China Policy Institute: Analysis


Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping ramps up his crackdown on the Chinese media – both online and off

Written by Sally Xiaojin Chen.

With almost no notice, any website in China can be shut down on a temporary or permanent basis if it’s deemed to contain “politically incorrect” content. And sure enough, this summer, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced a crackdown on online news reporting, targeting some of China’s most popular internet giants – including Sina, NetEase, Sohu, Tencent, and Phoenix.

While China is used to tight controls on the internet and the media, this was nonetheless a remarkably aggressive move. And it speaks of a renewed zeal for an all-encompassing control of information. Continue reading “Xi Jinping ramps up his crackdown on the Chinese media – both online and off”

China and the UN Convention Against Corruption: A 10- year appraisal

Written by Konstantinos Tsimonis.

The tenth anniversary of China’s ratification of the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) offers a timely opportunity for an appraisal of its engagement with the global anticorruption regime. Two questions are important in this regard. Has China’s socialization in the UNCAC framework initiated the adaptation of its anti-corruption policies to international standards and best practices promoted by the Convention? And what is China’s role in UNCAC’s institutionalisation  process? 

UNCAC is the most comprehensive international anticorruption instrument. Its 71 articles, compared to just 17 in the OECD Anti-bribery Convention, significantly expand the definition of corrupt activities, provide a framework for states to address cross-border corruption, and create a platform for international and bilateral cooperation in asset recovery and extradition. The Convention has 140 signatories and includes key countries, notably China and India.  Continue reading “China and the UN Convention Against Corruption: A 10- year appraisal”

Individual Rights and Corporate Identity in Xi’s China

Written by Ryan Mitchell.

Not long ago, in a coastal Chinese city, I encountered a sight that struck me as remarkable, and perhaps as a subtle marker of social change. Somewhere on the eastern seaboard, I passed by a middle-aged, apparently middle-class person on a boardwalk, in the full light of day, performing what were very clearly the gentle Tai Chi-like exercises of Falun Gong. Not far away, a police officer casually walked his rounds. Neither seemed to take much notice of the other – a situation that, just a few years ago, would have seemed highly unlikely (and just a few years before that, in the full heat of the anti-Falun Gong crackdown, more or less unthinkable).

Though popular religion, along with any form of non-Party sanctioned social movement, ideological discourse, or group affiliation, remain serious sources of paranoia for the Communist Party, what is targeted for repression is often not the mere expression of divergent views, but rather any forms of expression that seem to have the likelihood of sparking mass action and mobilization. Even more than in the pre-Xi era, the Party currently seems able to tolerate anything that seems sufficiently private – like doing one’s exercises alone by the seashore – or even just sufficiently ambiguous that it cannot be read as any kind of call to action. Continue reading “Individual Rights and Corporate Identity in Xi’s China”

Is China Really That Irritable?

Written by J. Michael Cole.

We, or at least international media, seem to have traveled back in time. The current president isn’t Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) but Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). The 16 years that have elapsed since never existed. We are back to an era when everything that Taipei does is bound to “anger” Beijing.

In the past few weeks, the Taiwanese president has “infuriated” Beijing — “from the get go” — by failing to embrace the so-called 1992 consensus and the unsavory “one China” dish that Beijing has been forcing on the Taiwanese people for years. The Taiwanese have “angered” Beijing by electing her and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The Chinese public has been “angered” by Taiwan’s insistence on maintaining its way of life and, as a result, refusal to be absorbed by their giant (and undemocratic) neighbor. One point three billion Chinese are “angered” by Taiwan’s lack of gratitude for all the supposed concessions made by Beijing in recent years. Taiwanese athletes and teenage pop stars have “angered” China for displaying the Republic of China flag. Beijing has been “angry” with Taiwan for the latter’s ability to deal with its nationals who engage in telecom fraud.

Continue reading “Is China Really That Irritable?”

Xi’s Internet: China’s new normal online reality

Written by David Kurt Herold.

During the decade long reign of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao over the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Internet flourished and Chinese netizens began to have a measurable effect on both internal and external politics. Foreign researchers repeatedly argued that the Internet was functioning as a precursor to the emergence of a democratic multi-party system of governance in China.

After Xi Jinping took over between November 2012 and March 2013, the situation changed drastically – a development that can be followed by going through Internet regulations posted on Rogier Creemer’s helpful translation blog China Copyright and Media, or by looking at the postings on the China Media Project site at Hong Kong University.

While the Hu/Wen era could be described as a time during which netizens were able to challenge the power of the party-state, in Xi Jinping’s China, the party (re-)established control over the Internet, ironically arguing that “the Internet is not above the law. Where there is cyberspace, there is rule of law”. This rule of law as applied to China’s online spaces has mainly been enforced and emphasised along three interrelated axes:

While increasing the control of the party-state over the Internet in China, the controls are meant to ensure the development of a “positive, healthy cyber culture” in China that promotes the “interests of the people” of China.

1. Chinese sovereignty over the Chinese Internet

Over the past decade, Chinese authorities have repeatedly raised the issue of their sovereignty over the Internet as it is accessed in China. The 2010 Whitepaper on the Internet in China already spelled out that the importance of the Internet to the Chinese economy and to communications between Chinese people required that the government be prepared to protect and to police the Internet.

This sovereignty-based, or multilateral, approach to Internet governance has been attacked widely as being merely the futile attempt of authoritarian governments to establish control over the ultimately uncontrollable online world. Although the attack fits in well with existing interpretive schemes used in discussions of Chinese politics, it is based on less than rock-solid arguments.

The multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance is often presented as the countermodel to China’s sovereignty-based approach. It basically treats the Internet as something completely new in the history of the world – an artificially created space that can be used to engage in activities outside the strict control of nation states over their national spaces, while being accessible from within these national (offline) spaces. Most famously, this approach is represented by John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence of cyberspace.

The problem with this is that China has a very different – and in many ways more logical – view of the Internet. As the 2010 Whitepaper and other declarations since illustrate, Chinese authorities view ‘the Internet’ as a conglomeration of communication tools between (offline) people and entities. Any form of online interaction or transmission of data in China thus becomes the action of a person or entity under the sovereign rule of the Chinese state, subject to the prevailing laws of the People’s Republic of China.

Put differently, China’s argument is based on the assertion that online communications are comparable to communications by letter, telephone, radio, TV, etc. all of which are regulated through national laws augmented by multilateral treaties between independent nation states under the supervision of the United Nations. ‘Cyberspace’ does not exist and those posting anything to the Internet or accessing a part of it are subject to the laws of the countries in which they do so.

2. Limiting online life

The crackdown against illicit or ‘unhealthy’ activities online has to be seen in this context. The Chinese government is ‘merely’ applying Chinese law to the Internet and its users – and it is doing so far more consistently than authorities did during the Hu/Wen era. The crackdown should probably not be interpreted as an attack on the Internet by the Xi Jinping government, but rather as one of many areas of Chinese life in which existing regulations are now being enforced with far greater vigour than was previously the case.

From the anti-corruption campaign to the reform of the Chinese military, from the crackdown on the Chinese Internet to the tightened control of the behaviour of local party cadres and government officials, the Xi Jinping government – more than anything else – appears to want to enforce a strict adherence to existing laws, rules and regulations, while also conducting an overhaul of these laws and regulations. This may be not so much a new radicalisation of Chinese politics, but rather a ‘normalisation’ of China’s state, party and society – continuous enforcement of the ideologies supporting the Chinese party-state instead of the waxing and waning of government attention to different topics through ever new and short-lived political campaigns.

3. Lessening foreign influence

Chinese governments have never made much of a secret of their desire to obtain foreign know-how, investment, and products without allowing foreigners to gain too much influence on politics or society in China. Bill Bishop, the author of the popular China info service Sinocism talks about the Chinese government’s “long-term agenda to de-Americanize China’s IT stack”.

China’s actions in this regard are usually treated as oppressive, authoritarian and xenophobic, aimed at shutting out the world and denying freedom to its citizens, yet it might be time to revisit these judgments. Why should access to the corporate offerings of a handful of US Internet companies equal freedom of online information? Why should governments and citizens around the world support the frustrated profit drive of these US corporations in the few countries – China prominently among them – who have preferred to create online environments more conducive to the success of home-grown competitors, at times to the point of even blocking the offerings of the otherwise all-mighty US services? Reading the complaints of a journalist about not being able to access Facebook, Twitter or Google while in China reminded me of drug withdrawal symptoms. It raised the ugly spectre of government-supported monopolies instead of serving as a warning against Chinese censorship. Teaching undergraduates suggests that blocking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp may actually be a good thing.

I regard all censorship of information as bad, but judging from a number of research projects I have been involved in over the past few years, the so-called Great Firewall of China has left Chinese citizens better informed and more critically aware than the average citizen of “Asia’s world city”, which boasts about its openness and the high speed of its Internet connections.

As David Bandurski points out, it is far too early to arrive at a final conclusion on whether these developments constitute a new and definite Chinese way of managing the Internet, or just another political campaign that will fizzle out like many previous attempts at bringing order to Chinese cyberspace.

However, while these speculations will keep researchers busy for the foreseeable future, it is interesting to note that despite the increased censorship of political aspects of the Internet, other facets are as free as ever: It is still very easy to acquire fake versions of branded products over the Internet, or to download software, music, movies, or TV shows. Online communities dedicated to the (elsewhere illegal) translation of foreign books or magazines and the provision of Chinese subtitles for foreign TV shows and movies still exist openly. Pornography is still openly accessible, as is information on how to ‘jump the wall’ to access censored portions of the world-wide-web. (Non-political) people and companies can be insulted, harassed or lied about online and even (local) politicians are still permissible targets of online attacks. It might be good for future research on the Chinese Internet to revisit their definitions of ‘freedom’ and ‘desirable government control’, when it is less problematic to download the newest Hollywood blockbusters for free in China than in Europe or the USA.

Is the Chinese Internet only ‘free’ if it permits and forbids the same actions European and American jurisdictions do?

David Kurt Herold is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Image credit: CC by thierry ehrmann/Flickr

China: (not) talking about a revolution

Written by Mark Beeson.

Fifty years ago on May 16 the Cultural Revolution began. Don’t expect this event to be given much attention in China itself, though. The reality is that despite Mao Zedong’s continuing iconic status, his successors in China’s ruling elite don’t know quite how to deal with his legacy.

It’s not hard to see why. During the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1961, which was intended to modernise China’s economy through industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture, tens of millions died, mainly as a consequence of famine.

Mao was eventually criticised for his role in this entirely avoidable catastrophe. It was this threat to his legacy that led him to unleash the Cultural Revolution.

Both of these profoundly important historical episodes are studiously ignored in China today. The rather imposing national museum in Beijing, for example, contains absolutely no reference to the Cultural Revolution, despite the fact that it also led directly or indirectly to the deaths of another million or so.

What is most striking about this period in retrospect, however, is not the current collective amnesia on the part of the governing elites in the Communist Party of China, but the fact that it completely overturned social values that had endured in China for thousands of years.

True, dynasties had collapsed before. But not even the Boxer or Taiping rebellions in the 19th century had inflicted such upheaval, and certainly not on such a scale.

One of the distinctive features of the Cultural Revolution, depicted in graphic detail by Ji Xianlin in The Cowshed, was the role played by the young Red Guards, who were the stormtroopers of Mao’s counter-revolution. Confucian-style respect for learning, the elderly or the traditional social hierarchy were overthrown as part of a convulsive bottom up social movement that delighted in humiliating and torturing perceived class enemies.

Ji details the horrors that were inflicted on him and many of his colleagues at Peking University by his former students, suddenly elevated and empowered by Mao’s megalomania. Public beatings and humiliation became a frequent part of the punishments inflicted on possible “capitalist roaders” and class traitors.

Many of the young people who played such a prominent and spiteful part in these ritualised “struggle sessions” would become victims of the revolution themsleves. Some were sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasantry. Others became the victims of factional warfare within the red Guards themselves.

Only now are some of these stories being told, despite the profound impact it had on both the young and the old during this period.

The leadership of the CCP still finds this period acutely difficult to deal with. Despite some acknowledgement that Mao may have made errors, his portrait still dominates Tiananmen Square. Current president Xi Jinping has embraced some aspects of his legacy.

Worryingly, Xi has also concentrated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao. Xi has also begun to revive some elements of Maoist ideology in order to legitimise the CCP’s continuing political dominance – which lacks any other sort in authoritarian China.

Yet a collective failure to acknowledge or confront the realities of the Cultural Revolution means that important historical lessons go unlearned by subsequent generations. A fundamental lack of political maturity, combined with an absence of real self-criticism or internal debate, are reasons why totalitarian regimes have always been so brittle and at risk of a “Ceaușescu moment”.

It is this potential for social upheaval, to which China is historically especially prone, that helps to explain why the current administration goes to such extraordinary lengths to control social media and internal political discussion. The broadcasts of outlets like the BBC will likely be interrupted if they run stories on the Cultural Revolution today.

None of this means the CCP’s dominance is likely to disappear anytime soon, though. On the contrary, the CCP has become a pivotal vehicle for career advancement and the cultivation of vital political and business connections.

Ironically enough, the capitalist roaders have ultimately triumphed in China and are now frequently prominent and wealthy members of the CCP itself. Mao must be revolving in his mausoleum.

It is this paradox that lies at the heart of the CCP’s current difficulties about how to deal with Mao and his legacy. A more pluralistic and open society – like Germany, for example – might recognise and understand that awful things can happen, learn the lessons, and then move on. No such debate is possible in China without raising very difficult questions about what exactly the CCP is actually for, and why it should remain in unelected power.

The next time I apply for a visa to visit China I may be reminded of the pervasive and rather paranoid reach of China’s security services. Perhaps we will see some “spontaneous” expressions of outrage in response to this post.

And yet any society that needs to exercise that degree of social control to maintain its preferred collective identity and official historical narrative looks anything but secure.

Mark Beeson is a Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia. This article was first published on The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

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