Neican is a newsletter on China issues 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.
In this issue, we look at cross-strait relations, the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, and nationalism and censorship online.
1. Cross-strait relations
China and the US are moving on a collision course with respect to Taiwan. War is still highly unlikely in the short term, however, given the interests of both sides in avoiding such catastrophe. But we can’t rule out a war started by accidents or miscalculations.
Why is Taiwan so important to Beijing? Well, it goes to the very core of the CCP’s nationalist legitimacy. From Beijing’s perspective, unifying the mainland with Taiwan is unfinished business from history. It is about the unity of China, a critical prerequisite to “national rejuvenation”. Successfully bringing Taiwan into its fold, notwithstanding a contest from the US, would mark China’s ascendency as the prominent power in East Asia.
Shift towards confrontation
For two decades since the late-1990s, cross-strait relations have experienced relative stability, pragmatism, and expanding economic and people-to-people ties. So, what explains the recent trend towards antagonism, one that has accelerated in the last few years?
First, the relative power balance has shifted in Beijing’s favour with its rapid economic development and military modernisation. Now that Beijing has more powerful coercive options, the risks for the US in intervening in a Taiwan scenario have become larger.
Second, despite economic integration, growing people-to-people ties, and Beijing’s efforts to influence, interfere, and coerce the island nation, Taiwan has in many ways moved away from Beijing. Today, a record number of people in Taiwan regard themselves as “Taiwanese” (64 per cent) rather than only as “Chinese” (2.4 per cent).
Beijing rightly sees this as a growing hurdle for its unification agenda. The window for political unification is closing as Taiwanese local identity grows stronger. We doubt the trend will reverse, and Beijing has probably arrived at the same conclusion.
For an analogy, the “failure” of engagement narrative is used today in the US as a justification for tougher policy towards China. Apply a similar narrative to Beijing’s approach to cross-strait relations. From the late-1990 until the 2010s, Beijing believed that its growing economic and cultural gravity was going to make Taiwan more receptive to political unification. This proved to be wrong, which has provided justification for those in Beijing advocating a tougher approach to cross-strait relations.
And just as the era of US-China engagement is well and truly over, stable and constructive cross-strait relations are becoming less likely, partly because Beijing is trying to rebalance the relationship towards providing more “stick” relative to “carrot”.
Finally, the “Taiwan card” has become more important for both China and the US. The Taiwan issue was always important for the nationalist credentials of the CCP. It has become more so under Xi’s national rejuvenation agenda. For the US, Taiwan has become critical for its position in the region as part of the frontline in its competition with the People’s Republic. In recent years, US-Taiwan strategic cooperation has accelerated, and this trend will likely continue.
In short, changing material balance, politics, and mutual perceptions in Beijing, Taipei and Washington are driving instability across the Taiwan Strait with potentially catastrophic implications for everyone involved.
Beijing is increasingly turning to coercion, as it assesses its engagement approach to cross-strait as a failure, with the clock ticking before the unification window is permanently closed. From Beijing’s perspective, Washington is undermining its core interests by colluding with Taipei as the latter inch towards independence. For US leaders, Beijing’s aggression towards Taiwan is seen as further proof of Beijing’s wider strategic ambitions contrary to US interests. Taiwan is caught in the middle of great power competition, with its political leaders trying to create more international space for Taiwan while at the same time trying to reduce Beijing’s anxieties and fears.
Taiwan will become an increasingly contested space in strategic competition between the US and China. This means a rockier ride ahead for cross-strait relations as both great powers seek to influence and coerce Taiwan to follow their agendas.
While war is unlikely in the short term, we should all be thinking about a range of Taiwan-related contingencies. The framing of war vs peace is a counterproductive simplification because the most likely scenarios involve coercion short of war, including a combination of economic, financial, and information blockades, cyber-attacks, psychological and information operations, and limited kinetic strikes on key nodes.
Coercion will become more prominent in Beijing’s toolkit due to the perception that engagement has failed. Beijing has more military power than ever to coerce Taiwan with, but as the lessons from the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996) showed, intimidation can be counterproductive.
Earlier in the month, Chinese and Taiwanese diplomats got into a scuffle in Suva, Fiji, at an event celebrating Taiwan’s national day. As unfortunate as it was for the injured Taiwanese diplomat involved in that fight, this is far more preferable than firing missiles.
2. 70th anniversary of “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea”
China’s role in the Korean War is known as “Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea” 抗美援朝 in the PRC. In that version of history, the US was the aggressor in the Korean War, and China was forced to respond to the US aggression by sending the “Chinese People’s Volunteers Army” 中国人民志愿军 (officially not the People’s Liberation Army) to aid Korea. The official narrative declared victory for China in the War. The war is now commemorated in the PRC for China’s courage to fight the US and China’s capability to defeat the US.
At the time of the Korean War, there was extensive propaganda in China to support the war. Books such as Who are the Most Beloved People? 谁是最可爱的人 was heavily promoted. Even today, Chinese media refer to those who participated in the war as the “most beloved people”. “National heroes” such as Huang Jiguang 黄继光 who participated in the bloody and famous Battle of Triangle Hill 上甘岭战役, became part of today’s patriotic education curriculum. A song Battle Hymn of the Chinese People’s Volunteers Army 中国人民志愿军战歌 (originally titled 打败美帝野心狼 Defeat the Audacious Wolf of the US Imperialism) was popularised at the time, with the lyrics:
Gallantly and with high spirit, [we] cross the Yalu River! Protecting peace and defending the Motherland is protecting the homeland.
A little acknowledged outcome of the War that may have changed China’s trajectory was the death of Mao’s eldest son Mao Anying 毛岸英. Would China become a dynasty like North Korea if Mao Anying had survived? Speculations were also rife that Mao Anying’s death may have contributed to Peng Dehuai’s fall, as Mao held him personally responsible for the death.
This year’s 70th anniversary was celebrated with much fanfare, including a speech by Xi Jinping. And the emphasis was very much on the US. State leaders and government officials often use history to talk about the present. Indeed, Xi has used this speech on history to talk about China’s current relationship with the US.
Korean War was the last time that China and the US openly faced off against each other in a military conflict. The message that the CCP wants to send through this commemoration appears to be that China is not afraid of the US. This is encapsulated in his quote “The Chinese people don’t go look for trouble, but they’re also not afraid of trouble. 中国人民不惹事也不怕事.”
And this includes military confrontation. Even though Xi disavowed unilateralism or hegemony and emphasised peace, the speech was generally forceful. Xi said that Chinese people know they must use the language that the invaders understand, and this is “to fight war with war and to stop an invasion with force 以战止战、以武止戈”. This is to underscore the military aspect of standing up to the US.
Seventy years ago, the power disparity between the US and China was large. That’s why the propaganda at the time spoke so much of sacrifice and endurance, or victory despite adversity. The underlying message is that such power disparity has narrowed, and so China is even less afraid of fighting the US if necessary.
On a lighter matter, Global Times reported that “BTS hurts feelings of Chinese netizens and fans during speech on the Korean War”. What drew the ire of Chinese nationalists was the boy band’s leader, who referred to South Korea and the US’ shared “history of pain” over the Korean War. Unlike the NBA and the recent string of other examples of foreign companies “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people”, the ordeal has ended. The BTS came out of it unscathed, its star power too irresistible.
3. Nationalism and censorship online
Chao Deng and Liza Lin at Wall Street Journal found:
Angry mobs online have swarmed any criticism of China’s leaders or a perceived lack of loyalty to the country. Targets are being harassed and silenced. Some have lost their jobs.
The Chinese Government, in the face of challenges, is again turning to nationalism to direct people’s discontent. Nationalism didn’t start with the PRC, but as the ruling government, the PRC has often used nationalism for its purpose, including deliberately conflating “CCP” with “China”. As we wrote earlier on “ideological and political education”:
A part of this ideological education is “patriotic education” 爱国主义教育, which emphasises the role the CCP has played in uniting the country and defeating external aggressors, thus “rejuvenating” the nation. The aim is for students to feel supportive of the past decisions the CCP has made, and to fuse in their mind “patriotism” 爱国 and “love for the Party” 爱党, so that the two concepts are one and the same.
The CCP has become a lot smarter when it comes to censorship online. Often instead of outright censorship, it uses tactics such as distraction (going on a tangent) or 带节奏 (inciting sensationalism).
On a similar topic, Shen Lu wrote about another phenomenon:
Due to pervasive censorship and self-censorship, conversations on Weibo are even more cautious. Zhahao, or “account bombing,” where accounts voicing dissenting opinions get censored, have become more common. Ultranationalistic and chauvinist narratives now drown out critical posts, making it harder for users to speak their minds.
What these nationalists do is mobilise and pressure Weibo to delete the “offending” accounts. The fear of these nationalists leads to self-censorship. As a result, Weibo becomes a nationalist echo chamber and any unpopular voices are drowned out.
What does it mean for other countries? Yun has written a policy brief in August on “what should Australia do about PRC nationalists”. This may provide insights for other countries too.
Quote of the week
Literally: Being in jianghu (rivers and lakes), one cannot always follow oneself.
Meaning: one has to compromise in this world
(From: 古龍 Gu Long, a famous 武俠 wuxia writer)
Here, we’d like to introduce wuxia to you. Wuxia is a widely popular novel genre, and the most famous author of the genre is Louis Cha (or Jin Yong 金庸). The setting for the novels are usually in imperial China, and the story centres around martial artists, hence 武 wu (meaning martial). But equally important is the concept of 俠 xia (meaning chivalry). The xia part emphasises morals, especially with regards to repaying favours (恩) and avenge wrongs (仇). Of course, the worst thing you can do is repay kindness with enmity (恩將仇報).
Jianghu (rivers and lakes) was first used by Zhuangzi (see last week). In wuxia novels, it refers to the world that these martial artists dwell in. It is an anarchical place of freedom and lawlessness, where the constraints of the officialdom are mostly absent. The wuxia novels refer to palaces, officials, emperors mostly only as context or in passing.
Nowadays, jianghu is often used in two ways. First, it refers to organised crime, see for example the recent Jia Zhangke film Ash is the Purest White (江湖儿女, literally Sons and Daughters of Jianghu). Second, it can refer to any community colloquially, for example, a line of work. In this sense then, we can all be 人在江湖，身不由己.
- How Did China Beat Its Covid Crisis? Ian Johnson writes about Chinese authorities, Taoist nuns, and Fang Fang. “Their views, their books, their underground documentary movies, and their artwork—all of this is producing an unofficial history of China, a counterhistory written at the grassroots.”
This week on China Story:
- Michael Clarke, ‘Round the Clock, Three Dimensional Control’: The ‘Xinjiang Mode’ of Counterterrorism: China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is now the site of the largest mass repression of an ethnic and/or religious minority in the world today. Researchers estimate that since 2016 up to one million people (mostly ethnic Uyghurs) have been detained without trial in the XUAR in a system of ‘re-education’ centres. Outside of the ‘re-education’ centres the region’s Turkic Muslim population is subjected to a dense network of hi-tech surveillance systems, checkpoints, and interpersonal monitoring, which severely limit all forms of personal freedom penetrating society to the granular level.
- Huaqing Yu, WeChat ban a catch-22 for Chinese Australians: Chinese social media network WeChat is facing global scrutiny and possible bans due to its handling of user data privacy, its censorship and surveillance practices and the widespread misinformation and propaganda campaigns it hosts supposedly on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. Yet members of the Chinese diaspora in Australia continue to use WeChat as their main social media platform, despite the availability of alternative social media networks that claim to protect privacy and freedom of expression.
- Yun Jiang, Senator Abetz’s loyalty test: A part of me thinks that in today’s environment, the loyalty of Chinese Australians will be questioned no matter what our achievements or records. And any “acceptability” we do achieve could be taken away and suspicion reinstated if we state the “wrong” political view. No Australians should be subject to this.
- Kerry Brown, Inside Out: China’s Forgotten Domestic Politics: The departure of journalists in China working for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post in March, followed by those working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Financial Review in September, might have given some in the Chinese elite leadership a temporary sense of satisfaction. The journalists working for American news outlets in China had been forced to leave in retaliation for the Trump administration’s demand that a number of Chinese journalists departed the US because they were believed to be state workers despite their protestations otherwise. The Australian cases were interpreted largely as an outcome of the deteriorating relations between Canberra and Beijing. Regardless of their longstanding complaints that foreign journalists only ever see the negative side of things, Xi Jinping and his colleagues may soon realise that the lack of physical interaction between China and the rest of the world — precipitated by COVID-19 and now compounded by these expulsions — will result in a dearth of good quality information about what is actually happening in China. This ultimately does not serve anyone’s interests — and particularly their own.