Neican: Racism, Allies, Hostages, and Formalism and bureucratism

Sunday was the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. But in Australia, it has become Harmony Day, which sweeps racism under the rug. The word “harmony” (和谐) is also used by CCP as a euphemism.

1. Anti-Asian racism

In Atlanta, United States, a man shot dead eight people in a rampage targeting spas on Tuesday, 16 March. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent. This comes as violence and harassment against people of Asia descent spiked in the past year in the US, Australia and elsewhere.

The latest event has been traumatic for many Asian Americans. This still triggered high anxiety for us, even though we’re half the world away in safer places.

Some are speculating whether the motivation was misogyny, racism or attitude towards sex work. It is actually very difficult to disentangle these issues. Western societies have a long history of fetishising Asian women, including by depicting them in a hypersexualised manner in popular culture. Many US commentators also refer to the Page Act of 1875 as an example of long-standing discrimination against Asian women. The law effectively targeted and prohibited Chinese women from entering the US.

As one of the very few Chinese-Australians who work in foreign policy, we feel we have a responsibility to write about the potential effect of foreign policy debates on Asians or people of Asian descent living in the West. Unfortunately, this issue is still largely ignored by the foreign policy community at large. In Australia, foreign policy debates are dominated by white men, and voices representing different perspectives are often missing.

In this week’s Chinoiserie, we selected some articles examining the interaction between foreign policy debates and racism. The question for our readers is: what are you doing to minimise harm?

A personal reflection by Yun

I’m particularly incensed by the police spokesperson on the day of the tragedy. He said that the suspect was having “a really bad day” and relayed the suspect’s denial that it was a hate crime (which carried a much longer sentence).

I am incensed by this particular remark because this is such a familiar experience. The sympathy of the authority (almost always white) often lies with the perpetrator of racism rather than the target. This is because as Saimi Jeong put it “Many white people, having never experienced racism, know only the fear of being accused of racism, and some see the accusation as the greater threat.”

Here I will relay my personal experiences. I can only safely say this now because it occurred many years ago. I was accused of “disrespect” because I told some people about racism I experienced at work. The powers that be (including HR) did nothing about these incidences of racism I described, but warned me about talking openly about these experiences. So it’s clear they realise that something unacceptable has happened, and yet, they chose to target the victim of racism rather than the perpetrator. Indeed, in their framing, the perpetrator of racism is the victim (of “disrespect”).

This episode was very traumatic for me so I spoke to counsellors specialising in employee assistance while going through it. One particular counsellor said I was being too sensitive about racism, after I described specific racist languages and attitudes (such as Chinese people spreading viruses and Korean products containing pests, this was before COVID). That was also the first time a counsellor hung up on me before the allotted time for the phone appointment was up.

I didn’t raise this issue for many years because I didn’t want to be seen as a “troublemaker”, which would have a negative effect on my career. This is the same reason why many women don’t speak up about workplace sexual harassment. And indeed, if workplaces can’t even deal with men who sexually harass women, what hope do I have for them to deal with racism?

Media reporting on racism

The issue of race has not been “mainstreamed” in Australian media. In some instances, articles about racism in Australia quoted white men only. This should not be acceptable.

This is because “racism” is usually only a concern for “multiculturalism” reporters. In these reports specifically about racism, they would quote some diverse voices.

But when it comes to foreign policy and national security, suddenly only quoting white men is accepted, even if the media report touches the issue of race. More often than not when China accuses Australia of racism, Australia media outlets turn to white strategists for comments instead of Chinese Australians or people that work on racism issues. In this way, the media and others have created a division between the domain of foreign policy on the one hand, and racism on the other.

But this division is artificial, so we must always be mindful about the potential consequences of what we say and write. To illustrate, as Professor Russell Jeung said about the United States (equally applicable to Australia): “When America China-bashes, then Chinese get bashed, and so do those who look Chinese. American foreign policy in Asia is American domestic policy for Asians.”

We also need to think about why some people assume people of Asian descent would be biased when writing about a shooting incident simply because the victims look like them. Yet even though the perpetrator is white, no question is asked about white writers’ bias. Why do we assume white people are never biased due to their ethnic or cultural background (the same question applies to foreign policy analysts)?

2. US-China and allies

China and the US held their first high-level meeting after Joe Biden took over the White House.

The press event went way over time as the two sides sought to push their public messaging. Although clearly a show for the press, it highlights the combative attitude of both sides even as they restart high-level talks.

The readout from the US side was short. Secretary Blinken mentioned five issues that two sides are fundamentally at odds with each other: China’s action in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan, and cyberspace. He also listed four areas for potential cooperation: Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and climate.

The protectionist instinct appears to have remained intact with the new administration: protecting the interests of workers and American businesses is also mentioned. But this has toned down significantly compared to the Trump Administration, at least in public messaging on China.

China’s official Xinhua report of the meeting was much more extensive. The tone is slightly positive, if somewhat boilerplate. The meeting was described as “timely, helpful, and deepened mutual understanding” as well as “candid, in-depth, long-time and constructive”. It recognised that “the current situation damaged the interests of people in both countries” and “should not be continued”.

The readout uses a large section on defending China against human rights criticisms. It characterises human rights criticisms as “smear” or attempts to “interfere in China’s internal affairs”, both common retorts from Beijing. It then paid special attention to issues on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet.

While it also lists areas for potential coordination: climate change, the Iranian nuclear issue, Afghanistan, the Korean Peninsula and Myanmar. They’re devoid of any details and covered in only one sentence near the end.

Overall, there is no breakthrough from this meeting, but no one was expecting any anyway. The meeting is just a continuation of the current dynamics and trajectory. The focus definitely remains on differences rather than common interests.

Allies and partners

A few days before the US-China meeting, the US Indo-Pacific co-ordinator, Kurt Campbell, gave an interview to the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. We know that the Biden Administration will place a lot more prominence on allies and partners when dealing with China. And Australia is an excellent example, as it arguably suffered the most from China’s recent trade actions.

Campbell said that “We have made clear that the US is not prepared to improve relations in a bilateral and separate context at the same time that a close and dear ally is being subjected to a form of economic coercion.” He also mentioned the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan as other countries that have been targeted by China.

Indeed, “allies and partners” appeared three times in the very short readout by the US Government from the Alaska meeting.

The Australian Government is no doubt appreciative of the public support from the US, even if it’s only diplomatic so far. It will be able to avoid the criticism that Australia is alone in this and other countries (including the US) are benefiting economically from Australia’s stance.

Whether the US is prepared to pay the cost to defend Australia’s interests remains to be seen. Public support is well and good, but would the US be willing to incur economic costs in order to support Australia?

But the cost may not be too high. One thing the US Government could do is to link its tariffs on China to China’s trade actions against Australia. For example, the US Government could commit to reducing tariffs on Chinese imports if and only if China drops all trade actions (including any unofficial ones) against Australia. This makes sense as Australia runs a large trade surplus with China while China runs a large trade surplus with the US.

If the US is willing to do this, it would provide more concrete support to Australia’s suffering export industries. And it would give substance to its political rhetoric about prioritising the interests of US allies when dealing with China.

3. Trials of the two Canadians

Talking about US allies, Canada can also use some help from the US in its dealing with China. On the eve of the Alaska meeting, Beijing announced that the two Canadians that it is holding on suspicion of spying — Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig — will be tried on 19 and 22 March respectively.

Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur, and Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, were detained by Chinese authorities in December 2018, days after the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou by Canadian authorities. Meng is held in Vancouver pending extradition proceedings that may see her transferred to the US to face charges of fraud, trade secrets theft, and violation of US sanctions against Iran.

Beijing has made it clear, both implicitly and explicitly, that the Canadians are held as hostages, and that their fate is linked to Meng’s. Canada can secure their release by freeing Meng.

If this impasse is to be resolved then the US needs to play an important role, either by dropping its extradition request of Meng or by applying pressure on Beijing. In February, Secretary of State Blinken pledged “absolute solidarity” with Canada on this issue. We don’t know whether and how hard the US delegation pressed Beijing on releasing the two Canadians during the Alaska meeting.

In any case, the timing of the trial suggests that Beijing wants to pile the pressure on instead of softening its stance. This message was reinforced by China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, at the Alaska meeting when he talked about Beijing’s general attitude towards US-China relations:

The United States is not in a position to speak to China from a position of superiority, the Chinese people don’t take this crap.


Beijing’s actions with regards to the two Canadians shows that Beijing is not shy about using domestic law as a diplomatic tool. It’s also a reminder that political friction between China and other countries could have detrimental consequences for people-to-people ties. For instance, a number of China researchers we know have become increasingly reluctant in visiting China, partly due to increased risk but also due to the rising difficulty of conducting research in China across many fields.

4. Formalism and bureaucratism

WSJ published an article by Chun Han Wong earlier in the month titled “Xi Jinping’s Eager-to-Please Bureaucrats Snarl His China Plans”. The central thesis of the article is that Xi’s top-down approach to governance and his ambitious agenda have run into an old foe: bureaucracy.

The article gives a few examples from well-known campaigns, such as poverty alleviation and recent ideological education campaigns. In one example, local officials ordered houses in a village to be painted white to make them more appealing to their bosses. In another, some users of Xuexi Qiangguo (学习强国; “Learn From Xi to Strengthen the Nation”), a political education and propaganda app promoted by the CCP, found ways to simulate usage in order to meet quotas.

Sycophantic behaviour by officials to please their superiors is nothing new. Moreover, every Chinese ruler has had to deal with the duplicity and conflicting interests of the central bureaucracy as well as regional elites. The CCP is no different. Mao, for example, decried “bureaucratism” (官僚主义) in a 1960 Party Central directive on the subject, declaring that:

Bureaucratism, a bad practice left over from the old society, if not sweeped out once a year, will come back with the spring breeze


(Sidenote: Mao uses “春风吹又生”, a line from Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi’s 賦得古原草送別 to equate “bureaucratism” with tenacious grass that thrive and wither with the cycling of the seasons).

The sad irony is that 1960 was the second year of the Great Famine (1959-1961). The main cause of the famine was policy failure, including the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign. During the campaign, party leadership demanded high production output, so local officials exaggerated production figures to please their superiors. Taxes were then forcibly collected based on these inflated figures. This “bureaucratism” was to have deadly consequences for tens of millions of people.

Famine in today’s China is highly unlikely, but for the CCP leadership headed by Xi, the duplicity of local officials to central directives (embodied in the CCP’s twin concepts of “formalism” 形式主义 and “bureaucratism”) is still very much a challenge.

The Party leadership is trying to hold together and lead an organisation of 92 million members and hundreds of thousands of subordinate organisations; this is an organisation that rules over one-fifth of humanity. Steering such a massive ship with centralised control is tough at the best of times. Agency problems between the central leadership and lower level cadres can be acute.

As individual party members and/or local officials, your interests are often different from, and sometimes at odds with, the central leadership. You are incentivised to be politically astute, please your superiors, and achieve key performance indicators. At times, you are incentivised to game the system to make yourself look good even if it means not addressing underlying problems, such as poverty and pollution.

Xi’s campaign against “formalism” and “bureaucratism”, which has intensified since 2017, is about reducing that agency problem. Essentially, he wants to get his cadres to carry out the spirit of central directives instead of only adhering to the black letters on white papers.

It is important to note that this campaign against “formalism” and “bureaucratism” is happening at the same time as the Party leadership is systematising the Party’s internal governance system. The Party leadership under Xi has pursued this by enhancing the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of formal intraparty regulations, and upgrading the party’s discipline and inspection apparatus. These, of course, are based on rules-based formalism, and well-functioning bureaucracies.

What we have, then, is a Party leadership pursuing “formalism” at the same time as attacking “formalism”. Or put it another way, it is using rules as a political and governance tool while at times abhorring the use or gaming of these rules and bureaucratic processes by cadres for their benefit in ways that depart from the intentions of the leadership.

The existence of formal rules (internal party rules and PRC state laws), and the ability for the party leadership to exercise power transcending these formal rules is both contradictory and arguably central to the Party’s vision of effective governance. It creates tension at every level of governance in the Chinese party-state.

We are sceptical that Xi can resolve this tension, or fundamentally retool the party machinery to do away with its tenacious agency problems. We quote from the same Bai Juyi poem that Mao drew upon:



Thick, thick the grass grows in the fields;

Every year it withers, and springs anew.

The prairie fires never burn it up;

The spring wind blows it into life again.

(Translation by Arthur Waley in The Life and Times of Po Chü-i)

China Story

  • Wanning Sun, Infected with Fear and Anxiety: The Australian Media’s Reporting on China and COVID-19: The way various segments of the Australian media report on China’s COVID-19 experience reflects these media’s own fears and anxieties and their political, ideological, and cultural positions. More credible media outlets in Australia have mostly framed China’s efforts in political and ideological terms. In comparison, the tabloid media have resorted to conspiratorial, racist, and Sino-phobic positions. Through my research, I found that the coverage of China’s experience is a continuation and embodiment of the “China threat” and “Chinese influence” discourses.


This week’s Chinoiserie offers a selection of writings examining the nexus between foreign policy and racism. Those of us in the foreign policy community — politicians, journalists, researchers — need to do better in ensuring we don’t provide fuel for racism and xenophobia. The following comes from US and Australian sources, but may have relevance for those of you in other countries:

  • Dear White China Hands: The question every China hand should be asking themselves today and for years to come is how to minimize the wider xenophobic fallout that will accompany their life’s work. First and above all is to listen, amplify, and respond to the needs of the [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] community. Second is to stop trafficking in bellicose rhetoric and unfounded assumptions — an imperative that extends doubly to headline writers and illustrators. Third is to speak loudly and often about the threats facing Asian Americans at home.
  • Death threats, distrust and racism: how anti-Chinese sentiment in Australia ‘seeped into the mainstream’: “If you are of Chinese heritage, or have any potential links to China, however tenuous they might be, you have to prove you do not have links,” Osmond Chiu says. “And even expressing that you don’t support [the CCP] is enough. You almost need to show an evangelical zeal.”
  • Beyond the pandemic, Asian American leaders fear U.S. conflict with China will fan racist backlash: “When America China-bashes, then Chinese get bashed, and so do those who look Chinese. American foreign policy in Asia is American domestic policy for Asians,” said Russell Jeung.
  • Negative feelings towards Chinese immigrants show our debates do not happen in a vacuum by Osmond Chiu: Despite repeated statements by politicians, academics and commentators that we need to distinguish between individuals of Chinese heritage and China, it appears that the wider public is not doing so. If Australians are struggling to make distinctions between China, migrants from China and Chinese Australians, that has significant implications for how we conduct debates.
  • Anti-Asian Racism Is on the Rise in Australia — and It’s Coming From the Top Down by Gerald Roche: This past year saw a wave of anti-Asian racism, egged on by a club of conservative “anti-anti-racist” commentators who brand opponents of bigotry as stooges for the Chinese Communist Party. It’s long past time to challenge their sly dog whistles and disingenuous smears.
  • Bipartisan political rhetoric about Asia leads to anti-Asian violence here by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Janelle Wong: When the government frets about Russian hacking and election interference, there is little consequence for Americans of Russian heritage. When officials express fears over China or other Asian countries, Americans immediately turn to a timeworn racial script that questions the loyalty, allegiance and belonging of 20 million Asian Americans.
  • Anti-Asian Attacks Are Blighting the United States by Caroline Chang, Anka, Lee and Johna Ohtagaki: It is incumbent on not just government officials but also foreign-policy analysts to decry the racism that is occurring, avoid language like “Chinese virus,” and think carefully about how they talk about Washington’s China policy and how their actions impact Asian Americans.
  • Stigmatising China connections: Problems with research on research collaborations by Yun Jiang: The “threat” narrative on research collaboration with China is doing our societies harm. First, wittingly or not, this narrative is driving the stigmatisation of China connections. People with Chinese heritage, naturally, are the ones to suffer most from this stigmatisation, including through rising suspicion, alienation, discrimination at workplace, and racism.