Neican Brief: 1 March 2020

Gui Minhai, China’s billionaires, Sun Yang, arrests in HK

Hi all, one of our spouses said back in November: “people actually sign up, wait for your free newsletter, and read it?” Well…thanks to thousands of you, that question has been definitively answered. Thank you for reading!

- Yun and Adam

The case of Gui Minhai

Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, was sentenced to ten years in prison for “providing intelligence overseas”. Gui’s path to this prison sentence is both extraordinary and ludicrous. This incredible story combines Hong Kong autonomy, international political kidnapping, forced TV confession, and now forced citizenship.

Importantly, it should sound an alarm for any visitors considering going to China — you too might become a Chinese citizen unwittingly.

Gui was a bookseller in Hong Kong, a territory with supposedly high autonomy and an independent judicial system. The bookstore Gui worked at sells books that are not available in the mainland, as the content is often negative or critical of the CCP or its leader. Some titles even feature Xi Jinping. In 2015, five staff of the bookstore disappeared, including Gui.

After his disappearance in Thailand, Gui resurfaced on Chinese state media. His supposed confession, where he pleaded for Sweden to not intervene, was almost certainly forced. Gui has been under detention or close surveillance since his disappearance from Thailand in 2015.

What’s even more troubling about this prison sentence is that the Chinese authorities said Gui has applied to reinstate his Chinese citizenship. This means that China admits that Gui was a Swedish citizen (and not a Chinese citizen) at the time of his detention. Previously, the usual tactic for Chinese authorities is asserting that a China-born person did not give up their Chinese citizenship. But for this case, the Chinese authorities did not go down that road.

Instead, China asserted that Gui had applied and was approved for Chinese citizenship, despite having a criminal record in China and while under custody or close surveillance. This means almost anyone can have Chinese citizenship thrust upon them while they are in detention in China. There appears to be nothing that would stop China from doing the same to those not born in China or never held Chinese citizenship, such as the two Canadian being held by China right now. The consequence of this is that China would then not allow consular assistance for the “Chinese citizen” and it would object to other countries advocating for the rights of their citizens.

Sweden said Gui remains a Swedish citizen and called for his release. The United States has also demanded his release.

The case of Gui Minhai is illustrative of what the Chinese party-state can do to those who dare to openly criticise it, and the length that its willing to go to send a deterrent message.

China’s billionaires

For a country that exhorts its own system of socialism, China is decidedly less socialist than many capitalist countries and liberal democracies, especially in Europe.

The “capitalist roaders” in China are certainly doing well. Having been a target for struggle and prosecution in Maoist China, they have become adored idols of the masses and subject to public attention and emulation.

According to Hurun Report Inc, last year China produced 182 new billionaires, taking its total to 799, whereas the United States produced 59 new ones, raising its total to 626. In total, the 2,816 “known” billionaires saw their combined wealth surge by 16 per cent to US$11.2 trillion. This is despite the trade war, rising global tensions, and concerns about global economic growth.

The astonishing amount of wealth created by China is going to very few people. Income inequality in China today is among the highest in the world. Political and social inequality is no better.

How do you square the current Chinese reality with the circle that is party narrative and ideology? Why is communist or socialist China not more equal and democratic? The ideological footwork done on this has resulted in what’s known as the“primary stage of socialism” 社会主义初级阶段. Essentially, “we are making progress, things are bad now, but they will be better soon.”

Under Mao, the Chinese were made to believe that communist utopia was decades if not only years away. In the post-Mao era, history has been lengthened with the date for the arrival at utopia put off. The “primary stage of socialism” is used to justify China’s gross inequalities.

It remains to be seen whether the party-state could build a more just and equal society in China. But Xi’s “new era” has not got off to a good start. Indeed, as we have noted in January:

Underneath all this bolster about confidence and inevitability of progress, just how many of them really know what Socialism with Chinese Characteristics 中国特色社会主义 is, or exactly how Xi’s “New Era” 新时代 is different from the now old days under Hu, Jiang and Deng?

If Marx and Mao returned from the dead today, they would both be abhorred at what China has become, with its Frankenstein hybridity, combining (some of the better as well as some of the worst) elements of Communism and Capitalism.

Sun Yang

Sun Yang, the Chinese Olympics swimmer, has been banned for eight years for doping test violation. Sun is appealing the ruling. The violation occurred during a confrontation with antidoping officials, where Sun’s mother ordered his security guard to smash a blood sample.

Those of us from Australia remembers him clearly, as he and Mack Horton, an Australian swimmer, were in a public feud at the 2016 Olympics. Horton’s comments about Sun being a drug cheat riled up nationalistic sentiments online in China. As a result, Horton was vilified mercilessly online and harassed in person.

More recently, a school in Melbourne decided against naming its aquatic centre after Horton, supposedly due to consideration of commercial interest with China.

The latest development seems to vindicated Horton’s concerns about Sun. But Horton is again under attack online by Sun’s supporters.

Arrests in Hong Kong

Hong Kong media mogul and founder of Apple Daily was arrested this week along with two other pro-democracy politicians for joining an unlawful protest (a pray walk) on August 31 last year.

This is the latest in a string of arrests and prosecutions that are seen from widely different perspectives for Beijing on the one hand, and from the liberal west on the other. For Beijing, these prosecutions are in accordance with the law, and intend to punish wrongdoing, including in Lai’s case collaborating with “foreign forces.”

Jimmy Lai meets US Vice President Mike Pence in the White House, July 8, 2019. Photo: RFA.

Whatever we may think about Beijing’s paranoia and narratives that blame many of China’s troubles on the meddling of “foreign forces”(eg., Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, COVID-19), these are real to Bejing.

Having witnessed and studied the fall of Soviet power, and today’s international media landscape, you can be damn sure that Beijing takes the “foreign forces” narrative seriously, and not just as rhetoric. If something is real to Beijing and shapes its perspectives and actions, then we should also take it seriously.

Back to Lai… Many in the US, Europe and elsewhere have seen the latest charges as another step directed by Beijing to punish dissent, and put more pressure on media freedom in Hong Kong. US State Department, for example, put out a statement saying that they are “concerned by the arrest” and “expect Hong Kong authorities not to use law enforcement selectively for political purposes.”

The rebuke from the Chinese Government was predictable: “ [we urge] the United States to immediately stop condoning anti-China and trouble making suspects in Hong Kong”

For Beijing, Hong Kong is a case in point of what “foreign influences and interference” and “foreign ideas” (such as western democracy) can do. While for liberal democracies, the Hong Kong protests highlight China’s rising power and authoritarian advance, for Beijing Hong Kong is about national sovereignty, past humiliations, history, foreign meddling, and the dangers of a population going astray because of foreign ideational pollution.

Hong Kong has currently all but disappeared from international headlines, pretty much like Syria, Yemen and other hotspots that initially captured international attention, and in some cases, imagination, just to be relegated to the back pages after some time.

But we can be sure that the faultlines that led to the eruption last summer by the extradition bill are still there. Another eruption is certain — the question is when?

Chinoiserie

  • Duck force deployment canceled: sadly, China is not deploying its 100,000 strong duck expeditionary force to Pakistan. The ducks were destined to put down the locust invasion in Pakistan’s Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab provinces, which have devastated crops. But ducks like water and the dry battlefield environment just doesn’t suit. This would have also raised more alarm about the expansion of China’s military footprint, which Beijing doesn’t want.


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