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.]


Lysekina: SOE, PLA-linked United Frontling want a deep-sea port in Sweden [UPDATED]

[UPDATE (Jan 31): It won’t happen. Through their ‘consultants’, the investors have informed they’re calling it off because of the public criticism the project attracted since it was leaked to the press. (InBeijing, Bohusläningen, Dagens Nyheter)]

Backed by state-owned China Communications and Construction (CCCC, 中交建), a well-known Hong Kong-based United Front figure is lobbying a small Swedish municipality to let him build a large deep-sea port. Using a tactic seen elsewhere, state-linked investors leveraged Sweden’s decentralisation, which leaves decisions on foreign investment to local administrations, to avoid the public scrutiny that comes with interactions at a national level.


The Michelin-spangled harbour

Last November, Lysekil municipality officials, overseeing the local affairs of a population of 14,000, were Powerpoint-presented with an investment plan that includes the new port, expanding the existing one, a logistic centre, a bridge, roads, a health resort “with Michelin Star restaurants” and other desirable items. They were reportedly given ten days to respond.


The presentation, authored by three Swedish consultants. The languages used (English and simplified Chinese, for a Swedish audience) and word choice (“中国香港” ‘China’s Hong Kong’) suggest it’s not entirely their own work. Indeed, its ‘appendix’ largely translates the prospective investor’s website. Source: Jojje Olsson on Scribd.

And respond they did:


Lysekil municipality’s answer. Source: Olsson via Scribd.

Quite on time (or close enough for government work), the municipality commissioned a feasibility study, deeming the proposal “interesting”. The study was requested from the same consultants who had brought the contact with the investors in the first place, and authored the impressive presentation (which, as seen above, borrows rather extensively from the investor’s website). It should be ready this or next month.

The tactic of lobbying local officials and trying to get a fait accompli before the feared “China threat theory” (中国威胁论) can kick in has been seen elsewhere; a remarkable example covered on this blog is the satellite ground station project in Greenland, “officially started” without the government’s knowledge after cultivating a local scientist. Unfortunately for the investors and consultants, the news leaked, leading to national-media coverage and increased opposition. Critics question the port’s environmental impact and the security implications of having Chinese state-linked entities build and operate a major piece of infrastructure. The project has become known as ‘Lysekina’, a pun on the name of the town and the Swedish word for China. Jojje Olsson, who has been covering the case on his website and Swedish media, wrote a summary in English for the Taiwan Sentinel. For another English-language account, here’s Ola Wong talking to Lene Winther on Danish radio station Radio24syv.


Evaluate a Frontling, dispatch him

The main investor is Sunbase (新恒基), owned by Gunter Gao (Gao Jingde 高敬德). Gao is a prominent figure in Hong Kong United Front organisations. (The CCP’s United Front Work Department is charged with handling and controlling various external groups at home and abroad, using tactics that go back to the Comintern in the 1920s. A renewed focus on them is a feature of Xi Jinping’s administration, recently leading to unusual international exposure and a growing backlash in some countries. Cf. my ‘United Frontlings always win‘.) He was, in particular, the founding chairman of the Hong Kong Association for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (中国和平统一促进会). ‘Reunification of China’ is of course a euphemism for the annexation of Taiwan. The APPRC’s Australian chapter is perhaps its most famous, thanks to its leadership‘s donations to the country’s major political parties.


Chairman Gao, representing Hong Kong at the 8th meeting of the Reunifier association. Beijing, 2009. Source: 中国统促会.

His seniority within United Front structures is illustrated by his participation in meetings with high officials. For an old example, here‘s a Xinhua story describing a visit to Beijing in 2009, where Gao met, among others, Du Qinglin 杜青林, then head of the Central United Front Work Department. He has been a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC, 政协会) for five consecutive terms. In Hong Kong, besides his membership in multiple CCP-linked organisations, he openly supports the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB)— to the point of obsequiousness. At a DAB fundraiser in 2016, he offered HK$18.8m for a specimen of calligraphy by Zhang Xiaoming 张晓明, then the central government’s representative in Hong Kong.


The HK$18.8m specimen. Source: HK01.

Zhang’s calligraphy reads: 度德而处 ”measure one’s virtue and manage [the situation]’, a Zuozhuan 左传 quote (隐公十一年) which, together with the following phrase (‘estimate one’s forces and proceed’), is alluded to in the idiom 度德量力 (‘measure one’s virtue and estimate one’s force’). In the Zuo locus classicus, Duke Zhuang 庄 of Zheng 郑 pacifies the ‘lawless’ (无刑) state of Xu 许 but, instead of simply annexing it, rules it through envoys from his court. Despite ruling the conquered state as a sort of protectorate, Zhuang refrains from imposing his country’s rites on it: past turmoil in his own state of Zheng, that pitted him against his mother and brother, shows his merits don’t entitle him to a claim to the vanquished state (he ‘measures his virtue’); and making the defeated Xu a friendly neighbour can be convenient (he ‘assesses his forces’). All in all, quite like the PRC’s rule of Hong Kong through envoys like Zhang Xiaoming, while letting it maintain a semblance of autonomy (‘two systems’) if it behaves, and ruling it through an envoy in its “west” (使公孙获许西偏) just like Beijing’s Liaison Office in HK occupies a skyscraper called ‘The Westpoint’ (西港中心); but of course he didn’t mean the allegory to apply wholesale. At the pro-Beijing fundraiser, he provided his own interpretation of the Zuo quote, in which it means “to proceed according to moral standards”, “reforming others with one’s own virtue”, and added the ‘assess your force’ second half of the quote could be a gift for the losing candidate at the next HK chief executive ‘election’. (Said election is in fact a staged, non-competitive event involving CCP-selected individuals. As of press time, it’s unclear if the official who played the ‘loser’ at the latest instantiation, John Tsang (曾俊华), received any consolation calligraphy.)

Gao Jingde’s $18.8m investment and shoeshining prowess has proved clever in retrospect: the virtuous calligrapher has since been promoted to the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (港澳办) in Beijing. He surely remembers fondly the purchase, and might keep it in a prominent place, perhaps pondering if the 德 ‘virtue’ in the phrase couldn’t be read as the one in his given name 敬德 Jìng: 度德而处 ‘evaluate Jingde and deploy him’.

Also in 2016, his company was found to share an address with eight groups entitled to vote for ‘functional constituency’ representatives (the non-democratically elected part of Hong Kong’s legislature, whose function is to limit the possibility of an opposition majority).


Promoting a glorious, civilising, superior Army

Most striking are Gao’s links to the military. As his company’s website puts it, he has “generously supported the publication” of various “valuable books with the intent of promoting the glorious image of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a civilizing and a powerful force and of spreading the superior tradition and revolutionary spirit of the PLA”. The volumes, seemingly published by the pro-Beijing paper Wen Wei Po 文汇报’s publishing house, aren’t widely available and, as of press time, I haven’t been able to secure a copy. One of them, however, did apparently reach former president Jiang Zemin.

Such adulation has been remunerated. One of Gao’s companies, a Sunbase subsidiary called Sunbase International Properties Management Ltd (新恆基國際物業管理有限公司), has been managing all 18 plots used in Hong Kong by the PLA since the 1997 handover. Its website lists the PLA garrison, Beijing’s Liaison Office and Xinhua news agency among its main customers. The company changed its name from ‘Sunbase International Hotel Management’ in late 1996, reflecting its new focus on servicing the Party’s Army and state.


If Gunter Gao’s political and economic links to the Army and state might not be universally known, little needs to be said about CCCC, a state-owned company with an important role in China’s global port building and acquisition activities, part of the drive to build a ‘maritime power’ (海洋大国). CCCC is indeed involved in projects in Chinese ports in Gwadar, Pakistan and Colombo, Sri Lanka.

In short, the consortium seeking to build Scandinavia’s top Michelin-star port-cum-resort, though superficially a private endeavour, has links to the state and Army deep enough for it to serve as a potential instrument of national policy.

The project’s very existence is indeed consistent with regional and global policy goals. The Lysekil plans should indeed be read in the context of China’s general interest in securing port assets worldwide. In the North, in particular, there has been talk for years about Chinese involvement in deep-sea ports, in Iceland and Norway. The international connection has being noticed in Sweden. In a recent article, journalist Ola Wong advises Sweden to “study” the controversial 99-year lease of the Australian port of Darwin to Chinese company Landbridge.

Before it can reach its Michelin-studded glory, the Lysekina project will need to navigate all this unexpected scrutiny. Most importantly, Chairman Gao or his attendant consultants would need to convince the port’s prospective landowner, the refinery owned by Preem, who now categorically deny any intention to sell or lease.

Sweden isn’t often discussed on this blog; a somewhat relevant post discussed another port purchase, this time by Lau Ming-wai 刘鸣炜, the HK ‘government adviser’ who prematurely inherited a business empire from his convicted father.

HK tycoon scion, gov’t advisor, Sweden hand Lau Ming-wai buys former submarine base in Sweden (as favour to Swedish navy) [UPDATE: Navy still not happy]

Hong Kong government-connected businessman Lau Ming-wai 刘鸣炜 has bought the port of Fårösund, formerly a submarine base, through a company he fully owns, according to Dagens Nyheter and The Maritime Executive. A spokesperson for Lau’s Swedish company has said the sole motivation for the purchase is to let the Swedish navy use the base for free. The navy used to own the base, then sold it for $2m, then tried to buy it back, but a Russian investor offered $9m for it. Lau’s company, called Artmax, reportedly asked the government if they would like to lease the base from them, but the offer was rejected. In a remarkable display of selflessness, Artmax bought the base anyway and will let the navy use it without a lease. Le beurre et l’argent du beurre, indeed $2m of it.

Fårösund is located at the northern tip of Gotland, facing the island of Fårö across a sound, whence the name. As for the island, the name doesn’t necessarily mean ‘sheep island’ (as ‘Faroe’ does): instead, the first element could be related to fara ‘travel’. The island is already mentioned as Faroy in the 13th-century Gutasaga. The location used to host an artillery regiment and serve as a submarine base. The navy’s renewed interest in it is seemingly related to the worsening relations with Russia.

This is not Lau’s first act of generosity towards Sweden, or the most expensive. In 2015, he donated ~$50m to the Karolinska Institute to establish a research centre in regenerative medicine in Stockholm and Hong Kong. The centre is named after him. Hong Kong media have reported Lau has a particular liking for Sweden, travels there several times a year and “knows basic Swedish”.

Besides his business activities, Lau enjoys political appointments. He’s the chairman of the Commission on Youth (青年事务委员会), a government advisory body, in which capacity he generated some controversy in 2015 after telling young Hongkongers they should ‘save for flats‘. Lau’s business is real estate: he’s the chairman of Chinese Estates (华人职业), a position he inherited when his father Joseph Lau (Lau Luen-Hung 刘銮雄) was sentenced to a 5 year jail term for corruption and money laundering by a Macau court.

Old Lau (大刘), as he is popularly known, has not served his sentence and remains at large, since Hong Kong and Macau, presumably part of the same country, don’t have an extradition treaty. He remains in Hong Kong, where his extravagant acquisitions continue to make news: over the years, he has spent tens of millions on such items as the dearest Warhol Mao, rare diamonds, such registration plates as ‘I L0VEU2‘ and several cubic metres of expensive wine.

Besides his government-assigned role advising the young to become his potential customers, Lau Jr is the vice-chairman of the Bauhinia Foundation, a think tank with strong HK government connections. His Mainland government contacts are illustrated by an appointment to the Sichuan Province Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body.

Lau’s selfless decision means that, for the first time, a former naval base up north has ended up in Chinese hands. An attempt by General Nice to buy an abandoned base in Greenland was rejected by the Danish government last year, as I discussed in some detail in January.

[UPDATE (May 6): The Navy is not happy with Lau’s offer and still would like to eventually own the port, says SvD. It’s not clear how they’re planning to achieve that strategic goal, and why they didn’t think about it a couple of months ago when offering too little money for it, or a couple of decades ago, before selling it in the first place. ‘Expropriation would be a possibility’ but it isn’t being currently considered.]

Thanks to Victor Mair, who alerted me to the Maritime Executive story.


Minmetals eyes Greek rare earths

Rare earth elements were talked about during a meeting between Greek PM Antonis Samaras and Li Keqiang 李克强 last week in Milan (Η Καθημερινή). Official Chinese accounts of the meeting seem to make no mention of rare earths or any other mining.

In early September, a Chinese delegation that included Minmetals assistant president Wang Jionghui 王炯辉 visited Greece to discuss cooperation in rare earth exploration. During the visit, Greek environment and energy minister Yannis Maniatis Γιάννης Μανιάτης emphasised the potential of rare earth deposits in Greece, one of a handful of European countries with significant REE reserves. (The others are the Nordic countries, where interest in REE is increasing. An example: Tasman’s Norra Kärr project in southern Sweden.)

Minmetals (五矿) is one of the six fortunate conglomerates the Chinese rare earth industry is being consolidated into.

China has a near-monopoly on rare earth production worldwide, but that is not preventing Chinese companies from starting to look at REE deposits abroad with interest, in places like Australia, South Africa and Vietnam. And Greenland, of course, as I’ve mentioned in the past.


Huang Nubo: in talks with Norway, Denmark, Sweden

Chinese poet-tycoon Huang Nubo 黄怒波, recently spotted in France, tells China National Radio that Zhongkun 中坤 Group, the real-estate and tourism conglomerate he leads, has an “ever more distinct” strategy to enter Northern European tourism market. “Now we’re not only talking with Iceland,” he added: in “the last couple of days” the ambassadors of Norway, Sweden and Denmark have all arranged meetings with him.