The coming crackdown in China’s social sciences?

November 17, 2014

There have been ominous developments in China’s cultural politics recently. In October, Chairman Xi gave a speech at the Peking Forum on Literature and Art, a high-profile event whose title paralleled one in Yan’an, at which Mao defined his cultural policy, one that mandated art’s subordination not only to class struggle but also, more specifically, to party discipline. Since Mao’s demise, party leaders have generally not taken on the role of arbiters of art, leaving specific acts of promotion and censorship to specialised government bodies. Xi’s speech was notable for naming specific positive examples, among them the nationalist, anti-Western blogger Zhou Xiaoping causing great uproar not only among liberal intellectuals but also by literature buffs who made fun of the quality of his writing. This is almost tantamount to acknowledging that the nationalist and stridently antiliberal tabloid Global Times, where Zhou is an occasional commentator, now counts for China’s official voice. (Foreign Policy, at least, seems convinced that GT really is the voice the silent majority, as it claims.)

A bit earlier, universities and social science research institutes received a circular ordering them to report what research projects they have with foreign funding, and a text circulated online, written by a party official at the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and warning of the infiltration of Western agents into the social science research system. Then, on 5 November, a much scarier text appeared in the official newspaper of the China Academy of Social Sciences, 中国社会科学报 (Chinese Social Science). Entitled “Absolutely Not Allowed to Break the Communist Party’s Pot” (绝不允许砸共产党的锅), it was a report on a conference held by the Red Culture Studies Society of China (中国红色文化研究会) and the Special Committee on Scientific Development and Political Harmony (科学发展与政治和谐专业委员会) of the Chinese Poilitical Science Association on “seizing the initiative in the ideological struggle” (掌握意识形态斗争主动权).

According to the report, the conference stated that “foreign enemy forces” (境外敌对势力) were relentless in their attempts to subvert China’s political system and that “certain organisations and individuals” in China were spreading lies, stoking fires, and sowing chaos in thinking so as to compete “with us” for people’s hearts and minds. These individuals include “certain opinion leaders, online Big V’s [VIPs] and ‘dissidents’ within the system (体制内‘易见人士’)”. Worse, there were some “leading cadres” who wanted to “please both sides”.  “So-called ‘experts’ and ‘scholars’ with Western backgrounds who have infested/infiltrated (混入) some government organs, some cadres who are in bed with the Party but have different dreams have not only not been criticized but been promoted and given important assignments.”

Participants concluded that it was necessary to “tell people clearly joining whom will bring benefits and prospects and joining whom will bring no benefits and no prospects,” to “leave no room for people flirting with foreign enemy forces” (让和境外敌对势力眉来眼去、沟沟塔塔的人风光 不再). “It is absolutely not allowed to eat the Communist Party’s rice and break the Communist Party’s pot,” and those who do so must have their rice bowls taken away. China should learn from Russia where organisations that receive foreign funding must register as “foreign agents.”

The idea that China suffers under a cabal of liberal public intellectuals is staple for Global Times, as is the deliberately crude language, reminiscent of Maoist times. But so far, the formula that Andrew Nathan called “resilient authoritarianism” has meant that the government allowed much greater freedom of expression in the academic sphere than in, say, the press, because this was conducive both to upgrading the international respectability and the actual quality of Chinese academia and because it was deemed to have little influence outside academic institutions. Of course, occasionally academics do lose their jobs and are even jailed for their political views, but both liberal and left-wing critics of government policies have thrived (notably in sociology), and even some actual critics of the system have been allowed to retain their chairs. A similar leniency has prevailed in the arts. And,  overall, it has worked: most critics are loyal to the regime and so are useful both as sounding boards for policy and for bolstering legitimacy abroad.

If this article is a sign of things to come, then this period may be over. Academics will no longer be allowed to sit on the fence, accruing Western kudos while not being disloyal to the party, all in the name of scientific objectivity.

Is it  a sign, then? Participants of the conference named in the report are mostly retired cadres, the highest-ranking of whom is Zhang Quanjing 张全景, a former director of the Party’s Central Organisation Department. They also include the sitting president of the Chinese Historical Association, Zhang Haipeng 张海鹏. But is unlikely that the official organ of CASS would have published this bombshell of an article without approval or indeed instructions from a high place, particularly since it contains threats addressed to officials, not just academics. Moreover, the report was followed, on 14 November, by a front-page article in the provincial paper Liaoning Daily, entitled “Professors, Please Don’t Talk About China Like This” (老师,请不要这样讲中国), complaining that university professors keep talking about China in a negative way, leading to uproar on the Internet and an editorial in Global Times (19 November).

The question is whether the attack comes from a hardline faction of the leadership that is being challenged by other Party elites or a direction already decided upon. If the latter is the case, then we may in fact witness some version of an Anti-Rightist Campaign that will involve public self-criticisms and perhaps purges. (Similar things may be in the offing in the arts. And overall, the post-1978 tenet of “he who is not against us is with us”, 非敌即友, may be changing. For instance, Global Times just published an opinion piece demanding a public apology from Hu Na, a tennis player who sought asylum in the U.S. over 30 years ago and has now returned to China. It used to be the case that such individuals were tacitly welcome as long as they gave up any political opposition, in order to encourage others and forge a united front. But Hu is now being labelled a traitor.) The fact that two of the Party’s main ideological publications, Guangming Daily and Qiushi, jumped to Liaoning Daily‘s defence after an open letter by liberal intellectuals protested against the article, and especially that Qiushi used the same Cultural Revolution-era language as the CASS publication, suggests that a broader campaign may be in the offing. On the other hand, a Global Times editorial took a moderate line, defending the article and asserting the need for a “political and moral bottom line” in the classroom, but appealing for calm and arguing against factional battles (despite the fact that on other occasions GT’s contributors have not hesitated to attack those they saw as breaking the ranks). This suggests either that there is no consensus on the issue among influential Party elites or, more likely, that they have let a radical group play up the issue in the media as a way to warn academics but not as an imminent threat.

This is all slightly off the blog’s topic. Unlike some other social science fields, Chinese scholarship on China’s “development export” has been dominated by self-appointed spokesmen for the government. But in the last years, there have been some salutary developments towards a more reflexive or at least evidence-based, ground-up scholarship, by researchers more interested in international collaborations. It would be a shame if they were nipped in the bud.



Chinese-language media worldwide sign statement condemning Hong Kong demonstrations

October 8, 2014

According to a post dated 3 October on the Xinhua News Agency’s mobile platform and circulating on the Chinese Internet, 142 Chinese-language media organisations around the world issued a declaration condemning the demonstrations in Hong Kong and “calling on overseas Chinese around the world to take action to stop extremist violence” (直至极端分子的暴行)by protesters.

The declaration was signed by the Chinese International Media Association (海外华文传媒协会), but interestingly, there is no trace of it on CIMA’s website, which shows no activity since 2010. The site states that CIMA was registered in Canada in 2007 and aims, among others, to create “positive propaganda for the political, economic, and social situation in China on both sides of the [Taiwan] Strait.” Between 2007 and 2010, CIMA has hosted several “world Chinese media summits.” CIMA’s contact address is in Burnaby, the Vancouver suburb heavily populated by recent Chinese immigrants. The language used on the site is typical of media founded by new Chinese migrants worldwide in that it uses the highly formulaic language of PRC officialese. There is no indication of ties to Chinese government organisations, but the aims of the media summits — bringing together overseas and “mainstream” mainland media and creating “unity” — parallels those of the summits hosted by China News Service, the news agency under the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Department. These summits have been hosted under the name World Chinese-Language Media Alliance (世界华文媒体合作联盟), but the duplication of organisations and names is common in both China itself and among the new diaspora’s feverishly proliferating associations.

Although the best-known Chinese-language media have not signed the declaration, mustering 142 signatures from organisations across all continents is an undeniable feat, even if some of the signatories exist in name only. Others, like Cambodia’s Jian Hua Daily, are locally fairly important. In the Netherlands, the declaration has been signed by United Newspublished by a man who used to be a journalist at a municipal paper in mainland China. Such profiles are fairly common in new migrant media.

The declaration is a further demonstration of the efforts made by the Chinese government to propagate its view of China and the world in overseas media, but it is more remarkable for its language. The text is variously (and sometimes confusingly) vindictive, patronising and threatening, alternating between comparing the demonstrators to children testing the limits set by their parents, calling them traitorous agents of “Western anti-Chinese forces” who try to foment a “colour revolution” and then run to the British for protection, and warning them that Hong Kong has enjoyed too many special rights and it belongs to “the entire Chinese nation.” This is not so much the anemic official language of People’s Daily as of Global Times, its popular offshoot that “tells it as it is” and has directly accused the U.S. of instigating unrest in Hong Kong. In this instance, the language is frankly repulsive and borders on the fascistic, in the sense that its main charge against the demonstrators is simply that they have broken the ranks of the Chinese people.

Such language is now being exported overseas with some success. I have long drawn hope regarding the limits of Chinese nationalism from some of my migrant friends from lower class backgrounds, like the former fisherman from Fujian who has lived in Hungary, Morocco and Romania for twenty years and has in the past been rather skeptical about the Chinese authorities, recalling less than positive experiences in his native village, and resisted being drawn into the photo ops with visiting Chinese officials that many other migrants favour. But Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign is to his liking, and he now resends pro-government, antiforeign opinion pieces on his WeChat account.

Another sign of an impending wave of agricultural investments?

June 2, 2014

I have blogged a few times in the past years about agriculture as the next frontier for Chinese investment abroad, but it has been slow to materialise. Over a month ago, the newspaper 经济观察 (Economic Observer) published an article that heralds the publication of a research report on Chinese agricultural investment abroad, commissioned by an interministerial committee. Such reports have been published since at least 2009, but the paper asserts that this time, the report — which has not been made public so far, perhaps because officials have not yet reached consensus about its implications — will serve as the basis of a policy shift towards making more loans available, simplifying the investment approval process, and lowering certification barriers for the import of agricultural produce (especially grain) to China. These are the factors most frequently cited by executives in the report as hindering agricultural investment outside China.

The shift would be in line with a government decree issued last year, called “Guiding opinion on encouraging agricultural investment cooperation abroad” (鼓励开展境外农业投资合作指导意见), which identified the grooming of a few globally competitive central state agribusiness enterprises as a state goal. So far, most Chinese agricultural ventures abroad are small-scale, with an average investment of $100 million as against $600 million for U.S. and Japanese agricultural investments. The article quotes Hu Hengyang 胡恒洋, an analyst with the State Development and Reform Commission, as saying that China State Farm (农垦)’s acquisition of two foreign agribusinesses this year is a sign that the government has now moved to implement this goal.

The signs are that, at the national level, China is more interested in becoming a major player in international agribusiness and breaking the monopoly of large Western traders and seed distributors than in “land grabbing” per se. The article provides an overview of major agricultural investments abroad to date. COFCO (中粮) bought Australia’s Tully Sugar in 2011, and bought a controlling stake in Nidera, a Dutch crop trader, this year. COFCO’s provincial-level equivalent in Chongqing has been a pioneer in overseas investment since 2010, setting up large soybean plantations in Brazil and Argentina and triggering legislation there restricting large-scale foreign land acquisitions, while Heilongjiang State Farm has acquired some 40 million mu (2.7 million ha) of land in Russia and Brazil. In the private sector, Tianjin-based Julong Group (聚龙集团) has over 100,000 hectares of oil palm plantations in Indonesia, accounting for 20% of the country’s annual palm oil output. Zhejiang’s Kasen (卡森) has 270,000 mu of soybean fields in Brazil, while Qingdao-based Ruichang Cotton (瑞昌棉业) and New Hope Group (新希望集团) have pioneered cotton in Africa and livestock farming investment respectively.

Hungary wants to become regional hub for Chinese railway construction

November 26, 2013

Hungarian radio reported that the government’s spokesman said it was “not a secret” that Hungary wanted to become the regional hub for Chinese railway construction. Negotiations were underway with the Chinese and Serbian governments to upgrade the Budapest-Belgrade railway at a cost of $3 million.

Huawei taken to court in Zimbabwe

November 20, 2013

In the last year, regulatory challenges against Chinese companies in Africa have become increasingly commonplace, part of what seems to be a trend of greater African state assertiveness in dictating the terms of business with China as well as a more open competition between Chinese companies. In telecommunications alone, Chinese companies have faced investigations over corruption related to telecom tenders in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Algeria, with both ZTE and Huawei being banned from tenders for two years in Algeria as a result,.

Nonetheless, the fact a $218 million telecom tender awarded Huawei to supply equipment to Zimbabwe’s state-owned telecoms operator NetOne has been challenged in an administrative court with allegations of corruption is significant because it questions the assumption that large Chinese companies do well in undemocratic states politically allied with China by integrating into the patronage networks of the ruling elite.

Chinese scholar suggests Africa learn from China’s party-building experience

October 24, 2013

Today, at the workshop “Fifty Years of China-Africa Cooperation,” held in Harare with FOCAC funding and organised by the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre, Zeng Aiping of the China Institute of International Studies, the Foreign Ministry’s think tank, gave a talk on how Africa can learn from China’s development experience. In addition to the usual discussion of agriculture, industry, opening up to foreign investment etc., he foregrounded social stability and the leadership of the Communisty Party, and suggested that African parties, especially ruling parties, can learn from the CCP’s experience in party building, party-state-society relations, and party-military relations.

There has been much discussion of whether China actually wants to export its political model to poor countries in Africa and Southeast Asia; i.e. whether it is consciously strengthening authoritarian regimes or whether this is an unintended by-product to which the Chinese government is largely indifferent but is sometimes forced to become sensitive to, as in the case of Burma. Most people, including myself, hold the latter opinion, but this talk makes me wonder whether at least some parts of the Chinese political establishment are in fact in the former camp.

The symposium’s main organiser, Phyllis Johnson, a long-time Mugabe supporter who blames the country’s problems on Western interference, also pointed in her talk to China’s National People’s Congress as a model of decision making, and  specifically suggested that Zimbabwe should learn from China’s approach to having the military under Party control but still allowing it to play a political role.

Chinese company offshores Muslim headgear manufacturing to Ethiopia

September 19, 2013

The following caught my attention in a recent article in China Daily:

The 49-year-old general manager of Suzhou Orient Investment, based in Wujiang, a district of Suzhou, is investing $10 million (7.5 million euros) in a factory on the Eastern Industrial Zone in Addis Ababa, making headdresses for both Muslim men and women.

The company is taking advantage of a seven-year duty free period and will eventually employ 200 people on site. The investment came as a result of meeting Africa officials at a China-Africa forum in Suzhou last year.

“We will be closer to our key markets in the Middle East such as Dubai, Qatar, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Sudan,” he says.

Some 70 percent of Muslim headwear globally is now made in Wujiang, near where a number of chemical substances required in their manufacture are located. The company intends to use its new Addis Ababa base as springboard to operate in 20 other African countries over the coming few years.

“We were the first to introduce headdress making techniques here and the district has since become a major global production center for them,” he says.

So not only is Suzhou the global centre of “Muslim headdress” (kefiya?) manufacturing, but it will now outsource to Ethiopia! In some ways, Chinese globalisation progresses faster than I could think.

Pushback against Chinese oil in Africa?

September 18, 2013

“China Finds Resistance to Oil Deals in Africa” by Adam Nossiter is in today’s New York Times. The article says that governments in Chad, Niger, and Gabon have all either shut down, taken back, or imposed major penalties against Chinese oil projects, and that this seems to represent a turn towards greater assertiveness in Chinese-African investment relations. This in itself is not particularly surprising and indeed fits with what some Chinese politicians and commentators have been saying, namely that African governments should take greater responsibility for regulating investments in ways that benefit their countries. It also makes sense that with some investments already in place and incomes (including those of oil ministers) growing, they would begin fighting for better deals.

What caught my attentions are two claims: First, that Chad expelled the GM of an (unspecified) Chinese oil company’s local operations in response to environmental violations — this seems a highly unusual and very face-damaging step for China. Second, that one of the points of contention in Niger is that a refinery built by CNPC and jointly owned with Niger has been overcharging the Niger side, particularly for a bloated and “benefits-freighted” payroll of Chinese employees. Now this is interesting because one would usually think that the relatively low salaries and modest living conditions of Chinese expats distinguish them favourably from Westerners, at least from the perspective of locals.

On the face of it, it may simply be that Chinese big oil is becoming (or has always been) much the same as any other big oil, but I am curious about the inside story in these two cases. Can there be a connection to the arrest of several CNPC executives in the current anti-graft crackdown in China?

Chinese review of The Silent Chinese Conquest

March 14, 2013

The English edition of Heriberto Araujo and Juan Pablo Cardenal’s The Silent Chinese Conquest, which was apparently published under the title China’s Silent Army, has been reviewed by Bristol University psychology lecturer and blogger Zeng Biao, who also owns a consultancy on Chinese-British relations, for the newspaper 21st Century Economic Herald. Zeng notes the author’s “betrayal” of their interviewees, the Chinese entrepreneurs and managers who proudly showed them around their businesses, but add that such betrayals are the stock in trade of “political and social affairs journalists”. He adds that he feels some empathy for the small traders the authors describe, and wagers that,

if China’s global influence continues to increase and develop bit by bit, as it has, then history’s take on these Chinese peddlers will surely be full of the humour and intimacy of today’s British writings on the East India Company.

Overall, Zeng’s opinion of the book is favourable; his “only regret is that it was not written by Chinese.” And, “in order to avoid more regrets,” he recommends that it be published in Chinese.

Does Zeng agree with the authors’ alarmist tone and sees it as a positive thing, as some Chinese nationalists tend to do with Western books warning of China’s “rise?” Or does he agree with the warning, that the “silent army” has dire consequences in terms of crime, environmental hazards, exploitation and so on, as well? Or does he simply think the authors’ research deserves discussion? This is not clear.


More on Chinese investments in North Korea

October 24, 2012

An article by Jane Perlez in Monday’s International Herald Tribune paints roughly the same picture as an earlier article in Dongfang Zaobao. This article focuses on the Xiyang Group, described as “one of the biggest mining conglomerates in China” and apparently one classed as private. Its chairman, Zhou Furen, is on the Forbes list of the 100 richest men in China.

Xiyang invested $40 million in an iron ore mine, but after four months, by which time the North Korean partner has apparently mastered the technology involved, the mine was taken over by the North Koreans and Chinese workers evicted at gunpoint. Xiyang now demands $31.2 million in compensation, but the North Korean government says that it has failed to deliver on its investment promises.

As Perlez notes, it is perhaps not the fact of the dispute that is news but that it is public. This may have something to do with the size of the investment, which is the largest to date to get into such trouble. The article recalls that in 2009, Wen Jiabao persuaded North Korea to back off from nationalizing the Hyesan copper mine, developed with the Wanxiang group.

It appears that no major investment has been done by an officially state-owned enterprise. The article claims that this is despite North Korea’s invitations to China.

Production costs at the Xiyang mine are half that in China. The government is supposed to provide and feed labour, but Xiyang’s deputy GM says they were obliged to feed the 700 North Korean workers because they were too weak.