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How China Transformed Into a Prime Cyber Threat to the U.S.

Nearly a decade ago, the United States began naming and shaming China for an onslaught of online espionage, the bulk of it conducted using low-level phishing emails against American companies for intellectual property theft.

On Monday, the United States again accused China of cyberattacks. But these attacks were highly aggressive, and they reveal that China has transformed into a far more sophisticated and mature digital adversary than the one that flummoxed U.S. officials a decade ago.

The Biden administration’s indictment for the cyberattacks, along with interviews with dozens of current and former American officials, shows that China has reorganized its hacking operations in the intervening years. While it once conducted relatively unsophisticated hacks of foreign companies, think tanks and government agencies, China is now perpetrating stealthy, decentralized digital assaults of American companies and interests around the world.

Hacks that were conducted via sloppily worded spearphishing emails by units of the People’s Liberation Army are now carried out by an elite satellite network of contractors at front companies and universities that work at the direction of China’s Ministry of State Security, according to U.S. officials and the indictment.

like Microsoft’s Exchange email service and Pulse VPN security devices, which are harder to defend against and allow China’s hackers to operate undetected for longer periods.

“What we’ve seen over the past two or three years is an upleveling” by China, said George Kurtz, the chief executive of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. “They operate more like a professional intelligence service than the smash-and-grab operators we saw in the past.”

China has long been one of the biggest digital threats to the United States. In a 2009 classified National Intelligence Estimate, a document that represents the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, China and Russia topped the list of America’s online adversaries. But China was deemed the more immediate threat because of the volume of its industrial trade theft.

But that threat is even more troubling now because of China’s revamping of its hacking operations. Furthermore, the Biden administration has turned cyberattacks — including ransomware attacks — into a major diplomatic front with superpowers like Russia, and U.S. relations with China have steadily deteriorated over issues including trade and tech supremacy.

China’s prominence in hacking first came to the fore in 2010 with attacks on Google and RSA, the security company, and again in 2013 with a hack of The New York Times.

breach of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. In that attack, Chinese hackers made off with sensitive personal information, including more than 20 million fingerprints, for Americans who had been granted a security clearance.

White House officials soon struck a deal that China would cease its hacking of American companies and interests for its industrial benefit. For 18 months during the Obama administration, security researchers and intelligence officials observed a notable drop in Chinese hacking.

After President Donald J. Trump took office and accelerated trade conflicts and other tensions with China, the hacking resumed. By 2018, U.S. intelligence officials had noted a shift: People’s Liberation Army hackers had stood down and been replaced by operatives working at the behest of the Ministry of State Security, which handles China’s intelligence, security and secret police.

Hacks of intellectual property, that benefited China’s economic plans, originated not from the P.L.A. but from a looser network of front companies and contractors, including engineers who worked for some of the country’s leading technology companies, according to intelligence officials and researchers.

It was unclear how exactly China worked with these loosely affiliated hackers. Some cybersecurity experts speculated that the engineers were paid cash to moonlight for the state, while others said those in the network had no choice but to do whatever the state asked. In 2013, a classified U.S. National Security Agency memo said, “The exact affiliation with Chinese government entities is not known, but their activities indicate a probable intelligence requirement feed from China’s Ministry of State Security.”

announced a new policy requiring Chinese security researchers to notify the state within two days when they found security holes, such as the “zero-days” that the country relied on in the breach of Microsoft Exchange systems.

arrested its founder. Two years later, Chinese police announced that they would start enforcing laws banning the “unauthorized disclosure” of vulnerabilities. That same year, Chinese hackers, who were a regular presence at big Western hacking conventions, stopped showing up, on state orders.

“If they continue to maintain this level of access, with the control that they have, their intelligence community is going to benefit,” Mr. Kurtz said of China. “It’s an arms race in cyber.”

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As China’s Communist Party Turns 100, Xi Warns It Will Not Be Bullied

China’s rise is unstoppable, Xi Jinping declared. The country will not be lectured. And those who try to block its ascent will hit a “Great Wall of steel.”

Mr. Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader in generations, delivered the defiant message in a speech in Beijing on Thursday that celebrated 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party.

The speech was laden with symbols intended to show that China and its ruling party would not tolerate foreign obstruction on the country’s path to becoming a superpower. The event’s pageantry symbolized a powerful nation firmly, yet comfortably, in control: A crowd of 70,000 people waved flags, sang and cheered in unison. Troops marched and jets flew overhead in perfect formations. And each time Mr. Xi made a pugnacious comment, the crowd applauded and roared approval.

At times, Mr. Xi’s strident words seemed aimed as much at Washington as at the hundreds of millions of Chinese who watched on their televisions. The biggest applause from the handpicked, Covid-screened audience on Tiananmen Square came when he declared that China would not be pushed around.

transformative leader guiding China into a new era of global strength and rejuvenated one-party rule. And the stagecraft was focused on conveying a modern, powerful nation largely at ease while much of the world still struggles with the pandemic.

He trumpeted the party’s success in tamping down Covid-19, reducing poverty and firmly quashing dissent in Hong Kong, the former British colony. With splashes of bellicose rhetoric, he dismissed challenges from abroad, asserting that Beijing had little appetite for what it saw as sanctimonious preaching.

China’s tensions with the United States and other rivals. But his effort to portray unity carried an unmistakable meaning as Beijing faces new challenges abroad.

The Biden administration has cast the United States as leading a global struggle to defend democratic ideals against the spread of China’s model of authoritarianism. President Biden has worked quickly to rally Western allies to press China over human rights and tensions in the South China Sea. Beijing has been especially incensed by Western sanctions over Hong Kong and the western region of Xinjiang, two places where Mr. Xi has tightened the party’s control with draconian measures.

“His speech clearly hinted at the United States, the audience in China won’t miss that,” Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper who now lives in the United States, said by telephone. “His other message that stood out was that the party is the representative of the people’s and the whole country’s interests — nobody can try to split the party from the nation; they’re a unified whole.”

The theme of a party and nation united behind Mr. Xi will remain prominent in the lead-up to a Communist Party congress late next year, at which he is expected to gain a third five-year term as the party’s leader. That step would break with the expectation, set by his predecessor, Hu Jintao, that Chinese leaders stay in power for two terms. Mr. Xi’s speech will now be studied and acclaimed by party officials as part of the rituals that ensure they stay obedient.

historic sites to pay homage to the party’s revolutionary leaders. It has tightened security around the country, confining dissidents and stationing police officers and neighborhood volunteers to keep watch across the capital for weeks.

Alleys and overpasses in Beijing have been decked in red party banners. Chinese state television is scheduled to show more than a hundred television dramas celebrating the party, many of them depictions of revolutionary heroes. A light show on the riverfront in Shanghai has flashed the slogan, “There would be no new China without the Communist Party.” Another light display shone the Communist hammer and sickle onto clouds over Shenzhen, a flashily commercial city in the south.

Beijing’s intensive preparations for this anniversary pointed to how crucial controlling public memory is to China’s leaders, perhaps above all Mr. Xi, a leader who has cited his family roots in the party’s revolutionary heritage and his disdain for liberal values. Predictably, he made no mention in his speech of China’s setbacks over the decades of Communist Party rule, such as Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the deadly crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

many signals were missed.

  • One Year Later in Hong Kong: Neighbors are urged to report on one another. Children are taught to look for traitors. The Communist Party is remaking the city.
  • Mapping Out China’s Post-Covid Path: Xi Jinping, China’s leader, is seeking to balance confidence and caution as his country strides ahead while other places continue to grapple with the pandemic.
  • A Challenge to U.S. Global Leadership: As President Biden predicts a struggle between democracies and their opponents, Beijing is eager to champion the other side.
  • ‘Red Tourism’ Flourishes: New and improved attractions dedicated to the Communist Party’s history, or a sanitized version of it, are drawing crowds ahead of the party’s centennial.
  • Mr. Xi paid respects to Mao, Deng and other past leaders, but the real focus of his speech was clear. He highlighted the country’s achievements since he took office in 2012: eradicating poverty, achieving greater economic prosperity and building a strong military. He used his longtime catchphrase, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” 21 times.

    95 million members of the Communist Party of China are found in every corner of society, from one of the country’s richest men, Jack Ma, to virtually every village. And Mr. Xi swiped at critics who have said that the party and the Chinese people should not be treated as a united whole.

    senior officer had said earlier that military personnel would stay at their posts to “safeguard the peace and security of the motherland.” Still, squadrons of helicopters flew over Tiananmen Square, carrying red banners and forming the figure 100, followed by fighter jets in a perfect array. Mr. Xi repeatedly stressed his determination to build up China’s military.

    China suppressed the coronavirus relatively quickly last year while the United States, Britain and other democracies suffered waves of deaths. But the country must tackle challenges, such as an aging population that could slow growth. Mr. Xi suggested that the solution to any problem demanded staying with the party.

    “Long live the Chinese Communist Party, great, glorious and correct,” he said at the end of his speech. “Long live the Chinese people, great, glorious and heroic.”

    Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting. Liu Yi, You Li, Claire Fu, Albee Zhang and Joy Dong contributed research.

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    Hong Kong’s Security Law: One Year Later, a City Remade

    HONG KONG — With each passing day, the boundary between Hong Kong and the rest of China fades faster.

    The Chinese Communist Party is remaking this city, permeating its once vibrant, irreverent character with ever more overt signs of its authoritarian will. The very texture of daily life is under assault as Beijing molds Hong Kong into something more familiar, more docile.

    Residents now swarm police hotlines with reports about disloyal neighbors or colleagues. Teachers have been told to imbue students with patriotic fervor through 48-volume book sets called “My Home Is in China.” Public libraries have removed dozens of books from circulation, including one about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

    when antigovernment protests erupted.

    Now, armed with the expansive national security law it imposed on the city one year ago, Beijing is pushing to turn Hong Kong into another of its mainland megacities: economic engines where dissent is immediately smothered.

    goose-step in the Chinese military fashion, replacing decades of British-style marching. City leaders regularly denounce “external elements” bent on undermining the country’s stability.

    Senior officials in Hong Kong have assembled, right hands raised, to pledge fealty to the country, just as mainland bureaucrats are regularly called on to “biao tai,” Mandarin for “declaring your stance.”

    also warn of termination or other vague consequences if violated. Mr. Li had heard some supervisors nagging his colleagues to fill out the form right away, he said, and employees competing to say how quickly they had complied.

    “The rules that were to protect everyone — as employees and also as citizens — are being weakened,” Mr. Li said.

    purge candidates it deemed disloyal, Beijing called the change “perfecting Hong Kong’s electoral system.” When Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy newspaper, was forced to close after the police arrested its top executives, the party said the publication had abused “so-called freedom of the press.” When dozens of opposition politicians organized an informal election primary, Chinese officials accused them of subversion and arrested them.

    helped lead an operation that smuggled students and academics out of the mainland.

    But Beijing is more sophisticated now than in 1989, Mr. Chan said. It had cowed Hong Kong even without sending in troops; that demanded respect.

    end of an era.

    The rush of mainland money has brought some new conditions.

    declaring that those who do not go risk missing opportunities.

    Growing up in Hong Kong, Toby Wong, 23, had never considered working on the mainland. Her mother came from the mainland decades earlier for work. Salaries there were considerably lower.

    promising to subsidize nearly $1,300 of a $2,300 monthly wage — higher than that of many entry-level positions at home. A high-speed rail between the two cities meant she could return on weekends to see her mother, whom Ms. Wong must financially support.

    Ms. Wong applied to two Chinese technology companies.

    “This isn’t a political question,” she said. “It’s a practical question.”

    many signals were missed.

  • Mapping Out China’s Post-Covid Path: Xi Jinping, China’s leader, is seeking to balance confidence and caution as his country strides ahead while other places continue to grapple with the pandemic.
  • A Challenge to U.S. Global Leadership: As President Biden predicts a struggle between democracies and their opponents, Beijing is eager to champion the other side.
  • ‘Red Tourism’ Flourishes: New and improved attractions dedicated to the Communist Party’s history, or a sanitized version of it, are drawing crowds ahead of the party’s centennial.
  • The Hong Kong government has issued hundreds of pages of new curriculum guidelines designed to instill “affection for the Chinese people.” Geography classes must affirm China’s control over disputed areas of the South China Sea. Students as young as 6 will learn the offenses under the security law.

    Lo Kit Ling, who teaches a high school civics course, is now careful to say only positive things about China in class. While she had always tried to offer multiple perspectives on any topic, she said, she worries that a critical view could be quoted out of context by a student or parent.

    accused it of poisoning Hong Kong’s youth. The course had encouraged students to analyze China critically, teaching the country’s economic successes alongside topics such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

    Officials have ordered the subject replaced with a truncated version that emphasizes the positive.

    “It’s not teaching,” Ms. Lo said. “It’s just like a kind of brainwashing.” She will teach an elective on hospitality studies instead.

    Schoolchildren are not the only ones being asked to watch for dissent. In November, the Hong Kong police opened a hotline for reporting suspected violations of the security law. An official recently applauded residents for leaving more than 100,000 messages in six months. This week, the police arrested a 37-year-old man and accused him of sedition, after receiving reports that stickers pasted on the gate of an apartment unit potentially violated the security law.

    most effective tools of social control on the mainland. It is designed to deter people like Johnny Yui Siu Lau, a radio host in Hong Kong, from being quite so free in his criticisms of China.

    Mr. Lau said a producer recently told him that a listener had reported him to the broadcast authority.

    “It will be a competition or a struggle, how the Hong Kong people can protect the freedom of speech,” Mr. Lau said.

    censor films deemed a danger to national security. Some officials have demanded that artwork by dissidents like Ai Weiwei be barred from museums.

    Still, Hong Kong is not yet just another mainland metropolis. Residents have proved fiercely unwilling to relinquish freedom, and some have rushed to preserve totems of a discrete Hong Kong identity.

    font of hope and pride amid a resurgence in interest in Canto-pop.

    Last summer, Herbert Chow, who owns Chickeeduck, a children’s clothing chain, installed a seven-foot figurine of a protester — a woman wearing a gas mask and thrusting a protest flag — and other protest art in his stores.

    But Mr. Chow, 57, has come under pressure from his landlords, several of whom have refused to renew his leases. There were 13 Chickeeduck stores in Hong Kong last year; now there are five. He said he was uncertain how long his city could keep resisting Beijing’s inroads.

    “Fear — it can make you stronger, because you don’t want to live under fear,” he said. Or “it can kill your desire to fight.”

    Joy Dong contributed research.

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    Soho China Sells to Blackstone, Cementing Owners’ Exit

    China’s economy is on a tear. Factories are humming, and foreign investment is flowing in. Even so, the wealthy and powerful people atop some of the country’s most prominent companies are heading for the exits.

    The latest are Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, the husband-and-wife team that runs Soho China, a property developer known for its blobby, futuristic office buildings. In striking a deal this week to sell a controlling stake to the investment giant Blackstone for as much as $3 billion, Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang are turning over the company as high-profile entrepreneurs come under public and official scrutiny in China like never before.

    Soho China did not respond to a request for comment.

    China’s most famous tycoon, the Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, has kept an uncharacteristically low profile since late last year, when the government began a regulatory crackdown on his companies and the wider internet industry. Colin Huang, founder of the Alibaba rival Pinduoduo, resigned as chairman in March, less than a year after he stepped down as chief executive. In May, Zhang Yiming, founder of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, said he would hand over the chief executive post to focus on long-term strategy.

    Under the Communist Party’s top leader, Xi Jinping, nationalism has been resurgent in China, and the government has sought to exert more direct influence over the private sector. Even before this week’s sale, Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang of Soho China had been avoiding the spotlight more than they did during an earlier, freer era of China’s economic revival.

    going after businesspeople and intellectuals with big online followings. The police that year arrested Wang Gongquan, a friend of Mr. Pan’s and supporter of human rights causes, on charges of disrupting public order.

    Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang began selling off property holdings in China and spending more time in the United States. The family of Ms. Zhang and the Safra family of Brazil, long involved in international banking, teamed up to buy a 40 percent stake in the General Motors building in Manhattan.

    They noted that the couple donated generously to Harvard and Yale but not to Chinese universities.

    After media reports accused Soho China of “fleeing” Shanghai by selling projects there, Mr. Pan wrote on Weibo: “Buying and selling is normal. Don’t read too much into it.”

    The company’s last big public event was the opening of Leeza Soho, a lithe, spiraling skyscraper in Beijing, in late 2019. Zaha Hadid, the famed architect who designed the tower and a friend of Ms. Zhang’s, had died a few years earlier.

    Last year, Ren Zhiqiang, a retired property mogul and friend of Mr. Pan’s, was detained for an essay he shared with friends on a private chat group. The essay criticized Mr. Xi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and the direction he was taking the country. Mr. Ren was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

    Today, Mr. Pan’s and Ms. Zhang’s Weibo accounts are filled with bland, friendly material: holiday greetings, book recommendations, photos of flowers in bloom outside Soho China buildings. Both of their accounts are set to display only the past half year’s posts.

    On Wednesday night, minutes after Soho China announced the sale on its official Weibo account, Mr. Pan reposted the announcement without comment, in what online commentators called a “silent farewell.”

    Albee Zhang contributed research.

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    A Top Virologist in China, at Center of a Pandemic Storm, Speaks Out

    In less polarized times, Dr. Shi was a symbol of China’s scientific progress, at the forefront of research into emerging viruses.

    She led expeditions into caves to collect samples from bats and guano, to learn how viruses jump from animals to humans. In 2019, she was among 109 scientists elected to the American Academy of Microbiology for her contributions to the field.

    “She’s a stellar scientist — extremely careful, with a rigorous work ethic,” said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

    The Wuhan Institute of Virology employs nearly 300 people and is home to one of only two Chinese labs that have been given the highest security designation, Biosafety Level 4. Dr. Shi leads the institute’s work on emerging infectious diseases, and over the years, her group has collected over 10,000 bat samples from around China.

    Under China’s centralized approach to scientific research, the institute answers to the Communist Party, which wants scientists to serve national goals. “Science has no borders, but scientists have a motherland,” Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, said in a speech to scientists last year.

    Dr. Shi herself, though, does not belong to the Communist Party, according to official Chinese media reports, which is unusual for state employees of her status. She built her career at the institute, starting as a research assistant in 1990 and working her way up the ranks.

    Dr. Shi, 57, obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Montpellier in France in 2000 and started studying bats in 2004 after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed more than 700 people around the world. In 2011, she made a breakthrough when she found bats in a cave in southwestern China that carried coronaviruses that were similar to the virus that causes SARS.

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    China Says It Will Allow Couples to Have 3 Children, Up From 2

    China said on Monday that it would allow all married couples to have three children, ending a two-child policy that has failed to raise the country’s declining birthrates and avert a demographic crisis.

    The announcement by the ruling Communist Party represents an acknowledgment that its limits on reproduction, the world’s toughest, have jeopardized the country’s future. The labor pool is shrinking and the population is graying, threatening the industrial strategy that China has used for decades to emerge from poverty to become an economic powerhouse.

    But it is far from clear that relaxing the policy further will pay off. People in China have responded coolly to the party’s earlier move, in 2016, to allow couples to have two children. To them, such measures do little to assuage their anxiety over the rising cost of education and of supporting aging parents, made worse by the lack of day care and the pervasive culture of long work hours.

    In a nod to those concerns, the party also indicated on Monday that it would improve maternity leave and workplace protections, pledging to make it easier for couples to have more children. But those protections are all but absent for single mothers in China, who despite the push for more children still lack access to benefits.

    when the number of babies born dropped to the lowest since the Mao era. The country’s total fertility rate — an estimate of the number of children born over a woman’s lifetime — now stands at 1.3, well below the replacement rate of 2.1, raising the possibility of a shrinking population over time.

    The announcement on Monday still splits the difference between individual reproductive rights and government limits over women’s bodies. Prominent voices within China have called on the party to scrap its restrictions on births altogether. But Beijing, under Xi Jinping, the party leader who has pushed for greater control in the daily lives of the country’s 1.4 billion people, has resisted.

    “Opening it up to three children is far from enough,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert with the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based research center. “It should be fully liberalized, and giving birth should be strongly encouraged.”

    “This should be regarded as a crisis for the survival of the Chinese nation, even beyond the pandemic and other environmental issues,” Mr. Huang added. “There should never have been a birth restriction policy in the first place. So it’s not a question of whether this is too late.”

    The party made the announcement after a meeting by the Politburo, a top decision-making body, though it was not immediately clear when the change would take effect. In an acknowledgment that raising the birth limits might not be enough, the party also pledged to beef up support for families, though it did not provide details.

    tacitly allowing couples to have three children.

    But more couples now embrace the concept that one child is enough, a cultural shift that has dragged down birthrates. And some say they are not interested in children at all, even after the latest announcement.

    “No matter how many babies they open it up to, I’m not going to have any because children are too troublesome and expensive,” said Li Shan, a 26-year-old product manager at an internet company in Beijing. “I’m impatient and worried that I won’t be able to educate the child well.”

    forcing women of Muslim ethnic minorities, like the Uyghurs, to have fewer babies in an effort to suppress their population growth.

    A full reversal of the rules could also be seen as a repudiation of a deeply unpopular policy that the party has long defended.

    “If a government makes a U-turn today in the West, it’s kind of embarrassing,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “But in a country like China, where the same party has been in charge for 70 years or so, then it makes a statement on the policies that were implemented. And so that’s why I think any change that goes through will be quite gradual.”

    For decades, China’s family-planning restrictions empowered the authorities to impose fines on most couples who had more than one child and compel hundreds of millions of Chinese women to undergo invasive procedures.

    Gao Bin, a 27-year-old seller of lottery tickets in the eastern city of Qingdao, recalled how his mother had to flee to three different places just to escape family-planning officials because she wanted to keep him. He said that his mother still cries when she recounts those days.

    “To be honest, when I saw the announcement of this policy, I was pretty angry,” Mr. Gao said. “I think the government lacks a humane attitude when it comes to fertility.”

    Claire Fu and Elsie Chen contributed research.

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    Yuan Longping, Plant Scientist Who Helped Curb Famine, Dies at 90

    After graduating in 1953, Mr. Yuan took a job as a teacher in an agricultural college in Hunan Province, keeping up his interest in crop genetics. His commitment to the field took on greater urgency from the late 1950s, when Mao’s so-called Great Leap Forward — his frenzied effort to collectivize agriculture and jump-start steel production — plunged China into the worst famine of modern times, killing tens of millions. Mr. Yuan said he saw the bodies of at least five people who had died of starvation by the roadside or in fields.

    “Famished, you would eat whatever there was to eat, even grass roots and tree bark,” Mr. Yuan recalled in his memoir. “At that time I became even more determined to solve the problem of how to increase food production so that ordinary people would not starve.”

    Mr. Yuan soon settled on researching rice, the staple food for many Chinese people, searching for hybrid varieties that could boost yields and traveling to Beijing to immerse himself in scientific journals that were unavailable in his small college. He plowed on with his research even as the Cultural Revolution threw China into deadly political infighting.

    In recent decades, the Communist Party came to celebrate Mr. Yuan as a model scientist: patriotic, dedicated to solving practical problems, and relentlessly hard-working even in old age. At 77, he even carried the Olympic torch near Changsha for a segment of its route to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

    Unusually for such a prominent figure, though, Mr. Yuan never joined the Chinese Communist Party. “I don’t understand politics,” he told a Chinese magazine in 2013.

    Even so, the Xinhua state news agency honored him this weekend as a “comrade,” and his death brought an outpouring of public mourning in China. In 2019, he was one of eight Chinese individuals awarded the Medal of the Republic, China’s highest official honor, by Xi Jinping, the national leader.

    Mr. Yuan is survived by his wife of 57 years, Deng Zhe, as well as three sons. His funeral, scheduled for Monday morning in Changsha, is likely to bring a new burst of official condolences.

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    In Xinjiang, China Targets Muslim Women in Push to Suppress Births

    When the government ordered women in her mostly Muslim community to be fitted with contraceptive devices, Qelbinur Sedik pleaded for an exemption. She was nearly 50 years old, she told officials in Xinjiang. She had obeyed the government’s birth limits and had only one child.

    It was no use. The workers threatened to take her to the police if she continued resisting, she said. She gave in and went to a government clinic where a doctor, using metal forceps, inserted an intrauterine device to prevent pregnancy. She wept through the procedure.

    “I felt like I was no longer a normal woman,” Ms. Sedik said, choking up as she described the 2017 ordeal. “Like I was missing something.”

    Across much of China, the authorities are encouraging women to have more children, as they try to stave off a demographic crisis from a declining birthrate. But in the far western region of Xinjiang, they are forcing them to have fewer, as they tighten their grip on Muslim ethnic minorities.

    internment camps and prisons. The authorities have placed the region under tight surveillance, sent residents to work in factories and placed children in boarding schools.

    By targeting Muslim women, the authorities are going even further, attempting to orchestrate a demographic shift that will affect the population for generations. Birthrates in the region have already plunged in recent years, as the use of invasive birth control procedures has risen, findings that were previously documented by a researcher, Adrian Zenz, with The Associated Press.

    crimes against humanity and genocide, in large part because of the efforts to stem the population growth of Muslim minorities. The Trump administration in January was the first government to declare the crackdown a genocide, with reproductive oppression as a leading reason; the Biden administration affirmed the label in March.

    Ms. Sedik’s experience, reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, helped form the basis for the decision by the United States government. “It was one of the most detailed and compelling first-person accounts we had,” Kelley E. Currie, a former United States ambassador who was involved in the government’s discussions. “It helped to put a face on the horrifying statistics we were seeing.”

    Beijing has accused its critics of pushing an anti-China agenda.

    in March. “No one nor any agency shall interfere.”

    To women in Xinjiang, the orders from the government were clear: They didn’t have a choice.

    Last year, a community worker in Urumqi, the regional capital, where Ms. Sedik had lived, sent messages saying women between 18 and 59 had to submit to pregnancy and birth control inspections.

    “If you fight with us at the door and if you refuse to cooperate with us, you will be taken to the police station,” the worker wrote, according to screenshots of the WeChat messages that Ms. Sedik shared with The Times.

    encourage births, including by providing tax subsidies and free IUD removals. But from 2015 to 2018, Xinjiang’s share of the country’s total new IUD insertions increased, even as use of the devices fell nationwide.

    The contraception campaign appeared to work.

    report by a Xinjiang government research center read. “They have avoided the pain of being trapped by extremism and being turned into reproductive tools.”

    Women like Ms. Sedik, who had obeyed the rules, were not spared. After the IUD procedure, Ms. Sedik suffered from heavy bleeding and headaches. She later had the device secretly removed, then reinserted. In 2019, she decided to be sterilized.

    “The government had become so strict, and I could no longer take the IUD,’” said Ms. Sedik, who now lives in the Netherlands after fleeing China in 2019. “I lost all hope in myself.”

    leaked last year from Karakax County, in southwestern Xinjiang, which revealed that one of the most common reasons cited for detention was violating birth planning policies.

    government notice from a county in Ili, unearthed by Mr. Zenz, the researcher.

    operated under secrecy — many were subjected to interrogations. For some, the ordeal was worse.

    Tursunay Ziyawudun was detained in a camp in Ili Prefecture for 10 months for traveling to Kazakhstan. She said that on three occasions, she was taken to a dark cell where two to three masked men raped her and used electric batons to forcibly penetrate her.

    “You become their toy,” Ms. Ziyawudun said in a telephone interview from the United States, where she now lives, as she broke down sobbing. “You just want to die at the time, but unfortunately you don’t.”

    Gulbahar Jalilova, the third former detainee, said in an interview that she had been beaten in a camp and that a guard exposed himself during an interrogation and wanted her to perform oral sex.

    The three former detainees, along with two others who spoke to The Times, also described being regularly forced to take unidentified pills or receive injections of medication that caused nausea and fatigue. Eventually, a few of them said, they stopped menstruating.

    The former detainees’ accounts could not be independently verified because tight restrictions in Xinjiang make unfettered access to the camps impossible. The Chinese government has forcefully denied all allegations of abuse in the facilities.

    in February.

    Beijing has sought to undermine the credibility of the women who have spoken out, accusing them of lying and of poor morals, all while claiming to be a champion of women’s rights.

    Even in their homes, the women did not feel safe. Uninvited Chinese Communist Party cadres would show up and had to be let in.

    The party sends out more than a million workers to regularly visit, and sometimes stay in, the homes of Muslims, as part of a campaign called “Pair Up and Become Family.” To many Uyghurs, the cadres were little different from spies.

    The cadres were tasked with reporting on whether the families they visited showed signs of “extremist behavior.” For women, this included any resentment they might have felt about state-mandated contraceptive procedures.

    When the party cadres came to stay in 2018, Zumret Dawut had just been forcibly sterilized.

    Four Han cadres visited her in Urumqi, bringing yogurt and eggs to help with the recovery, she recalled. They were also armed with questions: Did she have any issues with the sterilization operation? Was she dissatisfied with the government’s policy?

    “I was so scared that if I said the wrong thing they would send me back to the camps,” said Ms. Dawut, a mother of three. “So I just told them, ‘We are all Chinese people and we have to do what the Chinese law says.’”

    But the officials’ unwelcome gaze settled also on Ms. Dawut’s 11-year-old daughter, she said. One cadre, a 19-year-old man who was assigned to watch the child, would sometimes call Ms. Dawut and suggest taking her daughter to his home. She was able to rebuff him with excuses that the child was sick, she said.

    Other women reported having to fend off advances even in the company of their husbands.

    Ms. Sedik, the Uzbek teacher, was still recovering from a sterilization procedure when her “relative” — her husband’s boss — showed up.

    She was expected to cook, clean and entertain him even though she was in pain from the operation. Worse, he would ask to hold her hand or to kiss and hug her, she said.

    Mostly, Ms. Sedik agreed to his requests, terrified that if she refused, he would tell the government that she was an extremist. She rejected him only once: when he asked to sleep with her.

    It went on like this every month or so for two years — until she left the country.

    “He would say, ‘Don’t you like me? Don’t you love me?’” she recalled. “‘If you refuse me, you are refusing the government.’”

    “I felt so humiliated, oppressed and angry,” she said. “But there was nothing I could do.”

    Amy Chang Chien and Fatima Er contributed reporting.

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    When Covid Hit, China Was Ready to Tell Its Version of the Story

    But Mr. Rigoni, whose company is owned by Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said he didn’t think China’s mix of media and state power was unique. “It’s not the only country where the main TV and radio programs are controlled by the government or the parliament,” he said.

    And the general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, Anthony Bellanger, said in an email that his view of the report is that while “China is a growing force in the information war, it is also vital to resist such pressures exerted by the U.S., Russia and other governments around the world.”

    But there’s little question of which government is more committed to this campaign right now. A report last year by Sarah Cook for the Freedom House, an American nonprofit group that advocates political freedom, found that Beijing was spending “hundreds of millions of dollars a year to spread their messages to audiences around the world.”

    The United States may have pioneered the tools of covert and overt influence during the Cold War, but the government’s official channels have withered. The swaggering C.I.A. influence operations of the early Cold War, in which the agency secretly funded influential journals like Encounter, gave way to American outlets like Voice of America and Radio Liberty, which sought to extend American influence by broadcasting uncensored local news into authoritarian countries. After the Cold War, those turned into softer tools of American power.

    But more recently, President Donald J. Trump sought to turn those outlets into blunter propaganda tools, and Democrats and their own journalists resisted. That lack of an American domestic consensus on how to use its own media outlets has left the American government unable to project much of anything. Instead, the cultural power represented by companies like Netflix and Disney — vastly more powerful and better funded than any government effort — has been doing the work.

    And journalists around the world expressed skepticism of the effectiveness of often ham-handed Chinese government propaganda, a skepticism I certainly shared when I recycled a week’s worth of unread editions of China Daily sent to my home last week. The kind of propaganda that can work inside China, without any real journalistic answer, is largely failing to compete in the intense open market for people’s attention.

    “China is trying to push its content in Kenyan media, but it’s not yet that influential,” said Eric Oduor, the secretary general of the Kenya Union of Journalists.

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