Neican Brief: 22 December 2019

Fudan, Macao vs HK, pork, aircraft carrier, sports censorship

Hi all, this week Adam is writing from tropical Bali while Yun is lounging around reading in Lake Macquarie, north of Sydney. We wish you and your family a happy and safe holiday!

This week we look at academic freedom, “one country, two systems,” pork, China’s aircraft carrier, and sports censorship.

1. Fudan: “freedom of thought” in Xi’s China

A rare flash mob protest was held at Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the most prestigious and liberal universities in China, in response to changes to the University Charter.

The changes deleted the reference to “freedom of thought” 思想自由, and emphasised the leadership of CCP, including by adding that the university will “persistently arm the minds of [its] teachers, students, and staff with Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” 坚持用习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想武装师生员工头脑. Nanjing University and Shaanxi Normal University also changed their charters to emphasise the Party’s leadership.

This is the latest in the continuing tightening of the intellectual environment in Xi’s China with increasing censorship, academic suppression, and the changing of incentive structures for academics to toe the Party’s line.

Beyond the suppression of intellectual freedom, education is now seen by the CCP as critical for maintaining its intellectual and moral legitimacy. The Party is asking three key questions:

  1. Who to education 培养什么人?

  2. How to educate 怎样培养人?

  3. For whom to educate 为谁培养人?

In Xi’s words: “the Party must cultivate generation after generation of [talented young people] that support the Communist Party of China’s leadership and the socialist system”.

The Party is rightly worried about its hold over the minds of the young. Throughout China’s history, student activism has been at the vanguard of calls for reform, including May 4th, June 4th, and the Red Guard movements. Today, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has students at its core.

The Party will continue to clamp down or co-opt student movements to ensure stability. However, it is likely to be increasingly difficult as the current ideology based on “ethnonationalism” is not as attractive for students as the universal ideologies of the past such as liberalism or communism.

The challenge is to find an appealing ideology for the students and the general population, as economic growth slows even further. “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” just doesn’t cut it. This is not just about students and intellectuals, other sectors of society are noticing a tightening of censorship and control, with many harking back to the relative freedom of the Hu and Jiang eras.

The Party cannot rely purely on coercive tools to maintain its rule in the long term. It needs ideological, intellectual and moral power.

2. Macau and Hong Kong: one framework, two results

The Chinese media this week is reporting extensively on Xi’s trip to Macau for the 20th anniversary of Macau’s handover to the PRC. As part of this trip, the PRC has announced plans to diversify Macau’s economy, including by making it a financial hub. Macau is currently better known as a gambling destination.

Hong Kong, another city under “one country, two systems” is an existing world financial hub. However, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are seen by the PRC as actions of a petulant child. In contrast, a good and obedient child like Macau deserves to be rewarded and elevated.

The Macau policy announcements are intended to send a message to Hong Kong that its pro-democracy tendencies are hurting its economic future. It also reminds Hong Kong that Beijing has carrots to feed if Hong Kong would only behave itself.

While it is unlikely to sway pro-democracy protestors, it may put pressure on Hong Kong elites.

The 4th Plenum Communique was quite clear that the CCP intends to push “One country, two systems” (1C2S) as the basic framework for the relationship between Beijing on the one hand, and Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan on the other. To strengthen the framework, Beijing seeks to:

  1. use existing laws and powers.

  2. establish and improve national security laws and enforcement mechanisms.

  3. improve the accountability of Chief Executives to Beijing.

  4. integrate the two cities into China’s national development.

  5. strengthen national and patriotic education.

  6. prevent foreign interference.

Earlier this month, Politburo rank-three member, Li Zhanshu 栗战书, in a speech on Macau’s application of 1C2S framework, highlighted its achievements and implicitly drew attention to the situation in Hong Kong. Li quoted Xi:

‘One country’ is the root, only deep roots support a rich canopy; ‘one country’ is the foundation, only strong foundations support strong branches”

'一国'是根,根深才能叶茂;'一国'是本,本固才能枝荣”

What Xi is implying is that the “two systems” part of the formulation is much like leaves and branches of a tree — transient and expandable.

1C2S is a model of central-local relations born out of tactical necessity rather than any deep commitment to political pluralism or respect for the autonomy of Hong Kong and Macao.

Beijing will continue to profess its faith and adherence to the 1C2S framework while at the same time trying to tighten political control and integrate Hong Kong and Macao into the mainland’s economic and political system.

3. Pork is king: political stability

The Chinese Government has unveiled plans to release more frozen pork from its strategic pork reserve. This is to ensure stable pork price ahead of the all-important Lunar New Year, in the face of a continuing supply shortage due to African Swine Fever.

Pork is the most commonly consumed meat in China and an essential ingredient in most of Han cooking, from red braised pork belly to dumplings. Pork price is on the mind of most middle-class consumers, with many pork-based memes appearing in the past few months. In fact, at least one of us would argue that stable pork prices are intimately tied to the mandate of heaven.

The pork shortage is good news for pork producers around the world, including Europe and Brazil. The recent “Phase One” trade deal with the US including commitments to purchase agricultural goods will likely include a substantial amount of pork.

With declining confidence in the economy and a skyrocketing pork price, discontent and pessimism among the middle class are becoming more noticeable. With this pessimism, the focus is back on inequality between the elites and the middle class, as highlighted by the recent Huawei wrongful detention case. Ensuring stability would be challenging in this environment.

In pork-related criminal news, media reports that criminal gangs are using drones to spread African Swine Flu, in order to force farmers to sell diseased pigs. These criminal gangs then smuggle and sell these pigs as healthy stock. In response, the pig farmers are using anti-drone devices, which is interfering with aircrafts flying overhead.

On a more serious note, this whole porky business highlights the limits and pitfalls of China’s top-down approach to responding to crises and solving major policy problems.

4. Carrier in water: military modernisation

China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, officially entered into service this week. Hailed as a milestone of China’s military modernisation and a symbol of China’s comprehensive national 综合国力 and naval power 海军实力, the commissioning ceremony was presided by Xi.

Since 2015, China has embarked on a sweeping military reform programme, the biggest since the 1950s. The PLA’s organisational structure and operational model have both undergone fundamental change. The goal was to make the PLA a professional force that can satisfy the complex demands of fighting modern wars.

Xi committed China to transform the PLA into a “world-class force” by 2050. For Beijing, there is an urgent need to modernise its military given the multitude of perceived challenges, both internal and external.

For China, a strong military is a key to safeguarding China’s continued economic development. Indeed, the PLA is becoming a force with a global reach and ambitions in order to advance China’s national interests.

Despite the rapid modernisation of hardware, the PLA continues to lag behind in real combat experience, training, personnel quality, military theories and operational concepts, and other critical “softer” items.

5. Sports censorship

The furore over NBA is barely over, we have already arrived at the next instalment of this “China sports censorship”: English Premier League. An Arsenal player, Mesut Özil, criticised China for its persecution of Uyghurs.

In response, CCTV cancelled the broadcast of one of its matches, and NetEase even removed Özil from its football-themed video game. Arsenal issued a statement on Weibo saying it “has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics”, which is seen by many as distancing itself from Özil.

China can apply pressure successfully because it knows that profitability is the main goal of these sports clubs. Official sanctions are not even necessarily — the Chinese Government can just inflame nationalistic anger instead. The losses from the China market from these incidents will not be matched by any extra revenue it gains from elsewhere for speaking out.

The only way such pressure can be mitigated is if other players also speak out on this issue. But it is unlikely that many other players have a strong view on Xinjiang or would risk Beijing’s wrath.

Beijing can effectively censor freedom of speech by those seeking to do business with China through its economic leverages. It is not the only state or organisation that have sought to put pressure on sportspeople for political activisms. Past examples include the fallout from the Black Power salute in the 1968 Olympics. But at the moment, it is the most dominant and influential one.