This week’s topics: Fifth Plenum, 14th Five Year Plan, disinformation, pro-Trump and anti-CCP alliance.
1. Fifth Plenum
The Fifth Plenum of CCP Central Committee concluded on Thursday in Beijing after four days behind closed doors. For background on the plenum, see Neican issues of August 2 and October 5, and a short video made by Adam.
In short, the reported outcomes of the plenum held no surprises: Xi was again affirmed as Party’s ‘core’ leader, and the Central Committee signed off on the 14th Five Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development 国民经济和社会发展第十四个五年规划 and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035 (“Vision 2035”) 二〇三五年远景目标.
Since his rise to power in late-2012, Xi has continued to tighten his grips on power. Despite facing numerous challenges in both domestic and international policy, his position has palpably improved since early this year. A big part of this is because China was able to effectively contain COVID while other countries continue to struggle with the pandemic.
Xi has come out of the Fifth Plenum as strong as he has ever been with a clear mandate to lead until the next Party Congress in late-2022. International uncertainty has arguably strengthened his hand because of the perceived need for strong leadership and stability.
Indeed, the Fifth Plenum Communiqué fully affirms the Politburo’s work since the last plenum (held in October 2019), and expresses glowing confidence in Xi’s leadership:
The Plenum unanimously agreed that, in the face of the complex international situation, and the arduous and onerous task of domestic reform, development and stability, especially the serious impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the Central Committee, with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, have and will overcome various risks and challenges so that the the ship of Socialism with Chinese characteristics will continue to brave the wind and waves and sail forward with perseverance. Practice has proved once again that, with Comrade Xi Jinping at the helm, as the core of the Central Committee and of the entire Party…we will surely overcome all kinds of difficulties and hindrances on the road ahead and push Socialism with Chinese characteristics forward even more vigorously in the new era.
It is not rare in Party rhetoric to use the metaphor of the sea for the challenges of the affairs of the state. But in the post-Mao era, it became rare to characterise top leaders as the “helmsman”. Only Mao was known as the “Great Helmsman” 伟大的舵手. The Fifth Plenum Communiqué’s uses the term “core navigator at the helm” 核心领航掌舵to characterise Xi. This is yet another sign of his gradual elevation in the Party pantheon.
Nomenclature matters deeply in the CCP system because it reveals power relations. The infrequent use of the term ‘People’s Leader’ 人民领袖 to refer to Xi, or the potential elevation of Xi’s ideology by shorting it from Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想) to Xi Jinping Thought (习近平思想), are all signs that tell us about power at the top of the Party.
Xi will lead the Party until the next Party Congress in late-2022. No doubt. But how long after that? Given the lack of a named successor and his continued efforts to centralise power, we are confident that he intends to stay on past the next Party Congress, and very likely for some time afterwards. Our guess is that he intends to stay in the top job until 2035, the halfway point between the Two Centenaries (the centenary of the founding of the CCP in 2021 and the centenary of the founding of the PRC in 2049). Whether he succeeds or not will largely depend on Xi’s ability to achieve his mandate given to him by the party-state elite.
The Fifth Plenum approved strategic goals for the forward period through to 2035. In short, by 2035, the CCP aims to complete what it terms “modernisation of socialism” 社会主义现代化 for China. More specifically, this would include:
- Significant rise in China’s comprehensive national strength, including in economic, scientific and technological fields (经济实力、科技实力、综合国力将大幅跃升);
- Total economic output and per capita income of urban and rural residents will rise to new heights (经济总量和城乡居民人均收入将再迈上新的大台阶);
- Achieving major breakthroughs in key core technologies and being at the forefront of innovative countries (关键核心技术实现重大突破，进入创新型国家前列);
- Realisation of new-type industrialisation, informationisation, urbanisation and agricultural modernisation, and the establishment of a modern economic system (基本实现新型工业化、信息化、城镇化、农业现代化，建成现代化经济体系);
- Modernisation of the national governance system and governance capacity, the building of country governed by the rule of law (基本实现国家治理体系和治理能力现代化, 基本建成法治国家);
- Building a strong nation in culture, with the level of social civilisation reaching a new high, and the country’s cultural soft power significantly enhanced (建成文化强国, 国民素质和社会文明程度达到新高度，国家文化软实力显著增强);
- Formation of a green production and lifestyle with carbon emissions steadily declining after reaching their peak, and the ecological environment improved (广泛形成绿色生产生活方式，碳排放达峰后稳中有降，生态环境根本好转);
- Formation of a new pattern of opening up to the outside world, with a marked increase in participation in international economic cooperation and new competitive advantages (形成对外开放新格局，参与国际经济合作和竞争新优势明显增强);
- Per capita GDP has reached the level of a ‘moderately developed’ country, with the disparities between urban and rural regional development and living standards significantly reduced (人均国内生产总值达到中等发达国家水平，城乡区域发展差距和居民生活水平差距显著缩小);
- Achieving a new level of security for China, including with the basic completion of national defence and military modernisation (平安中国建设达到更高水平，基本实现国防和军队现代化)
- The life of the people has become better, with substantial progress made in the all-round development of their common prosperity (人民生活更加美好，人的全面发展、全体人民共同富裕取得更为明显的实质性进展).
These 11 broad strategic goals are not new in and of themselves. Most of them have been articulated and pursued with varying degrees of effort and success. However, the list above together represents an ambitious blueprint to modernise and enhance China’s economic, social, ecological and governance systems. Having now set out these goals at the top level, we expect that this would be followed up with up implementation plans in the months to come.
International environment and foreign policy
The Fifth Plenum Communiqué assesses China’s external environment as the following:
China is still in an important period of strategic opportunity for development at present and for the foreseeable future, but there are new developments in both opportunities and challenges facing the country. The world today is undergoing major changes that have not occurred in a century, with a new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation underway, and a profound adjustment of the international power balance. Peace and development remains the theme of the times with the community of shared future for mankind gaining support, even as the international environment is becoming increasingly complex, with instability and uncertainty increasing significantly.
With this assessment, the Central Committee seems to be saying that China’s prospects continue to be positive (“important period of strategic opportunity”) despite the profound changes shaping its external environment (COVID, weak global economy, US-China rivalry). In addition to the notion that peace will continue to be the dominant feature of the international landscape, the Central Committee’s positive assessment is also driven by the bullish assessment of China’s material foundations, economic prospects, and “system advantages”.
There is a distinct sense in the Fifth Plenum Communiqué as well as the 14th FYP that the focus has turned inwards. One aspect of this is self-reliance and sufficiency. Beijing’s new economic strategy (双循环 “dual circulation”) is based on the idea that the Chinese economy needs to reduce its external exposure, including by securing domestic supply chains and focus on domestic markets. As noted back in August, the reason behind this inward focus is that:
In the eyes of Chinese leaders, the world has changed: it has become more uncertain, and the external environment has become more hostile to China. Given these developments, it’s imperative to turn inward and reinforce China’s domestic economy against external shocks. The days of unbridled optimism over global economic integration and international cooperation is well and truly over.
Over the next few years, we are likely to see this inward turn play out in multiple ways. First, Xi will continue to build up the Party through disciplinary, ideological and organisational reform and enhancements. Second, the 14th FYP will focus on self-resilience, indigenous innovation, and supply chain security. This does not mean closing the door to international economic cooperation, but rather a refocus on China’s domestic developmental potential and minimising risks from external sources. Third, in terms of foreign policy, China is likely to step back from the bold and aggressive approach that it has been taking in the last few years. Beijing has learned a few lessons in the last year or so on the efficacy of what some call “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
There is no reason to think that China’s influence on the global stage will decline. If anything, the COVID has accelerated the “adjustment of the international power balance” in China’s favour. The organic growth of China’s economic and political footprint will be enough to make China loom ever larger in our lives even without a new global strategy from Beijing.
2. The 14th Five Year Plan
The two key focus of the 14th (next) FYP, covering 2021 to 2025, are quality growth and technology self-reliance based on innovation.
On economic growth, quality is emphasised instead of speed. There has been a transition to the emphasis on “quality growth” since 2017. This is due to the expected slowdown in China’s growth as it catches up to developed economies. Quality growth encompasses innovation, efficiency, and environmental protection. Notably, this FYP did not set specific growth targets. This follows the scrapping of the GDP growth target for 2020 earlier in the year, partly due to COVID.
However, China did set a long-term target of GDP per capita equivalent to a “moderately developed country” by 2035. This is a rather vague term open to interpretation. According to Lingling Wei at Wall Street Journal, “That would mean per capita gross domestic product of about US$30,000 a year—somewhere around the levels of South Korea and Spain.”
Most of the 14th FYP appears to be aimed at preparing for a future technology decoupling. This can be seen in the push for technology self-reliance.
The US and other developed countries are increasingly circumspect about China’s technological development and want to prevent China from benefiting further from foreign technologies, including foundational and emerging technologies, which could have military uses. China sees (and we agree) that no matter who wins the US election, the trend to decoupling would not be reversed. This is because the underlying reasons for strategic competition remain, and there appears to be a bipartisan consensus that the US needs to compete more vigorously with China.
In response to that, China is looking to focus more on making technology through directly funding scientific research as well as encouraging research and development investment. As buying foreign technology becomes more difficult, it will be necessary to rely on creating technology domestically. And innovation is crucial for productivity increases and continued economic growth in China. This was already a priority in the 13th FYP, but has become even more prominent and urgent for the 14th FYP. With its net-zero emission target by 2060 announced last month by Xi at the UN, China is likely to focus on alternative energy sources where there is competitive advantages, so it can rely less on imported energy, including coal from countries such as Australia.
To further insulate from potential international shocks, China is looking to expand the domestic market. This is one of the central themes of the “dual circulation” strategy. However, China has attempted to transition from export-driven to consumption-driven economic model before with limited success. And such transition may require economic and social transformation on a massive scale with major and long term implications for China and the world.
We have to wait until March next year for some concrete action plans for the FYP. In terms of timeline, here is what we can expect:
Source: Vincent Zhu via Rhodium Group.
3. Disinformation and pro-Trump anti-CCP
A lot to process this week on disinformation, election interference, and the alliance between Trump-supporter and anti-CCP forces.
The general sentiment expressed by those who are against the CCP and support Trump seems to be “the enemy of the enemy is my friend”. For those who support questionable research on the CCP, it appears to be “the end justifies the means”. Since they see exposing or condemning the CCP as a moral crusade, it follows that anything to achieve that, no matter the method or the collateral cost is justified. And those who are concerned about such methods or costs are merely considering their own personal benefit rather than thinking of the “greater good”.
Balding and Apple Daily
This week, NBC reported that an “intelligence document” disseminated by a well-known US China academic Christopher Balding was a work of disinformation. The report, allegedly authored by “Martin Aspen” purportedly shows links between Hunter Biden and China. This report was widely circulated in the US. However, it emerged that neither the alleged author nor the intelligence firm that he supposedly worked for actually exists. Balding later admitted that he authored parts of the report himself. Elise Thomas, an open-source intelligence researcher from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, was one of the first to uncover the irregularities.
But wait, it did not stop there. Balding then claimed that Apple Daily had commissioned him to write the report. Apply Daily, founded by Jimmy Lai, is a Hong Kong newspaper that is highly critical of the Chinese Government. Jimmy Lai is also a Trump supporter.
Jimmy Lai then claimed that his aid, Mark Simon, took money from Lai’s account without his knowledge to pay Balding for the report. Supposedly Simon paid Balding US$10,000 over six months for the report. There are still disputes between Simon and Balding over who requested what and who wrote what.
In summary, on the surface, it appears that a foreign person/entity has commissioned a US scholar to spread disinformation to influence the US election.
Balding’s previous works on Huawei CV and Zhenhua data leak were also widely reported around the world. They both confirmed most people’s existing beliefs about Huawei and China’s surveillance efforts. Scholars have at the time raised concerns about Balding’s sources, methodology and conduct. But those concerns were dismissed by many in the security policy and foreign policy circles. Some even went one step further and questioned the motivations and background of those who raised concerns.
Had he continued to only write up anti-CCP leaks and research, he may not have suffered the reputational cost from this latest saga. The reason why there is such a backlash now is that he strayed into an area of work that doesn’t conform with the politics of many people. This may sound controversial, but we believe, sadly true.
There are two things we should learn from this:
One, be very wary of confirmation bias. We should be critical of a research’s framework, sources, and methodology, even (or especially) if the conclusion confirms our beliefs. Just because a research reaches what we perceive as a correct conclusion does not mean that it is a good or valid piece of research.
Two, we should not impute motivations on those who question research. Just because someone questions a piece of research that reaches an anti-CCP conclusion does not mean that person is a CCP stooge or paid by the CCP. Unfortunately, this accusation is all too common in the China debate. This is a very important point that is fundamental to respectful debate and engagement.
Ultimately, there are high incentives for misconduct and substandard research in the current media environment. Any work that confirms existing beliefs on China are usually very quickly covered by the media (especially if it involves an ‘exclusive’ or ‘leaks’), potentially used in policy reports and affecting public sentiment. Even if a retraction was to follow, the impact has already been felt. Anyone still remember the “Chinese spy” Wang Liqiang saga?
Moreover, there does not appear to be enough penalties for people who have engaged in this kind of behaviour to deter them. Peter Navarro, who frequently cites a ‘China expert’ that he invented himself is still influential in the US Administration. General (Retired) Robert Spalding, whose book had no footnotes or citations, is still taken as an expert on China by the US establishment, including the Hudson Institute.
Guo Wengui, Steve Bannon and ‘New Federal State of China’
Guo Wengui, who is allied with Steve Bannon, portrays himself as a very wealthy anti-CCP dissident. Through unverifiable “revelations” released on social media, he has amassed a large following in the anti-CCP diaspora community in the US and Australia. Last month, his new political group ‘New Federal State of China’ distributed pamphlets on COVID-19 disinformation in Australia, which claimed that the CCP designed and deployed the pandemic. That is a conspiracy theory.
This week, it emerged that Guo has encouraged his supporters to harass Chinese dissidents in the US, claiming that they are CCP spies. Guo called this “eliminate the traitors campaign” and has released a list of names for targets. Pastor Bob Fu, who provides legal aid to Christians in China, has seen daily demonstrations outside his family home. Similar scenes are also happening in Canada and Australia. What appears to be driving Guo is personal vendetta rather than any evidence that these dissents are CCP operatives.
Perhaps the most influential anti-CCP, pro-Trump organisation is Falun Gong and its Epoch Times media group. The Epoch Times used to be a small-scale newspaper focused on China and anti-CCP activities. It became hugely influential once it started to support Donald Trump, supercharging itself through spreading its content via rightwing groups and influencers
Although known for spreading misinformation, many right-wing politicians have shared contents from Epoch Times, including Trump himself, and recently, Senator Abetz in Australia, when Epoch Times Australia wrote an article saying Abetz “found support amongst Australia’s Chinese community”.
Hong Kong and Taiwan
A poll found that Taiwan was the only place in the Asia Pacific where Trump is a preferred candidate. In Hong Kong, some pro-democracy protesters also support Trump, as they perceive Trump to be more willing to be tough on China. This is despite Trump’s praise for dictators, his ambivalence about Beijing coercive policies in Xinjiang, and authoritarian and racist streak.
However, his tough rhetoric on China appears to have won him friends, including among Hong Kongers and Chinese intellectuals. Even though he never really cared for human rights, some people believe that his anti-China rhetorics would force China to change its Hong Kong policies. The thinking here appears to be that the enemy of the enemy is my friend.
- “State of Surveillance” is a report from Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg on China’s surveillance efforts using Chinese government procurement notices related to the purchases of surveillance technology and services: From large cities to small towns, whether they are assessing residents’ basic needs or trying to predict future behavior, officials engaged in surveillance are pursuing a single goal: to keep China’s citizens under near-constant watch. Even if the system never reaches its intended apogee, it doesn’t need to work perfectly to be an effective means of control.
- Another fantastic piece by Yangyang Cheng, this time on citizenship and personhood. On why many first-generation Americans support tougher immigration policies: For many first-generation Americans, the arduous road to citizenship is inseparable from citizenship itself. The cost underwrites the value. The perils magnify the reward. Surviving the journey and emerging victorious is instrumental to their identity. They have earned it, so they believe. Their sense of superiority depends on the perpetuation of scarcity. They’ve not only accepted the capricious and harsh criteria for citizenship as part of how the world is, but internalized them as how the world should be.
- @BadChinaTake wrote a career advice column “for the aspiring China analyst” that is actually a searing critique of the US foreign policy think tank culture. We especially like this tongue-in-cheek (albeit sad) “advice”: Particularly if you are Chinese or Chinese American, you may well have to deal with asinine accusations of Fifth Column leanings from the right. The best way to inoculate yourself against this is to broadcast your hatred of communism in all its manifestations—the CCP, Nancy Pelosi, universal healthcare proposals—whenever you can.
This week on China Story:
Mark Beeson, A community of shared destiny? Xi Jinping talks a lot about a possible ‘community of shared destiny’. Sounds like a good idea, but one that’s sharply at odds with much recent Chinese foreign policy. Nevertheless, it could offer a way of resetting the PRC’s international relations, especially if it is based on common environmental problems.
Jane Golley, The Australian Centre on China in the World and the China Story Project: In Search of Silver Linings: In a year that has been harrowing in so many ways, these last few weeks have been particularly unpleasant for many of us involved in the increasingly ugly and fractious “China debates”. Well before Senator Abetz’s alarming inquisition into the loyalties of three Chinese-Australians, I had been reflecting on my own part in these debates, and on the role of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) and the China Story Project as well. This is my attempt to articulate some of those reflections in writing.
China Neican is a newsletter by Yun Jiang and Adam Ni from the China Policy Centre in Canberra. It is also published as a weekly column on the China Story blog. Neican 内参 or “internal reference” are limited circulation reports only for the eyes of high-ranking officials in China, dealing with topics deemed too sensitive for public consumption. Our writing, however, is open to everyone. To receive regular updates, please subscribe. You can find past issues of Neican here.