China Neican: 13 September 2020

Journalists in Australia, Scientists in US, China-India border dispute, Mulan

China Neican is a weekly column on the China Story blog written by Yun Jiang and Adam Ni from the China Policy Centre in Canberra. Neican 内参 or “internal reference” are limited circulation reports only for the eyes of high-ranking officials in China, dealing with topics deemed too sensitive for public consumption. But rest assured, everyone is welcome to read what we write. You can find past issues of Neican here.

1. Australia-China journalists and academics

Australian journalists

Early this month, news emerged that Cheng Lei, an Australian working for Chinese state media CGTN, was detained in mid-August. This week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said she was “suspected of carrying out criminal activities endangering China's national security”. No details have been released about the exact nature of these activities. But in any case, the real reason for detention may be quite different, as exemplified by the case of the two Canadians, who were charged with spying, but more likely as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou.

Also this week, the remaining two Australian correspondents working for Australian media were rushed back to Australia after a five-day diplomatic negotiation between the Australian Embassy and Chinese officials. Last week, the two correspondents received (non-urgent) warnings from Australian diplomats that they should leave. This week, the night before they were scheduled to depart, Chinese police officers came to their respective apartments and told them they were banned from leaving the country in order to answer questions for a national security case. After some negotiation between the Australian Embassy and Chinese officials, the two reporters were questioned (separately) about Cheng Lei before being allowed to leave. Here is AFR’s Michael Smith describing the incident in his own words.

It is unclear whether the Chinese officials merely wanted to interview them in connection with Cheng’s case. If so, it is very strange that they waited until midnight before they were due to depart to do so. The midnight knock on the door plus the threats of exit bans are more likely to instil fear into the two journalists, and perhaps also to send a message to Australia.

Chinese journalists and academics

The developments so far have been quite extraordinary and unprecedented. Yet this is only the beginning. Chinese state media then published stories of Australian raids on four Chinese journalists back in June. In addition, it emerged that two Chinese scholars had their Australian visas revoked recently.

The timing of the story is no doubt intended so that it could be portrayed as a response to the two Australian correspondents fleeing China. The raids on these Chinese journalists coincided with the raid on the NSW state parliamentarian Shaoquett Moselmane. According to the Xinhua report, the intelligence officers “interrogated the journalists for hours, taking away their computers, mobile phones and documents”, and “asked the Chinese reporters to keep this a secret”. Xinhua claims that these raids were conducted “without reasons” and “without evidence”.

Back in June, the raid on Moselmane by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and Australian Federal Police appeared to be coordinated with an Australian media organisation, which filmed the raid for their Sunday night current affairs show. Yet, the raid on the Chinese journalists has not been reported by any Australian media until now. When asked about this raid, ASIO said it “does not comment on intelligence matters”.

Moreover, two Chinese scholars had their visas revoked. At the moment, it is not known why their visas were revoked. So far, the only thing we know is that the Chinese journalists and academics were in the same chat group as Moselmane and his staffer John Zhang. Note that Zhang was accused of “covert” foreign interference because he used a private chat group to encourage Moselman to advocate for Chinese state interests.

Again, there is so much we do not yet know. The Australian Government so far has not released any details of what suspicious activities Zhang or the Chinese journalists or the two academics have engaged in. All we know is that they are part of a chat group. Surely it would be a stretch to revoke visas or alleging foreign interference just for being part of a chat group. At this point we have very few answers to the myriad of questions raised by the above cases.

Implications

There are speculations that China’s detention of Cheng Lei and its actions on the two journalists are in retaliation for Australia’s raid of Chinese journalists. China has been engaging in tit-for-tat with the US this year, especially on the expulsion of journalists. The timing of the Xinhua article may also be intended to suggest this.

In any case, we find it highly problematic that the Australian Government has not provided any details or explanation on the raids of Chinese journalists or the revocation of visas on the Chinese academics. Unlike China, Australia is a democracy, and we should value accountability and transparency in our governments. Yet too often, “national security” is invoked to justify government actions that often precisely demand more scrutiny because they go against liberal values.

Ironically, the Australian Home Affairs Minister warned foreign journalists that they will be under scrutiny if they provide a “slanted view to a particular community”. Some of us would be naive to think that in this day and age only authoritarian regimes would publicly express such sentiment.

All of these developments are detrimental to people-to-people exchanges, and mutual understanding and trust between the two countries. The experience of the two Australian journalists will no doubt deter Australians from going to China (although right now, Australians cannot leave the country anyway). The fear of arbitrary detention and “exit bans” (and possibly forced confessions as well) is even more real than before. This can affect all Australians travelling to China, from businesspeople to students, from tourists to visiting families.

Historically, foreign journalists have played a crucial role in shaping the world’s understanding of China. With the effective expulsion of an increasing number of foreign journalists, such understanding will be greatly eroded. For instance, there will be fewer human stories, and more China reporting will be based on official announcements or documents releases instead of interviews on the ground.

2. US revoking visas

The United States is also taking actions against Chinese researchers on the visa front. But instead of foreign interference, the reason given was to prevent them from stealing sensitive research. This was foreshadowed in a Presidential Proclamation back in May and so far, more than 1,000 people are affected.

“As of September 8, 2020, the department has revoked more than 1,000 visas of PRC nationals who were found to be subject to Presidential Proclamation 10043 and therefore ineligible for a visa”, according to a US State Department spokesperson. In addition, Chinese students are also facing increased scrutiny at US borders, some with laptops taken away for weeks.

Much of the reasons for visa cancellation or interrogation at borders appear to be related to these students and scholars’ previous studies or research at universities that are affiliated with China's military. Although these universities train many defence scientists and focus on defence research, civilians can also attend them and they offer non-STEM courses as well. And it appears that some of the affected students are not in STEM fields, but in social science such as economics.

As Zhaoyin Feng from the BBC notes, “Education used to be low-hanging fruit for US-China co-operation but now it has turned into a new front in the bilateral conflict.” We do not know whether these visa cancellations are all that will happen under the Presidential Proclamation or if more will be underway, but it is clear that the future for Chinese students in the US is looking increasingly bleak and uncertain.

3. China-India border dispute

Tension in the disputed Himalayan border region between China and India has been rising since May. Thousands of Indian and Chinese troops have been in face-to-face standoffs that have continued for months. In June, a brawl between the two sides in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley left dozens dead on both sides. Earlier this week, both sides accused each other of firing in the air during a confrontation. This is a violation of a 1996 agreement between the two countries to avoid using firearms in the proximity of the line of actual control (LAC). The last time shots were fired in anger was in October 1975 when four Indian soldiers were killed by Chinese soldiers.

In an effort to defuse the increasingly volatile situation, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar issued a joint statement on Thursday after meeting at the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization foreign ministers' meeting in Moscow. According to the statement:

The two Ministers agreed that both sides shall abide by all the existing agreements and protocol on China-India boundary affairs, maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas and avoid any action that could escalate matters.

… 

The Ministers agreed that as the situation eases, the two sides should expedite work to conclude new Confidence Building Measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas.

The “existing agreements and protocol on China-India boundary affairs” refers to the various Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) agreement that both have signed in order to prevent escalation in the border region. Below are some of the major ones:

  • 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the Sino-Indian Border

  • 1996 Agreement on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the Sino-Indian Border

  • 2005 Protocol on the Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the Sino-Indian Border

  • 2005 Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the China-India Boundary Question

  • 2012 Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on China-India Border Affairs

  • 2013 Border Defense Cooperation Agreement between India and China

Despite the positive turn represented by the joint statement, the China-India border dispute will continue to be a thorny issue for improving relations.

In the short term, de-escalation and disengagement along the disputed border is not an easy task. Mistrust and antagonism among troops on the ground towards their counterparts are running high. Defusing potentials for conflict will depend on how commanders and soldiers act on the ground. As we have seen over the last few months, in such a tense environment, it does not take a lot for accidents or misunderstandings to escalate. 

Over the medium to long term, China and India’s respective interests in their disputed border region are likely to become more important, with attitudes hardening in both Beijing and Delhi on the critical importance of improving border defense and security. First and foremost, there is a lack of consensus by both sides as to where the LAC actually is, which leads to both sides perceiving the other as the transgressor. Second, efforts that are seen as necessary to enhance security, such as developing border and military infrastructure, are often seen by the other side as destabilising the status quo and necessitating a response. Finally, both sides see their disputed border as of strategic importance. 

For Beijing, its Himalayan border with India is critical to China’s control of Tibet. In August, the CCP Central Symposium on Tibet-related work affirmed the direction of China’s Tibet policy under Xi. According to the outcomes of the Symposium, Beijing will accelerate patriotic education and economic development plans in Tibet in the coming years.

Neither China nor India wants a continued row over their border given what they are dealing with at the moment. India’s COVID case load has been going through the roof (currently at 4.7 million total cases, second behind the US) and its economy is taking a massive hit (estimated to fall by 11.5 per cent this fiscal year). China, on the other hands, is embroiled in a growing list of domestic and international troubles, from its relationship with the US to Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Strategically, Beijing wants an India that does not work to contain China alongside the US and others. The border dispute is not helping in that regard.

4. Disney’s Mulan

Disney is in hot water after the release of its new movie Mulan earlier this month. The ocean of ink that has already been spilled over Mulan tells us that people care deeply about the myriad of issues raised (or indeed, omitted) by Disney’s representation. Here, we will quote from a few critiques that echo with us.

First, Mulan has been criticised for advancing Beijing’s ethnonationalist agenda. In the words of Aynne Kokas from University of Virginia:

The plot follows a young woman who, despite being told that she has to “hide her gift away,” decides to join the army disguised as a boy. The film’s real villain, though, isn’t the patriarchal society that keeps Mulan from living out her true identity and full potential — but rather the ethnic “others,” unsubtly shrouded in black, who seek to undermine the Han Chinese ethnostate. We’re accustomed to thinking of Hollywood as a vehicle of U.S. soft power. “Mulan,” though, exemplifies how Beijing has deputized it to advance China’s political interests and national narrative.

Indeed, Disney’s representation reinforces Han-centrism as writer Jeannette Ng explains:

[The] dichotomy [in Mulan] between Chinese civilisation and the barbarians that besiege them is a cornerstone of the Chinese telling of history. It informs modern Han hegemony in the same way a white supremacist draws glory from Western Civilisation and the Roman Empire. As tropes, these things linger in our stories, even if we don’t intend them to retain those meanings.

The ethnonationalist overtone of the film is especially troubling given events on the ground in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Inner Mongolia. Disney shot parts of the movie in Xinjiang and in the movie’s credits thanked a number of local authorities implicated in mass human rights abuses, including the Turpan Bureau of Public Security.

Second, while the Mulan story is usually interpreted in modern days from a feminist angle, this movie appeared to instead overly emphasise “traditional values” such as loyalty (“My place is to protect the emperor”) and filial piety. Perhaps a good background context for this is Beijing’s cracked down on feminist activism in recent years despite the rising voice of women demanding changes. 

Still on the subject of brave women standing up to protect their communities, some see the juxtaposition between Disney’s Mulan, portrayed by actress Liu Yifei, and Agnes Chow, a prominent pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong. While Liu has expressed public support for the Hong Kong police amid protests over police brutality, Chow has been speaking up for Hong Kong’s autonomy and the rights of its people. Last month, she was arrested and later released on bail by Hong Kong police over her activism.

Third, the movie has also been slammed for its (lack of) understanding of some basic Chinese concepts, such as qi, or how an imperial court or a battle should look. For example, some online commentators joked that they bring more people to a street fight than the battle scenes in the movie. Note that the directors and writers are all of non-Chinese-heritage. You can find a spicy criticism of Mulan from a cultural perspective here (by a Chinese-Canadian author):

Mulan highlights how the lure of China’s market is skewing Hollywood’s professed liberal values. For Hollywood, self-censorship, dodging “sensitive” political issues, and lending its weight to Beijing’s narratives are increasing the admission ticket for the lucrative China market. It’s no surprise that studio executives are driven by profit to find a way to work with Beijing, but increasingly they will face more scrutiny at home when they make mockery of the values they profess to represent.

Oddly, Disney is getting smashed from all sides, with even nationalist Global Times taking a swipe. Without a hint of irony or introspection, the nationalist state media outlet offered us the following lines of criticism:

Though starring popular Chinese actors, the film received a cold shoulder due to its self-righteous depiction, which failed to resonate with Chinese audiences.

Chinese netizens also disagreed on the values expressed in the movie, saying that the traditional Chinese story had a patriotic theme, which was changed to a story of soldiers blindly protecting a king.

(emphasis added)

The story that we tell ourselves, the way we tell them, and the reactions they elicit reflects the social and political context. The Ballad of Mulan 木蘭辭, composed over 1,500 years ago, has been told and retold, and interpreted and reinterpreted, over the years. That in itself should not surprise us. But perhaps what is noteworthy is the depth of feeling that this movie has elicited from so many.

Quote of the week

欲加之罪,何患無辭

If you want to condemn someone, there will be no difficulty in finding an excuse.

(From 左傳 (Zuo Zhuan or the Commentary of Zuo))

This now-famous idiom is a slightly modified form of a quote in Zuo Zhuan 左傳, an influential classical Chinese text that is traditionally regarded as a commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals 春秋 (supposedly written or compiled by Confucius). Like Shiji 史記 (Records of the Grand Historian), many well-known Chinese idioms come from this text — and the two books are highly regarded for both historical and literary values.

Even in an authoritarian dictatorship, when the ruler wants to punish someone, he still wants to find an excuse for it, so that it is not seen as an arbitrary punishment. Where the rule of law is weak and rule by law is the norm, laws are used to consolidate power and punish dissidents. Under such circumstances, the ruler or the lord can always find an excuse for punishment.

One example is highly memable “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” 寻衅滋事, an impossibly difficult crime that is listed in China’s Criminal Law. It has been frequently used in China by the authorities to punish political dissent.

A related word is moxuyou 莫须有, which was supposedly the charge levelled at Yue Fei 岳飛, a now-folk hero from the Song Dynasty. The original meaning of this charge is in dispute (one common interpretation is “perhaps true”). Today, the word is taken to mean “trumped up charge” or an excuse to punish someone. For example, the Xinhua article on ASIO’s raid of Chinese journalists was based on moxuyou.

Chinoiserie

  • Every wonder how takeout ordered via apps (Meituan, Ele.me) in China gets to you so fast? Caixin’s long expose, “Takeout couriers, trapped in the system” 外卖骑手 困在系统里, is a heart-wrenching investigation of the human cost of the big data/AI-driven system that prioritise efficiency and delivery time above the wellbeing of the millions of couriers that form its backbone.

  • Jiayang Fan paints an intimate portrait in The New Yorker of her and her mum’s struggle as Chinese diaspora in America in an age of global pandemic and rising Chinese nationalism.

  • A new Australian Strategic Policy Institute report looks at the challenges posed by TikTok and WeChat for freedom of expression around the world.

  • The Hudson Institute put out a 256-page reference guide containing statements by Trump and his senior administration officials on China (up to July 23). The little green book is organised around seven key themes:

Source: page 6 of the guide.