China Neican: 19 July 2020

TikTok, CCP membership, Mao swim

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

1. Tik...Tok...

As we wrote last week, the US and Australia are considering taking actions against TikTok. One option is a complete “ban” of TikTok and possibly other Chinese apps such as WeChat. The US is also looking at the option of forcing ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, to sell TikTok, through the CFIUS process.

Apart from privacy and data security concerns with TikTok, which we explored last week, the other concern with TikTok is its potential for foreign interference, through censorship and propaganda. For example, TikTok has in the past been caught removing videos on the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. There are also concerns that it could be used to interfere with elections.

Of course, these concerns are not new with respect to social media. Facebook, a US company, has also been under scrutiny for its role in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Twitter, another US company, has also been accused of censoring content on behalf of the Indian Government with regards to Kashmir.

The Chinese Government has a high degree of leverage over ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, whereas it does not have leverage over Facebook and Twitter since it has shut them out of the Chinese market. It’s because of this leverage and the potential for the Chinese Government to pressure ByteDance to use TikTok to further China’s geopolitical goals that most worries Western governments. Facebook and Twitter, while they may be bastards, at least they’re “our bastards” from the US perspective.

But just because TikTok poses a national security risk does NOT mean that banning it is the best policy response. Democracies need to be careful that in countering China, they do not become like China. While China exploits an asymmetry in information flow, democracies must consider the potential cost of turning this asymmetry into symmetry — sacrificing openness in the name of security.

An alternative response to a ban may be to develop country-agnostic regulation, as suggested by Samm Sacks:

The way to deal with this problem is to develop a country-agnostic set of criteria with robust rules not just for TikTok, but for how all companies collect, retain, and share their data. Instead of playing a game of whack-a-mole against a rotating cast of Chinese tech companies, the U.S. would be wise to spend more time developing legislation and standards for how all companies, regardless of country of origin, protect online privacy and secure data. No company should have access to and retain sensitive data in the first place that could then be transmitted to a government that could use it to do harm or be hacked by state actors.

[...]

Here again the answer is not to play whack-a-mole with the Chinese tech company threat of the day, but to spend more time developing legislation and the development of standards for how all companies, regardless of country of origin, manage online content in an era of misinformation, when U.S. and Chinese tech platforms alike both hold tremendous power to affect the way we consume information where the stakes could not be more high, from public health to election security.

2. CCP membership

The White House is also reportedly considering a sweeping ban of travel to the US by CCP members and their family, estimated to be around 270 million people. 

As many have pointed out, this would hypothetically affect people like Li Wenliang, the “whistleblower doctor” in Wuhan who died after contracting COVID-19. Li was a CCP party member.

In fact, it may surprise people how widespread party membership is (but we will get to that later). The fact is that most CCP members are at the grass-root level with little decision-making power. Most joined the party for career advancement (as party membership is often a prerequisite for promotion). Meanwhile, there is almost no way of quitting the party, short of being expelled for serious violations of party discipline, which would usually also result in a jail term.

It is also unclear how practical such a ban is. Almost all senior Chinese government officials are members of the CCP. Would such a ban affect their attendance at United Nations meetings in New York? Or would they be exempt? It would be ironic if senior government officials were exempt while the rank and file CCP members with no power are banned.

Macro Polo’s Neil Thomas has actually just put out some analysis on CCP membership, drawing from public data, including these published by the CCP’s Organization Department 中组部. A few key takeaways:

  • The party is 92 million strong, about 6.6 per cent of China’s population.

  • Membership growth has slowed, from 2.4 per cent on average during the Hu era to around 1 per cent on average during Xi’s tenure so far.

  • Under Xi, the party has tightened the requirement for party membership, increasingly with a focus on quality over quantity. In the Hu era, around 14.5 per cent of applications were accepted while under Xi this figure dropped to 8.8 per cent in 2015 before recovering to 12.3 per cent by 2019.

  • The Party membership has also become more elitist over recent decades. With a college degree or higher, the average party member is better educated than 90 per cent of the population,

  • The Party is also trying to attract young people to bolster its tanks. In 2019, more than 80 per cent of new members were millennials (those born between early-1980s and late-1990s). 

The CCP is no longer a secretive avant-garde Leninist organisation, but rather the elite class in China. It permeates every part of Chinese society. It is difficult to separate out the Party on the one hand, and the Chinese people on the other — the relationship between the two is complex. And this makes taking any actions on the entire CCP membership challenging to implement.

3. Shadows of the past

Now, moving from 92 million party members to one man… 54 years ago this week, on July 16, Mao made his famous swim across the Yangtze in Wuhan, announcing the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution is Mao’s boldest political project, one that was meant to alter the very soul of China. The madness that ensued left deep wounds that remain unhealed to this very day. As we argued previously, the Party can not move forward with political reforms because it is not willing to come to terms with its past, including the period of high Maoism.

Indeed, the patterns of China’s past are all too evident in developments today. Whether intentionally or not, the CCP made an important announcement this week, exactly 54 years after Mao’s famous swim, claiming in the strongest language the supremacy of Xi and the Party as the most fundamental and indisputable feature of China’s political system, an inevitability born out of history. The Party’s flagship journal Qiushi dedicated the latest issue — a whole issue — to this subject. 

In an article by Xi titled CCP’s leadership is the most fundamental distinguishing feature of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics 中国共产党领导是中国特色社会主义最本质的特征, the key assertion is abundantly clear. Stripping away all the laborious party-speak, it all comes to this:

Party, government, military, society, education, east, west, south, north, centre, the Party leads all 党政军民学,东西南北中,党是领导一切的.

The idea of party monopoly of power is nothing new, of course. But, nevertheless, it is worrying, especially because of Xi’s centralisation of power and efforts to create a personality cult. The boundary between the Xi and the Party is starting to blur, and that is not a good sign.

Indeed, increasingly, there are elements of China’s current political developments that resemble the Maoist past. Beyond the centralisation of power and tightening control, we have hubris and broken promises. Mao promised a China emancipated and strong, but ended up setting up a totalitarian dictatorship that killed tens of millions through political violence, prosecution and failed policy. Xi promises a new era of wealth, power and international respectability. But we are witnessing economic uncertainty, tightening controls, and a failed foreign policy. 

Indeed, for many on the margins of Chinese society, Xi’s China Dream is increasingly resembling an ambivalent fever if not a nightmare. Xinjiang and Hong Kong are cases in point.

Mao swam across the Yangtze and sent China into a decade of civil strife; from the ruins of Maoism, Deng crossed the river of economic opening by feeling stones with his feet. Today, Xi ought to be warned by the lessons from China’s recent past that no matter how hard he swims against the tide, his power and that of the CCP will never be secure. This is because coercion (without moral legitimacy) can only be effective for a limited period of time.  

Xi, by retracing the steps of Mao, is plunging China headfirst into a precarious river, one that, like the mighty Yangtze, is subject to periodic flooding. In fact, the Yangtze is flooding right now — most of China’s domestic media is preoccupied with the current flood.

Chinoiserie

We are reviving the Chinoiserie section because, in the words of one of our fans, it is like the “fun kids corner”. This week, we bring you a quote from Mencius and a book recommendation:

The people are the most important; the state comes next; the ruler is the least important 民為貴,社稷次之,君為輕。

1587, a Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline by Chinese historian Ray Huang is an eye-opening look at the political culture and system of the late-Ming. In what is really “a year of no significance”, we see the process of dynastic decline well underway. The empire is paralysed by its ossified Confucian morality and rituals, bureaucratic interests, and the inertia acting on the ship of state.

This week on China Story:

  • Sarah Gosper, Managing marriage in contemporary China: parenthood in precarious times: The matchmaking corner in Xi’an has been operating for over a decade, ostensibly as a place for parents in their fifties and sixties to find potential spouses for their unwed (adult) children. In many ways, the matchmaking corner provides an emotional outlet for aging parents to debate and seek solace from the seismic shifts gripping Chinese society, and the ‘crisis’ of marriage that has compelled them there. A trip to the matchmaking corner is a way to manage and control their social anxiety, whilst also helping parents feel relevant and involved in their children’s lives.

  • Yun Jiang, Foreign interference and the Chinese diaspora: guilty until proven innocent? Media reporting and public commentary on China’s foreign interference efforts in Australia have focused heavily on alleged associations and links between Australian organisations or individuals and the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front system. The focus on these, rather than actual improper or illegal actions, is concerning — especially as the implications of these alleged associations and links are often misrepresented or not properly contextualised. In the absence of direct evidence of wrongdoing, allegations of guilt based only on associations and links should be treated with a high degree of caution.