BEIJING’S ANNUS HORRIBILIS

First published in the Los Angeles Times and Aftenposten, Oslo. 

The last year has not been kind to the men in Beijing. After long seeing power drain to the East, the West is striking back.

At the fore is pressure on China to modify its practice of protectionist trade policy and industrial espionage. The Trump administration has given notice to the Xi administration to change its ways or pay a heavy cost. Trade negotiations are progressing towards new rules.

Security services in Western countries have issued warnings against the IT giant Huawei on grounds of national security, in particular in respect to the building of the fifth generation of wireless technology, G5. This includes the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Britain and others – even the Czech Republic where otherwise President Milos Zeman has made himself China’s lapdog in Europe. Huawei’s chief finance officer is under detention in Canada on US charges, awaiting extradition. In January, a Huawei employee was arrested in Warsaw on charges of espionage. At issue is the duty in China’s state-led capitalism on companies like Huawei to collaborate with government authorities, including to share data.

Respected research organisations have issued reports detailing China’s “influence policy” aimed at political and educational organisations, media and civil society in democratic countries: the Mercator Institute in Berlin, the Asia Society in New York , and recently the Royal United Services Institute in London.

American lawmakers have spearheaded a fightback against China’s use of financial clout to chip away at the foundations of academic freedom. Western Universities have become reluctant to welcome the Trojan Horse of Confucian Institutes, and established Institutes are being shut down. The tone of voice in media commentary has changed. Apologists are silent and the dominant melody is one of warning.

A year ago, Xi Jinping made his first serious mistake since becoming supreme leader in 2012. He had the constitutional two-term time limit on the Presidency lifted. That pulled back the curtain for the world to see the regime as it is. He speaks the language of rule of law but will change the constitution at the flick of a finger if it suits him.

Internally, during Xi’s tenure, Party control has been tightened in draconian ways. A heroic community of human rights lawyers has been decimated. Social control is being perfected in a big-data “social credit system” whereby daily life rewards and punishments are distributed according to people’s score on a scale from good to bad citizenship behaviour. The Western province of Xinjiang, where the Chinese Muslim population is concentrated, has been turned into a totalitarian police state, complete with mass detentions and a network of concentration camps.

Externally, under the ideological inspiration of Xi’s “China Dream” of national greatness, Beijing is pursuing a policy of global domination. The main instrument is the “Belt and Road Initiative” in which China lends participating countries capital for infrastructural investments. The loans and projects are irresistible but have the effect of tying receiving nations into dependency on Beijing.

When loans taken on by Shri Lanka became unserviceable, China took over the port in question and 15 000 acres of land around it on a 99 years lease, establishing a Hong Kong style concession in a weaker country. Others caught in China’s “debt trap” include Zambia, which in late 2018 lost control of its main international airport, and Kenya, which is in danger of having to hand over its main Mombasa port for inability to service its Chinese loan to fund a China-built, but unprofitable, Mombasa to Nairobi railway.

The West has been desperate to see China as a collaborative force, but Beijing has, by the mismanagement of power, made it impossible to hold on to that illusion. To make matters worse for themselves, when meeting resistance Xi & Co revert to bullying. After New Zealand joined other Western countries in a stand against Huawei, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been unable to schedule a long planned visit to China, and the launch of a much-promoted tourism initiative was abruptly cancelled. When the British Secretary of Defence made some critical remarks about the South China Sea, the Chancellor of the Exchequer found a planned visit called off. Little Norway has been forced to sign a treaty of friendship in which its government, otherwise a consistent voice in defence of human rights, commits itself to silence on China’s abuses. In New Zealand, in a much noticed case, Professor Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, after publishing a critical paper about China’s influence in the country, has found herself and her family on the receiving end of a campaign of intimidation, thought the be orchestrated by Chinese authorities.

The realignment of power – not too strong a term – is starting to narrow China’s space of action. An immediate beneficiary is Taiwan, which sits on the contemporary fault-line of totalitarianism and democracy. The danger that China will trample liberty underfoot there is less today than it was a year ago.

Winston Churchill in the early years after World War II said of Stalin he said he did not believe he wanted war, he just wanted the spoils of war. The same can be said of Xi Jinping today. But now, the West is finding its voice against Chinese abuses of power. The men in Beijing are desperate for respect. It turns out that speaking clear language to the giant it works.

The realignment of power – not too strong a term – is starting to narrow China’s space of action. An immediate beneficiary is Taiwan, which sits on the contemporary fault-line of totalitarianism and democracy. The danger that China will trample liberty underfoot there is less today than it was a year ago.

WHAT FREEDOM MEANS – WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE IT

I am reading a great book, just out, Roller-Coaster, the historian Ian Kershaw’s story of Europe since 1950.

“When the [Austrian] border was opened, on the night of 10-11 September [1989], thousands of East German citizens voted with their feet, crossing through Hungary into Austria, then from there into the Federal Republic of Germany. By the end of October 50 000 had left. They also took refuge in the embassies of the Federal Republic in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw. On 30 September the West German Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, announced that he had successfully negotiate with Moscow and East Berlin to transfer 60 000 GDR citizens to the Federal Republic. Between 3 and 5 November [when restrictions on travel to Czechoslovakia were lifted] more than 10 000 crossed the Czech border, en route into West Germany. On the evening of 9 November [when rumours spread that direct passage into West Berlin was permitted], thousands of GDR citizens headed for the Wall. The border guards tried at first to prevent people leaving but soon gave up. Left sometimes with lipstick on their cheeks, they simply waved the masses through. West Berliners rushed to their side of the wall, embracing strangers, plying their fellow Germans from the east with flowers, chocolates – and bananas (like all fresh fruit not readily available in the GDR). Nearly 120 000 East Germans left for the West between the opening of the Wall and the end of 1989.”

 

HOW DICTATORIAL IS CHINA?

From an interview conducted by the human rights lawyer (in exile) Teng Biao:

“Yes, China is very much like George Orwell’s warning, including in the control of language, control of history, control of the narrative. But they have moved on because they now have technologies that Orwell could not even imagine at the time. And these technologies, these modern technologies, are being used for control in a very sophisticated way by the Chinese authorities. They are in control of the Internet. It was long thought that no dictatorship can control the Internet. But the Chinese dictatorship is in control of it. They are actively using the Internet by engineering the stories that circulate. They are using other technologies, big data systems, facial recognition. All of this in order to control what is happening in their country. This is now very advanced, particularly in Xinjiang, which is a police state of the kind that has never been seen previously. In the last few years, as you well know, the security budgets in that province have doubled year by year. And the control, explicit control there, by old-fashioned means –– police and military forces –– and modern means –– electronic surveillance, is still a kind that has never been seen previously. There has never been control of this kind anywhere in any country before, like the way we see now. We now see it unrolling in China.”

Read the interview in ChinaChange here.

WHAT’S RUSSIA UP TO?

Last week, British, Dutch and American authorities made public a detailed expose of misdeeds around by the Russian state. Here is an extract from a recent review article on some relevant literature:

Vladimir Putin’s presidency falls in two parts. The first period could be seen as an attempt to impose some kind of order in the Russian state after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But by 2014, the man who had wanted (or so he said) to be a liberal European president had turned against Europe and “the West.”

The oligarchic economy of Putin’s early period was one of competing clans and gangs in a system that left the state with little control. Putin took on this system and by the end of his first period, the Russian oligarchy was consolidated as the kleptocratic control of the state by a single oligarchical clan under Putin.

His Russian state has essentially three resources available to it. The first one is inequality. The nation’s wealth, which is not great, is in the hands of the Putin oligarchy. The second resource is the use of cyber capacity for propagandistic and manipulative purposes. This is a weapon with two advantages: it is cheap and it is effective. And the third resource is ruthless determination.

As seen from the West, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the collapse of Communist dictatorship. As seen from Russia, it was the collapse of the Russian empire. The loss of empire, dignity and respect created fertile soil for nationalistic-fascistic ideas of an alternative Russia.

The relevant ideas draw in part on religious-historical mysticism. “Russia” has evolved from the Kyivan Rus with origins more than a thousand years back in history and from the tradition of Russian orthodox Christianity. That empire was geographical but it was even more to be understood as spiritual, an empire of virtue. Technically the empire has collapsed, but its spiritual legitimacy survives. This, for example, is why the Ukraine cannot be independent and European, because that is not what it is, because it is inescapably a part of spiritual Russia.

The long-term aim is the reconstitution of the physical empire. The short-term aim is to weaken its here-and-now enemies: the European Union, America, Western liberalism, democracy. Since the purpose is noble, noting is forbidden in action: destroying Ukrainian autonomy, undermining the credibility of the European Union, destabilizing the workings of electoral democracy in America, undertaking assassinations on British soil, brutalizing the conduct of war in Syria. Lies and denials are standard.

The Russian state has behind it a weak and unsophisticated economy and a population poor in education and health. Therefore, since Russia cannot be strong, its foreign must be make others weaker. Russia cannot be a builder – so it must be a wrecker.

Read the review article in the Taiwan Journal of Democracy here.

 

TOTALITARIANISM: A LETTER TO FELLOW CHINA ANALYSTS

Dear friends,

The time has come that we set our work straight in language. The People’s Republic of China is a totalitarian state. Of its own kind, to be sure, hence neo-totalitarian, but totalitarian it is. No clarity of analysis is possible without clarity of language. The PRC is not “an authoritarian system,” it is “a totalitarian state.”

The final straw has been the imposition of outright tyranny in Xinjiang, with extremes of surveillance, heavily intrusive thought-work, and mass detentions in “re-education” facilities. But also the relentless tightening of dictatorship during Xi Jinping’s reign, culminating in the decimation of the community of human rights lawyers that has stood as a bastion of courage and civility.

The characteristics of totalitarianism are

  • that rule is upheld by terror
  • that rule reaches into the regulation of natural human bonds in private spheres
  • that rule is exercised through an extensive and impersonal bureaucracy
  • that the state operates under the authority of a commanding ideology.

The proof of terror is now in Xinjiang. Where the regime sees it to be necessary, its footprint is tyranny. The state is deep into the regulation of private lives, now intensified in the “social credit system” by which rewards and punishments are distributed in the population according to patterns of private behaviour. There has never been bureaucracy like the PRC bureaucracies. Xi has cast off pragmatism and clad his reign in the omnipresent China Dream ideology of nationalism and chauvinism.

The result of totalitarian patterns of state rule is that social life is atomised and community crushed. Many Chinese can now live their daily lives much as they want, and in comfort. But there is no freedom of assembly, association, information or deliberation.

I know that there is honest reluctance in our own community to adopting the language of totalitarianism. There has been hope and expectation of opening up. But in political life and civil society it is not happening. Far from it, the direction of travel is to shutting down. We should now recognise this in the language we use.

Yours respectfully,

Stein Ringen, Professor of Political Economy, King’s College London

 

DICTATORSHIP AGAINST DEMOCRACY

The story of democracy, in the title of John Keane’s grand history, is one of life and death. It is not a glorious story. Death has been more prevalent than life.

The Greeks invented, says S.E. Finer, two of the most potent political features of our present age: they invented the very idea of citizen, as opposed to subject, and they invented democracy. But it did not last. Democracy emerged, haltingly, in the fifth century BC and collapsed with the end of Athenian independence less than 300 years later, having suffered several fits of near death in the process.

After that, the world forgot about democracy for 2000 years, until it was reinvented in the American Constitution of 1787. Whereas Athenian democracy had been direct – decision-making collectively by assembly to which all citizens had access – the Americans invented representative democracy. Now, citizens would elect representatives to the national and local congresses that would take charge of decision-making on their behalf.

Although the Athenians invented the idea of the citizen, the inclusive concept of citizenship and of universal suffrage took hold only in the twentieth century. In the latter part of that century, this form of government expanded from a minority to a majority of countries and territories. At the entry into our century, 140 of about 190 countries in the world had functioning multiparty elections. If, finally, there has been glory in the story of democracy, that has come only recently. And even so, the lesson to be drawn from history is that democracy is not a natural form of rule. It must be wanted, it must be created, recreated and nurtured, and it is inevitably exposed and in danger.

This mini-history introduces a review, in the Taiwan Journal of Democracy, of various recent works of the contemporary authoritarian challenge to democracy from Russia and China, and the democratic response, such as it is.

Read the review here.

DANGERS TO DEMOCRACY – ATHENIAN LESSONS

In the Agora Museum in Athens is a stone Stele of Democracy.  A relief shows the people of Athens under the protection of Democracy. A text is inscribed of a law forbidding the reintroduction of tyranny, both the act of rising up against the Demos and collaboration with would-be tyrants.

This law was passed in 337 B.C. as the short-lived democracy was coming to a final end after Athens had been defeated by Philip of Macedon. It stands as testimony to the Athenians’ understanding of both the value and difficulty of democracy. Without democracy there will be tyranny. The upholding of that protection is fraught with peril. Their forbidding of tyranny in law was a desperate attempt to salvage what could not be saved.

Democracy in Athens lasted only about 250 years. It was always imperfect and gave way several times in the process to autocracy in one form or another. It came about after a period of aristocratic excess, both in the exploitation of the populous and in feuding between aristocratic clans. What followed should perhaps be described as controlled aristocracy rather than democracy in a modern understanding. Nevertheless, for a while the Athenians (those who counted, obviously) mostly held tyranny at arm’s length.

The danger to that protection comes both from without and from within. By 337, the Athenians were no longer masters in their own house and in control of how they would be ruled. But their desperate law also show their awareness that internal forces may rise against popular rule if they can, and if so are likely to find followers in the population.

They had ample experience of internal danger. At least twice, defeats in foreign wars led to oligarchic revolutions. Another danger was the seduction of mobs by demagogues, i.e. a danger to democracy from within democracy itself. The philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death when some of those he had annoyed were able to persuade a jury of 500 citizens that he deserved to die for being a nuisance. That influenced his pupil Plato to make himself the founding philosopher of autocracy. In Euripides’ tragedy Orestes – about how a mob was whipped up to condemn a deluded man who had been seduced by the gods to kill his mother to death by stoning – Orestes says: “The people are to be feared when led by unscrupulous men.”

The Athenian Stele of Democracy identifies the danger to the people to be tyranny as the likely state of affairs in the failure of democracy. Dangers to democracy come from both internal and external sources. The internal dangers are usurpation of power by anti-democratic élites, collusion by opportunistic follower, and seduction of the populous by unscrupulous leaders.

So what else is new?