The national-security significance of the Arctic and the relevance of other strategy areas are present in the PRC’s presentation of its Arctic policies to domestic audiences, but don’t belong in a document tailored to the sensitivities of Arctic stakeholders and the regional public. Those interested in China’s actual Arctic strategy, rather than its foreigner-friendly presentation, would learn more from the work of analysts such as Anne-Marie Brady, whose recent treatment of China’s polar ambitions can be read as an Arctic (and Antarctic) strategy avant la lettre. Specifically, the national-security motivations the institutional integration of Arctic, Antarctic and maritime policy, as well as their interaction with the propaganda system and other policy areas, are best described in her book, on which this section is largely based.

An excursus into exoprop

In a clear exoprop exercise, the Paper was released by the State Council Information Office (SCIO, 中央新闻办), presented not by a representative of the organs with decision power on Arctic affairs, but by Kong Xuanyou (Gong Hyeon-u 공현우 孔铉佑), a foreign-affairs vice minister with responsibility for maritime affairs, but best known as special representative for the Korean peninsula. Rather than policy guidelines, the paper is primarily an international message, and its effectiveness can be judged by its success in guiding global discourse.

Some reports have described the paper as ‘unveiling’ China’s ‘Silk Road on Ice’ (冰上丝绸之路), or announcing its ‘near-Arctic’ (近北极) status. This is inaccurate. The latter self-descriptor has been installed for over half a decade. It has been negatively perceived because of its questionable geographic base, although it refrains from any territorial claims. Revisionist claims can be found in the odd publication, e.g. denouncing the Nerchinsk treaty and describing Chinese ‘effective administration’ over swathes of Siberia under the Tang and the Yuan reaching the Arctic Ocean. Although about as historically rigorous as those justifying the annexation of the South China Sea, they enjoy no government support or inform Arctic policy.

The ‘Silk Road on Ice’ (冰上丝绸之路), a Xi-speakism of purely invocatory character and no great consequence, deserves a closer look as it’s less known. The phrase ‘Silk Road on Ice’ isn’t new, or had been ‘veiled’. The literal phrase has been official for half a year; the concept (embedding the Northern Sea Route into the Belt-and-Road project) is much older. Brady notes that it began being used soon after Xi’s late-2014 Hobart speech, in which he famously spoke of China as a “polar great power” (极地强国). Officially, the ‘Ice Silk Road’ concept is now traced back to a sentence in a joint communiqué (Chinese, Russian) at the 2015 regular meeting of Chinese and Russian heads of government, calling for cooperation in Arctic navigation. Although that locus classicus doesn’t actually mention the Silk Road (the document does elsewhere), its mention helps install the Ice Road as a joint, or even Russian, idea, avoiding a perception of Chinese encroachment. Official use of the literal phrase ‘Silk Road on Ice’ seems to begin in May last year, with foreign minister Wang Yi 王毅 calling it a Russian idea that the Chinese side “welcomed and supported“. In Russian media, the phrases ледяной/ледовый Шёлковый путь, Шёлковый путь на льду generally refer to the Chinese concept, although a possibly native coinage of similar meaning exists: deputy premier Dmitry Rogozin’s ‘Cold Silk Road’ (холодный Шёлковый путь), proposed in 2015. The definitive auctoritas for the ‘icy’ version as PRC officialese is its utterance by Xi Jinping in July. Since then, it has become official vocabulary.

Such misreadings of the Paper’s novelty and aims help confirm that, when it comes to the Arctic, the bulk of Western commentary does in fact mostly react to the propaganda system’s output streams. As evidence of the exoprop system’s Arctic ‘discourse power’ gains, the Paper’s coverage is more interesting than the Paper itself.

[Thanks to Anne-Marie Brady and Dag Inge Bøe.]

Greenland: China discreetly launches satellite ground station project

China has ‘officially’ launched a project to set up a satellite ground station in Nuuk, although Greenland’s public and elected representatives were kept in the dark about it for months, in an attempt to avoid concerns about its likely dual-use capabilities. Last May, a ‘launching ceremony’ was held in Greenland, where speakers included the well-known polar scientist in charge of the project and a military pioneer of the Beidou system, China’s alternative to GPS. The event was attended by a public of a hundred ‘élite’ businesspeople, including, in all likelihood, a senior Navy officer, as part of a group holiday; only two Greenlandic representatives were present. While reports were immediately available in Chinese media, the project’s launch went unnoticed in Greenland until I first ‘revealed‘ it last October. A subsequent investigation by journalist Andreas Lindqvist for Greenland’s main newspaper AG, to which I provided help with Chinese-language materials, found the Greenlandic authorities knew nothing about the ‘officially’ launched project, even though it requires government permission. Based on Lindqvist’s research in Greenland and new information from Chinese sources, I am now able to present a fuller picture of the project, its participants and possible dual-use goals.

The atypical embedding of such an event in a tourist trip is, in fact, understandable in the context of the Chinese Party-state’s information management practices, and in particular the way its polar strategy is presented to foreign and domestic audiences. This analysis is backed by the project leader’s own statements, as well as the partial success of what a source in Greenland called a ‘camouflaging’ tactic, at least until my blog and the local press found out. Calls are now emerging for Greenland and Denmark to have full access to data received by the planned station, something the Chinese side has clearly not yet agreed to, and a possible complication for some of the project’s purposes.

Cruising for the Motherland

I mentioned the receiving-station-to-be in October, towards the end of a post about plans to build a Chinese research base in (possibly very northern) Greenland. While the base plans have been covered by Danish journalist Martin Breum for Greenlandic and Danish media, the satellite-station announcement, available from Chinese sources since early June, remained unreported in Western languages other than my blog until a recent article by Andreas Lindqvist came out in last week’s AG (Atuagagdliutit/Grønlandsposten; paywalled). I provided Lindqvist with information about the project from Chinese sources and background on its leader. As we will see, a rather surprising picture emerged after comparing them with what BJU’s Greenlandic counterparts were aware of.

In June, Sciencenet (科学网), a web portal maintained by the China Science Daily Publishing House (中国科学报社), under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other state scientific organisations, reported on a somewhat ambiguously named ‘launching ceremony’ (启动仪式) for a satellite ground station, held in May in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland’s airport hub. The ceremony had the trappings of an official event: BNU’s representative, Cheng Xiao 程晓, delivered a speech on his university’s Arctic activities, and the importance of the project for “serving the people of Greenland, improving climate change research and serving [China’s] national strategy”. Together with its local partners, state-owned telecom Tele-Post and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (Pinngortitaleriffik/Grønlands Naturinstitut), BNU “officially announced the launch” of the Nuuk ground station project. The ceremony was attended by Karl Zinglersen, GIS manager and database expert at the Institute, Flemming Enemark of Tele-Post, and “more than 100 domestic [i.e. Chinese] representatives”, surely a visible crowd among Kangerlussuaq’s population of 493.

As per the banner: [格陵]兰遥[感]卫星[地]面站启动[仪]式 “Greenland remote-sensing satellite ground station project launching ceremony”. Kangerlussuaq, May 30, 2017. Source: Sciencenet.

Despite its conspicuousness, and its significance for China’s engagement with Greenland, the event wasn’t reported in local media until last week’s AG piece. In it, Tele-Post confirmed the project existence, although the company “has no more details on the character of the research data that the ground station is to receive.” Zinglersen, the GIS expert at the Natural Resources Institute, gave a less spectacular account of the Kangerlussuaq ‘launching ceremony’. It was held at Roklubben, a local restaurant. In Zinglersen’s recollection, Cheng Xiao’s group included “a couple of researchers” (on which ‘researchers’, see below), but most of the Chinese visitors were tourists on a trip organised by Souluniq (心友汇), a Guangzhou-based ‘travellers’ club’ catering to a high-end base. Zinglersen received no explanation as to why Cheng’s delegation chose to come with a tourist group, rather than in his academic capacity as he’d done on other occasions. According to the AG article, the actual station will essentially consist of a seven-metre antenna to be installed along Tele-Post’s existing Nuuk equipment. Cheng won Zinglersen’s support for the project by offering him access to images from Chinese satellites ‘for free or at a low price’. A relationship with him and the Institute had been cultivated for some time, as we’ll see below. Both Zinglersen and Tele-Post sources quoted by AG confirmed the project will require the approval of the Greenlandic government before it starts. There might be a difference of opinion with the Chinese partners on whether the project has ‘started’, since Zinglersen hadn’t yet considered applying for the Greenlandic or Danish government’s permission, almost half a year after its ‘official’ launch. Both Greenland’s Foreign Affairs Office (Nunanut Allanut Pisortaqarfik/Udenrigsdirektoratet) and the foreign affairs and security committee at the Greenland parliament told AG they were unaware of Chinese plans to build a satellite station.

Thanks to AG‘s coverage and more recent information from Chinese sources, I’ve now been able to put together a fuller picture of what happened in Kangerlussuaq on May the 30th.
The event was indeed officially called a ‘launching ceremony’ in both Chinese and English. The hundred-odd travellers arrived from Copenhagen in the morning, attended the Kangerlussuaq ceremony, and left by helicopter in the evening to board a cruise ship (the Sea Spririt). The launching ceremony was described in promotional materials for the trip. It was clearly timed to allow the visitors to attend before embarking on the cruise. It was the only event they attended in Greenland besides the actual week-long boat expedition. Its combination with a cruise tour served a double purpose: it provided a Chinese public able to appreciate its significance and communicate it after returning to China, while its embedding in a tourist trip evaded the exposure a pure official arrangement could have attracted from the Greenlandic press. Souluniq isn’t your average tourist operator: it prides itself on organising regular trips to the Arctic (including Greenland) and Antarctica and events for members of the business élite, emphasising the strategic importance of China’s activities in the polar regions. Its chairman, He Zhijun 贺志军, is a well-connected businessman (e.g., he has worked with Tencent 腾讯, and a company led by He designed its famous penguin logo). He organised the first Chinese chartered-boat trip to Antarctica in 2010. He is conversant with China’s strategic goals in the polar regions, in whose pursuit and communication tour organisers and promoters like him do play a role. In a recent interview, he explained international interest in Antarctic exploration by stressing the continent’s abundant natural resources, notably fresh water, oil, coal and iron. Souluniq’s polar trips for the élite have featured prominent members of academia, officialdom, the diplomatic profession (including Sha Zukang 沙祖康) and the military. Rear Admiral (少将) Chen Yan 陈俨, former political commissar of the South China Sea fleet, well known for his Lady Gaga exercise routine and current Paracel spirit proselytising, has been to Antarctica with Souluniq. R Adm Chen was also part of this Greenland voyage, and, in all likelihood, attended the Kangerlussuaq station launching ceremony. Although he didn’t speak at the ceremony, his presence at the trip had an educational role in communicating the importance of the Arctic to China’s national interest.

Travellers on China’s first chartered boat trip to Antarctica, organised by He Zhijun’s Souluniq for over a hundred “élite entrepreneurs”. Great Wall Station (长城战), King George Island, 2010. Source: Souluniq.

The military component was also present at the Kangerlussuaq event. Speakers included, besides Cheng Xiao and a BNU colleague, a prominent figure in the Beidou 北斗 system, China’s alternative to GPS: Zhao Yaosheng 赵耀升, an engineer with a military background who is a Party member and former CEO of BDStar Navigation (北斗星通). BDStar was the first company allowed to use Beidou for civilian purposes. The company was originally a military enterprise established by the ministry overseeing defence procurement, and later became private, though still led by individuals (such as Zhao) with military backgrounds. (A 2008 article from Science and Technology Daily (科技日报) even credited Zhao with coming up with the name ‘Beidou’ for the system in 1994. Regardless of the truth of the claim, its occurrence in a state-media account illustrates Zhao’s involvement with the Beidou project already in the ’90s.) Although Cheng Xiao’s speech at the Kangerlussuaq event, as reported by Chinese media, highlighted the Nuuk station’s value for climate change research, the presence of such a Beidou veteran is a strong indication that China’s first ground station in North America is meant to a role in the satellite navigation system. Besides its civilian applications, Beidou is used by the PLA. Zinglersen and Enemark, the local representatives at the half-hour event, might have only been informed about the strictly scientific aspects of the project, and are likely unacquainted with the background of the Chinese participants. Its other goals, however, were clearly discussed during the Greenland tour, as confirmed by a businessperson on the trip who recalled the Nuuk ground station’s “strategic significance for gathering military data”.


Speakers at the Kangerlussuaq event, including BNU scientist Cheng Xiao 程晓, Beidou pioneer Zhao Yaosheng 赵耀升 and Souluniq CEO He Zhijun 贺志军.

Even during their cruise on board the Sea Spirit, our heroes didn’t limit themselves to leisure activities. On June 4, Cheng, together with Zhang Baogang 张宝钢, a BNU engineer who has been on two Antarctic expeditions, conducted what state media reported as China’s “first UAV flight in Greenland”. The fixed-wing remote-sensing drone Ji Ying 极鹰 (‘polar eagle’) 3 was flown for about an hour, seemingly around Nassuttooq.

The cruise-ceremony-expedition thus allowed the start of the ground-station project and other activities to be communicated to a selected Chinese audience and presented through Chinese media as an official bilateral event, while the Greenlandic public and their elected representatives remained unaware of the project existence. The senior figures in attendance, some of whom, like R Adm Chen, could have attracted undesirable media attention, simply came and left as tourists.

This rather peculiar behaviour, perhaps surprising to those familiar with (at most) only one side of China’s polar PR, is in fact consistent with Cheng Xiao’s own statements, as well as with the history of China’s activities in Greenland and the polar regions.



The man behind the satellite-station project is Cheng Xiao 程晓, director of the Global Change and Earth System Science Research Institute (全球变化与地球系统科学研究院) at BNU. Cheng, a geographer by training, is a well-known specialist in remote sensing and an important figure in the polar science community. His experience in the polar regions spans almost two decades. His work on mapping Antarctica reportedly attracted the attention of state councilor Liu Yandong 刘延东 (now vice premier). He has taken part in several Antarctic expeditions, including the 16th (1999-2000), the 22th (2005-2006), reaching Grove Mountains, and the 24th (2007-2008), where his surveying work at Dome Argus (‘Dome A’) was crucial for the subsequent establishment of Kunlun Station. His work on satellite data processing and analysis is credited with an important role in polar navigation, in particular for China’s polar vessel Xue Long 雪龙 in several polar voyages.

In perhaps the most eventful such voyage, the Xue Long took part in an Australian-led endeavour to rescue the Russian ship Akademik Shokalsky, trapped in Antarctic ice on Christmas Eve, 2013. The Xue Long, whose icebreaking capabilites are limited, got itself stuck while trying to reach the Russian vessel, but helped evacuate its crew by helicopter. An American icebreaker was dispatched on January 4 to rescue the Chinese and Russian ships, but a weather change allowed them to set free of their own accord before it could reach the area. Not a day after breaking free, the 30th Expedition crew sent a message from the Xue Long thanking Cheng Xiao and his BNU team for supplying satellite data during the operation, that established “China’s positive image as a responsible polar exploration power”. The Expedition thanked Cheng’s institute again in a second letter in March 2014.


The 30th Antarctic Expedition’s letter to Beijing Normal University thanking Cheng Xiao and his team for helping the Xue Long during the rescue operation. Sent from the ship the day after it broke free. Source: State Key Laboratory of Remote Sensing Science (遥感科学国家重点实验室). Full letter here.

Cheng has often referred to his work and scientific activity in the polar regions as serving China’s national interests. In a recent interview to Communist Youth-affiliated website youth.cn, he echoed Xi Jinping’s call to “accelerate the construction of a maritime power”. “What I do myself is polar research, and building a polar power is an important component of building a maritime power.” “The General Secretary has formulated very high expectations and demands” towards scientists. Talking to state tabloid Global Times, he stressed that the Arctic is of “great strategic interest” to China, and called for “every government department” to look at Arctic issues bearing the national interest in mind. “Our country’s future development opportunities are in the Arctic, just like the major military threats come from the Arctic.” At the Kangerlussuaq ceremony, he explained that BNU’s global network of satellite ground stations is a “strategic plan” the university has established as part of the nation’s Belt and Road and Arctic strategies.

Cheng’s recommendations on China’s engagement with the Arctic merit are especially relevant. In the Global Times interview, he talked of a “geopolitical” need for China, “as a responsible power”, to participate in Arctic affairs. Since, unlike in Antarctica, sovereign nations control Arctic lands, China must use its advanced technologies “to benefit indigenous inhabitants”. “For example, as a result of global warming, Greenland’s population is extremely concerned about the drastic changes brought on their living environment by large-scale receding of the ice sheet, caused by climate change. But the Greenland government has only two staff conducting satellite remote sensing, and doesn’t have its own ability to develop satellites. Therefore, BNU produced a high-resolution satellite map for the Greenland government and gave it to them as a gift through our Ministry of Science and Technology.” The map was given last year by Cheng Xiao, and the gift idea came from Zinglersen, his main contact in Greenland, who, as he told AG, had spent “decades” waiting for such a map from the Danish authorities. The map was actually made with American, open-source satellite images. Cheng’s team simply put them together; this year’s crucial success is likely at least partly due to the goodwill earned with that gift. Cheng calls for an increased role of higher education and research institutions in China’s Arctic strategy, since as “unofficial” entities they are able to “effectively counter the ‘China Arctic threat theory’.” In this regard, the peculiar arrangement for the May event has been successful so far: voices in Greenland and Denmark that could have been expected to raise concerns about the project simply didn’t know about it.

And indeed such concerns have now been raised. This week’s AG quotes Nils Wang, head of Denmark’s Defence College (Forsvarsakademiet), a well-known expert on Arctic security and the second rear admiral to be featured in this story, after R Adm Chen. Wang says that the Danish Realm (the state comprising Denmark, Greenland and the Faroes) should have “full access” to the unprocessed data received at the Chinese station. “Such a ground station is not necessarily a problem in itself, says Wang, if the data it gathers are only used for scientific research and are shared openly between the partners in the agreement.” Even though he might not have been aware of the event’s military angle at the time he talked to AG, Wang warned that, absent a clear agreement on data access by the host country, such a station “can obviously also be used for intelligence gathering and military goals.”  Zinglersen, BNU’s main contact, appears to agree with that proposition in a new interview, although it’s clear data sharing is not part of any formal agreement (he had earlier hoped for access to the data for free or at a preferential price). Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, chair of the foreign affairs and security committee of Greenland’s parliament, who also learnt about May’s event through the press, thinks that the administration should be informed about such projects, and in turn inform parliament. She warns against getting “scared every time there is a Chinese project.” She finds it “a bit worrying” that the Greenlandic government hadn’t been informed about the deal, as it should have knowledge about all its conditions, including what kind of data will be transmitted and whether Greenland and Denmark will be given access.

Needless to say, these worries would have been promptly assuaged if the agreement had been discussed openly back in the summer.


An excursus into exoprop

This contrast between China’s messaging to domestic and foreign audiences, emphasising, respectively, national (including natural-resource and military) strategies, and scientific engagement and trade, has been illustrated on several occasions in Greenland. In the case of mining projects, state involvement tends to be downplayed for foreign audiences. The first Chinese exploration project in Greenland, near Carlsberg Fjord, involved state-owned major Jiangxi Copper, since it began in 2009; Chinese investment in the project had been a matter of high-level discussions in China, with the China Institute of Strategy and Management (中国战略与管理研究会), a government think tank, touting it to SOEs. However, Jiangxi Copper’s participation, deemed a “sensitive” matter, was only publicly described in a Western language in 2013, in my first blog post on Greenland. In another example, Shenghe Resources, the rare-earth giant that has invested in the Kvanefjeld/Kuannersuit project, tends to be described as a ‘private’ company, a description that obscures its state affiliation; Shenghe’s intent to eventually acquire a controlling stake in the project was also presented rather differently in China and Greenland.

This differentiated approach is not limited to Greenland. Anne-Marie Brady, the world’s leading expert on China’s polar policy, and also known for her earlier work on the propaganda apparatus, discusses it extensively in her latest book, China as a Polar Great Power. “The Chinese media tends to talk up China’s polar activities and achievements in Chinese-language materials, where as it downplays the same activities and achievements in materials aimed at foreigners.” In particular, China’s interest in the exploitation of Arctic and Antarctic resources, a key goal of its polar research activities, is made clear to Chinese audiences, but ‘downplayed or denied’ abroad.

This duplicitous approach needs to be understood as coming from an authoritarian Party-state that attaches great importance to information management, and has the capabilities to force its propaganda policies on media, business and academia to an extent Western spin doctors would never dream of. While this strategy often succeeds in convincing foreign interlocutors, such as scholars or officials without China expertise, it can also generate mistrust. The ‘other’ side of Chinese polar strategies does reach foreign observers sooner or later, installing the idea that China has something to hide. In fact, there’s nothing unspeakably sinister about such aspects of China’s polar interests as the exploration of natural resources (including the eventual opening of Antarctica to mineral exploitation) or its dual-use satellite navigation system. It is rather worrying, however, that Greenland’s government might feel inclined to humour China’s Party-state and follow its nontransparent practices, with potential long-term consequences for Greenland’s open society.


China wants Greenland station ‘ASAP’; one candidate site near planned China Nonferrous investment

China wants to establish a permanent ground research station in Greenland ‘as soon as possible’, Yu Yong 俞勇, a researcher at the beautifully named PRIC (Polar Research Institute of China, 中国极地研究中心), said at the yearly Reykjavik ‘assembly’ of the Arctic Circle, an organisation chaired by former Icelandic president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. This was first reported by Danish journalist Martin Breum for Sermitsiaq and on his Twitter account. Breum has long been covering Greenland, where he lived as a teenager, and has written a must-read book whose English version is free to download.

Breum tweeted a picture showing two candidate locations for the base:



Via Martin Breum’s twitter.

The map shows two possible locations. One is in the southwest, near Kangaamiut or Maniitsoq. (Readers with better visual acuity and knowledge of Greenlandic geography may come to a more precise conclusion.) The northern one is of particular interest, and will be discussed below. The third red mark in the northeast, labelled 丹麦站 Dānmài zhàn ‘Danish station’ is indeed a Danish station, the military and scientific outpost Station Nord.

The Chinese delegation at the Reykjavik event includes several officials: State Oceanic Administration deputy director Lin Shanqing 林山青, MFA special Arctic representative Gao Feng 高风, and of course PRIC head Yang Huigen 杨惠根 (who sits at the board of the entity behind the event). Skimming through the programme, I see three sessions organised by Chinese entities (the PRIC (whose session is plenary), Beijing Normal University (北师大) and the China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre (CNARC, 中国—北欧北极研究中心)). In terms of quantity, that makes the Chinese presence comparatively strong among non-Arctic states, larger than e.g. South Korea’s. However, the Chinese delegation is unremarkable in terms of seniority next to, e.g., the UAE and, of course, some of the Arctic states.

It is remarkable that the event was chosen for the first official discussion of the Greenland station plans. On the other hand, it was left to a relatively junior figure, Yu Yong, a marine microbiologist with an ‘associate research fellow’ (副研究员) position. (Breum’s article misidentifies him as ‘vicedirector of PRIC’; the confusion might have been due to Yu’s status as ‘deputy head’ of a division within the PRIC.) Chinese plans for a base in Greenland had been under discussion for some time, in particular during a SOA visit to Greenland last year. What the announcement shows, besides the public disclosure of the potential locations, is that China can already count on the agreement of the Greenland government. As Breum notes, scientific research falls under the devolved purview of the Greenland government, and Copenhagen’s approval isn’t necessary in principle.

As quoted by Breum, Yu said China wants to build the station “as soon as possible”, while adding there’s no clear schedule yet.

The more impressive of the two proposed locations would of course be the northernmost one. The area will be familiar to regular readers: it’s near the Citronen Fjord zinc project, where minor miner Ironbark from Australia holds a mining permit. An arm of state-owned China Nonferrous (中色) has long had a series of non-binding agreements with Ironbark, showing an interest in financing and building the project. Zinc prices have been rising, which is good news for Ironbark, but the site’s remote location and lack of infrastructure make costs unusually high (indeed prohibitive, according to some). Ironbark shares don’t show signs of generalised enthusiasm for the mine.

There is, however, one entity that remains interested in the project: China Nonferrous, specifically its listed arm NFC (中色股份). One of its deputy general managers (副总经理), Qin Junman 秦军满, visited the Citronen site last August, accompanied by the crème of Greenland’s resources ministry: the minister (naalakkersuisoq) Múte Bourup Egede and the top career official, deputy minister (departmentschef) Jørgen Hammeken-Holm. The display of support is understandable: Citronen Fjord is one of two important, viable projects for Greenland’s economic development; the other one, the Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit in Greenlandic) uranium and rare-earth project, also with Chinese involvement, is controversial, and indeed less to the minister’s liking. Ironbark is now working with NFC towards obtaining financing from Chinese banks.

If the project goes ahead, the Citronen mine would be, by a long stretch, the world’s northernmost (at 83°N), and indeed the northernmost settlement of any kind on dry land. During the initial phases of the project, most workers will be foreign, indeed most likely Chinese, so that nationality, and the state behind the entity doing the building, would hold the record. A competitor for that record could be the planned Chinese research station, assuming the northern site is finally chosen. It’s hard not to see the connection between these two planned locations; as is well known, neither Chinese scientific projects of this kind nor those of state-owned companies are disjoint from broader state policies. An obvious example is the Kvanefjeld uranium+REE project, where the Chinese investor is under the PRC Ministry of Land and Resources, and “implements a vision” reached at a meeting between the minister and Greenlandic officials.

(For those wondering: Citronen (‘the lemon’) Fjord isn’t so named because any citrics grow there. It honours Jørgen Haagen Schmith, who used the pseudonym as a resistance fighter during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Walter Turnowsky has written about this for Sermitsiaq. I try to provide Greenlandic names for any Greenland locations I mention on this blog, but I’ve looked and asked around and apparently Citronen Fjord doesn’t have another name, possibly due to its remote location even by Greenlandic standards.)

As Yu’s map helpfully shows, the northern candidate site is located northwest of Station Nord, a rather strategic point. It’s only to be expected that the Danes are paying close attention at Chinese plans for the area. Indeed, some minor friction already occurred late last year, when Ironbark was applying for the exploitation licence; the Danish foreign ministry wrote to Greenland enquiring about the project, something the local authorities didn’t appreciate. The fact that no such enquiries had been sent concerning other mining projects without Chinese involvement makes the People’s Republic the elephant in the room.

Even though it hasn’t generated the mining boom that, as some might have imagined at some point, would suddenly make Greenland economically independent of Denmark, Chinese interests in the island are slowly increasing. Besides the mines and research stations, another interesting development is the last few month has been the start of the construction of a satellite ground station in cooperation between Beijing Normal University (北师大), Tele-Post and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (Pinngortitaleriffik/Grønlands Naturinstitut), announced last May.


update on General Nice: assets ordered seized

In another blow to the licence holder for the (inactive) Isua project in Greenland, a court in Zhejiang province has ordered the seizure of shares in several General Nice (俊安集团) companies. This includes the entire share capital of Tianjin General Nice Coke and Chemicals Co., Ltd (天津俊安煤焦化工有限公司) , whose legal representative is the chairman of General Nice Group, Cai Suixin 蔡穗新.

This adds to the legal troubles that haunt various General Nice companies, as well as the family in charge of it (including chairman Cai, his sister Cai Suirong 蔡穗榕 and their father Cai Mingzhi 蔡明志). I have given a sample of these cases in earlier posts.

The latest court order doesn’t directly target the owner of the Greenland project, but a Hong Kong case does. All cases against General Nice I’m aware of, in at least three jurisdictions, are related to unpaid debts. As detailed in my previous post on the topic, companies in the group, as well as Cai senior personally, have made it to the Supreme People’s Court “List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement” (失信被执行人名单) after dodging court-mandated payments. Besides public humiliation, List members can be subjected to other forms of government punishment, such as not being allowed to buy plane tickets.


update on General Nice: attack of the Dishonest Persons

After failing to comply with Chinese court orders, companies part of General Nice (俊安) group, the owner of the Isua iron-ore project in Greenland, as well as two members of the family in control of it, have been added to the “List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement,” as the name (失信被执行人名单) of a Supreme People’s Court-issued list of judgement defaulters is often translated in PRC sources. The companies directly affected by the judgements behind the listing are not the direct owners of the Greenland project, so the only relevance for Greenland is what it can suggest about the Group’s practices and financial health. However, a more direct Greenland connection comes from a separate source. According to a long-time Hong Kong publisher and financial analyst, the Hong Kong parent of the Greenland entity has been directly targeted by a lawsuit in that city.

Both individuals involved are related to the company’s chairman, Cai Suixin 蔡穗新. They are his father, Cai Mingzhi 蔡明志, and his sister, Cai Suirong 蔡穗榕. Both have long had a number of positions in multiple Group companies. Cai senior is, or at least used to be, one of the main ultimate owners of the company, together with his son. Cai Mingzhi’s political contacts in Guangzhou province reportedly opened many doors for General Nice, a (mostly) private player in a state-dominated sector. For more on the history of General Nice, see my General Nice backgrounder.

The List lists people and companies that have failed to comply with court judgements. Its purpose is to induce compliance by public shaming. For example, a sample of it was once displayed for two weeks on an enormous screen at Changsha railway station. It’s searchable online. An evolving (and quite Orwellian) ‘social credit’ system is expected to impose a range of penalties on those on the wrong side of it, and that includes denizens of the List like the Cais. If they don’t remove themselves from it on time, they could be prevented from buying plane tickets, to mention just one possible consequence. I’ve written about the List of Dishonest Persons before: one noted member of it is Huang Nubo 黄怒波, everyone’s favourite poet-tycoon-mountaineer, known for his attempts to buy land in Iceland and Norway. Since I wrote that almost three years ago, old Huang Nubo List entries have been removed, suggesting he has perhaps paid up, but he has been honoured with a new one, over a new dispute that need not concern us here.

The judgements that landed the Cais on the list concern, among other companies, General Nice (Tianjin) Industry Co., Ltd (俊安(天津)实业有限公司). One of the creditors is an Agricultural Bank of China branch. The sums General Nice (and General Nice-linked) companies have failed to disburse as ordered by the courts total more than 70m yuan. Of course, it is possible that all those outstanding amounts have just been paid, but the online version of the List hasn’t been updated yet.

In a separate development, Target, a Hong Kong publication by venerable Hong Kong financial analyst, journalist, editor, restaurant reviewer and poet Raymonde Sacklyn, reported in late April on a lawsuit brought against General Nice Development Ltd (俊安发展有限公司) and all three Cais by ICBC, over a mortgage and a guarantee. General Nice Development, another Group company, is the ultimate owner of the Jersey entity that owns the Greenland company that owns the Isua mine.

I’ve mentioned worrying developments about General Nice (while still omitting a few) in several posts, starting with that ‘backgrounder‘ in 2015, months after the company entered the Greenland game. The Cais’ group has kept afloat despite all these. In a surprising move, last year they attempted to purchase a derelict naval base in Greenland, only to be blocked by the Danish intervention, as leaked to Defence Watch and (months later) Reuters. In my previous long-ish read on China and Greenland, I speculated that the attempt to buy the base, despite hardly making any obvious business sense, catered to a Chinese state interest in it, perceived or explicit. The Isua mine purchase can also be read in that context: if questionable as a commercial investment, sitting on the licence can make General Nice useful in the eyes of state entities that would like to see the Greenland mine stay in Chinese hands.

This blog has featured poetry in the past, namely that of Huang Nubo, a celebrated poet under the pen name Luo Ying 骆英. I have quoted his verses about Château Lafite, about stockpiling condoms. I have mentioned how he flies first-class because that helps him write, and hope he’ll make it out of the List of Dishonest Persons before the Social Credit System can prevent him from flying. With such precedent, I feel obliged to quote from Sacklyn’sserendipitously-titled poem The Loan:

The body dies and, then, putrefies:
Nature decides the timeframe of this glorious fate.
Man bemoans his ultimate demise,
Fearing the unknown; the darkness; and, the empty plate[.]


Greenland gov’t allowed to review uranium project agreement; confirms Shenghe “intent” to buy controlling stake

Greenland’s department of natural resources has had a third-party legal firm go over the contract giving Shenghe 盛和 a stake in the Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeld) uranium and rare-earth project in the island’s south. The review was meant to establish whether the agreement gave a Shenghe a right to increase its stake to a controlling one, a possibility I first mentioned almost eight months ago. According to a Greenland government press release, the review has concluded that “the contract does not give [Shenghe subsidiary] Leshan [乐山] Shenghe the right to overtake a controlling share” of GME, the Australian firm that owns the licence. Although the press release doesn’t mention it, the department’s head also confirmed to Sermitsiaq that the agreement includes “non-binding statements of intent” regarding Shenghe eventually increasing that stake. This is consistent with those earlier reports, according to which Shenghe would like to have up to a 60% stake in the project if things go well once it enters production.

This ‘60% saga’ began when I noticed that a Shanghai stock exchange press release by Shenghe said the agreement, that involved the sale of one eighth of GME, contemplated eventually increasing the stake to 60% once the project enters the production phase. (I gave the exact phrasing in Chinese, with translation, in a later post.) The news subsequently spread to Danish and Greenlandic media, generating a little brouhaha in which GME denied, then admitted the reports, and Greenlandic officials promised to “investigate” the matter, since an eventual takeover of the project would need their approval. Such an investigation was complicated by GME’s refusal to show the Greenlanders the contract, plainly stating that they didn’t trust “the government’s ability to maintain and protect the confidentiality of documents which, under Australian law, must remain private and confidential between GME and Shenghe” (my back-translation). The government then reportedly said they wouldn’t let the project go ahead if they didn’t know the text of the agreement.

This raises the question of why anyone felt a need to have a third party review the agreement. It has already been reviewed by Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board, which approved it in November. Shenghe is, in practice, controlled by the Chinese ministry of land and resources, which has circulated information praising the Greenland operation as partially “implementing a vision on mining cooperation” reached by Jiang Daming 姜大明 and Greenland officials in 2015; this makes it clear that relevant Chinese state organs are well acquainted with the details of the agreement. As a non-expert in Greenlandic law, I found the fact that the Greenlandic government could be left out of this knowledge rather counter-intuitive. The purchase would have been blocked if GME had refused to ‘trust’ the ability of Chinese and Australian authorities not to leak the document.

I reached out to Jørgen Hammeken-Holm, the deputy minister (departementschef) enquiries are directed to in the government’s press release, to confirm that his department was given access to the agreement, as opposed to GME just showing it to the (unnamed) third-party legal firm. If he replies, I will update this post in the space below:

[UPDATE: Hammeken-Holm replied, confirming that a member of the legal staff at Greenland’s department of natural resources was given access to and read the agreement.]

The entire 60%-saga is little more than a PR hiccup. As I’ve noted before, most people involved (GME management and shareholders, Chinese and Greenlandic officials) would likely see the eventual controlling stake as good news. The only explanation I can muster for the early refusal to disclose the news to the non-Chinese public is a fear talk of a ‘Chinese takeover’ would generate negative comments from the Danish and global geopolitical commentariat. (Such comments did indeed arise.)

Unlike other mining projects, the Kvanefjeld uranium mine is highly divisive in Greenland. Chinese involvement isn’t generally unwelcome, but environmental issues are a concern for many. These divisions are visible at the highest level of Greenlandic politics: the very minister for natural resources, Múte Bourup Egede, is openly “against uranium mining”. For a recent survey of views on Kvanefjeld among (a small sample of) local community members, see this ‘briefing note‘ by Rachael Lorna Johnstone and Anne Merrild Hansen.

I reviewed the current state of Chinese involvement in Greenland in a post for CPI Analysis a few months ago.