China Neican: 12 July 2020

Human rights, TikTok, dynastic cycle, Xu Zhangrun

China Neican is a weekly column of the China Story blog written by Yun Jiang and Adam Ni.

1. International reactions to China’s human rights violations

Hong Kong

A number of countries so far have reacted strongly to the recent passage of national security law in Hong Kong, both in terms of condemnation of the law itself as well as by providing assistance for Hong Konger wanting to migrate.

Canada and Australia, for example, have both suspended their respective extradition treaties with Hong Kong. This is more of a political message than of practical consequences for people subject to extradition requests. In Australia’s case, Canberra still has the right to refuse an extradition request even if the treaty was still in effect. In fact, the regulation explicitly states that no extradition for offences of a political character. But the suspension signals to the world that the Australian Government considers the judicial system of Hong Kong to no longer be sufficiently independent from Beijing.

Some countries have also offered special immigration arrangements to Hong Kong residents. The United Kingdom, being the former ruler of Hong Kong, was the most generous in this regard. The UK has offered those who hold British National (Overseas) passports the right to stay in the UK for 12 months, and a “a route to citizenship”. This could affect 3 million Hong Kongers. However, this is still short of the automatic right of abode.

The UK has a special role to play here, because the issue of autonomy of Hong Kong was covered by the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1985. At that time, the Thatcher Government feared an influx of non-white immigration from Hong Kong, so denied them the right of abode in the UK. This fear mirrors Deng’s comments to Jimmy Carter in 1979 when Carter raised human rights concerns, “Well, Mr President, how many Chinese nationals do you want? Ten million? Twenty million? Thirty million?”

Under the current Brexit and anti-immigrant sentiments in the UK, it remains to be seen whether the UK will accept mass immigration if it happens.

Australia’s offer was much more limited. It offers students, graduates, and skilled workers already in Australia (around 10,000) a longer time to stay. The Australian Government is also looking at ways to attract business migrants from Hong Kong. It appears that Australia’s offer is more about skills and investment than human rights.

Strangely, China has accused Australia of violating “international law and basic norms governing international relations” as well as interfering in China’s domestic affairs for changing Australia’s own immigration policies. Of course, this accusation is absurd — how can changing one’s own immigration policies be a form of foreign interference?

Xinjiang

The US has sanctioned several Chinese officials under the Global Magnitsky Act. The sanctioned individuals include the Party Secretary of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo 陈全国 and former Deputy Party Secretary of the Xinjiang, Zhu Hailun 朱海仑. This is the first time that a Politburo member was sanctioned (Chen).

China’s Xinjiang policies, including broad direction for its implementation, have come from the very top of the CCP — Xi Jinping and the rest of the Politburo Standing Committee. The current sanction would not tip the incentive for the sanctioned officials. Given a choice of disobeying orders from above and being sanctioned by the US, they would, of course, obey CCP policies and directions.

However, from the US perspective, this is a low-cost way of sending a signal to the international community that it cares about human rights in Xinjiang. A much more significant step would be sanctioning the ones responsible for Xinjing policies, members of the Politburo Standing Committee. But doing so would result in much diplomatic tension and repercussions.

2. Social media regulation and restriction — the case of TikTok

Both the United States and Australia are considering banning the social media app TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company that also owns Douyin 抖音, a similar app in China. India has already banned TikTok and a number of other Chinese apps on national security grounds.

Like many social media companies, including Facebook and Google, TikTok collects extensive personal information from its users. This is a tradeoff for consumers — consumers are giving its data away in exchange for services. And most consumers, especially the millennials and zoomers who are the majority users of TikTok, generally understand this tradeoff.

However, some countries are concerned about the national security implications of TikTok. This is because while Facebook and Google also collect extensive private data, they likely have the ability to withstand pressure from the Chinese Government to hand over these data, as they do not have major operations inside China. But TikTok, like Huawei, has major operations in China, and therefore is more likely to be susceptible to pressure from Beijing. This is despite the fact that ByteDance has separated out the operation of TikTok from Douyin, including data storage.

TikTok has widespread appeal to young people in countries around the world. This is different from WeChat, which is still used mostly by the Chinese diaspora or businesses and organisations that interact with the Chinese people.

As we do not use TikTok, we asked some zoomer friends about their views of TikTok. Of the people we’ve spoken to, they are not concerned about the privacy implications of TikTok or that TikTok might send their data to the Chinese Government. They see it as similar to other social media apps, such as Facebook or Snapchat. The fact that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company does not faze these young people.

This perhaps is reflective of the recent Lowy Poll. Among 18 to 29 year olds, the trust in China and the US to act responsibly in the world is not significantly different (25 per cent vs 30 per cent). The gap widens as the age group gets older (the difference is 28 percentage points for 45-59 and 24 percentage points for 60+).

In sum, the national security concerns around TikTok seem to come from anxiety about China rather than concerns about social media companies collecting or using data for nefarious purposes.

3. Dynastic cycle: Mao and Xi

On 4 July 1945, during a visit to the wartime communist base area at Yan’an, educator and progressive political activist Huang Yanpei (黃炎培) had a conversation with Mao about a topic that has preoccupied Chinese emperors and thinkers for thousands of years: the dynastic cycle (周期律). For many of them, the rise and fall of dynasties is as immutable as the change of seasons, filled with tragic destructiveness and transformative potential. In Huang’s words:

Having lived for more than 60 years, I have seen many instances of “rapid rise, and rapid fall’. An individual, a family, a group, a place, even a country...do not have the power to escape from this cycle of history. For every period of history, there are ‘indifference and slacking’, ‘termination of political power through the death of the leader’, and ‘seeking glory but finding shame’. All in all, none can jump out of that cycle of history. As I understand, the Chinese communists, from the past until now, have been trying to find a new path to escape the power of this cycle. 我生六十多年,耳闻的不说,所亲眼看到的,真所谓‘其兴也勃焉’,‘其亡也忽焉’,一人,一家,一团体,一地方,乃至一国...都没有跳出这周期率的支配力。... 一部历史‘政怠宦成’的也有,‘人亡政息’的也有,‘求荣取辱’的也有。总之没有能跳出这周期率。中共诸君从过去到现在,我略略了解。就是希望找出一条新路,来跳出这周期率的支配。

Mao replied confidently, declaring to Huang:

We have already found a new path; we can escape from this cycle. This new path is democracy. The only way for the government to not slack off is for the people to oversee the government. If everyone starts to be responsible, then the ‘termination of political power through the death of the leader’ can be avoided. 我们已经找到了新路,我们能跳出这周期律,这条新路,就是民主。只有让人民来监督政府,政府才不敢松懈;只有人人起来负责,才不会‘人亡政息’。

However, the Communists did not institute democracy, as Mao and his comrades had repeatedly promised. But instead, the CCP completely smashed the power of non-Communist groups and individuals in the late-1940s and 1950s after it established the People’s Republic.

The Huang-Mao dialogue has been much celebrated by the CCP, especially in recent months, as an important episode in its history despite the dissonance between ideals and rhetoric on the one hand, and practice on the other. 

Like Mao, Xi recognises the gravity of the dynastic cycle challenge. Perhaps the biggest question facing Xi is how to ensure the CCP maintains its rule in his vaunted ‘New Era’.

In January 2018, Xi addressed the topic of dynastic cycle at some length in a speech on party-building delivered to party leaders. After going through some historical episodes, he concluded that the common denominator in all failed regimes is internal erosion, especially from corruption and division. For Xi, the solution to this is “self revolution” (自我革命), renewing the life-blood of the Party through self-imposed, and sometimes painful, changes. 

Xi’s “self revolution” consists of three parts: strengthening ideological belief, party discipline, and political unity. The difference between Mao and Xi are not in their professed goals, but rather in their methods. Whereas Mao, the sage-revolutionary, sought revolutionary renewal to end history by achieving communist utopia, Xi, the consumer-conservative, has no such grand ambitions. Instead, Xi believes that constant vigilance and adaptation is the only way to keep the Party from being swept away into history’s dustbin. In what appears to be a warning to both his party and external enemies, Xi said in July 2019:

Our party is the world’s largest party. There is no external force that can defeat us; only we can defeat ourselves. 我们党作为世界第一大党,没有什么外力能够打倒我们,能够打倒我们的只有我们自己。

Somewhat paradoxically, the Party under Xi is turning inward at a time when China has never been more intertwined with the world. The consequences of internal renewal will play out far beyond China’s borders. The arcane rituals and symbols, stupefying language, and the histories of the Chinese party-state are acquiring a new importance for understanding China in the world.

4. Xu Zhangrun and intellectual environment

Xu Zhangrun 许章润 , outspoken Tsinghua University law professor, was arrested early this week. Xu is one of the highest-profile dissident intellectuals alive in China today. In recent years, he has written a number of influential articles criticising Xi Jinping and his regime. Even prior to his arrest, he was suspended from his university post and barred from leaving China. 

It is a wonder that the party did not come for him earlier given his high profile and scathing criticisms of Xi and the Party.

You can find most of Xu’s recent essays, translated by the esteemed sinologist Geremie Barmé, on China Heritage

In his most famous essay, Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes, Xu deplores China’s turn towards tyranny under Xi, lambasting new restrictions on the already limited freedoms still available to the citizens of the People’s Republic. In his recent essay, Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear, against the backdrop of the coronavirus, he rages against the moral corruption of Xi’s “New Era” and urges the Chinese people to “rage against this injustice; let your lives burn with a flame of decency; break through the stultifying darkness and welcome the dawn”. 

Xu has been speaking out at great risk to himself. In the mind of Barmé:

Xu has issued a challenge from the intellectual and cultural heart of China, or 文化中國, to the political heart of the Communist Party.

The author possibly sees himself within the ‘tradition of Confucian continuity’ 道統, the age-old stream of cultural becoming with which certain intellectuals identify. It is a tradition that long pre-dated Communist rule, and it is one that will still flourish long after they quit the historical stage. The content and powerful literary style of Xu’s ‘remonstrance’...will resonate deeply throughout the Chinese party-state system, as well as within Chinese society and among concerned citizens more broadly.

If, as some scholars have previously observed, many Chinese men and women of letters revere ‘China’ 中華 as something akin to a religion — that is, an all-embracing system of identity, personal salvation, values and beliefs — then the author of this extraordinary petition, a sincere devotee, has offered his advice as an act of sacrifice on the Altar of State 社稷. One could say that Xu’s gesture is both that of conscientious objection and of martyrdom for China 殉國.

Like Liu Xiaobo, Xu Zhangrun is brave, speaking truth to power. And like Liu, Xu will likely pay a huge price for his words. To an authoritarian regime, words and ideas are the most dangerous, seditious, and threatening.

The prosecution of Xu, and China’s intellectuals more broadly, points to the heightened level of paranoia by the ruling regime, and the increasingly tight space for free thinking and debate. This has long term negative consequences for China and the world. 

This week on China Story:

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