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Brief #46: Chinese-Australians, Xi in Shenzhen, China-US power

China Neican is a newsletter by Yun Jiang and Adam Ni from the China Policy Centre in Canberra. It is also published as a weekly column on the China Story blog. Neican 内参 or “internal reference” are limited circulation reports only for the eyes of high-ranking officials in China, dealing with topics deemed too sensitive for public consumption. Our writing, however, is open to everyone. To receive regular updates, please subscribe. You can find past issues of Neican here.

This week we look at Chinese-Australians, Shenzhen’s 40th anniversary, and Beijing’s assessment of US power.

1. Chinese-Australians

Hi everyone, it’s Yun here. I have a few things to say about the latest saga that I’ve unfortunately become part of. There has already been much media coverage on this. For those that have not been following, essentially a senator at the public hearing into diaspora issues asked three witnesses (Australians with Chinese ethnicity) to unconditionally condemn the CCP. Here was my initial reaction on the day after:

In my opening statement to the Senate Committee, I talked about the toxic environment for Chinese-Australians who engage in public policy debates right now. In particular, I mentioned that one of the reasons Chinese-Australians are choosing to remain silent is because they don’t want their loyalties to be questioned constantly in the public arena. And I concluded my opening statement with “it is not fair to force them to take positions or political actions, such as critiquing Beijing, when similar requests are not made to other Australians”.

So it is extremely egregious that despite the concerns I raised, Senator Abetz chose to go down this exact road. This is an inquiry on issues facing diaspora communities in Australia. Yet instead of addressing the issues raised by the three witnesses, Senator Abetz proceeded to interrogate each of us on our views of the Chinese Communist Party, as some sort of loyalty test.

Senate Abetz, by his very questioning, demonstrated exactly the many points I have raised in my submission and my opening statement.

To me, this felt less like a public inquiry and more like a public witch-hunt. And the target is Chinese-Australians who are deemed not sufficiently critical of the Chinese Government.

Let’s be clear about this: similar requests were not made to Australians of other background or heritage. Other witnesses were not subject to the same interrogation. This is targeted purely at Chinese-Australians.

Senator Abetz, by his own admission, said he received terrible trolling due to his heritage. So it was disappointing that he subjected me to the same treatment.

It made me wonder why I was called to appear in the public hearing in the first place. It’s clear that my submission and my opening statement made no impression. Was I called to the public hearing just so I can be questioned about my views of the Chinese Communist Party, and implicitly, my loyalty to Australia?

This episode is just the latest demonstration of the difficulties Chinese-Australians have to face when they choose to engage in politics or public policy.

I don’t like to dwell on politics, but instead focus on policy. The question I wanted to address at the public hearing was: how can Australia counter foreign interference while at the same time ensuring the rights of all Australians are protected and respected? Here is my response (also recorded on Hansard):

First we should protect vulnerable groups, including Uyghurs and Tibetans, and ensure they are as free to express their views as possible in Australia.

My fear is that in our effort to counter foreign interference or counter China, we may end up to be more like China, and our democracy and liberal institutions will suffer as a result. I want Australia to remain liberal, to remain open, and to remain democratic.

The best “weapon” we have against foreign interference is actually our openness and our liberal values. We should strive for more transparency and more accountability of our parliaments and governments decision-making process. And we should be more wary of governments amassing more power in the name of national security. Political donation reform is a step forward in the transparency regard. But intelligence agency raids without public explanations are very concerning, especially when they were leaked to the media in advance. Having ministers making decisions on foreign interference matters without any explanations to the public, as was the case of revocation of visas for two Chinese academics, is also extremely problematic and goes against the ethos of transparency and accountability.

Australians need to have a clearer understanding of what “foreign interference” actually is. We must not conflate interference with influence, as is often the case in media and public discourse. The Australian Government should release clear guidelines and examples as to what actions constitute foreign interference, and what are merely influence. This will help the Australian community build resilience and watch out for incidences that fall into interference category.

Finally, the Australian media should also focus less on associations and “links” as evidence for foreign interference. Instead, the focus should be on actions or behaviours that are “coercive, corrupting, deceptive or clandestine”. That is to say, focus on wrongdoing instead of guilt by association.

Here at Neican we have been accused of being pro-CCP despite our critique of Beijing’s foreign and domestic policies, literally, on a weekly basis. Such shrill accusations are becoming more commonplace, and are symptoms of a debate gone awry, where some would only accept full-throated condemnations of the CCP ― no introspection, balance and nuance or context needed.

Things are probably going to get worse in the US, Australia, UK and elsewhere. So prepare for a rockier ride.

Ok, back to regular programming.

2. Shenzhen: 40th anniversary

The celebration of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SSEZ) coupled with Xi’s three-day “Southern Tour” this week, sends a number of important signals. At its core: China needs to adapt its economic strategy to the brave new world of geopolitical upheaval.

Self-sufficiency and reliance

On his tour, Xi stopped off at Chaozhou to emphasise the necessity for indigenous innovation 自主创新 and self-reliance 自力更生. Self-reliance and sufficiency are back in vogue in Party-state discourse as we have seen in recent months. In simple terms, what this envisages is China developing supply chains and innovation ecosystems that would buffer it from external shocks.

An important premise of Beijing’s new economic strategy (双循环 “dual circulation”) is the need to reduce the Chinese economy’s external exposure. The reason for this, as we noted in August, is Beijing’s evolving assessment of its external environment:

In the eyes of Chinese leaders, the world has changed: it has become more uncertain, and the external environment has become more hostile to China. Given these developments, it's imperative to turn inward and reinforce China’s domestic economy against external shocks. The days of unbridled optimism over global economic integration and international cooperation is well and truly over.

Given increasing external uncertainty, and the trend towards decoupling with the US and others, Beijing’s focus on economic self-reliance and sufficiency should be seen as a proactive approach to prepare China for a worsening international environment.

Economic control

At the SSEZ 40th anniversary celebration, Xi summed up the lessons of Shenzhen’s experience, which we paraphrase:

  1. Party’s leadership over economic development must be maintained.
  2. The current political system needs to be maintained and reinforced.
  3. Development is a hard criterion for progress.
  4. Economic opening up is necessary for competitiveness.
  5. Innovation is the primary driving force and the key to winning the global race.
  6. Development should benefit the people.
  7. Legal and regulatory tools are critical to economic governance.
  8. Development needs to go hand-in-hand with maintaining the ecology.
  9. Economic development should tie mainland, Hong Kong and Macao closer together.
  10. Special economic zones play a leading role in national development.

None of the above should be a surprise. But we will bring your attention to number 1 and 2. As we noted in September:

In recent years, Xi has tightened Party control over the economy and pushed his brand of state capitalism. His approach has three elements: 1) stronger Party control over economic levers; 2) improved governance system for economic activity; and 3) integration of state and private interests.

Indeed, party control over the leverages of economic development and resource allocation has become the basis of Xi’s economic strategy. Instead of seeing the risks and downsides of this (for which historical evidence is aplenty), Xi and his supporters see political control and economic development as complementary. According to this view, without strong control and leadership by the Party, China’s economy would not have the environment to flourish; and without economic progress, the Party’s legitimacy would be put into jeopardy.

For Xi and the advocates of his brand of state capitalism, Shenzhen’s experience over the last four decades is a testament to the above. But we argue that Shenzhen’s experience gives precisely the opposite lesson, that is, an economic environment with less political interference and government involvement is the sure way to unleash innovation and drive growth.

“Rising high” Xi Thought

Xi, during his visit to Shenzhen, paid tribute to Deng Xiaoping by laying flowers at a bronze statue of Deng. This conformed to past practice. Xi also did this his two previous trips to Shenzhen.

In December 2012, shortly after he took power at the 18th Party Congress, Xi went south to Shenzhen to signal continued economic reform and opening up. China at the time faced slowing economic growth after the Global Financial Crisis, and a possible economic “hard landing”. Politically, Xi had a weak hand, having just come to power. His anti-corruption drive had not started at that point.

In October 2018, coinciding with the upcoming 40th anniversary of China’s reform, he took another tour south. On this tour, he also visited Shenzhen. This time, however, the context has changed. He has consolidated power in the intervening years. His political enemies are being purged; his ideology was written into the Party and PRC constitutions, and the presidential term limits were removed. Internationally, China’s external environment had deteriorated markedly with US-China relations taking a sharp turn.

The painting in the photo below was widely exhibited in China in the lead up to the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up in 2018. The central message of this painting is pretty clear: Xi has inherited Deng’s legacy and has now, in fact, eclipsed the Great Architect of China’s economic rise himself. The story that the party was telling itself, the Chinese people, and the world was changing, and Xi was at the centre of this increasingly nationalistic story of China’s irresistible march towards national rejuvenation.

Source: Lam Yik Fei for the New York Times

Fast forward two years to today, under pressure from all fronts, Xi on this southern trip has escrowed from adventurism, staying with the standard party historiography. In his speech celebrating SSEZ 40th anniversary, he paid the expected tribute to Deng, and only referred to his father Xi Zhongxun, who was instrumental in SSEZ development, by his title as the “head of Guangdong Provincial Party Committee” (广东省委负责人).

Given the elevation of Xi Zhongxun in the party narratives in 2018, Bill Bishop at Sinocism asked: “Is the absence of a mention of Xi Zhongxun significant, or would it be too awkward for Xi to praise his father directly?”

We think the answer has two parts. First, Xi does not want to destabilise the conventional party historiography of the role of Deng Xiaoping at a time of severe challenges. Second, Xi does not want to fuel more concerns about his self-aggrandisement. He has done enough of that lately. In fact, the Fifth Plenum is just days away, and the Politburo under Xi has promulgated a new document regulating Central Committee work. As we noted earlier:

This new set of regulations is another step in Xi’s centralisation of power. By making explicit rules from implicit understanding based on political realities, Xi is cementing his position as the paramount leader of the Party.

In short, Xi has done enough to centralise power already, there is no need to further push the envelope on this occasion.

One data point worth watching closely is the use of the phrase “raising high the great banner of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” (高举习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想伟大旗帜). This has been used sparingly. Most recently, this phrase was used by Guangdong Party Secretary Li Xi 李希, who spoke after Xi in Shenzhen. Among Politburo members, only Li and Han Zheng have used this phrase. If more of them started adopting it, then we would know that Xi’s unwieldy and long-winded ideological formulation is about to be shortened to “Xi Jinping Thought”. So far, only Mao Zedong’s ideology has achieved the status of a “Thought”.

3. Beijing’s assessment of American power

In time for the impending US election, there has been much ink spilled over whether China would prefer a Trump or a Biden presidency. The view among many mainstream commentators appears to be that China would prefer a Trump Presidency, despite the escalating tension and chaos of the last four years. This is contrary to the assessment by the US Director of National Intelligence in August.

From China’s perspective, the Trump Administration has led to declining US influence in its international affairs. Under Trump, the US has withdrawn from numerous international institutions, it has sanctioned the International Criminal Court, and its domestic politics and policies have caused concerns around the world, even among its allies and partners.

It is true that the Trump Administration has taken a hardline attitude towards China. According to WSJ, in the early days of the administration, the National Security Council said, ‘Give us your wish list of ways to fuck with China’. Rhetorics has only escalated since then. From Beijing’s perspective, these US attitudes and actions are detrimental to China’s interests.

However, it is likely that China considers these costs as short-term while Trump has been accelerating a long-term decline of the US. Certainly, its international stature and prestige have suffered significantly under Trump. Rush Doshi notes:

For Beijing, a United States that is less engaged abroad, more divided at home, and seemingly uninterested in pandemic management or economic competitiveness is one with dim prospects.

But even if there was a change of government in the US, many in China are convinced that the US trajectory is set, and its hardline approach towards China will continue, due to its decline. As to how should the US respond, Julian Gewirtz argues that:

China’s rulers have built their strategy on a profound underestimation of the US. By upending the exaggerated reports of its demise, the US could change China’s calculus and find a way toward sustainable coexistence on favorable terms

Our observations broadly conform to the two assessments above. First, the dominant view in Beijing is that the US is in the long-term and irrevocable decline. Time is on Beijing’s side. Second, many in Beijing believe the US efforts to contain China is an unavoidable product of geopolitical change. Third, regardless of who wins the US presidential race, the hardline direction of US’ China policy is unlikely to change substantially.

Quote of the week


Now you, Sir, had calabashes large enough to hold five piculs; why did you not think of making large bottle-gourds of them, by means of which you could have floated over rivers and lakes, instead of giving yourself the sorrow of finding that they were useless for holding anything.

From 莊子 Zhuangzi; translated by James Legge via ctext

This section is near the end of the first Chapter of Zhuangzi, 逍遙遊 (Enjoyment in Untroubled Ease).

Zhuangzi used this analogy to highlight that things that appear useless to many people may in fact be very useful under the right circumstances. But their values are often missed if we only use the standard benchmark.

In teams and organisations, we often talk about the value of inclusion and diversity. But too often, we focus only on diversity as a superficial measure. When we value or assess people, we want them to fit into our existing notion of “useful”, by comparing them to a benchmark that we have already set. We judge them as “useless” if they fail to measure up to this benchmark (in this analogy, whether the calabashes are good for holding anything).

But perhaps we should reconsider our benchmarks instead. Perhaps if we change the benchmark, the person is in fact very “useful” (in the analogy, for making large bottle-gourds, which can be used for floating in rivers and lakes). Using the existing benchmark merely perpetuates the current problems and entrenches the existing structure.

Later on, in more famous passages, Zhuangzi would expound on the usefulness of uselessness, which makes much more sense when you consider the Warring States context.


This week on China Story:

  • Sarah Gosper, The dangerous game of gender inequality: domestic violence and the erosion of women’s rights in China: The recent murder of a Tibetan woman by her ex-husband has ignited social media fury over the lack of protections available to Chinese women who experience domestic violence. It follows several similar cases that have provoked outrage in online spaces in China, fuelling debate about the widespread nature of domestic violence, and demands to strengthen laws and response mechanisms. However, the swift removal of hashtags, shows the extent to which the Chinese state continues to undermine gender equality in China, attempting to silence feminist debate about women’s rights to safety and equality.
  • Kate Clayton and Tiffany Liu, Where are the women in Australia’s China debate? Australia has a gender problem in international affairs demonstrated not only in government leadership, but also in related discourse. With Sino-Australia relations in the spotlight due to COVID-19 and increased tensions in the bilateral relationship, it is vital that we examine the debate through a gendered lens. Australia’s China debate reflects broader diversity issues within international relations, which remains a space dominated by Anglo-Saxon men.