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Brief #43: ethnic policies, Ren Zhiqiang, Global Data Security Initiative, climate change

China Neican is a weekly column on the China Story blog edited by Yun Jiang and Adam Ni from the China Policy Centre in Canberra. 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. But rest assured, everyone is welcome to read what we write. You can find past issues of Neican here.

Thanks to our contributor this week: John Lee (data security)

1. Ethnic policies: melting into the Han

Research this week has revealed more about China’s programmes towards ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) launched the Xinjiang Data Project. The project uses satellite imagery, which has become an important and necessary data source, as there are severe restrictions on travel and access to relevant sites in Xinjiang. The project is currently focused on two aspects: Xinjiang’s detention centres and the destruction of cultural sites such as mosques.

ASPI has documented 380 possible detention facilities with Nathan Ruser noting that: “available evidence suggests that many extrajudicial detainees in Xinjiang’s vast “re-education” network are now being formally charged and locked up in higher security facilities.”

On the destruction of cultural sites, the ASPI team found that: “approximately 16,000 mosques across Xinjiang (65% of the total) destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, mostly since 2017.

For Tibet, China has set quotas for the “mass transfer of rural laborers within Tibet and to other parts of China”. Researcher Adrian Zenz concludes that:

In both Xinjiang and Tibet, state-mandated poverty alleviation consists of a top-down scheme that extends the government’s social control deep into family units...Both regions have by now implemented a comprehensive scheme that relies heavily on centralized administrative mechanisms; quota fulfilment; job matching prior to training; and a militarized training process that involves thought transformation, patriotic and legal education, and Chinese language teaching.


In the context of Beijing’s increasingly assimilatory ethnic minority policy, it is likely that these policies will promote a long-term loss of linguistic, cultural and spiritual heritage.

Beijing, why?

Why is Beijing carrying out assimilationist and coercive ethnic minority policies when it knows the cost (both in terms of money and international reputation) was going to be extremely high.

A big part of the answer is that the CCP is trying to forge a common identity for all the ethnicities in China. A strong common identity as envisioned by the Party-state guards both against subversion and fragmentation, so it is thought. The problem is that this identity is dictated by the Party and Han-centric; it takes little account of what the minorities actually want. Instead of a genuine “melting pot,” the minorities are being forced to melt in a Han-dominant mainstream culture through state policies. China scholars Gerald Roche and James Leibold characterises this brutal process in the following way:

This process involved vast and violent processes of merging and melding, lumping together disparate groups on the basis of their ‘ethnic potential’. Cherished identities were rendered nonexistent. Groups that were caretakers of centuries of collective memory were suddenly obliterated in the eyes of the state and, in order to make their claims legible, were required to represent themselves in the state’s terms—regardless of the language they spoke, identity they professed, customs they practiced, and affinities they felt.

Roche and Leibold reminds us that this is not a recent process targeted only at Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mongols in China, but rather an approach that have targeted numerous smaller ethnic groups since the establishment of the People’s Republic:

Unrecognised groups in China have never protested the removal of their languages from schools, because their languages have never been used in schools. As the state and its institutions were built around them, these groups and their languages were excluded every step of the way.

[We] should also look to the unrecognised groups of China, and see how paper genocide has led to cultural genocide. What Mongols fear to lose, most languages in China have never been granted. The situation in Inner Mongolia rightly raises concerns about the assimilatory intent of second-generation ethnic policies. The PRC’s unrecognised peoples show us how warranted these fears are, because they have been living with these policies since 1949.

Doubling down

Despite international condemnation, Beijing has doubled down on its ethnic policies. In Inner Mongolia, the Party is in the process of replacing Mongolian language as the main language of instruction in bilingual schools with Mandarin Chinese. This will push the already fragile Mongolian language in China to the brink of extinction, leading to a wholesale cultural loss, and very likely sow the seeds for ethnic and social divisions for decades to come.

Regarding Tibet, in August, the CCP Central Symposium on Tibet-related work affirmed the direction of China’s Tibet policy under Xi. According to the outcomes of the Symposium, Beijing will accelerate patriotic education and economic development plans in Tibet in the coming years.

In Xinjiang, the Party continues to run detention facilities and carry out mass human rights abuses in the name of maintaining social stability. Just last week, Beijing released a white paper on employment and labour rights in Xinjiang (Chinese | English) in another effort to portray its policies in Xinjiang as advancing human rights and material standards of living instead of as policies that involve broad scale violations.

This week, we have a stronger signal that the CCP is unlikely to change course on its direction on Xinjiang. At the just concluded CCP Central Symposium on Xinjiang-related work, Xi explicitly endorsed the Party’s recent “achievements” in Xinjiang:


Practice has proven that the Party's strategy for governing Xinjiang in the new era is entirely correct and must be adhered to over the long term.

He further stressed:


[We] need to integrate the education of Chinese national consciousness into the education of cadres, youth and society in Xinjiang, educate and guide cadres and masses of all ethnic groups to establish correct national, historical, ethnic, cultural and religious outlooks, so that Chinese national consciousness can be rooted in the depths of the soul.

The world has been warned.

2. Ren Zhiqiang: silencing “Big Cannon”

Ren Zhiqiang (任志强) is not a typical Chinese property tycoon. A son of the red aristocracy and a beneficiary of the nexus between political power and money in China, you’d think that he has every incentive to defend the system, or at least not go against it publicly. Alas, not the case, and that is why Ren’s case is revealing in many ways, and deserves our attention.

Referred to as the “Big Cannon Ren” (“任大炮”) by Chinese netizens, Ren is (in)famous for his blatant and blistering criticism of the Party. But this week, the “Big Cannon” has finally been silenced.

On Tuesday, a court in Beijing sentenced Ren to 18 years in prison on the charges of embezzlement, taking bribes, misusing public funds and abusing power during his time as an executive of Huayuan Group (北京市华远集团有限公司), a state-owned property conglomerate. His fate was sealed in July when he was kicked out of the Party for stepping out of the line politically.

What finally led to his demise appeared to be an essay written by him during the height of China’s COVID-19 crisis in March. In that essay, Ren lambasted Xi’s leadership and the Party system for failing the people. He points the sharp end of his critique directly at Xi’s naked ambition for power and duplicity:


The Emperor [Xi] can lie about being clothed, but even the children know that the Emperor is naked, and those who are afraid to say that the Emperor is not clothed [knows]...When Nicolae Ceaușescu still thought the people would believe in his lies, little did he realise that the tide is already turning.

Beyond Xi himself, Ren highlighted the fundamental flaw in the Party-state system:


All of these problems in the Party's organisation...have their roots in a ruling party that is not subject to the people's oversight, a ruling party that is not bound by the law, a system that is loyal only to the monarch [Xi] and the preservation of its core, and the inevitable result of a relationship of responsibilities that puts duties to the Party before duties to the people.

This fundamental contradiction has been pointed by a number of people in their own ways in recent months, including Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangun (fired from his job), citizen journalist Chen Qiushi (disappeared) and former Party School professor Cai Xia (stripped of Party membership). Ren now adds his name to a growing list of critics that have been punished for daring to speak out against a power that is trying to reassert and reinforce its supremacy over Chinese society.

In addition, Ren’s case shows that a red background and connections no longer suffice to protect you from the wrath of the paramount leader. This is Xi’s way of sending a warning to the red aristocracy that he will not put up with dissent against his personal authority. In the past, members of the Party elite were given more leeway to criticise the system since there is the assumption that they, being the most direct beneficiaries of the system, would be the last people plotting for its overthrow. There were always winners and losers of political struggle, e.g., Xi vs Bo Xilai, but that is seen as the nature of the game. Whereas now, the stake is getting higher for everyone as Xi continues to centralise power.

As for the implications of Xi’s centralisation of power, firstly, Chinese political elite will become increasingly insecure about their position in the system. If Party norms and rules can no longer effectively constrain Xi’s will, what can they rely on for protection? Indeed, historically, insecurity is one of the basic drivers of the endemic and ruthless way that political competition is carried out in the party system. Added insecurity will make the system more volatile in the long run.

Second, those around Xi will be less inclined to speak out because of the added risk. Will any Party cadre stand out and contradict Xi’s policy views on China-US relations, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or Taiwan? Doubt it.

Third, local party cadres will become more conservative and less likely to deviate from central directives from Beijing. This creates the problem of formalism, gaming of the system, inefficiency and policy inflexibility. If you were a local cadre your first instinct would be to tick the boxes (of the current political line) instead of actually solving long term problems.

Maintaining political authority of  Xi and the Party core is now the top priority of the whole Party-state system. According to Ren, Xi, during a speech on the public security system, said:


The public security system throughout the country should act for the sake of "politics first". Take up the sword and the gun and resolutely eliminate all forces that take advantage of this [COVID] opportunity to attack [the Party] viciously, and to pay any cost to maintain social stability.

To that, Ren asked:


Are you willing to be that cost? Will the price you pay wake you up from your dreams?

3. Global Data Security Initiative

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi outlined a new Global Data Security Initiative (DSI) earlier this month. Presently a rhetorical platform rather than a detailed agenda, the DSI offers a ‘blueprint for the formulation of international principles on data security’, to build an open and mutually secure international cyberspace.

The DSI reflects long-standing Chinese positions on global cyberspace governance, including respect for national sovereignty over data management, non-militarisation, and the dominance of  states in rule-making (over private entities). It advocates respect for multilateralism, simultaneous pursuit of security and development, and handling data security ‘on the basis of facts, laws and regulations’.

This rhetorical emphasis on an equitable and rules-based approach is contrasted with ‘politicizing data security issues and applying double standards’. Although Wang did not name the United States, the DSI addresses issues where the US is vulnerable to criticism, such as mass surveillance across borders and exercise of jurisdiction over data held by US firms abroad.

The DSI’s advocacy of international openness and ‘objective’ treatment of data security is a clear response to recent US measures that seek to exclude Chinese interests in the name of data security, such as the Clean Network program or pending bans on the Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat. The DSI’s opposition to ‘use of information technology to damage other countries’ critical infrastructure’ reflects continuing Chinese concern over US superiority in network exploitation and attack capabilities.

This rhetoric of a rules-based approach draws some advantage from China’s expanding legal regime for data governance, although many laws remain in draft form and key terms such as ‘important data’ still lack clear definition. Wang Yi dismissed concerns about the Chinese state’s behaviour in practice, asserting that China ‘strictly follows data security protection principles…and will not require Chinese companies to violate the laws of other countries’. As Beijing has always denied allegations that it steals important data from other countries, the DSI is unreserved in opposing such activities.

The DSI seems to have been pitched especially towards the European Union, the world’s third potential ‘data superpower’. At least in form, China’s approach to data governance now more resembles the EU’s centralised regulatory model than does the fragmented and laissez-faire US approach. The DSI’s language targets existing European concerns about intrusive data access by the US government, which recently led a European court to invalidate the regime governing personal data transfers between the EU and the US. Wang Yi’s announcement of the DSI occurred days before the inaugural EU-China High Level Digital Dialogue.

From the European viewpoint, this dialogue was needed precisely to discuss divergences with China over data protection and fundamental rights, with particular concerns raised about China’s big data-enabled surveillance of ethnic minorities. General distrust of China engendered by events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang as well as the coronavirus pandemic have made Beijing’s diplomatic overtures on governance an increasingly hard sell. The DSI’s real litmus test will rather be in the developing world, where priorities when it comes to data governance often seem closer to Chinese rather than Western practices.

4. China and climate change

In an address to the UN General Assembly, Xi Jinping made a surprise announcement that China will aim to hit peak emissions before 2030 and for carbon neutrality by 2060.

Until now, China has been unwilling to commit to a long-term goal, claiming that as a developing country, development is more important. Instead, it looked to developed countries (which generated the most emissions historically) to do more on emission reduction.

But now it seems that China is willing to acknowledge the important role it plays in current and future emissions. In its speech, Xi referred to China as the world’s biggest developing country. He is framing this as another aspect of his oft-repeated “Community with shared future for mankind” (人类命运共同体), and emphasised international cooperation and peaceful development.

So what does it mean for other countries and the international community?

First, climate change and carbon emissions has been a major sticking point between the US and European countries, ever since the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017. The EU has also been pushing hard on China for carbon neutrality, and this announcement is likely to placate some of the EU’s concerns. On the other hand, it would be harder for the US to use China as a reason for not doing much on climate change.

Second, countries most concerned about climate change such as Pacific island countries may look more favourably to China as a result. Australia’s lacklustre climate change stance has been significantly detrimental to its relationship with the Pacific. In the meantime, it is concerned about the rising influence of China in the Pacific. It would be hard for Australia to maintain influence in the Pacific when it is not seen as contributing much to alleviate the very real and serious existential threats these countries face.

Third, for countries and companies that have historically relied on fossil fuel export to China, such as Australia, some future planning and proofing may be necessary. Until now, China’s appetite for fossil fuel meant that it was reliant on imports from few suppliers. This meant that China is reluctant to punish these countries for perceived slights against China. This may change if China is able to successfully transition its energy base from fossil fuel to renewables.

Of course, it is far from certain that China will be able to pull it all off. There are no detailed plans yet and climate policy in China has been two steps forward and one step back. It is currently building yet more coal power plants, throwing its commitment to renewables in doubt. Concrete action plan under the Paris Agreement or its Five-Year plan next year is necessary to track how serious China’s commitment is.

Quote of the week


People fear getting famous like pigs fear fattening up

While it seems everyone is trying to get famous these days (Instagram, YouTube, TikTok), this Chinese saying sounds a warning about fame. And fame can be risky indeed, especially in China. For example, if you made Hurun China Rich List, the likelihood of you being under investigation has just gone up.

For China scholars and commentators, public fame can bring a few problems too. First one is trolls. These may or may not be state-directed. As China-related issues have become more divisive in many countries, trolls and personal attacks based on very minuscule things have become more common. This problem is exacerbated for people of Chinese heritage. On the one hand, accusations of “disloyalty” to the country of citizenship or residence, accompanied by calls for them to “go back to China”. On the other hand, accusations of “race traitors” or “forgetting roots”, accompanied by some kind of family shaming.

Second one is official responses. We have seen recently with the cases of Li Jianjun, Chen Hong, Clive Hamilton, and Alex Joske. But there are also many other unreported incidents where authorities exert pressure on people and their families in order to stop them from speaking out. And more people have refrained from speaking out in the first place for fear of repercussions, whether it’s visa or safety.

Because it’s Mid-Autumn Festival on Thursday, we leave you with this famous poem by Song Dynasty’s Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101 CE), which is often recited for the festival, to express the sentiment that although people are far apart, at least they can gaze upon the same moon (very pertinent to migrants):





How long will the full moon appear?

Wine cup in hand, I ask the sky.

I do not know what time of year

It would be tonight in the palace on high.

Riding the wind, there I would fly,

Yet I’m afraid the crystalline palace would be

Too high and cold for me.

I rise and dance, with my shadow I play.

On high as on earth, would it be as gay?

The moon goes round the mansions red

Through gauze-draped windows to shed

Her light upon the sleepless bed.

Against man she should have no spite.

Why then when people part, is she oft full and bright?

Men have sorrow and joy, they meet or part again;

The moon is bright or dim and she may wax or wane.

There has been nothing perfect since the olden days.

So let us wish that man

May live long as he can!

Though miles apart, we’ll share the beauty she displays.

(Translation by X.Y.Z (许渊冲) in Bilingual Edition 300 Song Lyrics (2004))


This week on China Story:

  • Ryan Manuel, Domestic concerns shape China’s policy strategies, In the US–China relationship, ideology now trumps interests. In July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech on China at the Nixon Library repeatedly referred to Chinese leader Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (‘the Party’) rather than as the president of China. Referring only to Xi’s power over the Party in this way is part of a US government drive to appear anti-Party rather than anti-China. It is a fundamental mistake to treat relations with China as an ideological mission. Viewing China as an ideological threat — rather than just a big power competitor — focuses too much on Xi Jinping and overlooks how his power is constrained by the Party apparatus and China’s sheer size. It also inaccurately interprets Xi’s personal leadership style as Chinese ideology.
  • Ivana Karásková, Eastern Promises 2.0: Goodbye Beijing, Here Comes Taipei, The recent official visit of the Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil to Taiwan sparked a diplomatic row between the Czechia and the People’s Republic of China. Beijing has long considered any official visit to Taiwan by foreign politicians as tantamount to challenging its core interest. The war of words has extended beyond Chinese and Czech diplomats, with other European officials weighing in. This saga may have far-reaching consequences, including by creating a new norm for politicians regarding their official visits to Taiwan.
  • Michael O’Keefe, Should we be racing towards a New Cold War in the South Pacific? Within the defence and security establishments it is now a commonplace proposition that a new Cold War is dawning. In that context, key elements of Australian strategic culture, including support for the US alliance in distant theatres such as the South China Sea, will remain uppermost in the minds of strategic planners in Canberra. However, closer to home in Australia’s area of primary strategic concern — the South Pacific — there remains an opportunity to maintain conditions akin to the strategic status quo rather than the dramatic rebalancing that has been occurring in Northeast Asia and the South China Sea. The lesson borne from the Cold War is that superpower strategic competition needn’t play out in the South Pacific. Canberra may be able to play a two-level game whereby China’s interests in challenging US hegemony elsewhere do not result in local threats to Australia’s interests in the South Pacific. Furthermore, Pacific leaders have agency in preventing a new Cold War in the South Pacific, and Canberra should leverage its advantages built over years of engagement to ensure that the South Pacific remains pacific.