China Neican: Zhao tweet, visa restrictions, MeToo and Archaeology

6 December 2020

China Neican is a newsletter by Yun Jiang and Adam Ni from the China Policy Centre in Canberra. It is also published as a weekly column on the China Story blog. 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. Our writing, however, is open to everyone. To receive regular updates, please subscribe. You can find past issues here.

1. Twitter storm in a teacup

Much ink has been spilled over China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s controversial tweet and the subsequent Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s “emergency press conference”. Morrion’s strong reaction may make himself and others feel good for the time being, but it was a counterproductive overreaction.

Here are a few points that much of the reporting have missed:

  • Zhao’s tweet is much less significant than Beijing’s other actions against Australia this year, including trade restrictions against Australian exports. Yet, the latest saga is getting more media attention across the world, including in the PRC.

  • The image that Zhao tweeted out is not “disinformation”, which is what Australia, as well as many governments around the world, have alleged. It was obviously a digitally created image in the fashion of satirical political cartoons. Yes, it is offensive, as many political cartoons are.

  • Whether it’s a “fake image” or not is not the issue. If Zhao tweeted a real footage taken from Four Corners (shown on Australian national TV earlier this year), the level of outrage would unlikely be lower. The issue is that the offensive image is tweeted by a Chinese diplomat.

  • Zhao is relatively junior in the Chinese bureaucracy. He is only a deputy director (probably equivalent to executive levels in the Australian Public Service). However, he is an official foreign ministry spokesperson, and his actions probably have the backing of those more senior.

  • Zhao has an extensive history of being deliberately provocative and inflammatory. It appeared to have had a positive effect on his career, earning him a promotion this year.

  • Yes, the Australian Government should respond, because Zhao represents the Chinese Government, and the image is (deliberately) provocative. The normal course of action would be for the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to summon the Chinese Ambassador, and maybe for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to release a press statement. The Prime Minister holding an “emergency press conference” is a huge over-reaction.

  • The “Afghan war crimes” issue was a controversial issue domestically in Australia, with the direct involvement of the Australian Prime Minister, even before this saga. The Prime Minister publicly disagreed with the Chief of Defence Force on recommendations from the Brereton report on alleged war crimes by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. The whistleblower that prompted the investigation is still awaiting trial.

  • With the Prime Minister so directly involved in the issue, he may be prone to over-reaction on this.

  • From a domestic perspective, it is outrageous to many Australians that the Prime Minister reacted much more strongly to a tweet than he had done about the allegations of war crimes.

2. Visa restrictions on PRC and CCP officials

Secretary of States Mike Pompeo announced new visa restrictions for PRC and CCP officials, and “individuals active in United Front Work Department activities” this week. The stated rationale for the latest move is that the CCP “has long sought to spread Marxist-Leninist ideology and exert its influence all over the world”, and that the CCP’s “United Front Work Department funds and supports overseas organizations to spread propaganda and coerces and bullies those who would oppose Beijing’s policies.” Here are a few points. 

First, visa restrictions on PRC/CCP officials are counterproductive to bilateral relations. Beijing will likely retaliate by imposing visa restrictions on US officials. Although, there is a possibility that they’d just bear it without retaliation until Biden’s China agenda becomes clearer.

Second, the new restrictions effectively puts millions of people into one basket without any consideration of individual differences. The majority of PRC/CCP officials work at the grassroot level and do not make policy decisions, so it’s not clear why they should be sanctioned.

Third, the Party-state and the Chinese people are deeply intertwined. Their relationship is complex and ambivalent. For the likes of Pompeo, the distinction is evident: party-state evil, Chinese people good. Policy actions targeted at addressing challenges coming from the party-state often have substantial negative externalities for Chinese people as a whole. The case in point is research collaborations where concerns about China’s military-civil fusion strategy has led to undue suspicion and restrictions on Chinese students and researchers in general.

It’s clear that the Trump administration will continue to swing away at China as the curtains close on this presidency in a bid to cement Trump’s China legacy and make it difficult for Biden to reverse the policy.

3. Xianzi and MeToo

Certain parts of social media in China is buzzing this week with a court hearing on a landmark sexual assault case. In 2018, Xianzi 弦子 (real name Zhou Xiaoxuan) publicly accused a very prominent China Central Television (CCTV) host Zhu Jun of a sexual assault while she was working as an intern at CCTV in 2014. Her Weibo post containing the allegation went viral. Subsequently, Zhu sued her for defamation and she countersued.

Xianzi’s case received a lot of attention. It was amidst a huge outpouring of personal testimonials of China’s #MeToo movement. Even getting to the court hearing stage has been a challenging journey. Xianzi faced numerous obstacles, including threats from the police. No doubt her courage and persistence inspired many.

The court hearing this week was also closely followed by many on social media. Some of her supporters also showed up outside the court. A small gathering was allowed. The case did not receive coverage in China’s state-controlled media, and there was some censoring of social media.

Pressures on China’s feminism movement include the government’s crackdown on civil society, the renewed emphasis on “traditional” (patriarchal) values, state control over fertility, a general patriarchal attitude in society, and widening gender inequality. Despite these pressure, China’s feminism movement has gathered steam in recent years, with widespread support among the young, especially women. The government ostensibly supports equality, but has done very little. In this, like in LGBT rights, social and civil movement is way ahead of government response.

4. Archaeology

Archaeology, an often ignored humanities subject, has again made headlines this week. The latest issue of the CCP’s journal Qiushi has an article on the topic by Xi Jinping. The article is titled “Building archaeology with Chinese characteristics, style and manner to build a better understanding of the longstanding and profound Chinese civilization” 建设中国特色中国风格中国气派的考古学 更好认识源远流长博大精深的中华文明.

Valuing archaeology and archaeologists is of course an overall positive step. But such a spotlight has also politicised the study to a much higher degree.

One reason to promote archaeology is to build “cultural confidence” 文化自信. We wrote previously:

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.

In this article, Xi wrote:

我国考古发现的重大成就实证了我国百万年的人类史、一万年的文化史、五千多年的文明史。

The major achievements of our country’s archaeological discoveries have proved our country’s million years of human history, 10,000 years of cultural history, and more than 5,000 years of civilizational history.

Of course, the “country” of China is only around 70 years old if we take it to mean the PRC. This passage claims that all the history of the land that is currently occupied by the PRC, extending back before there was a notion of “China”, is the history of the “country”. This is a very common shorthand both inside and outside China. When we speak of “ancient China”, we often think of, for example, Warring States, even though there may not be a notion of “China” back then.

The article also emphasised several achievements of “our ancestors” 我们的先人, including being the earliest users of certain tools. This indicates some pride in the racial or familial continuity.

It’s interesting contrasting China’s approach to Australia’s approach to history. Indigenous Australian cultures are the oldest continuous cultures in the world. But the current Australian population is mostly made up of migrants, with the Indigenous population a minority in Australia. So the “mainstream” Australian culture often do not celebrate or appreciate this part of Australian history. There are also many sensitivities around Australia’s colonial history.

As an aside, did you know that in all Australian Go8 universities, “Ancient History” as a major specifically refers to the study of Ancient Greece and Rome? Study of other ancient civilisations is usually part of “region studies”. We think this naming convention is highly problematic and reflects a Western-centric worldview.

Chinoiserie

  • Cai Xia, retired Central Party School professor, outlines her disenchantment with the Party in a Foreign Affairs piece, The Party That Failed.

  • Louise Edwards, Scientia Professor of Chinese History at the University of New South Wales, in presenting the 2020 Australian Centre on China in the World Annual Lecture, argues that “Australia’s relations with Asia appear to be stuck in a time machine that is moving backwards” and its “current leader’s vision is clouded by an Orientalist veil of out-dated racial and cultural hierarchies”.

  • Neil Thomas at Macro Polo looks at CCP’s increasing support for academic research that supports its political and ideological goals, especially Marxism, ethnic studies, and party history and party building.

This week on China Story:

  • Kathy Walsh, China is winning the digital currency race: The competition to implement a sovereign digital currency is in full swing with central banks around the world investigating its feasibility. A digital currency may solve some challenges relating to economic and financial inclusion, but it also has the potential to change the shape of global financial markets. China is well ahead of the pack in developing a digital currency and a sharp uptake could see an acceleration of the timeline to internationalise the Renminbi (RMB). While some observers celebrate this innovation, others are concerned about the implications of China taking a greater stake in international financial flows.

  • Gregory Raymond, The Dragon’s Pearl: Thailand, Collective Memory and Relations with China: If the post-Cold war era has a dominant characteristic, it may be that sources of threat are much less clear and military conflict less common. In these conditions of uncertainty, Southeast Asian states are adopting a security stance often described as “hedging”; aligning neither with China nor the United States. In the absence of clear threat, the role of collective memory looms large as a shaping influence, and can provide useful insights into the cautious but less fearful views that many Southeast Asians hold with regards to China. Importantly, collective memory does not equate with history; it is imperfect and partial, shaped by power, both domestic and international. Thailand’s collective memory of China has in recent times tended to focus on positive aspects of Thai-China relations, whilst difficult Cold War relations, and harsh treatment of Sino Thais in the twentieth century, has tended to be papered over.