1. The Party at 100
In July this year, the CCP will celebrate its centenary. In celebrating its big birthday, the Party is putting huge efforts into telling an overwhelmingly positive story of its past, one linking its “glorious revolutionary past” to its current day achievements. More than 100 films, TV dramas, operas, documentaries and animated works will be rolled out this year to commemorate the occasion.
But the history that it tells itself, the Chinese people and the world, is a selective, truncated, and twisted version of the past. This is a history filled with “positive energy,” (正能量) drabbed in ethnonationalism, and airbrushed of horrors. This version of history is aimed at serving the Party’s current political agenda. In this story, the CCP has led the Chinese people from one victory to another on an unstoppable march towards national rejuvenation.
This story is, of course, ahistorical. It, for example, airbrushes out the horrors of a past where tens of millions were killed, tortured, maimed, starved, or otherwise suffered through mass political campaigns, state prosecution and violence, civil unrest, and policy failures.
In order to shape historical understanding, the Party has in recent years emphasised the importance of learning what it calls the “four histories”, that is, the histories of the CCP (中共党史), “New China” (新中国史), reform and opening up (改革开放史), and development of socialism (社会主义发展史). In October 2016, at the Sixth Plenum of the 18th CCP Central Committee, “respecting and upholding the four histories” was written into party regulations and rules.
For the CCP, aligning historical understanding within the party is important for ideological belief, cohesion, and political support for Xi’s current agenda. Ensuring its version of history dominates across the Chinese society is important for the Party’s political power because it bolsters its national credential and achievement while downplaying or erasing past policy failures. Getting the Party’s “story of China” out to the wider world is vital for its international image and discursive power.
Beyond building support and shaping perceptions, we argue that the CCP leadership today sees history as an existential matter. To illustrate, in January 2013, shortly after Xi became the CCP General Secretary, he said to a group of top party cadres:
The ancients have a saying, “To destroy a nation of people, one must first remove its history.” It is often the case that hostile forces at home and abroad make use of the history of the Chinese revolution and the history of the new China, doing their utmost to attack, vilify and smear them, with the fundamental aim of upsetting the people and inciting the overthrow of the leadership of the Communist Party of China and our socialist system.
Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? One important reason was the fierce ideological struggle, which led to the total denial of the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, Lenin and Stalin, and historical nihilism, which led to the confusion of ideas, the loss of the role of Party organisations at all levels, and the fact that the army was no longer under the leadership of the Party. In the end, the Soviet Communist Party was scattered and the Soviet Union fell apart as a socialist state.
This is a lesson from the past!
At Neican, we have repeatedly emphasised the importance of historical narratives for understanding China today. This year, those of us watching China will be saturated by historical narratives presented from Beijing. As always, we should all be critically-minded.
2. Securitisation and politicisation of research
The Australian report that:
Five applicants for Australian Research Council grants were blocked from receiving funding of up to $500,000 a year on the orders of former education minister Dan Tehan.
Mr Tehan refused approval last December after national security agencies subjected 18 ARC grant applications to additional checks. The move followed a storm of criticism over the close links of dozens of Australian scientists to Chinese Communist Party talent programs, which aim to transfer foreign technologies to China, particularly those with military applications.
National security is very important, but national security should not have veto power over all decisions made in a country. It is worth remembering that national security is only one aspect of the national interest. It must be assessed against other interests such as prosperity and values. We should not allow national security to override all other aspects of national interest. Otherwise we will end with an illiberal regime.
In the case of research funding, it appeared that national security agencies had the veto power. In assessing these research proposals, we hope that the potential benefit from the research to the Australian society or the Australian economy was taken into account in addition to considerations of national security.
Yun has previously noted the problematic assumption underlying some of the national security concerns about research collaboration with China.
In the United States, where similar national security concerns also exist, researchers and scholars have pushed back against this dominant national security framing. Scholars, such as Margaret Lewis and Rory Truex, have also noted the discriminatory treatment of Chinese Americans with respect to research collaborations. Truex concludes:
In confronting the challenges posed by a rising China, U.S. policy makers must remember that the power of the American scientific enterprise lies not simply in the number of citations or patents it generates, but in the number of bright people from every country in the world who want to come here to do research—because of how we conduct science, speak about politics, and provide opportunity regardless of a person’s nation of origin.
In the end, the U.S. government must also accept that some degree of theft, plagiarism, and loss of intellectual property is the price of America’s open approach. Data and computer code are shared, working papers are circulated, research is disseminated publicly, and participation is open to all. The strength of this model is that it is social; by communicating findings broadly, scientists receive feedback, collaborate, and innovate further. This is the philosophy that has propelled U.S. science ahead of the rest of the world. This model can be abused by bad players—perhaps even by spies—but it is still working far better than a more restrictive alternative would. If Americans cordon off our scientific communities in the name of security, we will be sacrificing our greatest advantage, and the core of who we are.
This is an example of an argument for balancing national security with other aspects of national interests in the US.
But in Australia, such conversation is rare in the public. Debates about research collaboration is exclusively focused on national security. In fact, Yun emailed The Australian her concerns with the current narrative last month. But only voices of those seeing research collaboration as a source of risk were published in the latest article.
At least with indictments in the US, the full accusations and evidence are laid out in public. In contrast, the Australian Government has mostly relied on opaque processes for foreign interference cases, such as citizenship application rejections and visa cancellations on character grounds. The public is never told what these individuals have done to be seen as a national security threat. It is then up to the journalists to paint a story based on alleged “links and connections”.
In addition, although Australia supposedly adopts a ‘country agnostic’ approach in its legislation. The administration and enforcement may not be necessarily country agnostic. A government can “prioritise” foreign interference from certain countries for investigation and enforcement, while turning a blind eye to foreign interference from another country.
In this way, a government can easily “politicise” foreign interference. In some instances, party interests can even be put ahead of national interests, due to the opacity of decision-making.
3. Intellectual property
The Politburo conducted a collective study session on intellectual property (IP) protection at the end of January. In his speech on that occasion, Xi emphasised that China’s IP protection work is currently inadequate and must improve.
Xi couches his argument in economic, social and international policy terms. Economically, he argues that IP protection can improve modern property rights systems, and thus make the market more effective in allocating resources. Socially, it helps improve consumer rights by increasing confidence in products and services and reducing fakes. Internationally, it helps the competitiveness of Chinese firms by protecting indigenous innovation, which has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years.
Xi also points to China’s weaknesses in IP protection. First, there is the lack of awareness of IP protection in society as a whole. Second, IP protection rules are not keeping up with the rapid pace with which technology and business models are changing. Third, coordination between enforcement authorities and judiciary needs to be strengthened. Fourth, it is easy to infringe IP rights while at the same time hard to defend them given infringement are facilitated by new technology. Finally, IP protection for Chinese enterprises that are overseas is not in place (under Chinese law).
In general, IP protection can both encourage and discourage innovation. On the one hand, strong IP protection encourages innovation by providing incentives to innovate. On the other hand, if it’s too strict, it can actually discourage innovation by preventing innovation based on existing technology. Patent abuse can also have negative social costs, as seen by the high cost of medicine in the United States.
It is no surprise that Beijing is focusing more energy on IP protection. China is becoming a bigger exporter of knowledge and technology relative to its imports.
But despite Xi’s words, the likelihood of strong IP protection in China is still a faraway prospect. First, growth is still a top imperative for the Chinese government. While innovation-driven growth, which is becoming increasingly important for the economy, needs an effective system of IP protection, in the short term strict enforcement of IP rules will hamper growth across many traditional sectors.
Second, despite its aspiration for tech self-reliance, China continues to rely on foreign technology and expertise. Tough IP protection and enforcement may hamper China’s ability to become more self-sufficient in technology. This is because it may reduce the incentive for copying foreign tech and other IP that is critical for China’s tech upgrading.
Finally, IP protection, like environment protection, is still relatively low on the list of priorities, both at local and central levels.
IP protection also has important foreign policy implications for Beijing. Biden, like many US political leaders, has been critical of IP theft by the Chinese state and companies. It will likely continue to be a sticking point in the bilateral relationships as there is no strong will for Beijing to strengthen its IP protection to the level desired by the US.
4. Blackface (again?!)
Yes, this year’s Spring Festival Gala featured blackface again.
The CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala (春晚) is a show broadcast on the Spring Festival Eve (New Year Eve). It is the world’s most watched television program. Many families gather together on New Year’s Eve and watch it together to bring in the New Year. However, young people are increasingly turned off from the Gala.
In 2018, the Gala attracted controversies around the world for featuring blackface. It was a Chinese woman dressed in blackface with a monkey (?!). The skit ended with a song by Shakira. You can read Black Livity China’s take on this.
People from around the world, including Africa, have come in increasing numbers to live and work in China in recent years. Many Chinese people have also studied and worked overseas. So the Chinese Government and the CCTV should have been aware of the sensitivities around racism and blackface before 2018. But even if they were not aware in 2018, they should have by now.
As the most watched television program, CCTV could not use the excuse that the Gala is only for Chinese people or people in China. The audience includes Africans and people of African descent in China and Chinese people overseas. In addition, Chinese young people are also more aware of issues around racism than their parents.
But this incident perhaps again highlights the prejudices against certain groups of people in China, in particular, people perceived to be from poorer parts of the world, such as people from Africa or the Indian subcontinent. Unfortunately, anti-Black racism is still very common, and easy to find on social media. Such vile racism is also often mixed with disgusting sexism and pseudoscience to create a narrative around “genetic pollution”. (Yes, I feel ill just typing this).
Domestic racism can also have diplomatic repercussions for Beijing. In early 2020, a number of African countries, including Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda, protested to Beijing over incidents of racial discrimination against Africans in Guangzhou.
5. CCP leadership
In analysing China’s rising political stars (at both provincial and central levels), Neil Thomas at MacroPolo observes:
Xi Jinping may rule supreme in Chinese politics, but he does not rule alone. The huge attention devoted to Xi is understandable but it can obscure important personnel shifts that will shape the next cohort of national leaders, set to be unveiled at the 20th Party Congress in 2022.
Neil is right. Xi may be the most powerful leader in Chinese politics, but behind him is a coalition of China’s political elite made up of complex patronage networks. Xi will depart the political scene at some point, even if it’s not for a while yet. By looking at the career trajectory of those lower down in the pecking order, we can gain insights into Chinese elite politics and bureaucratic change.
We’ll spare you details of individual movements and instead highlight some trends.
At a provincial level, Neil’s analysis shows that experience at a provincial level is important for provincial promotions. In fact, all 10 provincial Party Secretaries newly promoted in 2020 held Governor-level positions (provincial governors are lower in ranking than Party Secretaries of the same province), either in the same province (seven) before their promotion or in a different province (three).
At the central level, Neil’s analysis found connections to Xi and his associates are important for promotions. In fact, six of the nine new cabinet ministers had previously worked for Xi or one of his Politburo associates in the past.