China Neican: 9 August 2020

Technology decoupling, Beidaihe, Wang Yi interview, academic freedom, Shiji

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.

1. Technology decoupling

TikTok and WeChat bans

After weeks of speculation and uncertainty, the White House finally issued two executive orders this week: one on TikTok and one on WeChat. The orders prohibit any transactions between US individuals or organisations and ByteDance or Tencent after 45 days from the date of the order.

This essentially means that ByteDance has 45 days to sell TikTok, which is an entity that operates exclusively outside China, while for Tencent, a “ban” on WeChat will take effect after 45 days. It is not feasible for Tencent to sell WeChat, as most of the consumers, users and markets for WeChat are within China.

At the moment it is unclear what a “ban” on WeChat would mean. Does it mean that Google and Apple app stores (whether US stores only or all app stores worldwide) cannot allow WeChat to be downloaded? Does it mean that individuals cannot use WeChat (even if sideloaded)? Does it mean that US companies operating in China cannot use WeChat for any reasons (such as payment or marketing)?

For individuals, the biggest impact will be on the Chinese diaspora in the US. Most of them communicate with their family members in China through WeChat, despite knowing the risk of censorship and surveillance. Many also use WeChat for receiving news and other information from within China.

For US companies in China, they would have to avoid WeChat, which is ubiquitous in China. This may mean, for example, that they cannot accept payments using WeChat Pay. Many of the monetary transactions in China are done through mobile platforms rather than cash or credit card. And WeChat Pay and Alipay are the two biggest mobile payment platforms in China with a combined 90 per cent share of the market.

As of now, the US Embassy also has an official WeChat account.

The executive orders used powers under International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act. This means the US Administration considers the issues surrounding TikTok and WeChat to be national emergencies. Notably, another recent use of this power was regarding the International Criminal Court, where the US placed sanctions on certain persons associated with ICC. It would seem that anything can be an “emergency” these days.

Clean Network

The State Department also announced a “Clean Network” program:

Some examples of what this “Clean Network” entails include:

  • Clean Store: to remove untrusted applications from U.S. mobile app stores.

  • Clean Cloud: to prevent sensitive personal information from being stored and processed through companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent.

The “Clean Network” is explicitly targeted at Chinese companies. The aim is to prevent Chinese companies from “corrupting” or “dirtying” US networks. US companies can, of course, continue to access and store sensitive personal information (and pass them to others, including the US Government, and possibly even Chinese companies).

We think that is the biggest issue with the recent initiatives (both the bans and the Clean Network). Many problems raised, such as privacy, surveillance, censorship, and propaganda, are not exclusive to Chinese companies. Instead of targeting companies from a specific country, efforts should be directed at consistent regulation, including establishing a global regulation framework on these issues.

More broadly, across a whole spectrum of issues (from technology to international students), using the “China” framing can be damaging. First, it can simplify the actual challenges and reduce them down to the maligness of Beijing, even as Beijing is surely only a part of the problem (and very probably only a part of the solution). Second, it can lead to the overblowing of threats where there is even a tangential nexus to China, such as the case with Chinese international students.

Margaret Lewis, for example, has illustrated this framing problem in the context of the Department of Justice’s campaign to target IP theft and other crimes by people and entities with connections to the PRC (‘China Initiative’). She argues that:

using “China” as the glue connecting cases under the Initiative’s umbrella creates an overinclusive conception of the threat and attaches a criminal taint to entities that have an even tangential nexus to “China”...[I]mplying part of the justification for prosecution and resulting punishment is a shared connection to China is worrisome when assessed in light of the goals of deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and retribution. A better path is to discard the “China Initiative” framing, focus on cases’ individual characteristics, and enhance the Department of Justice’s interactions with non-governmental experts.

Certainty, the threats are present, and they are real — but the framing is problematic.

Clean is a dirty word

The Trump Administration’s focus on the word “clean” reminds us of a few things...

Western racist literary and journalistic representations from the mid-19th to early 20th century emphasised the “racial” differences of the “Chinaman”. A major difference between “Chinaman” from “civilised” folks was the former’s uncleanliness. This Orientalist representation of “the Chinese” reached a feverish pitch in the second half the 19th century, coinciding with the aftermath of the Opium Wars (1839 to 1842, and 1856 to 1860) and building up to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in the US. This is what the New York Daily Tribune had to to say in its editorial on September 29, 1854:

They [the Chinese] are uncivilized, unclean, filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every [italicized in original] female is a prostitute, and of the basest order; the first words of English they learn are terms of obscenity or profanity, and beyond this they care to learn no more. […T]he Chinese quarter of the city [San Francisco] is a by-word for filth and sin.

In addition to Western racists of yore, the language of “filthy” and “cleanliness” are a standard part of the CCP party-speak. As Taylor Fravel reminds us: 

The Four Cleanups Movement (四清运动), also known as the Socialist Education Movement, ran from 1963 to 1966. Mao wanted to use it to purge “malign” influences on politics, economy, party organisation and ideology. It led to the prosecution of over 5 million people, and became a precursor for the Cultural Revolution.

“Spiritual pollution” is how the Party refers to “poisonous” Western liberal ideas, such as individualism, constitutionalism, and liberal democracy. The Party has pointed to foreign interference and imported ideas as the causes of the upheaval in Hong Kong, for example.

“Cleaning”, in party-speak, foreshadows tears if not blood. For those with historical memory of the various political campaigns, the word “clean” can sound ominous and dirty.

Internet decoupling

The US has explicitly called on “allies and partners in government and industry around the world” to join the US. This could potentially lead to a bifurcation of the internet, and a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality on internet and technology.

Those who argue for “reciprocation” point out that China was the first mover in decoupling from the global internet, through the Great Fire Wall and the banning of US internet companies such as Google and Facebook. 

It is important to remember that in many cases (such as here), reciprocation just means a race to the bottom because authoritarian regimes care less about freedom of speech than democracies. 

Liberal democracies can not hope to tackle the threats represented by Beijing to the global information environment simply by adopting its tactics, framing and mentality. 

We need to be cautious lest we one day look in the mirror and discover a monster. 

Caught in the middle

Finally, we would like to draw your attention to two women who often write on the intersection between China and the US, and the personal when the threads of engagement are being pulled apart.

Rui Zhong, China analyst at the Wilson Centre, notes:

Yangyang Cheng, physicist at Cornell University, writes:

The harsh reality accelerated by COVID-19 is exposing the lies America has been telling itself. The empire in decline has found in China a convenient target to project its fear and insecurities, to divert attention from its own problems. I recognize the atrocities the Chinese government has committed. I live with the guilt every day. But I’m not alone in my complicity. We all make our compromises in order to live. Pretending any country or political system is the source of all evil might offer easy passage through perilous times, but it’s a path that leads only to contradictions and conflict. When a state demands proof of loyalty from a people, the much more important questions are why a proof is necessary and why the loyalty is exclusive. When there’s nowhere to live freely for a Chinese person like myself, it is rather an indictment on the state of the world than a discount of my humanity.

2. Beidaihe meetings

Top CCP leaders and elders gathered at the seaside resort of Beidaihe this week for their annual informal gathering. Traditionally, this serves as a way for the party elite to exchange views on major policy issues in a relaxed setting, and set the agenda for formal policy-making meetings later in the year.

Beidaihe became an important political venue under Mao in the 1950s and 1960s. Mao, a keen swimmer, hated the stifling bureaucracy and heat of Beijing, so he set up summer offices for himself and top party leaders in Beidaihe, some 300 kilometres away. Beidaihe has seen its share of historical decisions, including the decision in August 1958 to launch the Great Leap Forward the following year. During the Hu era, Beidaihe became less important as a political venue, but it has made a comeback under Xi.

This year, the focus of conversations likely was on the economy and the 14th Five-Year Plan. The Plan will be considered at the upcoming Fifth Plenum in October. Politburo has already begun to set the tone for it. In announcing the Fifth Plenum, the Politburo noted that:

In driving [China’s] 14th Five-Year Plan...the Party’s basic theories, basic line, and basic strategies must be fully implemented…[we must] coordinate development and security, push forward the modernisation of governance system and capability, complete the institutional mechanism for the Party’s leadership of economic and social development. We must also apply the New Development Concept throughout the entire development process and in every field.

推动“十四五”时期我国经济社会发展...全面贯彻党的基本理论、基本路线、基本方略...统筹发展和安全,推进国家治理体系和治理能力现代化...完善党领导经济社会发展的体制机制...必须把新发展理念贯穿发展全过程和各领域。

We think that “the institutional mechanism for the Party’s leadership of economic and social development,” or in other words, the extent to which the CCP interferes in the Chinese economy and society, will be the crucial battleground as the Fifth Plenum approaches.

China’s economy shrank by 6.8 per cent in the first quarter due to COVID, but rebounded to 3.2 per cent growth in the second quarter. Both structural and cyclical challenges remain for China’s economy as it struggles to recover. At the annual “two sessions” back in May, in an extraordinary break from norm, the annual GDP growth target was scrapped altogether. Indeed, both the pandemic and US economic pressure have introduced large uncertainties for economic policymakers in Beijing.

On the international front, the increasingly hardline of the US on China is worrying Chinese leaders. Beijing has thus far displayed a combination of steadfastness, tit-for-tat deterrence, and willingness for dialogue. However, the escalation of US-China tensions is likely to continue, especially in the leadup to the US presidential election in November. The next few months will be a rocky ride for sure.

The massive international backlash against Beijing’s moves in Hong Kong, especially the imposition of the national security law, is another likely topic of discussion at the meetings.

How to spot Beidaihe meetings?

Beidahe meetings are not formally announced, so we have to watch for the signs. First, these meetings are held in early August every year for a week. During this time, the Politburo Standing Committee members will not attend public events. Watch for when reports of their public activities all stop at the same time. This year it was July 31.

Second, a large number of experts are invited to Beidaihe during the meetings. Watch for a Xinhua report of a top party leader (usually a member of the Politburo, most probably the head of Organizational Department) meeting and greeting these experts on behalf of the General Secretary. This did not happen this year, perhaps due to COVID, but it did in previous years ever since Xi took power (see 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013).

Third, watch for signs of increased security in and around Beidaihe and the port city of Qinhuangdao. Authorities usually go to great lengths to stop those travelling to Beidaihe with the hope of airing their grievances with local officials to top leaders.

Fourth, before the meetings, the Party Secretary of Hubei Province (in which Beidaihe is located) takes an inspection tour to Beidaihe. This year it occurred in June whereas previous years this usually occurs closer to the meetings in July.    

How do you spot the end of the meetings? The simple answer is when Politburo Standing Committee members reappear in public again. This year, so far, only one of the seven have reappeared: Li Zhanshu 栗战书 presided over the 21st session of the National People's Congress Standing Committee yesterday in Beijing. 

3. Wang Yi responds to Pompeo

Xinhua published a lengthy interview with State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi this week. This is an authoritative view on where Beijing currently stands on US-China relations, and a response to Pompeo’s “Communist China and the Free World’s Future” speech.

Wang rejects Pompeo’s assessment that US-China engagement has failed:

The assertion that US policy of engagement with China has failed is just a rehash of the Cold War mentality. It turns a blind eye to all that has been achieved in China-US relations over the past decades, shows ignorance of the historical process and lack of respect for the Chinese and American peoples. 

...

Forty years on [from establishing diplomatic relations], while China and the US are quite different in social system and many other aspects, such differences have not affected the peaceful coexistence and cooperation between the two countries, and they should not affect their bilateral ties in the future.

Indeed, Wang points the finger at Washington for the current low tide in bilateral relations:

China-US relations are facing the gravest challenge since the establishment of diplomatic ties...The root cause is that some American politicians who are biased against and hostile to China are using their power to smear China with fabrications and impede normal ties with China under various pretexts.

The problem with this rhetoric is that it absolves Beijing of all blame for the deterioration of bilateral relations. 

Wang also emphasised the urgent need for talks, which Beijing is ready to restart: 

We are ready to restart the dialogue mechanisms with the US side at any level, in any area and at any time. All issues can be put on the table for discussion.

Perhaps most usefully, Wang outlined Beijing’s four-part framework for US-China relations:

First, steer clear of red lines and avoid confrontation...China never intends to and will never interfere in US elections or other US internal affairs. Likewise, the US must abandon its fantasy of remodeling China to US needs…

Second, keep the channels open for candid dialogue.

Third, reject decoupling and uphold cooperation. The interests of the two countries are deeply entwined. Forced decoupling will inflict a lasting impact on bilateral relations, and endanger the security of international industrial chains and interests of all countries...

Fourth, abandon the zero-sum mentality and stand up to shared responsibilities.

What we have then is a Beijing that continues to be unwilling to reflect on its own mistakes and overreach in contributing to the current situation. But Beijing is trying to communicate that while it will stand fast against the US confrontational turn, it is also willing to talk and cooperate on a pragmatic basis.

4. Academic freedom: University of New South Wales

Debates around academic freedom in Australia flared up again this week with the deletion of a tweet by the University of New South Wales (the alma mater of us both). In the tweet, UNSW quoted a comment on Hong Kong by its adjunct professor Elaine Pearson, who is the Australia Director at Human Rights Watch. This tweet was subsequently deleted, ostensibly because the comment was “being misconstrued as representing the university”.

However, it emerged that the deletion came after students complained to the university and also contacted the Chinese Consulate about this issue.

This deletion caused further backlash by those who are unhappy with the deletion, including political leaders. UNSW then apologised about the decision to delete the tweet, with the Vice-Chancellor stating “I apologise for this mistake and reaffirm unequivocally our previous commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom.”

It then emerged that UNSW sent a separate message in Chinese, which did not mention its commitment to freedom of expression or academic freedom.

This episode really underscores that in today’s globalised world, organisations need to be consistent with their messaging, even when these messages are targeted at different audiences. People outside your target audience can read the message too. So it pays to be principled and consistent, instead of trying to have your cake and eat it too (鱼与熊掌不可兼得).

5. Foreign interference

Reporting online portal

There is apparently an online portal being promoted by the CCP that “allows internet users to lodge reports for attacks on the party and state systems, the position of President Xi Jinping, undermining territorial integrity and endangering national security.”

We have not seen the online portal. However, if true, this is very concerning. Such ease of reporting (without even needing to contact the Consulate!) is detrimental to freedom of speech in Australia, especially for individuals vulnerable to CCP coercion, including many human rights activists and students from China. The fear of such reports can in effect gag many people from speaking out.

Reporting people for their political views (either using online form or through consulates) or the threats of reporting should be considered a form of foreign interference and be dealt with seriously.

AFP Raid update

We finally have some more information about the Australian Federal Police (AFP) foreign interference raid earlier this year. The accusations are directed at John Zhang, a part-time staffer of New South Wales state parliamentarian Shaoquett Moselmane. It is alleged that Zhang failed to disclose to Moselmane that he was acting “on behalf of, or in collaboration with” key apparatus of the CCP and that he encouraged Moselmane to advocate for Chinese state interests. According to the media report, Zhang’s conduct was deemed covert, because he used a private social media chat group.

Quote of the week

究天人之際,通古今之變,成一家之言

Probing the boundaries of heaven and people, comprehending the changes of past and present, establishing a text for one clan.

The quote is by Sima Qian 司馬遷, the author of Records of the Grand Historian 史記 or 太史公書. It was taken from a letter he wrote to his friend Ren An, who was on death row 報任少卿書. In this letter, Sima Qian explained why he had to complete the writing of Records (and thereby must prioritise that vis-a-vis risking himself in an attempt to save his friend).

Sima Qian is the most famous historian in Chinese history. And Records is the most famous book on Chinese history, becoming a model for all the subsequent dynastic histories (the collection of 24 Histories 二十四史 from Records all the way to History of Ming). The Records covered almost 3,000 years from the Yellow Emperor to the time of Sima Qian (Han dynasty). It contains many stories familiar to the Chinese audience even nowadays, including several dozens of Chengyu idioms (成语). Notably, Records was not an officially sanctioned history, despite Sima Qian working as a court historian (but functioning more like an astrologer).

We see the learning of history as extremely important for understanding contemporary events. It teaches us humility — sometimes what we think is important at the time may turn out to be trivial, and it also teaches us that chance has a big role to play in history. For individuals in history, what’s perhaps more important than someone’s capability or intention is timing, and that is mostly outside the control of any individual. So how does one prepare themselves when the stars of heaven align with the people and events on earth?

The quote encapsulates why we think history is important. By studying history, we can “probe the boundaries of heaven and people”, that is, interrogating the intersection between chance (heaven) and actions of people. And from that, “comprehend the changes of past and present”. Studying history is not just about understanding the past, including the causes of past success and failure (成敗興壞之理), but (we argue) more importantly, using that knowledge to understand the present.

A fuller excerpt:

僕竊不遜,近自託於無能之辭,網羅天下放失舊聞,考之行事,綜其終始,稽其成敗興壞之理,上計軒轅,下至于茲,爲十表,本紀十二,書八章,世家三十,列傳七十,凡百三十篇,亦欲以究天人之際,通古今之變,成一家之言。

Lacking all humility, I have presumed in recent times to entrust my spirit to my clumsy writings. I have cast a broad net across the old accounts that have been lost or neglected. Examining these in light of past events, I have gathered together all the evidence for cosmic and dynastic cycles, having studied the underlying causes of success and failure, and of rise and decline. In altogether 130 chapters, I have tried to probe the boundaries of heaven and man and comprehend the changes of past and present, thereby perfecting a tradition for my family.

(translation from Durrant, et al. (2016) The Letter to Ren An and Sima Qian’s Legacy)

Chinoiserie

This week in the candy corner, we have two interesting sources for you. First up, China: History and Future (中国:历史与未来) is a new internet publication with writing from Chinese authors on a variety of political, social, historical topics on China and the world. In the words of its editors: 

In this era of ambiguity, frequent crises, arbitrariness, and intolerance, we continue to call for freedom, rationality, and tolerance, for the dignity, rights and happiness of every Chinese, and for peace on this planet.

在这个前路不明、危机频现、专断、偏狭的氛围再度蔓延的时代,我们继续召唤自由、理性和宽容的精神,为每个中国人的尊严、权利与幸福,亦为这个星球上的和平...

Next up, the Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica in Taiwan has made its Scripta Sinica database freely accessible until September 30. It contained a massive 1318 titles, mostly premodern Chinese texts.

This week on China Story:

  • Rowan Callick, Business should beware ensnarement in China controversies: Australian business leaders should consider using this challenging COVID era to deepen their relations with Chinese counterparts and understanding of China’s markets rather than to promote a greater priority for commercial interests in political debate.

  • James Laurenceston, From rocks to science: the irrepressible Australia-China economic relationship: a decade ago it was common to hear that Australia’s economic relationship with China was all about ‘rocks and crops’. Then education and tourism were added to the list. Last year, China also became Australia’s number one collaborator in producing scientific research publications. The reality is that despite genuine differences at the political level and rancorous commentary, a mutually-beneficial economic relationship has continued to grow in both size and breadth.

  • Josh Gacutan, Exploiting fears: virtual kidnapping targets Chinese international students: as “sophisticated cyber attacks” on Australian’s digital infrastructure dominate weeks of headlines, it pays to remember that malicious cyber actors also prey on vulnerable people and diaspora communities. As demonstrated by the recent virtual kidnapping scams [targeting Chinese people], these cyber threats covertly operate in the social realm and achieve their effects through sowing fear and confusion. While Australia bolsters its cyber security posture, policy discussions must go further than purely technical solutions — data protection, network security, critical infrastructure security — and respond to cyber threats that exploit fear and societal fractures within our communities.