China Neican is a weekly column on the China Story blog edited 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.
This week’s topics:
Trump-Biden presidential debate and Trump’s COVID diagnosis
Fifth Plenum and Xi
1. The “Presidential Debate” and Trump’s COVID diagnosis
The first “Presidential debate” between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was closely watched by many people around the world. Who becomes the next US President will have significant implications for US foreign policy and US-China relations even though neither candidate is likely to be conciliatory to Beijing once elected to office.
As widely reported, this year, the debate has descended into a shouting match, with many wondering why there wasn’t a mute button.
The reactions by Chinese people on social media to the “debate” was similar to reactions by others from around the world, including mockery and disappointment. The debate was not broadcast live within the Great Fire Wall, and of course, the online discussions in China have been “censored”. But, in any case, from the perspective of the Chinese authorities, they require very little scrubbing: it is difficult to see the debate as representing something positive of democracy. In fact, it’s perhaps not too far to suggest that:
The US is seen in China as the “leader” of the Western democratic countries. Many Chinese equate the US political system to the systems of those other democracies, and thereby collapse the substantial differences across the democratic world. The glaring faults and shortcomings of the US political process and system are often seen as failures of democracy in general even though Western Europe, Australia, Japan and Taiwan run different democratic systems than the US. On this, there is not even a need for the Chinese Communist Party to “带节奏” (set the rhythm) of public discourse since the US is perfectly capable of discrediting Western democracy in the eyes of the Chinese people without Party machinations. The fiasco of the so-called “debate” is a case in point here.
Trump’s COVID diagnoses
While the “presidential debate” may be a politically sensitive topic for Beijing, discussions of Trump’s COVID diagnosis give an opportunity for people in China to mock the US President and the US system more freely. Chinese censors have allowed an outpouring of mockery, even though the official response is polite: Xi wishes the President and the First Lady a speedy recovery.
Trump’s diagnosis and the US response to COVID, in general, has stood in stark contrast to the response of China (and the rest of Asia). Although China censored information relating to COVID at the start of the outbreak and therefore lost valuable time containing it, it changed course later on and took, what appears at the time, to be drastic and extreme measures. It has now largely contained COVID, along with many other countries in the world whose governments took the pandemic seriously.
However, the US President has consistently downplayed the threats of COVID with administration officials, including Trump himself, publicly refusing to wear masks while espousing unproven “cures”. This is in visual contrast with the CCP leadership, which at the height of COVID outbreak in China, was all seen wearing masks.
The best propaganda is based on truth. If liberal democracies are concerned about China “exporting” its authoritarian system, then the best thing it can do is to consistently demonstrate the superiority of democratic values and systems.
We see that many democracies are very capable of civil debates between electoral candidates as well as combatting public health crises. Taiwan is one example. However, it is unfortunate that the supposed “leader” of democracy is itself experiencing democratic decline and the US Government is leaning more towards authoritarianism (for example, through blatant voter suppression tactics) and illiberalism (for example, through supporting white supremacy).
If the US wants to compete with Beijing, then it should, as a first priority, get its own house in order.
2. Fifth Plenum and Xi
This week, the Politburo announced the dates for the upcoming 5th Plenum: October 26 to 29.
For background, a plenum (“plenary session”) is a formal meeting of the CCP Central Committee. It usually happens at least once a year. The upcoming Plenum is the fifth since the 19th Party Congress was held in October 2017, hence the 5th Plenum. If you want to know more about plenums, and the relations between the Politburo Standing Committee, the Politburo, the Central Committee, plenums and Party Congresses, please see the August 2 issue of Neican.
At the upcoming 5th Plenum, the 200-plus strong Central Committee will consider China’s next, that is, the 14th Five-Year Plan 第十四个五年规划 (2021-2025), and the 2035 vision 二〇三五年远景目标 for national economic and social development.
The Politburo meeting earlier in the week deliberated on the draft plans that will be presented to the Central Committee for approval. There are four key points from the meeting. First, the Politburo praised the consultation process involved in the formulation of the 14th Five-Year Plan, especially the role of Xi in consulting a wide range of opinions:
All regions and departments concerned, as well as the delegates to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, fully affirmed the draft recommendations…[which] has fully absorbed the opinions and suggestions from all regions and departments, as well as the expectations of the masses, expert opinions and grassroots experience. This is a vivid practice of socialist democracy in China.
The Politburo is claiming greater unity than it really exists here. Both at the elite political level as well as across Chinese society in general, there are fierce debates about economic policy. The main debate is to do with the role of the state vs the role of the market. This ongoing debate is not new, but it is occurring in the current context of rising economic nationalism, uncertain economic and strategic environments for China, and the Party’s push for more control over the Chinese people. Regardless of the efficacy of Xi’s brand of state capitalism (probably too early to say), what is certain is that recent developments (COVID, US-China trade war etc) are telling the Party that more, and less, state involvement in the economy is needed.
Second, the Politburo effectively declared the current 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) mission accomplished:
In the face of the complex international situation and the arduous and onerous task of domestic reform, development and stability, especially in the face of the serious impact of COVID...we have forged ahead...and made decisive achievements in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and fighting poverty. The goals and tasks of the 13th Five-Year Plan will soon be completed, and China's economic strength, scientific and technological strength, and comprehensive national strength will leap to new heights.
At the start of this year, we predicted that the CCP would declare that the mission to build a “moderately prosperous society in all respects” accomplished by the end of the year. In some ways, the CCP is very predictable. After all, the Party was hardly going to admit failure to the Chinese people over something that it has invested so much of its prestige into.
Third, the Politburo emphasised that all work promoting economic and social development under the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025) must adhere to the overall leadership of the Party. This is not surprising given the Party’s agenda to enhance control and promote self-resilience.
For more on the 14th Five-Year Plan and the Politburo’s assessment of China’s strategic environment, see the August 2 issue of Neican.
Last but definitely not the least important, the Politburo deliberated on the Regulations on the Work of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China 《中国共产党中央委员会工作条例》. The Politburo meeting characterised this new set of regulations, which will be submitted to the 5th Plenum for approval, in the following manner:
The formulation and promulgation of the Regulations is the necessary requirement for firmly safeguarding the authority and centralised and unified leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core.... The Regulations contain comprehensive provisions on the leadership status, leadership system, powers and functions, mode of leadership, decision-making and deployment, and the development of the Party’s Central Committee. It provides basic guidelines for strengthening its work.
Party regulations for Central Committee work are highly important because the 200-plus members of the elite Central Committee elect the Politburo which rules China on a day-to-day basis.
This new set of regulations is another step in Xi’s centralisation of power. By making explicit rules from implicit understanding based on political realities, Xi is cementing his position as the paramount leader of the Party. In fact, the Regulations, once approved at the 5th Plenum, would be the third major document to be amended with the addition of Xi’s name.
At the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi Jinping Thought (on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era) 习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想 was written into the Party Constitution (Chinese/English). This makes Xi, the third leader after Mao and Deng, to have his name embedded in the CCP’s guiding ideology. This was followed in March 2018, when Xi Thought was written into the PRC constitution along with the removal of presidential term limits.
The tightening of Xi’s grips on power within the Party coincides with the tightening of Party control over Chinese society. Here at Neican, we have repeatedly warned about China’s trajectory under Xi, including by pointing to the tragic lessons from the Maoist era.
The Politburo regularly holds Collective Study Sessions 中央政治局集体学习. Since the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, it has held 23 of them in total (around 8 per year). These sessions help Politburo members learn about important topics but it also signals what is important to the body as a whole. Recent topics have included: military modernisation, the Civil Code, emergency management and response, and blockchain technology.
The latest study session, however, is focused on a relatively under-discussed subject: archaeology.
Two months ago, a trending topic of discussion online was about a high school graduate who received a very high National College Entrance mark but decided to pursue archaeology at Peking University. The public controversy around her decision arose because archaeology is an unpopular discipline (冷门专业) and people thought that it won’t make her rich (she came from a poor family). The dominant online sentiment was that poor people should only pursue occupations that will make money.
If you’re curious, the “worthwhile” disciplines, according to this measure, are software engineering, networks, finance, and electronics, while the “low income” disciplines are education, history, geography, physics, and literature.
Back to archaeology… Xi himself underscored its importance this week. Archaeology can serve to increase cultural confidence and national unity and pride. Such “cultural confidence” is often linked to Xi's “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. As we know, CCP likes to emphasise “5,000 years of history”, with the PRC being the end of that evolution. In many respects, Xi's “rejuvenation” is cast as the end of Chinese history by the Party.
We’ve written previously about the Party’s current approach to historiography:
Understanding party historiography is important because it tells us how the CCP thinks about the relationship between the past, present and future. As individuals, our identities are based on memories. And how we see ourselves and evaluate past actions have a major influence on what we do in the future. This is no different for the party.
[Yang Fengcheng’s] article presents an interpretation of Xi’s view of historiography, which has three key pillars:
History is a mirror of the present 以史鉴今, a political and educative capital 资政育人, and forward propelling force.
Reviewing and researching CCP history must be done on the basis of standing on the vantage of Xi’s New Era.
Party history should be seen within a grand historical process 大历史观 that follows the logic of historical materialism 历史唯物论.
Archaeology is closely linked to nationalism and political ideology in China. It is used not only to demonstrate a continuation of history and culture (and also “shared history with ethnic minorities”), but also technical skills required for preserving excavated objects. Indeed, even during the Cultural Revolution and the associated “Destroy the Four Olds” movement (破四旧), excavation never completely stopped. The achievements were, of course, attributed to the progress of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong Thought.
A well-known incident relating to historical artifact during the Cultural Revolution involved a famous Chinese archaeologist, historian, author, and poet Guo Moruo 郭沫若. In 1972, Guo wrote an article based on a forged text 坎曼尔诗笺. Guo was excited about this discovery because it allegedly dated back to the Tang Dynasty and was written by a Uyghur poet in Chinese. This text supposedly showed the close connection between Han and Uyghur people during the Tang era as well as Uyghur people’s class struggle spirit. Among the text was the “Uyghur poet” transcription of a poem 卖炭翁 The Elderly Charcoal Seller by 白居易 Bai Juyi. That poem was heavily promoted during the Cultural Revolution as it vividly describes the hardships suffered by ordinary people during imperial times. Speaking of past bitterness was a way for the CCP to instil gratitude among the people (忆苦思甜), including for “liberating” them from serfdom. So it seems perfectly timed that this newly discovered text happened to also condemn landlords and criticise imperial China. Despite many problems with the text, including the suspicious appearance of simplified characters, it was still accepted as genuine at the time, due to political necessity.
Back in the present, Xi points out that archaeology is both an “important cultural undertaking” as well as of “great socio-political significance”. Xi’s reasoning is worth quoting in full:
In the long course of history, the Chinese nation has formed a great national spirit and excellent traditional culture, which is the cultural gene for the birth and longevity of the Chinese nation and the spiritual force for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and should be carried forward in the light of the new reality. Through in-depth study of history and strengthening the dissemination of archaeological and historical research results, we should educate and guide the cadres and masses, especially young people, to understand the historical lineage of the origin and development of Chinese civilisation, its splendid achievements and contributions to humankind, so as to continuously enhance national cohesion and pride. We should make use of the results of China's archaeological and historical research...to demonstrate to the international community the profound and extensive Chinese civilisation, explain its splendid achievements and significant contributions to human civilisation, so that the world will know more about China's history and the spirit of the Chinese nation, thereby deepening its knowledge and understanding of present-day China and creating a favourable climate of international public opinion.
It is unsurprising that the CCP sees human inquiry as an opportunity to pursue its political agenda. We hope that one day academic inquiry will be less fettered by political agenda in the People’s Republic. It is concerning to see that other countries, such as Australia, are also moving towards encouraging research for political purposes, with the introduction in 2018 of the National Interest Test for Australian Research Council grants.
This week on China Story:
Yun Jiang, Pro-China nationalists are using intimidation to silence critics. Can they be countered without stifling free speech? Some pro-PRC nationalists use the potential threat of the Chinese Government as additional leverage when intimidating or threatening their peers who criticise the Chinese Government. But labelling all Chinese students who defend the PRC as “brainwashed” or “threats to democracy” is unfair and serves to alienate them. Australia needs to crack down on intimidation and harassment, including online, while encouraging the legitimate expression of political views by all.
Gegentuul Baioud, Will education reform wipe out Mongolian language and culture in China? As dangers of COVID-19 subsided, Mongols in Inner Mongolia, a region in northern China, faced a new threat: losing their bilingual schools. The elimination of Mongolian bilingual schools heralds the demise of Mongolian language, culture and identity in Inner Mongolia. In the words of a Mongolian man: “In Spring we were afraid that we would die from COVID-19, now Autumn comes and we are afraid that we may become extinct”.