China in 2020 - what can we expect?

28 January 2020
Last Saturday 25 January was Chinese New Year. As we move into the year of the rat, experts at the University of Sydney share their thoughts on what we can expect from China in 2020.

Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan

Associate Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott (Global health security expert from the Centre of International Security Studies and Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences)

“The jump in cases of coronavirus is disconcerting, but it does mean more people are becoming aware of the symptoms of the virus so more suspected cases are being identified and then confirmed with laboratory testing.

“China has come a long way since the outbreak of SARS. I’m not sure that we could expect more of them at this stage in the outbreak, particularly when they are understandably focused on responding to the outbreak and trying to contain it during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations.”

Civil unrest in Hong Kong

Dr Joyce Nip (Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications and Department of Chinese Studies)

“More than eight months since physical attacks emerged as part of protests and counter-protests in Hong Kong, all signs point to a Hong Kong of further unrest in 2020. Tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong marked the new year with a huge protest rally in the city centre on 2 January.

“Despite the withdrawal of the extradition bill, which initially drove thousands of protesters into the streets, other demands, including universal suffrage, raised by the protestors are not being met. Instead, the Chinese and Hong Kong governments are making moves to further control the politics and ideology of the territory. These are set to further alienate the protestors and strengthen the resistance.

“The ways in which the Hong Kong government handled the protests created so much fury that voters made pan-democrats the majority in all but one of the district councils in last November’s District Council Election. The victorious pro-democracy district councillors are already fortifying the opposition at the local level through institutional means, such as holding meetings with their constituents and creating committees in the councils to discuss territory-wide political affairs. On the other hand, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, has categorically ruled out one of the ‘five core demands’ of the protesters - to set up an independent inquiry about police brutality.

“The new director of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, Luo Huining, has highlighted the need for Hong Kong to build a national security mechanism and introduce nationalistic education. This may mean reviving the national security legislation and national education curriculum proposed by the Hong Kong government, which provoked large-scale protests in 2003 and 2011. Depending on the manner and schedule of how the two issues are pushed, they could trigger yet another wave of mass protests and become ammunition for the opposition to win another victory in the Legislative Council election scheduled for September 2020.”

Trade relations between China and the United States

Dr Stephen Kirchner (Director, Trade and Investment, United States Studies Centre)

“After two years of negotiations, the United States and China have signed a ‘phase one’ economic and trade agreement that has forestalled further increases in US tariffs on imports from China. Equity markets rallied on the news, a measure of the extent to which the trade war has weighed on the global economic outlook.

“While the stay on further tariff increases is welcome, President Trump has very little to show for his trade war, which has inflicted considerable damage on the US and world economies.

“China has agreed to increase its purchases of US goods and services by USD 200 billion over two years. If China follows through on this commitment, then US exports to China will grow by around 40 percent in both 2020 and 2021, but these implied growth rates are difficult to believe.

“China has said that any purchases must be demand-driven and consistent with World Trade Organization rules, which gives them a ready excuse if they fail to deliver. But even if these purchases materialised, it is difficult to say what this means in terms of trade volumes. Changes in commodity prices and exchange rates mean that commitments to purchase given dollar amounts could translate into a wide range of outcomes in terms of US export volumes.

“A key issue will be how the US will monitor and enforce China’s compliance with the terms of the agreement and these existing commitments.

“Despite the name on the front page, the deal is not a trade agreement in the usual sense of an international treaty that has been legislated domestically by the parties. The deal is more a memorandum of understanding between the executives in the US and China. It has no effective standing in US domestic or international law, and is not much more than a 94-page joint press release. It is likely that the US and China will come to disagree on whether the terms of the agreement are being met. If they cannot talk their way through these differences, either side could walk away from individual commitments or the whole deal without significant legal consequences.”

Chinese consumer trends in 2020

Dr Jeaney Yip, Lecturer in Marketing from the University of Sydney Business School

“Amidst a backdrop of mixed international events, uncertainties, and slowing mature and emerging markets across different tiered cities, consumption in China is likely to see more targeted growth in the new year. Chinese consumers from established first and second tier cities are increasingly sophisticated with their consumption choices.  They are refined; displaying patterns of moving away from the collective and upscaling of tastes, and a sense of confidence in their own identity, elevating ‘Chineseness’. through their consumption choices

“Growth from the remaining tiers has emerged as middle-class consumers drive local consumption and demand for certain products and services. Consumerist in orientation, the middle-class have the resources to use material goods as social markers of identity and status, but they are also interested in pursuing comfort and wellness to enhance one’s life standing and lifestyle. Therefore, areas such as education, health, lifestyle and travel will continue to flourish. This trend is further magnified by an ageing population.

“China is not a homogenous market, so it is essential to be mindful of nuances amongst Chinese consumers, and perhaps rethink how geographic differences are increasingly mixed with social and cultural differences.”

Personal data and privacy protection in the proposed Chinese Civil Code

Dr Jie (Jeanne) HuangAssociate Professor in the University of Sydney Law School

“In 2020, launching the first Civil Code will be a historical landmark for the development of the Chinese legal system. The most recent draft of the code was reviewed at the 15th Meeting of the 13th National People’s Congress Standing Committee on 23 December 2019. The code will lay down the fundamentals for data regulation in China. However, it waits to be seen whether it can enhance the protection of personal information in practice.

“This is because the distinction between privacy and personal information in the proposed code is not clear. The code defines privacy as the tranquillity of a natural person’s private life as well as private spaces, activities and information that a person would not want to be known to others. The right to privacy shall not be infringed upon without the person’s explicit consent. Personal information is information recorded electronically or otherwise and can be used alone or in conjunction with other information to identify specific persons, including the person's name, date of birth, identification number, biometric information, residential address, telephone number, email address, whereabouts, etc. However, only sensitive personal information can be protected by the right to privacy. The code does not state what personal information is not sensitive. 

“Moreover, the collection and possession of personal information is subject to the principles of legality, proportionality, and necessity. Considering the wide use of facial recognition as a precondition for Chinese to receive mobile phone, banking and some other basic services in China, is there a genuine opportunity for Chinese consumers to say no and find convenient alternatives to have these services? If there is no genuine consent, what is the legality of collecting facial biometric information? If consumers do not know what facial information is collected, how it is processed and where it is stored, it is hard to determine proportionality.

“Therefore, the launch of the Civil Code is probably the beginning, rather than the end, to enhance personal information protection in China.”

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