The Western world and primarily the US grossly misread the reform and opening up of China in the 1970s as leading to political reform.
This hope shaped relations, where it was assumed that “accommodating” China would not only be good for business but also bring democracy to its doors sooner or later.
This article is part of a series called Notes On China. The aim of the series is to provide analysis of events and ideas related to domestic politics, economy, and foreign policy of China.
China, under Xi Jinping’s “new era” has attested to be the heir apparent of a world order erstwhile dominated by the United States of America since the Second World War. Claiming to export the “China model” globally (economic liberalisation minus political liberalisation) as an alternative to the liberal order established by the US, China has been working towards revising existing international institutions and creating new ones of its own design in order to facilitate its rise and influence.
Shaping public opinion is also a key facet of that plan. The active shaping of the Chinese narrative is a “battlefield” upon which a highly disciplined political struggle must be waged and won. While domestically, the interpretation of this battlefield has been tested successfully through the web of information control and censorship, China aims to export this abroad in order to shape/manipulate its message.
The two recent cases presented in the article reflect the extent to which the Communist Party of China’s attempts to influence people and politics in foreign countries has brought out in open the perils of deepening economic engagement with China and its clever use of subversive tactics to challenge democracies and its value systems.
Control+Alt+Delete: Case Of The China Quarterly Censorship
China Quarterly (CQ) is a highly respectable journal in the China studies field, publishing peer-reviewed articles covering ancient and contemporary Chinese history, politics and economy. The Cambridge University Press (CUP), the world’s oldest publishing house publishes the China Quarterly. On 18 August 2017, Tim Pringle, the journal’s editor sent out an e-mail to CQ’s editorial board (e-mail screenshot) that CUP had pulled out over 300 articles and book reviews on its China site of the China Quarterly, at the request/demand of the Chinese government’s General Administration of Press and Publication(GAPP).
According to the editor, most of the articles axed were related to topics that were deemed “sensitive” to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), such as the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and dated back to the 1960s. James Millward, a China scholar, who has been banned from entering China since 15 years for his work on the restive province of Xinjiang, expressed anger at Cambridge’s initial acquiescence to bow down, by stating that the censors asked for cuts generated with a simple search on keywords and tags for words such as Tiananmen, Tibet, Uyghur etc. His concern was that if reputed publications such the China Quarterly censored scholarship on these issues, it would stifle further research and development of knowledge on precisely the areas that the CCP is known to censor.
Economic and market access considerations were touted as reasons for CQ accepting to censor content in China. CUP has enjoyed double-digit year-on-year growth in China consistently for the past five years. It sold more than 3m copies of CUP’s famous English language course book called Kid’s Box Chinese Edition and raked in £306m in the past financial year. However lucrative the economic pull may be, this move received severe backlash from the academic community, with China scholars petitioning to ban writing for the journal and blasted CUP’s behaviour as an appalling example of putting the profit motive ahead of academic freedom.
The vehement opposition made CUP consider its move that called into question its integrity in upholding academic freedom. In a statement on 21 August 2017, CUP said that it was reinstating the 315 China Quarterly articles it had previously pulled from China.
Lies, Spies And Allies: Buying Political Influence And Conducting Espionage In Australia And New Zealand
Over the past year, Australia has been caught in CCP’s insidious attempts to exert political influence in elections, targeting Chinese diaspora, directing Chinese student associations, threatening Australian-based Chinese dissidents and seeking to influence academic inquiry in Australian universities. In New Zealand, an ethnic Chinese politician is being probed for his past connections with the military establishment in China.
Sam Dastyari, a Labour Party politician in Australia resigned from parliament on 12 December this year. A recording had emerged of him urging Australia to “respect” China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, contradicting the policy of both the government and his own party. Last year, he was forced to leave his opposition post, after charges emerged that he had taken money from Huang Xiangmo, a Chinese businessman with apparent links to the CCP.
A joint ABC and Four Corners investigation and a 45-minute documentary based on it, revealed that along with political influence, the CCP keeps watch over the 150,000-strong Chinese students studying in Australian universities by controlling the Chinese Students’ and Scholars’ Associations. Chinese dissidents and activists living in Australia, speaking out against human rights violations in China, have been questioned, forced to give up on their “activism”, while holding their family members to ransom in China or prohibiting the dissidents from travel outside of the mainland.
In a recent move, the Chinese diaspora was rallied to target the Malcolm Turnbull government ahead of the Bennelong by-elections in Australia. The investigation pointed to members of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, the same group of which Huang Xiangmo was the president and had donated $6.7 million Australian dollar ($5m) over a decade to Australia’s two main political parties.
In New Zealand, Jian Yang, an MP of the ruling National Party, had spent more than 10 years training and teaching at elite facilities including China’s top linguistic academy for military intelligence officers. He had left this information off his CV when he later applied for citizenship in New Zealand. Since being elected in 2011, Yang has been pushing for closer ties with Beijing and echoing similar kind of international policies and positions as advocated by the CCP.
Censorship Gift-Wrapped With Economic Partnerships:
China’s ambitions to become a key player in the emerging world order have led it to leverage economic engagement with countries into influence in support of its broader policy goals. These goals range from preferential commercial treatment, to countries and their universities ignoring a range of issues related to maritime sovereignty disputes, human rights violations, democracy and international law. According to Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australia National University, Beijing essentially wants from its commercial partners the same deal that it has with its own citizens - economic benefits in return for acquiescence on politics and security. It is thus actively using its economic interactions to censor content abroad, mute criticisms on its human rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang, delete history writing on Tiananmen and Cultural Revolution not in tandem with official discourse and influence political decision-making in foreign countries.
CCP’s Magic Weapon: The United Front Work Department
The United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the CCP is one of the most important party organs in charge of influence operations at home and abroad. Its broad aims are winning support for China’s political agenda, to accumulate influence overseas and gather key information. In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping elevated the UFWD’s status, calling their work the “magic weapon” for the “Chinese people’s great rejuvenation”, one to be used by the CCP to “seize victory, construction and reform”.
Known as the face of China’s global outreach for “soft power”, the coercive tactics employed by UFWD, however belie the “softness” of its outreach for gaining influence. The National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based think-tank has coined the term “sharp power” to explain the contrasts between soft power that harnesses culture and values to attract other countries versus China’s coercive tactics and manipulation of opinion abroad. According to the paper, China’s sharp power has three notable characteristics - it is pervasive, it breeds self-censorship and it is hard to nail down proof that it is the work of the Chinese state. “Its sharp power has a series of interlocking components: subversion, bullying and pressure, which combine to promote self-censorship. “For China, the ultimate prize is pre-emptive kowtowing by those whom it has not approached, but who nonetheless fear losing funding, access or influence”.
The party has effectively been able to use its Chinese diaspora, students studying overseas and influential friendships in foreign countries to push its own agenda. United Front officials and their agents, often operating under diplomatic cover as members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, develop relationships with politicians and other high-profile or up-and-coming foreign and overseas Chinese individuals to, in the words of Wilson Center Global Fellow Anne-Marie Brady, “influence, subvert, and if necessary, bypass the policies of their governments and promote the interests of the CCP globally”. Students studying abroad have been identified as the new focus of the UFWD under the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) and are frequently used to target visits by Chinese dissidents on university campuses invited for speeches or to corner professors who discuss issues like Taiwan or Tibet.
Potential Impacts Of China’s “Magic Weapon” On India:
India, a democratic country, having a protracted conflict with China over unresolved borders, demonstrated by the latest Doklam stand-off, is also likely to be a casualty of Chinese spying and influence operations in its domestic politics. Although only around 5,000-7,000 Chinese expats are living and working in cities such as Mumbai, Gurgaon and Bengaluru, the embassy of China is possibly in touch with the diaspora here as can be gauged from the embassy list containing the names and contact details of Chinese companies located in India. While all the Chinese expats living here cannot be targeted as spies, judging from the Australian and New Zealand experience, it would do good for India to be prudent on this front.
In 2016, three journalists of the Chinese official news agency, Xinhua, which is directly under jurisdiction of the state cabinet, were expelled by India, by refusing to renew their visas to work in the country. The move was in response to the journalists overstepping their journalistic brief by visiting Tibetan refugees in Karnataka. In 2017 alone, China has been in the news when Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti signalled Chinese meddling in Kashmir’s affairs. In December, the Ministry of Defence issued a new order to the Indian armed forces, asking officers and all security personnel to remove, uninstall over 42 Chinese apps that have been classified as ‘spyware’.
India-China trade worth $72 billion is vastly tilted to the negative, with India’s trade deficit with China sitting at $51.08 billion in 2016-17. China will actively seek to widen the gap rather than narrow it. As India and China’s strategic competition for resources and influence in global world order intensifies, China could in a number of ways and retaliatory moves by the different fronts of CCP, challenge and derail India’s rise on the world stage.
To sum up, the Western world and primarily the US grossly misread the reform and opening up of China in the 1970s as leading to political reform. This hope shaped relations, where it was assumed that “accommodating” China would not only be good for business but also bring democracy to its doors sooner or later. Instead, China has very craftily used all the opportunities that reform and opening up brought in, participated actively in globalisation and world institutions like International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation and the United Nations to emerge more powerful than ever and challenge the rules-based order led by the US and in turn seek to reform these very global institutions it was part of, while vowing never to let democracy set foot inside China.
The UFWD’s role is also to be seen as actively pushing for a China centric world-order that promotes its voice and policies. Democratic countries, while engaging with China, must now finally realise its goals and realistically reorient their relationships with the party-state. Democracy must be used as a tool to strengthen its domestic policies and its people from the coercive politics played by the Chinese state.