Briefing: Tsinghua, Countering China, Victoria BRI, Wen Jiabao

28 April 2021

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

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1. Tsinghua spirit

Tsinghua University held celebrations for its 110th anniversary on Sunday. One of the top schools in China, Tsinghua was founded in 1911 amid dynastic collapse, social upheaval, and foreign aggression against China. Today, the Tsinghua spirit, as embodied in the official motto “self-discipline and social commitment” (自強不息、厚德載物) and the famous words “independent thought and free spirit” (獨立之精神,自由之思想), is under grave threat.

In the last decade, the Chinese Party-state has increased efforts to control, coopt, censor, silence, deter, and punish those engaged in independent inquiry which it deems harmful. A high profile case involves Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun. Xu was fired from his post, detained (later released) and put under surveillance for his critique of Xi Jinping’s leadership.

The tightening of the noose around independent thought in China has disproportionately affected minority groups, including Uyghurs, Mongolians and Tibetans. This is a result of elevated levels of surveillance, censorship, and threat of punishment for minority groups. 

The recent sanctioning of European researchers for expressing views that Beijing deems unacceptable highlights an international dimension to this.

In essence, the Party-state sees “independent thought and free spirit” as a threat to political stability. The CCP conceives education in terms of party power, social stability, economic development, and nationalist aspirations.

Last Tuesday during a visit to Tsinghua University, Xi made a speech stressing the importance of building world-class universities for China’s national prosperity and rejuvenation. He stated that China’s socialist education system is for nurturing “builders” and “successors” of socialism. 

Xi defines social responsibility in narrow nationalist terms. And in turn, independent thought is neglected in favour of a narrow political agenda.

2. US legislations to counter China

The US Congress is considering the Strategic Competition Act and the Endless Frontier Act, both aimed at competing with China.

Competition with China can drive countries in positive directions. For example, more public spending on basic science and research (as is proposed by the Endless Frontier Act).

Similarly, concerns about China prompted Australia to consider much needed political donations reform. Of course, increasing the transparency of political donations should be a worthy goal even without the China factor.

But unfortunately, even China as a competitor in vaccine diplomacy did not give enough impetus for rich countries to waive intellectual property rights to combat COVID.

Despite the rhetoric on allies and partners, the US has continued to defend its export ban on COVID vaccine raw materials to India, a Quad partner experiencing massive surge in infections.

Competition with China can also take countries in the wrong direction.

On technology, instead of investing in research and development, countries may restrict access to the technology and knowledge they have. Rather than encouraging innovation, this would stifle global scientific development. Proposals to ban Chinese students from studying STEM subjects in US universities is another alarming (and racist) example.

In competing with China, the US and others should ensure that they do not head in the wrong direction and become more illiberal, intolerant and close-minded.

3. Tearing up Victoria’s BRI MOU

How a decision is seen and interpreted depends on the context, including history and timing. And so, the effect of the Australian Federal Government’s decision to cancel Victoria State Government’s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on BRI last week is NOT the same as if Victoria had never signed the MOU. The decision that the Australian government made was “Should we cancel Victoria’s existing MOU now” and not “Whether Victoria should have signed the MOU”.

We believe the Australian government made the wrong decision in cancelling this MOU.

We have previously argued against the federal government having power to cancel agreements made between subnational entities and foreign parties. Having diverse voices with different interests and priorities is beneficial, rather than detrimental, to Australia’s national interest. 

In this case, Victoria’s MOU does not bind the Victorian Government to anything. If China was to invest in Australia under the MOU, it would still have to go through the same processes as if there was no MOU. So signing the MOU made no practical difference on the investment approval process or Australia’s national security. This means cancelling the MOU also makes no practical difference.

The only difference is diplomatic and political.

Diplomatically speaking, Australia has demonstrated to China and the world the extent it is willing to go to confront China despite risks to the national economy and no benefit to national security. 

Politically speaking, the Australian federal government does not see eye to eye with the Victorian State Government. With this move, the federal government has effectively slapped the Victorian Premier in the face.

Some argue that Canberra is now more willing to play domestic politics with China policy because there is no more to lose when it comes to China. 

We think there is a lot more for Australia to lose.

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4. Wen Jiabao’s article

The recent censoring of an article written by former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in China has caused quite a stir among China analysts. Wen’s article, dedicated to his mother who passed away in December, tells the story of his family upbringing and how he learnt from the virtues of his mother.

The last few lines of the article is worth quoting:

[My mother’s] teachings have seeped into my cells and into my blood. Many things can be imitated even painstakingly contrived. But the only thing that cannot be faked is the sincerity, simplicity and kindness of feeling and heart. Just look at his eyes, his compassion, his courage in times of distress, his spirit of commitment at critical moments concerning the future and destiny of his country, and you will get a glimpse of his truth. I sympathise with the poor, with the weak and oppose bullying and oppression. The China I have in mind should be a country full of fairness and justice, where there is always respect for the human heart, humanity and the essence of human beings...I have cried out and fought for this. This is the truth that life has taught me and that my mother has given me.

她的许多教诲已经渗透到我的细胞中、融入我的血液中。人们之间许多事是可以相互模仿的,甚至是苦心孤诣做作的。但是,唯有真诚、朴实和善良的情感和心灵是做不了假的。只要看他的眼睛,看他的同情心,看他在危难中的勇气,看他在关系国家前途命运关键时刻的担当精神,就可以窥见他的真实。我同情穷人、同情弱者,反对欺侮和压迫。我心目中的中国应该是一个充满公平正义的国家,那里永远有对人心、人道和人的本质的尊重...我为此呐喊过、奋斗过。这是生活让我懂得的真理,也是妈妈给予的。

The abstract “he'' that Wen was referring to is probably an allusion to Hu Yaobang. Hu, the reform-minded former CCP General Secretary, was forced to resign by Party elders in 1987. Hu’s death in April 1989 catalysed the Tiananmen protests, and thus changed China’s trajectory. Wen’s article came out around 15 April, the death anniversary of Hu.

We read Wen’s article as an implicit critique of the illiberal direction that Xi is leading China. Hu would have wanted the opposite if he was alive today.