1. The storming of the Capitol
The storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters is a vivid reminder that national security threats don’t just come from the “outside” but often originate at home, and sometimes within the government itself. A myopic focus on China that squeezes out other national security priorities could be just as damaging as not taking China policy challenges seriously.
National security priorities
While the US Government has focused on threats coming from China in recent years, it has consistently turned a blind eye to the threats from domestic far-right extremists, including their infiltration of law enforcement and security services. We saw this dramatically underlined on January 6: even as the Trump mob was in the process of storming the Capitol, Mike Pompeo was still tweeting about 5G and the dangers of Huawei.
As Elsa Kania notes:
[E]ven in the face of such urgent dangers to the security and integrity of U.S. national security, certain American politicians and policymakers continue to assert that the primary dangers to the United States and its national security come from China. To be sure, China’s rise presents significant challenges…yet to point to a foreign adversary or competitor as the chief threat when there is such shameful sedition at home is at best terribly discordant…Over the past four years, American strategy has concentrated on “great-power competition” as a priority. But from today we should be more concerned about great-power self-destruction, as the failures of leadership during the Trump administration and attempted sabotage of our democracy by right-wing extremists continues, in ways that can also benefit Beijing.
US politicians are not alone among Western politicians in prioritising threats from China far above home-brewed threats. For example, many Australian political leaders have been focusing on, and in some cases overblowing, threats coming from China, while denying or downplaying the dangers of right-wing extremism.
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells attacked Australia’s domestic intelligence chief for using the term “right-wing” while warning of the growing threat of right-wing extremism.
Liberal/National MPs George Christensen and Craig Kelly have been spreading disinformation in support of Trump. When asked whether he will condemn the MPs for their actions, Prime Minister Morrison replied: “Australia is a free country. There’s such a thing as freedom of speech in this country and that will continue.”
There is no doubt that China poses formidable challenges. Yet, that should not blind governments to other threats to national security.
Democracy and doing the right thing
Following the storming of the Capitol, one narrative became commonplace among the foreign policy observers: the biggest beneficiary of the crisis confronting US democracy is China. This narrative has been used to shame those that have contributed to this crisis by pointing to an external enemy.
But democracies should not need the existence of an external enemy to do the right thing.
Our “China challenge” is a reflection of our own anxieties, fears and domestic politics. Beijing poses numerous challenges, but these challenges are mediated, understood, and twisted through our own frameworks and biases. We use China as the “other” that stands in contrast to “us”. China is a real country with real people and real problems, it’s not a stand-in for your problems, imagined or real.
The rhetoric of democracy vs authoritarianism that many leverage in their China discourse collapses the complexity and obscures the true fight for human freedom, a battle not between China and the West, but between those oppressed and those that are oppressing them across the world.
The US: some lessons
According to the ABC:
This sense of shock also ricocheted through the circles of Australian foreign policy analysts and experts trying to grapple with the full implications of the political psychosis which now seems to have a grip on millions of Americans.
We were surprised by this shock! Have they not been paying attention in the last four years of Trump’s presidency? Did Trump and his supporters not tell us in plain language exactly what they intended to do?
In any case, here are two observations. First, many Australians see the US and China through ideological lenses that idealise democracy and authoritarianism as absolute categories instead of relative states. While in recent years the Australian Government and foreign policy analysts have become more “clear-eyed” (a buzzword) on China, we have certainly not become more “clear-eyed” on the US. Australian political leaders and mainstream media talk ceaselessly about China’s threats. But they have mostly ignored Trump’s threat to democratic values, a threat rooted in a century of American imperialism.
Many are trying hard to convince themselves that the US has not changed, that it would be “business as usual” when Biden replaces Trump in the White House. It may be comforting to hear Biden say “This is not who we are.” But just as China has changed under Xi and becomes more authoritarian (something that most Australians now realise), the US has also changed under Trump. Even with a Biden Administration, there will still be significant challenges to social and political cohesion. Democracy in the US will likely be gripped by instability for years to come. We are closer to the beginning than the end.
There is a common saying among those who study CCP ideology: that you just have to read what the CCP writes and listen to what it says. The same thing is true for Trump and his supporters. They were clear. We just had to listen.
The act of seeing the US through rosy lenses is quite obvious in the languages we use. For example, when Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne made a speech about disinformation, she only mentioned China and Russia. What’s coming out of the US is not referred to as “disinformation” at all. Similarly, interference from China is labelled interference, but not when it’s from the US.
This is illustrative of a foreign policy based on expediency and prejudice, and not principles.
Second, the circle of “Australian foreign policy analysts and experts” and the media are not diverse enough. The issue of race is very prominent in the US. Before the latest crisis, there have been many incidents of armed white supremacists protesting at and occupying government buildings. But these incidents were more often than not ignored by those in the Australian foreign policy circles, because they are “racial” or “social” issues, which are deemed nowhere as sexy or important as “strategic competition” and “foreign interference”. People from different racial backgrounds and their allies would probably have paid more attention to “racial” issues.
For those who have been paying attention to white supremacy, far-right movements, or disinformation in the US, this really should not come as a surprise at all. For example, Jennifer Hunt who researches disinformation in the US has warned Australia about this. And Australia should be vigilant, as it shares some similar problems to the US.
Our myopic focus on China when it comes to national security must be supplanted by a perspective informed by evidence, history, self-reflection, and empathy.
2. Hong Kong: mass arrests
The US is not the only place where democracy is under assault this week. In Hong Kong, local authorities rounded up more than 50 pro-democracy politicians and activists on alleged violations of the National Security Law. They potentially face charges of subversion for their role in an unofficial primary election held last year.
Since the National Security Law came into effect in July 2020, the Beijing and Hong Kong governments have escalated their campaign against the political opposition. In November, Beijing ousted four pro-democracy legislators from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. The remaining 15 opposition legislators resigned in solidarity. In August, a dozen opposition candidates for the upcoming Legislative Council election were disqualified on the grounds of advocating for independence and/or objecting to the National Security Law. And during the year, the authorities arrested and/or imprisoned a number of high profile opposition activists, including media mogul Jimmy Lai, and former Demosistō leaders, Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong.
The latest sweeping arrests further reduce the public space for dissent and political opposition in the city. When the National Security Law was first imposed, Beijing argued that the law’s applicability would be narrow, targeting only those posing egregious threats. But it is clear that the law is being used to target normal political activities and expressions.
Beijing is not only interested in shutting down secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, it wants to shut down dissent. Period. It is obvious that the prospect for Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy in 2021 is very gloomy indeed.
As Beijing continues to erode the freedoms of Hong Kongers and the autonomy of the city, we will likely see ongoing oppression and resistance. Oppression will sow seeds of resentment and prompt resistance on which basis Beijing would justify further coercive measures.
Hong Kong’s descent into darkness continues…
3. United Front regulations
The CCP publicly released the CCP United Front Works Regulations 中国共产党统一战线工作条例 on Wednesday. This set of regulations is an updated version of the trial regulations on united front work that was published in September 2015.
For background, the united front is both a strategy as well as an institutional system that the CCP uses to gain influence and maintain legitimacy. In recent years, much international attention has been focused on united front operations in the context of foreign influence and interference. However, it’s worth pointing out that united front efforts are overwhelmingly domestically-oriented.
For Mao, the united front is one of “three talismans” of the CCP, alongside party-building and military struggle. The importance of united front work declined following the Communist consolidation of power in the 1950s, as the relationship between the CCP and China’s elites turned decisively from co-optation towards prosecution.
The importance of united front work rebounded in the 1990s with China’s rapid economic development and social change. Under Xi, the united front system has undergone a renewal, with more resources and elevated bureaucratic importance. The underlying logic is that co-optation and influence have acquired added importance as the Party re-tighten control over the Chinese society. This is especially so in light of the formation of new social groups, professions and identities from the profound social, economic and technological changes of the past two decades.
Now, to the new regulations…there are two major changes between the 2015 trial regulations and the new regulations that stood out. The first appears at the beginning of the new regulations:
Article 1. This regulation is formulated in accordance with the Constitution of the Communist Party of China. It is formulated in order to strengthen the centralised and unified leadership of the Party over united front work, improve its scientificness, standardisation and institutionalisation, and consolidate and develop the Patriotic United Front.
The “centralised and unified leadership of the Party over united front work” bit is key because it underscores the vision and challenge for united front work. The Central Committee created the Central United Front Work Leading Small Group 中央统战工作领导小组 alongside the 2015 trial regulations, the first of its kind. From 2017 to 2018, the united front system saw major organisational restructuring and streamlining. In short, the CCP has been revamping the hardware and software of the United Front so that it can tackle new challenges, such as influencing new social groups. And centralised party leadership is now seen as the guiding principle of united front work as opposed to a more decentralised mode of operation.
The second major change that stands out is the clear articulation of the principles of united front work, which were not in the 2015 trial regulations:
Article 4. The principles of the united front work are:
(a) Adherence to the leadership of the Communist Party of China.
(2) Adhering to holding high the banner of patriotism and socialism
(3) Adhering to the centre and serving the overall situation
(4) Adherence to great unity and solidarity
(5) Adhering to the correct handling of the relationship between unity and diversity
(6) Insist on respecting, safeguarding and taking care of the interests of allies
(7) Insisting on making friends outside the Party extensively and deeply
(viii) Adhering Great United Front Work plan.
Here are the targets of united front work:
Article 5. The scope of united front work:
(i) Members of [China’s] democratic parties.
(ii) Persons without party affiliation.
(iii) Intellectuals outside the Party
(iv) Persons belonging to ethnic minorities
(v) Persons from religious circles
(vi) Persons from the non-public sector of the economy
(vii) People from new social strata
(viii) Persons who have gone abroad to study and those who have returned from study abroad
(ix) Hong Kong and Macao compatriots
(x) Compatriots in Taiwan and their relatives on the mainland
(xi) Overseas Chinese, returned overseas Chinese and their families
(xii) Other people who need to be contacted and united.
The targets of the united front are people outside the Party, with emphasis on the representatives of these people.
In addition to the clarifying of overall orientation and the addition of united front work principles, the new regulations also contain three new chapters: “New Social Strata united front work 新的社会阶层人士统一战线工作”; “Overseas united front work and overseas Chinese affairs work 海外统一战线工作和侨务工作”; and “United Front Work Department Self-Development 统战部门自身建设”. These new chapters highlight the areas of increased focus for the United Front system.
Below is a rough translation of the chapter on Overseas united front work and overseas Chinese affairs work:
Chapter X Overseas United Front Work and Overseas Chinese Affairs Work
Article 37. The main tasks of overseas united front work are: to strengthen ideological and political leadership, enhance the love of overseas Chinese and overseas students for the motherland and their understanding and acceptance of the Communist Party of China and socialism with Chinese characteristics; to inherit and carry forward the excellent Chinese culture and promote cultural exchanges between China and overseas; to encourage overseas Chinese to participate in China’s reform and opening up and socialist modernization and integrate into the great national rejuvenation; to curb “Taiwan independence” and other separatist forces and safeguard the core interests of the country; to play the role of a bridge and link to promote friendship between China and overseas and create a favourable international environment.
Article 38: The main tasks of overseas Chinese affairs work are: to focus on the theme of uniting efforts and sharing the Chinese dream and strengthen the work of representatives of overseas Chinese, returning overseas Chinese and their families, gather their hearts and minds, pool their wisdom, bring their strength into play, safeguard their interests and serve them; to coordinate domestic overseas Chinese affairs and overseas Chinese affairs work abroad, focus on cultivating overseas Chinese resources, guide overseas Chinese, returning overseas Chinese and their families to devote themselves to the modernisation of the motherland, safeguard and promote the reunification of China, to realise the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, to enhance friendship and cooperation and exchanges between the Chinese people and the people of the world, and promote the building of a community with shared future for mankind.
Protect the legitimate rights and interests of overseas Chinese, care for their survival and development, promote the building of a harmonious overseas Chinese community, educate and guide overseas Chinese to abide by the laws of their country of residence, respect local culture and customs, better integrate into mainstream society, contribute their wisdom and strength to the economic and social development of their country of residence, and fully demonstrate the image of a law-abiding, honest, civilised, caring, united and harmonious overseas Chinese community.
Protect the legitimate rights and interests of overseas Chinese and their families, give appropriate due consideration to the characteristics of overseas Chinese and their families, and actively play their advantageous role of having extensive ties with overseas.
In sum, the United Front system is undergoing a renewal because united front tactics have acquired an added importance in light of China’s transformation in recent decades. The Party needs to influence the non-party elite and legitimise itself perhaps more so than any time since 1949. United Front is the velvet glove of the party-state in a new era epitomised by online celebrities, rising religiosity, and tech entrepreneurs. The latest regulation should be seen as another sign of the institutionalisation and revival of united front work and system under Xi.
4. China’s work culture
Understanding labour rights and labour movements are crucial for understanding China. Labour movements have been the cause of unrest, protests, and subjected to crackdowns by authorities. The Made in China Journal has made a syllabus on Chinese Labour.
Migrant workers is a marginalised group that faces numerous social injustices and state-sanctioned discrimination. They work in factories with poor working and living conditions, in many cases under the strict control of the factory owners or labour-hire companies. The social security and welfare provided by the government are substandard, due to their rural hukou (household registrations).
More recently, the plights of workers at tech companies have also come under the spotlight. Jack Ma of Alibaba and Richard Liu of JD.com both publicly support the “996 system”. The 996 system is where employees work from 9 am to 9 pm for six days a week. It is a system mostly associated with tech companies in China. In 2019, there was a viral campaign against 996 on GitHub. However, it did not appear to achieve the desired effect.
Pinduoduo 拼多多 is an e-commerce platform, like Alibaba and JD.com. It is listed on NASDAQ. This week, the death of a 22-year-old Pinduoduo employee who collapsed while working home at 1:30 am created a strong reaction online. While the death is not officially linked to overwork, it sparked virulent criticism of 996. Criticisms only intensified after Pinduoduo posted a dismissive response, saying that “Look at people from the underclass, which one is not trading their lives for money… This is an era where you use your life to fight (拼 pin)”. Pinduoduo later claimed the message was posted as a mistake. Later this week, another employee of Pinduoduo committed suicide. The latest incident reminded many of Foxconn suicides in 2010.
Another employee was fired within half an hour of posting anonymously about his colleague who collapsed after overwork. He said employees at Pinduoduo are required to work in excess of 300 hours a month (more than 75 hours a week). If you can understand Mandarin, watch the full video. Some of the online reaction made references to the PRC National Anthem (Arise, those who refuse to be slaves) or the Internationale (Arise, slaves afflicted by hunger and cold):
A Pinduoduo front-end developer speaks up about working hours (300-380/month) and conditions after getting fired for sending anonymous tips online.
Video goes viral.
“Let the proletariat unite!”
“Unite for what? Their unions and strike and protest. What can we do?” pic.twitter.com/bm7mDJCz6H
— Yiqin Fu (@yiqinfu) January 10, 2021
The labour abuse situation in China is reminiscent of early capitalism from a Charles Dickens’ novel. The CCP got in power supposedly on the back of support from peasants and workers, but peasants and workers are the ones that are most disadvantaged in the New China. Although China has labour protection laws, including those outlawing overwork, most authorities are not interested in enforcing these labour standards. The authorities’ interests are more aligned with the “capitalists” or the business owners, through industrial development, taxation, and/or profiteering through corruption.
There are no independent unions. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions is the only “union”, though it is more interested in helping to create a stable political environment rather than addressing genuine grievances.
Peasants and workers are idealised in the People’s Republic. During the Mao era, they were idealised as the purest of revolutionary classes. And yet, their interests are often low on the priority of the government. Likewise, today’s urban low-end tech workers and delivery drivers are agitating for better treatment, including by voicing their reservation about the 996 culture.