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.


Korea-Africa Economic Cooperation Conference declaration

October 19, 2012

The fourth meeting of the Korea-Africa Economic Cooperation(KOAFEC) Ministerial Conference  finished yesterday in Seoul, but its final declaration was circulated two days earlier — in a fashion reminiscent of Chinese conferences.

I don’t recall coming across news about the first, second and third KOAFEC conferences, which goes to show how little international interest there is in South Korea’s activities in Africa — or for that matter in Southeast Asia, despite the fact that in Cambodia, South Korea is a close rival of China in terms of investment volume. The visibility of Korean projects (mostly real estate) and restaurants, karaoke and massage parlours catering to Koreans in Phnom Penh probably surpasses that of their equivalents related to investment from China. The complaints about poor treatment of workers that one hears about Korean employers are close to that of Chinese, and sometimes worse.

The 4th KOAFEC declaration, in terms of its idea, structure, and contents, seems to copy FOCAC, but rather unimpressively and without the rhetoric of mutuality and equal partnership. Infrastructure development, ICT, human resource development, agriculture development, “green growth,” and knowledge sharing are identified as areas of cooperation, but without any specific targets. A short section entitled “The Way Forward” starts with the declaration that the “representatives from African countries expressed gratitute to the people and Government of Korea.”

The one seemingly specific commitment is that

Korea will contribute to the development of African countries by tailoring the Saemaul Movement, a rural development model of Korea, to suit country-specific circumstances and sharing the virtues of diligence, self-help and cooperation (point 25).

Just how this tailoring will happen is unclear, but “sharing the virtues of diligence” is certainly something that no Chinese government programme openly presumes to do (though, of course, many Chinese managers do). The New Community, or Saemaul, campaign (undong) for rural development, was a product of the Park Chung Hee dictatorship in the 1970s and seems like a highly problematic choice for international emulation — despite the Park renaissance taking place in South Korea at the moment.

Xi Jinping attends China-Africa NGO forum

August 3, 2012

Xi Jinping, the chairman-in-waiting of the PRC, attended the “second China-Africa People’s Forum” in Suzhou. This says a lot about the rapidly rising importance of PR in China’s policies in Africa.

World Chinese-Language Media Cooperative Alliance holds training for overseas Chinese journalists

August 28, 2011

As the Chinese-language Budapest newspaper Xin Daobao 新导报 reported in its 17 August issue, the second training of the World Chinese-Language Media Cooperative Alliance 世界华文媒体合作联盟 was held on 15 August at the China News Agency in Peking. Chinese-language journalists from the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Russia, Sweden, Hungary, Malaysia and (surprisingly) Hong Kong attended.

The Alliance was founded a year ago by the China News Agency. Its director, Liu Beixian, who serves as the secretary-general of the organisation, said that its goal was to increase the cohesiveness 凝聚力 and impact of Chinese-language media.

This effort is another sign that various Chinese government organisations are paying increasing attention to “united front work” with Chinese-language media overseas. Such media are traditionally fairly independent, but they have become increasingly standardized along the lines of the PRC’s political preferences. This has several reasons. Relations with China are increasingly important for overseas Chinese businesses, which traditionally fund Chinese media. Staff at Chinese-language newspapers increasingly comes from mainland China, because in most countries they are seen as more proficient in the “proper” Chinese language and modern media management techniques. In many countries, an increasing number of readers, too, are recent arrivals from China. Media conglomerates and other businesses in China are also quietly expanding their investment in Chinese media overseas (for example, the Liuzhou heavy machinery company finances a Chinese newspaper in Cambodia). Finally, Chinese embassies have become more active in exercising the kind of informal censorship that exists within China itself. Cultural sections of embassies have long been organising informal meetings or dinners where they explain to editors how to cover a particular issue or what not to cover. Those targeted are editors who are PRC citizens, as is the case with most Chinese media in Eastern Europe, but increasingly also local citizens. I have been told by an editor of a Cambodian Chinese newspaper that no material that is “against the interests”  of China can be published. The result is not just a political realignment, but also that local forms of Chinese expression, as indeed local forms of Chinese identity, are increasingly marginalized within the sinophone world in favour of a standard way of speaking and feeling that is imported from China.

The 2011 Blue Book of Overseas Chinese/Annual Report on Overseas Chinese, published by the State Council’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, contains the results of a questionnaire study administered to editors of Chinese newspapers, television stations and online portals. (This is reported in the same issue of 新导报.) According to the report, these editors would like to see more financial and “policy support” from China;  free sharing of news by news agencies and portals in China; cooperation with local governments in China where overseas media would serve as propaganda outlets for them (为地方外宣服务); and more advertising by companies inside China. The article does not mention the size or composition of the sample.

Dutch media on reception of When China Met Africa

March 7, 2011

The Chinese service of Radio Netherlands International (RNW) has a feature on the reception of the BBC documentary When China Met Africa at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. The article quotes one of the filmmakers, Marc Francis, as saying that their goal with the film was to promote a new attitude to Africa, which is not paternalistic but, like China’s, based on equality and mutual benefit. Some of the audience in Rotterdam criticized the Francis brothers for being insufficiently critical of Chinese exploitation of Zambian workers.

The article, which was reposted on the popular mainland blog server, also quotes MqVU’s Merriden Varrall.

Workshop on China’s role in Southeast Asia

January 11, 2011

The research programme “Variegated Dragon: Territorialization and Civilising Mission in Southeast Asia,” funded by the Thailand Research Fund, held its first workshop, entitled “China’s Rise: Perspectives from the Mekong Region,” in Kunming on 8-9 January, hosted by the Nationalities Research Institute of  Yunnan University. The programme, led by Yos Santasombat, looks at the impact of Chinese investment and migration in Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia.

For me, the most informative talk was by Nguyen Van Chinh, entitled “The Social and Political Dimensions of China’s Economic Role in Vietnam.” He said that Chinese FDI inVietnam was up 74% in 2010, but with less than $2 billion it was only the number 14 investor (Korea was no. 1). Most of this is small-scale investment in manufacturing, typically under $100,000 per item. This investment has been shifting from the south to the border zones, which have poorer infrastructure (and are thus less suitable for large investments) but are close to China.

However, EPC (engineering procurement contracts) do not figure among FDI but in trade figures. The volume of EPC contracts is much higher, easily around $2 bn each, and are funded as usual by a mixture of soft and commercial loans from policy and commercial banks.

This highlights the problems with data: are EPC part of trade, investment, or aid? In the beginning of the China-in-Africa buzz, Chinese aid was criticized by the West as being thinly disguised investment; but what we now see is that it is often the other way around. Of course, the Chinese government has always made it clear that what it does is for mutual benefit, which is why such criticism has always been perplexing. But it is also obvious from recent moves by SASAC, the state assets adminstration, that it wants to make state enterprises more accountable for the economic consequences of their investments overseas, whereas parent ministries that have spawned the companies (like the ministry of transport or water conservation or mining) and the Central Organisation Department of the Party, which promotes leaders of state enterprises, are more concerned with the size of deals. (See the discussion on the recent fiasco of the Mecca light railway in the News section.)

Finally, Chinh said that Vietnamese officials — presumably, again, only some of them — see the increase of Chinese FDI and EPCs as potentially more of a problem than a solution, because of the harm they can do to domestic industries and the dependence they create. He noted that Vietnamese online forums that discuss these problems are blocked in China.

In Laos, China is the number 2 investor, with $3.68 bn approved. But the confusion in data was clear here as well: while Chinh’s data said that Cambodia received the most Chinese investment, above Vietnam and then Laos, Touch Siphat, from Cambodia’s Ministry of Rural Development, cited CDC data that say China invested around $686 million in Cambodia in the first ten months of 2010, and that this was significantly higher than during the same period in 2009. In other words, there is a difference in an order of magnitude, which should give anyone pause. Touch also said, though, that Korea was the number one investor in Cambodia.

Chinh further noted that EPC contractors tend to renegotiate tender conditions so that they are held to Chinese rather than international standards, which causes a deterioration in safety: recently there was a deadly explosion at a Haiphong thermal power station project.

The lack of dialogue between Chinese and foreign scholars that one sees so often at such events was in evidence here too, although some students did ask questions. Academics from Yunnan University played the role of hosts, but their contribution to the discussion was largely defensive.

Highlights of final Rising Powers workshop

November 26, 2010

The last of a series of three workshops on China’s engagement in low-income countries under the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s Rising Powers research network programme is about to conclude at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in Brighton. This workshop focused on environmental issues. Topics included carbon emissions trading and China’s participation in environmental governance, as well as more down-to-earth issues such as dams and land leases. Some highlights:

Data shown by Yahia Mahmoud (Lund University) suggest that Chinese companies are second only to Korea in the area of land leases, but that most of these leases are in the Philippines. Andreas Wilkes of the International Forestry Research Council cited a figure of 6 million ha leased by Chinese forestry and agricultural companies in Africa, and talked about research conducted at the institute by Cerutti et al. that concluded that European forestry companies not certified for sustainability engage in practices quite similar to Chinese companies, and that locals often felt that their livelihoods were better under non-certified forestry regimes. I raised the point that the different types of new civil initiatives that are emerging in China concerning the environmental impact of China’s overseas engagement — organisations with direct overseas contacts but also looser formations like Minjian International that provide a discussion platform — would be an interesting subject for research.

The workshop were intended to result in the elaboration of cooperative research proposals.

Chinese trainers conduct environmental impact assessment training in Cambodia

October 26, 2010

The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organisation with a presence both in China (surprisingly!) and Cambodia, organised a week-long environmental impact assessment training program for Cambodian Ministry of Environment officials and NGOs in September. The training was conducted by Chinese Appraisal Center for Environment and Engineering (ACEE), which “operates under China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and provides training, drafts laws, and provides advisory reports on environmental issues.”

The training’s idea was clearly to generate trust between Chinese and Cambodian “stakeholders” involved in the investment projects, most of them highly controversial hydropower and mining investments, to suggest a way in which better practices could come from Chinese actors rather than from Western pressure, which has yielded little so far, but also to introduce Chinese planners to local perspectives:

Hearing from Cambodians about their lack of capacity in impact assessment, the sheer number of destructive projects being implemented, and about China’s role as the number one investor in the country, the Chinese trainers gained a sense of ownership in the project.

The popular Canton newspaper Southern Weekend ran a feature on the training with the headline Chinese Trainers, Cambodian Students on October 7, 2010.

Rising Powers workshop

July 16, 2010

The first workshop of the “China as the new ‘shaper’ of global development” research network has just finished at Tsinghua University in Peking. I was impressed with the contributions — everyone talked ex tempore! — including by Master of International Development students from Tsinghua. This is an English-language programme for foreign students, and while one of them told me the programme does promote the “Chinese model,” this does not seem to prevent the students from having a good analytic edge.

I feared that the “Chinese views on development” panel would only give the official view, but in addition to that — represented by official Africa expert He Wenping from CASS — there was a “new left” contribution by Gu Xiuling (“I agree 40% that China is a neocolonial power in Africa” and the problem is global neoliberalism) and a liberal one by Tao Ran, director of the Public Policy Centre at People’s University (“China’s growth model is unsustainable unless fundamental [read: political] reforms happen within a few years”). So in the end the panel gave quite a nice cross-section of opinions.

Considering Tao Ran’s contribution — which could easily be seen as subversive — it was a reflection of the oddities of Chinese censorship that people from Oxfam, a co-funder of the workshop, had difficulties attending it because of some negative comments made about them by a Ministry of Education official earlier in the year. Although the Ministry officially denied having any problems with it, the Tsinghua organisers apparently decided that it was too risky for them to have Oxfam officially involved.  

Many participants of the workshop remarked that while the contributions by the British organisers focused on aid, those by the Chinese talked about economic growth. The former was surprising; the latter was not, considering the dominant view in China is that — as Zhang Yanbing put it — development is about “wealth and power.”

NGOs in China and Chinese investments overseas

July 14, 2010

One of the international NGOs active in China organised a get-together of other organisations that have been monitoring Chinese investments abroad from an environmental or social perspective. It is a sign of the rapid changes in the past two years that some six organisations came to the meeting and gave brief presentations of what they do. There are some interesting points in common.

  • The organisations (I hesitate to call them NGOs because their degrees of government affiliation vary, but they are all to some extent non-governmental) have all developed contacts with governments, civil organisations, and/or Chinese state corporations in the countries affected, transmit information to them about the way Chinese policy making operates, and in some cases offer them direct recommendations or environmental plans. One organisation has funded several research projects by Chinese scholars in Africa.
  • There seem to be two common ways of lobbying the Chinese government or corporations. One is taking officials or researchers on study trips to the affected sites; this is expensive and, according to one participant, counts too much on the emotional impact of what they witness. What if they don’t change their minds? The other is working with Chinese academics who are positioned near official ears.
  • The organisations continue to operate under the shadow of the “anaconda in the chandelier,” as Perry Link called the system of Chinese censorship. It is impossible to predict what activities might attract the displeasure of officials; in addition, the organisations have to navigate the complicated rivalries of Chinese academia. This means that a lot of information the organisations collect is never publicly released. The fact that I am not mentioning their names here means that I am being affected by the anaconda as well.