Neican Brief: 5 January 2020

Ideological scrambling, infection rumours, Twitter public diplomacy

Welcome to the first Neican Brief of 2020! This week, Adam arrived in hazy Sydney while Yun is closely following the bushfire updates. The year hasn’t got off to a good start with bushfires raging in Australia and the ratcheting up of tension following US assassination of top Iranian General Qasem Suleimani.

1. CCP’s ideological scrambling

On the first day of the new year, the CCP’s flagship journal, Qiushi 求是, published the core part of a speech made by Xi on the last day of the 4th Plenum 四中全会 back in October.

For context, the speech was made after the plenum passed the CCP Central Committee's decision on some major issues concerning how to uphold and improve the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics and advance the modernization of China's system and capacity for governance中共中央关于坚持和完善中国特色社会主义制度、推进国家治理体系和治理能力现代化若干重大问题的决定》(Decision)

(If nothing else, the CCP really needs to learn how to use shorter titles.)

Xi starts by modestly characterising the Decision as a “canonical contribution” 纲领性文献 and “political declaration” 政治宣言书 of Marxism, one that comprehensively answers the major political question of China’s political and governance system, that is: “what should be upheld and consolidated, what should be perfected and developed” 应该坚持和巩固什么、完善和发展什么?

The answer, according to the CCP, is more confidence and development under the CCP as it leads the Chinese people towards “national rejuvenation”. Essentially, the CCP is trying to square an ideological circle and fill the moral vacuum left by the collapse of Communism with material and ethnonationalist aspirations.

Underneath all this bolster about confidence and inevitability of progress, just how many of them really know what Socialism with Chinese Characteristics 中国特色社会主义 is, or exactly how Xi’s “New Era” 新时代 is different from the now old days under Hu, Jiang and Deng?

If Marx and Mao returned from the dead today, they would both be abhorred at what China has become, with its Frankenstein hybridity, combining (some of the better as well as some of the worst) elements of Communism and Capitalism.

Excuse the (bushfire smoke-enhanced) ranting…

Okay, back to Xi. After praising the Decision, the speech is broken into two sections:

  1. Strengthening the self-confidence of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics 坚定中国特色社会主义制度自信

  2. Implementing the spirit of the Plenum 抓好全会精神贯彻落实

For Xi and the CCP, self-confidence in the current system is nothing short of an existential matter. The fall of USSR has provided the most visceral lesson.

On this, Xi offers three points about China’s current system:

  1. It has deep roots in the historical heritage of China 具有深厚的历史底蕴, including a rich culture of governance with a multitude of traditional ideas.

  2. It has many significant advantages compared to other systems 具有多方面的显著优势, essentially due to the sinicization of Marxism.

  3. It has abundant practical achievements 具有丰富的实践成果, and that “whether shoes fit well or not, only those who wear them know; whether the socialist system with Chinese characteristics is good or not, superior or not, only the Chinese people know best and have the right to say 鞋子合不合脚,只有穿的人才知道。中国特色社会主义制度好不好、优越不优越,中国人民最清楚,也最有发言权”.

So, Xi (and the CCP) is arguing that China’s current system is great because CCP is ruling, it is Chinese, it has achieved good results, and people love it. Needless to say, all of these said reasons in support of the current system are highly problematic.

The other bizarre thing is that Xi quotes Deng’s 1980 speech Reform of party and state leadership" 《党和国家领导制度的改革》in support of his arguments on how the current system is great. The irony is that in that very speech Deng criticises the centralisation of power within the party as the main cause of the disaster that is the Cultural Revolution.

The second part of Xi’s speech is less interesting. It urges Party members to implement the spirit of the Plenum by persisting with and enhancing the current system with “unshakable” resolve; by perfecting the system moving forward; and through strict compliance with the system.

All in all, the Party continues to scramble for ideological coherence, moral legitimacy, and self-renewal in a race against… time.

2. Medical infection rumours

There is an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan this week. There were rumours that it was another SARS. The PRC authorities have arrested several people for spreading rumours online.

Due to past history of cover-ups by the PRC Government, people in China are very susceptible to any rumours of this kind. In 2003, the authorities attempted to cover-up the SARS outbreak, which as a result, delayed the necessary quarantine measures.

As up-to-date information from the authorities is either missing or not trusted, more people tend to believe in online rumours. Rumours can spread despite the Government’s effort to control the narrative and clampdown through censorship and dealing out punishments.

There is a broad point here: Chinese people are sceptical, whether that is of government announcements and statistics, or party ideology. Modern China has shed too many tears for its people to be trusting.

3. Twitter public diplomacy

There appears to be concerted effort recently by the PRC Government to enhance its use of social media (such as Twitter, which is blocked in the PRC) for public diplomacy. Early last month, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs registered a Twitter account. Several of its ambassadors also followed and started tweeting actively.

Prior to this year, most of MFA’s public diplomacy effort is through the often boring press conferences where the spokesperson delivers predictable messages from the Government. What’s interesting about this new round of Twitter diplomacy this year is how close it resembles the Trumpian style of Twitter. For example:

An ambassador has decided to adopt an Instagram influencer approach instead:

This public diplomacy push is targetted at the foreign popular audience rather than the domestic or elite audience. This move makes sense, because:

  1. The elites (politicians, government officials, or academics) in democracies around the world are becoming warier of engaging with China, due to the concerns around foreign interference;

  2. Public diplomacy is transparent — influencing the popular opinions in foreign countries in a public way is internationally accepted; and

  3. Everyone is seeing the power of social media, such as Facebook, during elections, and thinking about how it can be utilised and exploited.

This is also an indication that the PRC Government is becoming more concerned about its image in the world, as public opinions of the PRC has become more negative in the West in recent years. It is putting more effort into countering that image. However, imitating the Trumpian style of Twitter is an interesting way to do that…