Brief: Struggle, G7, China Initiative, Australia-China survey

18 June 2021

Neican Brief is a weekly analysis of China-related current affairs. This series is made possible by the support of the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University.

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1. Struggle philosophy

Despite its rhetoric about social harmony, unity and peace, the Chinese Communist Party is an organisation born and rose to power through a sea of fire. Struggle 斗争 is at the heart of its identity. As Sinologist Geremie Barme explains: 

‘Struggle’ 鬪/鬥 dòu, or 鬪爭 dòu zhēng, lies at the heart of China’s revolutionary history. And the word 鬪 dòu encompasses all forms of struggle, fighting and contestation — battling for survival; fighting military opponents; doing battle with one’s comrades. For some 鬪 dòu evokes the German word Kampf.

This ‘struggle philosophy’ comes from its historical experience of brutal struggles both internally within the party as well as with external foes. It highlights a certain worldview. This is a world characterised by a ceaseless struggle for survival and dominance. 

Since the 1930s, the struggle has been at the heart of the Party’s political campaigns, including most prominently the Cultural Revolution that wrecked the country.  

China today is no longer a totalitarian nightmare (at least for the majority of its people), but under Xi, the Party has inherited and re-emphasised various aspects of its traditions, including the struggle as its modus operandi. As to the scope of this struggle, Xi explains

The struggle of us communists has a direction...the general direction is to adhere to the leadership of the CPC and our socialist system without wavering. We must fight resolutely and must win the struggle against all kinds of risks that challenge or endanger the leadership of the CPC and our socialist system [and]...our sovereignty, security and development interests.

Today, the Maoist rhetoric of struggle and its accompanying enemy mentality has been repurposed under Xi to cajole the party base and Chinese population towards supporting the great “national rejuvenation”.

2. G7 and NATO

G7

This week we are hearing how rich (and mostly Western) countries are intending to deal with global challenges, including China. G7 is a group of wealthy countries, and apart from Japan, all the members are in North America and Europe.

As usual with communiques, the G7 communique covers a range of issues, from economic recovery and “free and fair” trade to climate change and gender equality. It runs to 70 paragraphs. Here, we focus on China.

China is mostly mentioned under the heading “Global Responsibility and International Action”. This section lists what the G7 countries consider as challenges to the current international system and democratic values. China is criticised for its “non-market policies and practices'' as well as its human rights records in Xinjiang and Hong Kong (para 49). The Taiwan Strait and East and South China Seas were also mentioned, but without an explicit reference to China (para 60).

China is not the only challenge in this section. The expansive list also includes Russia, Belarus, Eritrea, Sahel, Libya, Afghanistan, DPRK, Myanmar, Iran and Iraq.

Although China is only explicitly mentioned four times in the entire communique, concerns about China clearly drove the drafting of some sections. This includes “an open, interoperable, reliable and secure internet” (para 32) and a “values-driven vision” for infrastructure financing (para 67).

This emphasis on “values” (“democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights”) can be interpreted as a counter to Russia and China. However, such emphasis also brings at least two problems.

One, it can be inconsistently applied. The G7 countries plus guests (Australia, India, South Africa and South Korea) signed an Open Societies Statement. It is notable that India is a signatory to this statement, even though it has been cracking down on critics of the government, including on social media.

Two, this may make cooperation with countries in Asia harder. Many countries in Southeast Asia have had experience with colonisation as well as foreign interference by G7 members. As a result, they can be sceptical of the G7’s focus on liberal democratic values. When G7 and other Western countries talk to each other, they often forget how what they say can be received by other countries:

NATO

NATO’s statement focuses on security issues. Unsurprisingly, NATO’s focus is still on Russia (Russia is mentioned 60 times, China 10). But China is now grouped together with Russia as “systemic competition from assertive and authoritarian powers”. The statement observes:

China's stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.  We are concerned by those coercive policies which stand in contrast to the fundamental values enshrined in the Washington Treaty. 

The state mentions China’s “lack of transparency and use of disinformation”, including in its military modernisation, as specific concerns.

3. Trial of professor with connections to China

Dr Anming Hu from the University of Tennessee is accused by the FBI of not disclosing his work in China while receiving US government research grants. This is the first prosecution under the US Department of Justice’s “China Initiative”. The trial has ended in a hung jury. Dr Hu has already lost his job after the indictment last year.

But the trial revealed some shocking details of FBI agents’ efforts to prove that Dr Hu is a spy. According to Knoxville News Sentinel, an FBI Agent admitted in the trial that federal agents:

  • Falsely accused former UTK associate professor Dr. Anming Hu of being a Chinese spy.

  • Falsely implicated him as an operative for the Chinese military in meetings with Hu’s bosses

  • Used false information to put Hu on the federal no-fly list.

  • Spurred U.S. customs agents to seize Hu’s computer and phone and spread word throughout the international research community that Hu was poison.

  • Used false information to justify putting a team of agents to spy on Hu and his son, a freshman at UTK, for nearly two years.

  • Used false information to press Hu to become a spy for the U.S. government.

Dr Hu was charged with fraud after FBI agents could not find enough evidence for espionage.

Once the China Initiative is set up, FBI agents were under pressure to find an espionage case to prosecute. Most Americans expects FBI agents to act ethically when seeking to find evidence for prosecution. And most people would even see indictment itself as evidence of wrongdoing. This is likely why Dr Hu was fired after he was indicted.

There are a few lessons we should take away from this:

  1. Academics “with connections to China” are under general suspicion from governments (e.g. US and Australia) keen to prove that they are a threat. This overwhelmingly affects people of Chinese heritage.

  2. These academics pay a huge personal cost, including being fired or have their names tarnished, even before they’re on trial.

  3. We must be very careful to not presume guilt from media reports or from indictments/charges. We often don’t have the full picture, and security agencies have in the past leaked information to the media for their own purposes.

  4. Some academics affected by this choose to leave the country rather than continue to work in the increasingly hostile environment.

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4. Survey on Australia-China relations

A new survey by the Australia-China Relations Institute and the Centre for Business Intelligence & Data Analytics at the University of Technology Sydney paints a complicated picture of how Australians feel about the Australia-China bilateral relationship. 

On the one hand, the majority of Australians (62 per cent) see benefits in Australia’s relations with China. 61 per cent believes that Australia should continue to try to build stronger connections with China.

On the other hand, most Australians (74 per cent) are concerned about Australia’s relationship with China with 63 per cent wanting the Australian government to take a harder line with respect to its policies dealing with China.

Australians seem to be critical of both governments. 76 per cent mistrust the Chinese government while only a minority (32 per cent) say that the Australian government is managing Australia’s relationship with China well. 

An overwhelming majority (80 per cent) of Australians agree that responsibility for improving relationship lies with both countries. But most are pessimistic, with only 27 per cent saying that the relationship will improve in the next three years.

The ambivalent picture painted above underlines concerns and mistrust among the Australian public about China and the Chinese government even as China’s importance to Australia, including on trade and international issues, continue to rise. 

The survey also had some worrying figures with respect to Australians of Chinese origin. 63 per cent say that political tension has negatively impacted this group. 39 per cent say they believe that these Australians can be mobilised by the Chinese government to undermine Australia’s interests and social cohesion.

So, four out of 10 Australians believe that Australians of Chinese origin are potential fifth columnists that Beijing can mobilise. No wonder this group of Australians are subjected to suspicion, discrimination and racial profiling.