China Neican: 21 June 2020

Xi thought, China-India escalation, DNA collection, US-China, cyber attacks

China Neican is a weekly column of the China Story blog written by Yun Jiang and Adam Ni.

1. Xi and ideology

Coinciding with Xi’s 67th birthday this week, Study Times, a newspaper published by the Central Party School, put out a front-page article titled “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era is Marxism for the 21st Century ” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想是21世纪马克思主义).

The latest article is another step in building Xi’s personality cult, and a further push to cement Xi’s ideological legitimacy. In the CCP, a top leader’s influence and ideological legitimacy often goes hand-in-hand. Having consolidated his power during the first term, Xi was able to get his banner term affirmed as the Party’s guiding ideology and enshrined in the Party constitution at the 19th Party Congress in October 2017.

We can expect Xi and his supporters to push for a shortening of the current unwieldy formulation into, eventually, “Xi Jinping Thought,” which would put it on a co-equal basis with “Mao Zedong Thought”.

On the actual content of the article, its key claim is that:

Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era is Marxism for the 21st century. This is a scientific designation of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era rendered by the Chinese Communist Party, and also the first time our Party has used “century” as a measure of the results of the sinicization of Marxism.

(English translation by China Media Project)

习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想是21世纪马克思主义,这是中国共产党对习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想历史地位的一个科学界定,也是我们党第一次以“世纪”为尺度命名马克思主义中国化最新成果。

The article emphasis the historical nature of the theoretical contribution made by Xi’s thought:

Since the 18th National Congress [in 2012], there have been historic changes in the work of the Party and the state, obtaining historic results, and socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era. The new result in the sinicization of Marxism, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, has already with its great theoretical and practical significance engraved for itself a prominent position on the world’s ideological and theoretical map, becoming the dominant form of 21st century Marxism.

(English translation by China Media Project)

党的十八大以来,党和国家事业发生历史性变革、取得历史性成就,中国特色社会主义进入新时代。马克思主义中国化最新成果——习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想已经以其重大的理论意义和实践意义镌刻在世界思想理论版图的显著位置,成为21世纪马克思主义的主体形态。

The article is well worth reading in full for those interested in Party ideology, historiography and timescape. What it essentially boils down to is that ideology and history are continuously being used and recycled for political purposes. 

A recent debate between liberal thinker Rong Jian 荣剑 and prominent New Left intellectual Wang Hui 汪晖 is also worth following. Wang used the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birth to muse about revolutionary renewal while Rong accuses Wang of selling out to tyranny. Indeed, the relationship between intellectuals and the Party is deeply ambivalent in both Mao’s revolutionary state as well as in Xi’s new red empire.

Coming back to the grandiose claims made by the Study Times article, as David Bandurski at the China Media Project observed:

Often, with such swollen claims, a broader historical context is the best anti-inflammatory. We can note that on June 12, 2003, almost exactly 17 years ago, a lengthy commentary appeared on page 9 of the People’s Daily called “A Profound Understanding of the Important Theory of the ‘Three Represents.’” It spoke in glowingly of the banner term of Jiang Zemin, the then former General Secretary of the CCP who at the time still retained his position as head of the Central Military Commission.

The important thought of the “Three Represents” reflects the new requirements of the present-day world and China’s development, and it is the latest achievement in the sinicization of Marxism. The 16th National Congress established the status of the important thought of the “Three Represents” alongside Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory as the guiding ideologies that our Party must adhere to over the long term.

The commentary was written by the very same [author] He Yiting, then serving in the Office of Policy Research. Even when it comes to core ideologies, all love affairs must end.

2. China-India border escalation

This week saw deadly escalation in China-India border stand-offs in the Himalayas with hand-to-hand clashes that led to the death of 20 Indian (and unknown number of Chinese) soldiers. This came after both sides agreed to de-escalate earlier this month.

The latest incident will likely be a watershed moment in China-India relations. A stunned Modi Government has so far been very mild in its public statements. With domestic pressure building, Modi will likely be pushed towards a tougher China policy.

On the Chinese side, unlike its bellicosity during the 2017 Doklam standoff, Chinese state media has mostly downplayed the latest clashes. The mix signal from Beijing coupling resolve on the ground with low keyness of state media rhetoric indicates that it wants to deter India from challenging its position on the ground while at the same time not wanting to escalate further.

For Beijing, fighting and negotiating are not antithetical but rather means that reinforce each other. The reason for Beijing’s aggression is very much unclear.

As we noted earlier

India and China are both affected by the pandemic, both have an interest in maintaining peace while focusing on domestic challenges. This is especially so for Beijing, which has plenty of challenges to deal with: Hong Kong, Xinjiang, economic recovery, US-China tensions etc.

Beijing doesn’t need another confrontation with India, but Xi would not want to risk coming off as weak to his domestic audience.

Beijing has not adopted this logic. At one level, it perceives Indian policy on the border and building of infrastructure and military assets as a threat to its territorial claims. At a strategic level, India’s increasingly closer embrace of the US and strengthening cooperation with Japan, Australia and other countries in the region is causing concerns for Beijing.

The latest escalation should be viewed in the broader context of regional geopolitics. China has been aggressive not only in the Himalayas, but also in its other disputes. In the words of Lindsey Ford and Julian Gerwirtz:

Beijing’s blatant aggressiveness is accelerating long-standing debates about the underlying costs of reliance on China and spurring support for closer coordination between other Indo-Pacific partners.

This aggressiveness, however, is not without a purpose. The 1962 Sino-India War is illustrative. Beijing went to war to stop and deter India from challenging its territorial claims and undermining its control of Tibet. At a strategic level, it was about stopping China from being contained by a growing axis between Moscow and Delhi by revealing Soviet unwillingness to stand up for India.

3. China collecting DNA

Emile Dirks and James Leibold, in their policy brief produced by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, found that:

The Chinese Government is building the world’s largest police-run DNA database in close cooperation with key industry partners across the globe. Yet, unlike the managers of other forensic databases, Chinese authorities are deliberately enrolling tens of millions of people who have no history of serious criminal activity. Those individuals (including preschool-age children) have no control over how their samples are collected, stored and used. 

Like other countries around the world, China’s DNA database started off based on criminal offenders and suspects. However, it has then evolved to collecting samples from outside these groups. The report found that the database likely contains more than 100 million profiles, targeting ethnic minorities and “selected male citizens”. In some cases, collections were done in preschools.

One “Blood Collection Notice” from a bureau of public security described motives for such collection as “helping carry on and enhance the genealogical culture of the Chinese people”, “effectively preventing children and the elderly from going missing” and “assist in the speedy identification of missing people during various kinds of disasters”.

Like all draconian national security measures, it no doubt can have positive social effects like the ones described on the public notice, but it often invariably leads to mass surveillance and social control.

In many liberal democracies, similar collections of genetic data have raised privacy concerns. But unlike in liberal democracies, China’s political system lacks oversight and accountability — so the risks for abuse of these data is much higher with little recourse for individuals harmed.

4. US-China and Uyghur human rights

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Yang Jiechi, a Politburo member and director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office (he outranks the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the party-state system) in Hawaii. From press statements so far from both sides, it appears that the meeting did not reach any concrete outcomes or agreements, but rather was only an opportunity for raising and responding to the usual bilateral relationship concerns and global issues in person.

The only noteworthy outcome was China recommitting to “to completing and honouring all of the obligations of Phase 1 of the trade deal”. If this is true, then from what we’ve seen so far, it likely means more pain for farmers elsewhere, including in Australia.

In the same week, Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton publicised some of the details of Trump’s dealing with China. Specifically, Bolton alleged that Trump “pled with Xi to ensure he’d win” by stressing “the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchase of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome”.

Perhaps even more shocking was Trump’s alleged remark on the concentration camps in Xinjiang. Bolton wrote, “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”

It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that the US President does not care much for human rights, whether in the US or in China. Some in administration may genuinely care about human rights issues in China and see Trump’s tougher stance against China as an opportunity to improve the human rights situation there. But such an alliance of convenience may ultimately backfire as Trump can easily set aside human rights for other issues more important to his electoral agenda.

In the same week, the US Congress passed and the US President signed the Uyghur Human Rights Act, which authorises US sanctions against Chinese officials identified as responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs.

We made a submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in Australia supporting the use of targeted sanctions to address human rights abuses. However, we noted the risks of decisions being influenced by politics rather than human rights concerns, and advocated for clear guidelines on when targeted sanctions should apply.

5. Cyber attacks against Australia

The Australian Prime Minister held a press conference announcing that a “sophisticated state-based cyber actor” was currently attacking Australian organisations. However, he refused to give any further details, such as who is behind the attacks, the exact target of the attacks, the frequency, or the method. He did not name one specific instance of the attack.

It is a long-standing policy in Australia to not officially attribute such cyber attacks. And it is not immediately obvious why the announcement was made. There were no details attached to the announcement that would help organisations to defend against attacks. All the facts in the announcement were already known.

Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said it was very clear that China was behind the cyber attacks. This accusation then incurred the ire of China’s foreign ministry, who denied that China was to blame.

It raises the question that if it was so clear who was behind it (no other countries have been raised even as a possibility yet), why doesn’t the Australian Government formally attribute it? Perhaps the potential costs of formal attribution outweigh the benefits? In any case, such announcements will do little to deter future attacks.

This week on China Story:

  • Greg Austin, China’s cyber defence weakness: military consequences: China’s ability to penetrate foreign cyber systems for espionage purposes has been widely documented and has become a major reference point of global diplomacy and strategic analysis. The country’s cyber defences have not been discussed in the public domain very much at all. When it has, the focus has been largely on civilian aspects and for peacetime environments. By some accounts, from Chinese and international sources alike, China does not perform too well in civil sector cyber security.

  • John Lee and Peter Layton, Principles of Australian grand strategy for China: A cascade of recent events has sharpened the need for Australia to devise a coherent response to China’s growing influence both in the bilateral relationship as well as globally. The current public debate in Australia about China reflects strong convictions and sectional priorities, but rarely attempts to reconcile these in a way that serves Australian society as a whole. For this, we should look to the concept of ‘grand strategy’, with precedents in international contests of past centuries.