1. Democracy for Hong Kong
I haven’t been writing about the human rights situation in Hong Kong for a while. This is because every time there is an update or development on this topic, it invariably means a deterioration, such as more activists arrested or an even more stringent crackdown.
In February 2020 at an event for La Trobe Asia, I made a pessimistic prediction that Hong Kong will end up like any other city in China when it comes to human rights and democracy. The passage of the national security law in June 2020 accelerated that trend.
Just an illustrative example. Hong Kong used to be the only place in China that allowed for the commemoration of the 1989 protest and massacre. In other parts of China, individuals and groups may commemorate in private, but in Hong Kong, it used to attract a large number of participants. This year’s anniversary was the first one after the passage of the national security law, and so no large-scale commemorative activities took place in Hong Kong for the first time.
Last month, Hong Kong police raided the June 4 Museum (六四紀念館), after closing it down in June. Activists were also arrested, with many pleading guilty to charges under the national security law.
This month, the University of Hong Kong ordered the removal of the sculpture named Pillar of Shame from the campus, where it has been for 24 years. The sculpture commemorates the 1989 massacre.
Universities are supposed to be the bastion of free speech and liberal values. But under the national security law, voices pushing for democracy have been gradually silenced in Hong Kong, including at universities. For now, the sculpture has remained after a public outcry, with the university stating that it is seeking “legal advice”. But with continuous crackdowns, it is little temporary comfort.
Protest in Greece
Joey Siu, a Hong Kong activist was arrested in Athens alongside a Tibetan activist Tsela Zoksang, for protesting against the Beijing Winter Olympics. They attempted to hang banners and flags related to Hong Kong and Tibet from a scaffold in the Acropolis. For this, they were arrested “for violating the law on protection of archaeological sites”.
Is this an example of China “exporting” its authoritarian system or human rights violations? Greece is seen as one of the countries in Europe that are relatively “pro-China”, with the Piraeus Port being a critical BRI “flagship” project.
However, in this case, it is likely that if the protest was for some other cause, the protestors would still have been arrested. If that is the case, then it should not be seen as China exporting authoritarianism, since Greece would be treating all protestors the same, no matter which country they’re protesting against.
It is understandable that the activists are protesting against the Chinese Government outside China to gain international attention. After all, it’s not possible to protest in China, not even in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the International Olympics Committee has not been a fan of any kind of protests. It has always been more sympathetic to governments than human rights groups. However, as the activists arrested are US citizens, the US would likely ensure that they receive proper consular assistance.
2. Common prosperity
Qiushi published an article titled To Firmly Drive Common Prosperity, based on Xi Jinping’s speech at the 10th meeting of the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission. As this is the most authoritative and detailed articulation of common prosperity so far, it is worth reading in full.
If you can’t read Chinese, you can find Adam Ni’s translation here.
The first thing to note is that the concept of “common prosperity” still retains a strong “neoliberal” bent. Despite the Communist Party’s emphasis on socialism and pathway to communism, the article is forthright that it does NOT mean “egalitarianism” (整齐划一的平均主义). Later on, the article cautioned that “we must resolutely prevent [ourselves] from falling into the trap of nurturing lazy people through ‘welfarism’.” (坚决防止落入“福利主义”养懒汉的陷阱).
Xi still praises the role of “leaders of wealth acquisition” (致富带头人), but now also emphasise that those who got rich first must help those who are not yet rich (先富带后富、帮后富). Rich individuals and companies should be encouraged “give more back to society” (更多回报社会). Of course, how this is implemented is crucial — is encouragement more inducements or threats?
Second, the motivation for common prosperity is the experience of richer countries. “Some developed countries have been industrialising for hundreds of years, but due to their social systems, they have not solved the problem of common prosperity and, in fact, the problem of disparity between the rich and the poor has worsened.”
From the article, it seems to refer to the US — “the polarisation of rich and poor and the collapse of the middle class has led to social disintegration, political polarisation, and rampant populism” (一些国家贫富分化，中产阶层塌陷，导致社会撕裂、政治极化、民粹主义泛滥).
Third, policy areas that come under the common prosperity concept are wide-ranging. It includes reform of monopolistic sectors, development of finance and real estate to be more reflective of the real economy, reform of the hukou (household registration) system for children of internal migrants, and broadening the scope of consumption tax.
Fourth, interestingly the article touched on performance measures. For example, “it is inappropriate to put forward uniform quantitative targets” (统一的量化指标). Further, common prosperity should not be “applied in a way that divides urban and rural areas, or eastern, central and western regions, with each proposing its own indicators”. (各提各的指标).
This is likely a result of past experiences of local officials manipulating data in order to achieve a set quantitative target. Unfortunately, the article did not mention the alternative to output targets for measuring the performance of local officials. In a top-down system without democratic oversight, how local officials’ performance is measured will be crucial in how a central policy will be implemented.
3. Social media platforms
Microsoft’s LinkedIn is exiting (substantially changing its operation in) China, after years of controversy. Before this, LinkedIn was the most prominent non-Chinese social media platform to operate across the jurisdiction. However, to operate in China, it had to abide by the government’s strict censorship requirements.
In the statement announcing the exit, LinkedIn cited “more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements”.
A few weeks ago, LinkedIn sent messages to some journalists who worked in China informing them that their profiles are unviewable from China. This has raised concerns of censorship, even though the profiles are still viewable outside China.
LinkedIn’s dilemma highlights the experience of social media companies trying to operate across the Great Fire Wall. To operate in China, they have to censor on behalf of the Chinese Government. But if they do, then they get criticised outside China for censorship. For LinkedIn, it never reached a high level of market penetration inside China, so it decided to forgo the Chinese market.
To manage the competing demands across jurisdictions, ByteDance separated its TikTok operation from its Douyin operation. TikTok’s data is stored in servers in Singapore and the US while Douyin’s data is stored in servers in China. The two apps operate independently — it’s not possible to access Douyin content from TikTok. The company has maintained that it is not censoring on behalf of the Chinese Government for TikTok, only for Douyin.
However, despite this arrangement, there are still concerns that the algorithms for TikTok could be used for censorship purposes. And algorithmic recommendations are non-transparent (not just for TikTok, but also for Facebook and YouTube), where platforms could influence and guide users towards a certain political view.
One social media platform that has straddled across the Great Fire Wall so far is Wexin/WeChat. Unlike Douyin/TikTok, which is seen as entertainment, Wexin/WeChat is seen as more for interpersonal communication, a purpose that is more essential than entertainment.
If a separation between Wexin and WeChat was strictly enforced, then accounts registered outside China would not be able to communicate with accounts registered inside China. This would affect people outside China with strong family or business connections inside China.
Even for accounts registered outside China, the content they see on WeChat is still censored — even though WeChat censors the two types of accounts differently. However, because the market penetration of WeChat outside China is quite niche — it hasn’t managed to reach those without strong connections to China, most jurisdictions have not rushed to pressure WeChat to change, despite many voicing concerns. WeChat is not going to stop censoring due to external pressure and banning WeChat over censorship would not be politically popular.
Recently WeChat is trying to draw a clearer line between domestic and international accounts, due to China’s Personal Information Protection Law. Despite this change, it’s unlikely that WeChat will stop censoring content seen by overseas registered accounts. This is because it is almost impossible for WeChat to delineate the two types of accounts when they exist on the same platform.
The Communist Youth League has conducted a survey of almost 3000 unmarried urban youth aged 18-26 on their attitude towards marriages and relationships. The survey found that 44 per cent of (urban young) women plan to never marry or are unsure whether they will marry. This contrasts with the equivalent figure for men at 25 per cent. In addition, those in more economically developed areas are less likely to want to get married.
The survey found that the top reason for women not wanting to get married is “not wanting children” (69 per cent). The article blames the rise of “individualism” for much of the attitude change — young people want to spend time and energy on individual development and hobbies rather than raising the next generation.
Many governments encourage their population to form stable relationships (usually in the form of marriage) and have children above the population replacement rate. Partly this is because people in stable relationships with children are less likely to revolt against the government. Instead, they become more risk-averse and tend to want to steadily advance in their career to provide for the next generation.
But as the population becomes richer, they tend to want fewer children and also marry less. This trend is consistent with what’s happening in developed countries, including in Japan and Korea. Partly this is because women have more choice, and therefore the opportunity cost of having children is higher if the social system still presents high barriers for women to advance in career when they have children.
Neican Brief is supported by the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University.