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Brief #21: independent inquiry, Party historiography, Party/people, nationalist harassment

Hi all, just a reminder to those who missed out last week’s issue: we launched the China Story blog together with the Australian Centre on China in the World. The blog is still getting rolled out, but eventually, we’ll integrate the newsletter and the blog so that everything is in one place. For now, we’ll be publishing Neican via Substack as well as via the blog. Thanks for reading!

-Yun and Adam

1. Independent inquiry

Australia has called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak, including China’s early handling of the outbreak in Wuhan. A few ministers have called for China to be more transparent. As expected, China is not happy with this call from Australia.

The idea itself is a reasonable one — an independent inquiry will provide some answers to how the outbreak has started and some lessons for the future. However, this has now become part of geopolitical wrangling over narratives.

China does not like the international focus on how the outbreak started, because it will be solely focused on China. Its reaction may be different if the focus shifted to how different countries have managed the outbreak since many countries would then be under scrutiny. This way, China would feel it is contributing voluntarily to international lessons learnt. Of course, this means no independent inquiry.

Powerful countries do not allow international inquiries conducted against them. International inquiries are only conducted to investigate the less powerful countries in the world, such as Sudan and Yemen. Powerful countries may choose to conduct public inquiries domestically (for example, the Chilcot Inquiry on the Iraq War). However, such a domestic inquiry in China is unlikely to satisfy many other countries, as it would not be perceived to be independent.

For an international inquiry to be considered, Australia will need to put in a lot of effort to gain support from other countries, in order to put international pressure on China. But even if this becomes a multilateral effort, China is unlikely to cooperate.

2. Party historiography

One of us (guess who?) is madly in love with CCP party historiography (the other is just in love, but not madly). For those who are also into it, a new article by Yang Fengcheng 杨凤城 titled Xi Jinping’s party historiography and CCP history research 习近平党史观与中共党史研究 is definitely worth reading.

Isn’t party historiography a little archaic, you say? Well, no. Understanding party historiography is important because it tells us how the CCP thinks about the relationship between the past, present and future. As individuals, our identities are based on memories. And how we see ourselves and evaluate past actions have a major influence on what we do in the future. This is no different for the party.

Yang’s article presents an interpretation of Xi’s view of historiography, which has three key pillars:

  1. History is a mirror of the present 以史鉴今, a political and educative capital 资政育人, and forward propelling force.
  2. Reviewing and researching CCP history must be done on the basis of standing on the vantage of Xi’s New Era.
  3. Party history should be seen within a grand historical process 大历史观 that follows the logic of historical materialism 历史唯物论.

If Yang’s analysis is correct, then Xi, like a good communist, believes in historical determinism and believes that history is political and must be used to serve the present. This is very likely true given how Xi has repurposed recent history of the reform and opening up to legitimise his shift towards tighter control.

More broadly, since Xi rose to power, he has launched a campaign against what he called “historical nihilism,” essentially, interpretations of history that are contrary to party orthodoxy. This is so history is not used for the purpose of critically examining the Party’s records. A brief look at Party history will suffice to highlight the contingency that brought it to power, and its past crimes and cruelty, disunity, hypocrisy, and lies.

You may now ask…

3. Is the Party evil?

Many China hawks make a black and white distinction between the Chinese people and the CCP: Chinese people are good, the party that is oppressing them is irredeemably evil.

Sinologist Kerry Brown, in a short article this week, argues that this distinction is untenable because while this approach is neat and appealing, it evades the complexity of the relationship between the Party and the people.

He makes three key points. First, with the exception of a few thousand elites, most of the 90 million party members are “broadly representative of Chinese society” making the lines of distinction between people and party “very blurred”. In his words:

The most prudent thing one can say about the relationship between the [people and the Party] is that they are very complex. And if you want to start deploying language like ‘evil’ about the Party, then you are going to have to start labelling a good number of Chinese people that way to. Party members are Chinese people, after all — not some separate species!

Second, membership of the Party reflects social change and Chinese society. From revolution beginnings in the 1920s to winning the civil war in 1949 to the madness of the 1950s and 1960s to economic reform and opening to the world in the post-Mao era, the CCP has changed dramatically.

Third, the party is not monolithic. Remember how Mao used the masses during the Culture Revolution in an all-out war against the Party establishment? Or the debates on economic reform, and even at times political reform, in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s? In Brown’s words:

Once we [add nuance], then the glorious neatness of the original line of attack [by the China hawks] starts to rapidly fade away. We are not talking about the evil Party, but the evil part of the Party — a far less arresting and dramatic claim.

For Brown, whatever we call China or the CCP, the idea that party cadres are intentionally doing evil things is ludicrous:

There are many things it can be labelled. Autocratic. Sometimes in its decision making inhumane. Too vast in scale. Too laden with history. But the idea that its millions of cadres and actors are busying their lives just working on doing harm is risible.  Like government everywhere else, the vast majority most of the time are trying to do their best, for the society they live in and the people they live amongst.

The implication of the above is that we should see past the simplistic narrative of the relationship between people and party, and escrow the idea that the Chinese people is without agency:

[T]he idea that [the Chinese people] are silent, suppressed, and without agency is profoundly condescending.  Many of them may know their rulers are problematic and often incompetent. They are in good company there with people in Europe and the US. But they are also averse to radical and disruptive change. They have seen enough of that in their own history. Maybe it is just a case of the ‘devil you know being better than the devil you don’t’. But to frame them as somehow cowed masses waiting for knights in shining armour to come from overseas is a colossal misjudgement.

While we are all for nuance, and Brown is absolutely right that the party’s relationship with Chinese people is complicated, we must still grapple with, for lack of a better word, “evil”. The policy and actions of the CCP have led to the death of tens of millions of people in China’s recent past, and the human rights and dignity of millions continue to be abused.

What we are witnessing in Xinjiang, for example, is an epitome of evil despite what the Party may argue, or how a portion of China’s population may seek to justify it.

What do you think: is the Party evil?

4. Harassment of Horton

The family of the Australian swimmer Mack Horton shared their stories of being harassed, both online and offline, by Chinese nationalists. Mack Horton was in a public feud with the Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, calling Yang a drug cheat. Last month, Yang was banned for eight years for doping test violation.

It seems likely that the harassers were acting out of their own initiatives — they may have coordinated among themselves — rather than being directed by the Chinese party-state. It is not in Beijing’s interest to harass the family of an Australian family swimmer, who was only criticising an individual Chinese swimmer (now disgraced), rather than the party-state. The Chinese Government is more likely to focus their energy on dissidents who actually pose a threat.

Of course, these harassers may be emboldened by the Party’s promotion of nationalism, and the constant adulation of Sun Yang in the Chinese media. But this is very different from a state-directed campaign of harassment.

Intimidation and harassment, either online or offline, should never be tolerated. People are free to support one swimmer or another, or one country or another in a sporting competition, but threats and attacks such as those against the Horton family should face the full brunt of the law.

Chinese (ultra)nationalism will cause more headaches for us down the road.


  • Earlier this month, China’s Ministry of Agriculture released a draft list, which re-classified dog as companion animals rather than livestock. This reflects the fact that affluent people in urban centres are big pet owners, often seen pampering their dogs with fashion accessories and beauty products.
  • Xi Jinping’s booklist, comprising 63 books, has been circulating. Among them are 7 Shakespearean plays, 10 Chinese classics and of course, Selected Works of Mao Zedong. Economics authors featured include Smith, Marx, Schumpeter, Keynes, Friedman and Piketty.

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