Neican Brief: 29 December 2019

People’s Leader, Forced prison labour, Egg freezing, trilateral summit

Hi all, welcome to the last Neican Briefing for 2019. This week, Adam’s mind is warped by the tropical heat while Yun’s mind grows ever larger from reading. We wish you a very happy new year and hope to see you in 2020!

This week we look at “People’s Leader,” forced prison labour, egg freezing, and the trilateral summit between China, South Korea and Japan.

1. The “People’s Leader”

This week, for the first time ever, the Politburo referred to Xi Jinping as the “People’s Leader” 人民领袖. Mao was referred to as such during his reign, but no one else. This is just about the highest title that a CCP leader could wish for. 

It tells us two things. First, Xi’s grip on power is extraordinarily strong despite China’s mounting internal and external challenges, and its international setbacks this year. Second, the party elite is sending a signal that they are rallying around Xi at a time of flux

This week, at the Politburo’s annual Democratic Life meeting 民主生活会, the 25-member body showered Xi with praise. The sycophancy is a little sickening, but the message, in a nutshell, is that Xi is the great leader and strategist that the Party and China need at a time of great change. 

For background, the Party’s Democratic Life meetings are, in theory at least, about criticism, self-criticism, and personal and organisational reflection. The CCP portrays it as party democracy in action. In reality… well, in Party historiography, these meetings can trace their illustrious ancestry to the 1929 Gutian Congress 古田会议 and the 1942-1944 Yan’an Rectifications 延安整风运动. 

Gutian is where Mao wrestled political control of the gun from his competitors, and Yan’an was where the Party first came to adopt methods of political rectification and “thought reform” that were used to devastating effect in subsequent political campaigns, including to this day in Xinjiang.

To be elevated to the “People’s Leader” in the ill-fated footsteps of Mao is ominous enough, but to have it done so at the Politburo’s Democratic Life meeting is just…painfuly ironic.

2. Forced prison labour

A little girl in the UK found a message in the Christmas card from Tesco. The message was purportedly written by a foreign prisoner from inside Shanghai Qingpu Prison, who has been forced to work. The message also asked the finder to contact Peter Humphrey, a British journalist who was imprisoned there.

Tesco has launched an investigation into the supplier and said it has a system in place to ensure its suppliers do not use forced labour. A PRC spokesperson has said the whole incident was created by Peter Humphrey.

Forced labour is a form of modern slavery. To stamp out modern slavery, international institutions such as the G20 focus on business supply chains. The G20 countries signed a declaration at the 2017 Summit in Germany to eliminate all forms of modern slavery by 2025. The UK and Australia have each passed a Modern Slavery Act. These legislations place the onus on big corporations to eliminate modern slavery from supply chains.

China denies the existence of forced labour. However, there is evidence that inmates from its “re-education” camps, including in Xinjiang, are involved in manufacturing, including for exports. The pressure to reduce the cost of production is an incentive for local suppliers to use prison labour.

Unfortunately, eliminating forced labour from foreign company supply chains may not be enough to stop prison labour in China, as China has a big market for domestic consumption. But it remains a good step forward.

3. Egg freezing

Teresa Xu is suing a hospital for refusing to freeze her eggs. In China, many reproductive services are only provided to married couples. Until 2003, couples wishing to marry must undergo a mandatory premarital medical examination. In the face of these restrictions, many celebrities go overseas to freeze their eggs.

Reproduction, fertility, and birth control have been within the bounds of government regulations. From “one-child policy” (now the “two-child policy”) to forced sterilisation (and sometimes forced abortion), women very often do not have autonomy over their bodies. Rather, their rights are tied to their relationship status. Lack of sex education also means that abortion is often seen as a contraceptive method among unmarried women.

As women delaying marriages and the feminist movement takes hold in China, there will be more and more demand from single women to access reproductive services and challenge the existing norms in the society.

4. China, South Korea and Japan

The Eighth Trilateral Summit Meeting between China, South Korea and Japan occurred in Chengdu this week. The images of the happy faces of Li Keqiang, Moon Jae-in and Abe Shinzo underline the positive narrative of increasing regional cooperation, just as tension is rising in the region.

The summit came in the context of a possible North Korean “Christmas present” (in the delightful form of a missile test), and a serious diplomatic row between Tokyo and Seoul over the issue of forced labour during the Japanese colonial era. 

The summit’s communique on trilateral cooperation outlook for the next decade 中日韩合作未来十年展望 agreed to accelerate trilateral free trade talks and push forward with the multilateral Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership 区域全面经济伙伴关系协定. 

Beijing is seeking a larger role in determining the future of the Northeast Asia region and beyond. The trilateral approach is one of the vehicles for this agenda.

Trump’s “America First” foreign policy adds to the impetus for regional countries to hedge against uncertainty through closer cooperation, in this case between two of US’ closest allies, and its peer competitor.

However, nationalism, historical questions, and geostrategic considerations will put speed bumps on Beijing’s plans.