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Brief #57: EU-CN CAI, Chinese-Australians in public service, citizen journalists

China Neican is a newsletter by Yun Jiang and Adam Ni from the Australian Centre on China in the World, and the China Policy Centre in Canberra. The newsletter is also published as a weekly column on the China Story blog. The name Neican 内参  (“internal reference”) comes from limited circulation reports only for the eyes of high-ranking officials in China, dealing with topics deemed too sensitive for public consumption. To receive regular updates, please subscribe. You can find past issues here.

Yun has just returned from Norfolk Island. Norfolk Island, like Christmas Island, is an external territory of Australia. It lost self-government in 2016, a decision that remains controversial on the island.

1. EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment

The EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) has finally concluded. The agreement provides increased market access for EU companies in China, and includes rules on areas such as state-owned enterprises, subsidies, technology transfer, and labour standards. Like the recently concluded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the Agreement came after almost a decade of negotiation.

While it is important to keep in perspective that the agreement is a result of long negotiation, the timing of the conclusion has raised eyebrows in other countries. In particular, it comes at a time of increasing antagonism between China and the US, and just prior to the start of a new US administration.

This agreement is a good reminder that all countries have their own interests to consider when charting their own China policy. In fact, very few countries have adopted the zero-sum logic underpinning Trump’s approach to China. Most countries are trying to balance different, and at times, competing interests, including economic and security interests.

Why are countries reluctant to side with the US against China on trade and investment?

One, the US has treated its allies and partners with disdain. Under ‘America First’, it has put tariffs on imports from countries such as Canada, South Korea, India and the EU. At the same time, it has negotiated a favourable market access arrangement for itself with China. So the US shouldn’t really blame other countries for doing the same.

Two, the US has vacated its leadership role in international rule-making under Trump. It is no longer engaging in constructive rule-making, whether in trade and investment or in other issues. It has left several international bodies, for example, the WHO. But such an anti-globalist approach is not shared by other countries. And it’s not clear yet whether the US will return to constructive international engagement under Biden.

While there are concerns in the US and Australia that China would not honour the agreements it has signed, other countries are still eager to make deals with China. This is understandable as China’s market is very tempting. An intriguing example is Ericsson (a competitor of Huawei on 5G) pressuring the Swedish government to lift the ban on Huawei so that it, in return, could access the Chinese 5G market.

Another concern is labour standards, especially in light of forced labour in Xinjiang. Generally, the EU tends to push for strong labour and environmental standards, which some argue is a form of protectionism. In this case, both the EU and China compromised somewhat (the EU on labour and China on market access) in order to conclude the deal. From the EU's perspective, the deal means EU companies are more competitive in China, including vis-a-vis US companies, which benefited from the Phase One market access.

From Beijing’s perspective, this is a win. For a modest price, China is able to improve its international position by pre-emptively countering US efforts to isolate China through renewed transatlantic ties and coordination.

2. Chinese-Australians in the public service

Frances Mao at BBC interviewed (anonymously) some Chinese-Australian public servants. One experience:

Earlier this year, a junior adviser for the Australian government, Andrew Chen*, visited the nation’s Department of Defence for a meeting. As he and a colleague stepped into the building in Canberra, they pulled out their government IDs. Mr Chen was stopped by a guard, who took him aside. “They asked to take a photo of me - like a portrait - there in the lobby,” he said. “And it was just me. The Caucasian colleague who was with me - he wasn’t asked to do that,” added Mr Chen, who is Chinese-Australian.

Mr Chen felt “awkward” as they took the snap, but he didn’t want to cause a scene. Later, he asked colleagues if they had ever had the same experience - no-one had. “So it was just me, literally. It was clearly some sort of security procedure the guards were enforcing. They didn’t offer any explanation.”

Some more:

“There are legitimate security concerns [about China],” said one senior policy adviser of Chinese ethnicity, referring to examples such as the cyber attacks. “But the way it has spilled over into a conversation about the Chinese diaspora and who deserves to be Australian and who is assessed and analysed [for further scrutiny] - it has become a really, really bad conversation.”

Younger or less established public servants say they feel pressure to prove their patriotism or are wary when giving policy advice, to avoid unfair scrutiny.

“If I was a Caucasian-Australian, I’d be a lot more comfortable coming out and saying something different,” Mr Chen told the BBC. “But if you’re from a Chinese background, people would just see you as being compromised. That’s the sort of culture that we’ve got at the moment.”

As former Australian public servants, we are not surprised by these experiences. In fact, our treatment as Australians of Chinese heritage has played a part, directly or indirectly, in our respective decisions to leave the public service.

Chinese-Australians are underrepresented in the public service, for reasons including recruitment practices, security clearance, and workplace culture. The under-representation problem is especially acute in policy (as opposed to IT or finance, for example). And in policy, under-representation is more severe in national security and intelligence. As in other industries, the problem is worse the higher up it is.

For those that are in the public service, Chinese-Australians with China expertise and experience are often not valued for their knowledge and expertise. We’ve heard a number of stories of Chinese-Australians with extensive China expertise being assigned to work unrelated to China, while those with no China experience are assigned to work on China issues. In some cases, China experience can be a liability rather than an asset in the public service, despite the long-standing recognition that we need more Asia literacy. But the need for Asia literacy doesn’t seem to lead to recruiting more Asian-Australians in policy roles.

Chinese-Australian public servants often face prejudices and suspicion, especially when it comes to work related to China. We have personally experienced this. There is often a sense that there is some “conflict of interest” when they work on China issues, even when it’s their area of expertise. But a white person seemingly never experiences “conflict of interest” no matter which country, region or issue they work on.

These prejudices and suspicions, of course, go beyond the public service. They reflect wider social attitudes and the political climate. Chinese-Australians are increasingly being seen and portrayed as vectors of foreign influence and a vulnerability in the carapace of democracy.

3. Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan

Zhang Zhan 张展, a Chinese citizen journalist, travelled to Wuhan to cover COVID in February 2020. She was detained by the Chinese authorities in May. Last week, a Shanghai court sentenced her to four years in prison on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble 寻衅滋事”. This is the spurious go-to charge for the Chinese government when it wants to punish and silence. In this case, the authorities accused Zhang of undermining public order by talking to foreign media and spreading disinformation about COVID.

Zhang’s real crime is that her reporting on COVID in Wuhan contradicts the party-state narrative. Just as state media was telling the country that the authorities had the situation under control, Zhang was painting a different story, one in which the city’s crematoriums had to work 24 hours a day.

Another citizen journalist who travelled to Wuhan to report on COVID was Chen Qiushi 陈秋实. He “disappeared” in early February, and is currently in government custody. It's unlikely he will walk away free from this.

The prosecution of citizen journalists by the Chinese authorities tells us just how sensitive Beijing is towards those that it views as contradicting the official narrative.

Beijing held a ceremony in September to lionise the COVID “heroes” in what really is a victory ode to Xi and the Party. From mid-2020 onwards, state media has been singing its praise of the CCP for saving the nation.

Thus, the official narrative is one of party leadership, victory over adversity, unity and heroism, and ultimately proof of the efficacy of China’s current political system. The victory songs are endless and tedious. The official story collapses the ambivalent lessons from late-2019 and 2020 into one of national glory. Yes, China contained COVID. In fact, it did much better than many developed countries. But it also revealed deep problems.

Party insider Ren Zhiqiang 任志强 was sentenced to 18 years in prison in September. The article that he wrote which landed him behind bars is a blistering critique of the party-state’s COVID response and Xi’s leadership. In it, as we previously noted:

Ren highlights a number of flaws in the party’s governance system...
  1. lack of transparency and accountability;
  2. active suppression of freedom of speech;
  3. heavy use of propaganda and censorship to control public discourse;
  4. narcissistic and self-referential nature of party discourse;
  5. centralisation of power under Xi; and
  6. party elites are out-of-touch with the masses (remember “gratitude education”?)

Beijing’s prosecution of citizen journalists, censorship of public debate, and propaganda campaigns are not signs of strength but weakness. It is afraid to lose control of the narrative, and its role as the arbiter of truth.







Yellow Crane Tower

The sage on Yellow Crane was gone amid clouds white.

To what avail is Yellow Crane Tower left here?

Once gone, the Yellow Crane will ne’er on earth alight.

Only white clouds still float in vain from year to year.

By sunlit river trees can be counted one by one.

On Parrot Islet sweet green grass grows fast and thick.

Where is my native land beyond the setting sun?

The mist veiled waves of river Han make me homesick.

By 崔顥 Cui Hao (Tang), translated by 许渊冲

This is one of the most famous examples of seven-character eight-line regulated verse (七言律詩).


  • Dan Wang’s 2020 letter. Dan Wang regularly writes on China’s industry and technology. This piece has plenty of these and also includes CCP control, and culture. He even defends Shanghai cuisine!