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Meng Wanzhou

US economist Jeffrey Sachs retreats from Twitter after criticising US’ treatment of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou

  • Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs closes Twitter account after his opinions prompt partisan exchanges across the US and China
  • Sachs is accused on the social media platform of being in thrall to China after asking why the US didn’t treat American executives the same way
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 10:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2019, 2:25pm

Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs closed his Twitter account last week after his criticism of the US’ extradition request for senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou drew a firestorm of criticism in North America.

The latest Sachs controversy highlighted the polarisation of public opinion in the two countries as China and the United States on Monday marked the 40th anniversary of normalisation of relations with little public fanfare.

While presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump had reportedly exchanged official congratulations on the anniversary, former US president Jimmy Carter wrote on the anniversary in The Washington Post that “a modern cold war … is not inconceivable” if Beijing and Washington took an adversarial view of each other.

Sachs, an economist, published his story, “The War on Huawei”, through syndication in international media on December 11, saying the Trump administration was unfairly targeting the executive, also known as Sabrina Meng and Cathy Meng, for alleged violations of US sanctions against Iran.

Meng was detained by Canadian authorities last month at the request of the US government, a move that sparked a protest from Beijing.

She was freed on bail on December 11 and the US has until January 8 to formally ask Canada for her extradition.

Huawei arrest highlights risk to foreign execs who break US sanctions

Sachs wrote that Washington was hypocritical for not taking similar action against senior executives of US companies that had in the past paid heavy fines for violating Washington’s sanctions regime, and he described the Trump administration as “the greatest threat to the international rule of law” for its unilateral sanctions against Iran and for backing out of the 2015 nuclear deal.

While the article won support in China, it drew widespread criticism in the US. The economist subsequently deleted his Twitter account.

Some social media commentators asked if Sachs was under the sway of the Chinese technology company.

In November, he wrote a foreword for a Huawei company position paper, highlighting its recommendations for government digital technology policy.

“Huawei is a remarkable company and, by any standard, Huawei’s vision of our shared digital future is powerful, exciting, and uniquely well informed,” he wrote.

Isaac Stone Fish, senior fellow at the Asia Society, tweeted to Sachs: “Did Huawei pay you for that? If so, do not you think you should disclose that?”

“I wish he had stayed,” Stone Fish later said of Sachs’ departure from social media. “An open debate about issues of Beijing’s influence, especially among people with different opinions, is healthy.”

White House said to mull executive order to bar Huawei, ZTE gear

Chinese media outlets have highlighted Sach’s defence of Huawei, and the ire of his critics. On Monday, Beijing mouthpiece Global Times, along with Sina Finance, Guancha Syndicate and other platforms, published articles detailing the professor’s glowing remarks for Huawei, and accusations of US hypocrisy in foreign policy.

Shi Yinhong, director of Renmin University’s Centre for American Studies and an adviser to the State Council – China’s cabinet – said the incident showed the wide chasm of public opinion between the two countries.

“Opinions are very polarised. There is so little common ground at this point,” Shi said.

Despite some overtures of goodwill being expressed in an expectation of trade talks this month, both sides maintained opposite interpretations of conflicts such as Meng’s case, Shi said.

“No amount of legal evidence from the US will persuade the Chinese government that the US is not acting politically against Huawei, and no amount of Chinese arguments will persuade the US that Huawei and other tech companies are being unfairly targeted,” he said.

“Moreover, the majority opinion – public opinion – will not be changed. They are totally opposite, and this is most troubling.”