Welcome to the China Foreign Policy Letter.
This week’s highlights: Receive a list of Chinese Communist Party members overhyped reporting in foreign media, a Bloomberg employees arrested in Beijing and why Disney’s CEO probably not the next US ambassador to China.
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A China horror that does not stand up
This week the Australian, Sky News Australia and the UK’s Daily Mail reported a list of members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Shanghai. The list, which appears to be up to date by 2016, is an interesting source of data for researchers. However, the somewhat hysterical tone of the stories shows how easily unnecessary panic can be generated even when it comes to such a serious problem as the influence of the CCP.
The stories described a “government sponsored spy ring” calling the presence of party members in foreign firms “infiltration” and presented the list as a dramatic new development. None of this is true.
The presence of CCP cells in Western companies that have branches in China is unremarkable. The party’s constitution stipulates that companies with three or more members must form a cell. Cells are much less common in foreign firms than in domestic firms. In most cases, cell meetings are tedious, although under President Xi Jinping they have increasingly become an instrument of direct influence in the private sector. Foreign firms have raised concerns that party cells could influence business decisions under the new regime, but their presence is known.
Likewise, consulates and embassies have always been aware that some staff members are CCP members, but that does not make them any more dangerous than other local staff. All mainland China citizens are under pressure to spy from state security forces, and foreign embassies recognize this. The Australian’s story claimed that the hiring of consulates in Shanghai is being done by a government-run facility. However, this is the case in every Chinese city – both for consulates and foreign media – as it has been in the People’s Republic of China since its inception.
It is also doubtful to view the CCP’s membership as a sign of loyalty to the state. People join the party primarily as a resume booster, often at university or shortly after. There is no way to go just get kicked out. The upper-middle-class English-speaking employees of overseas corporations are more likely to be party members than most people simply because of the social classes they are often from.
Chinese influence issues will be an important topic in the next few years. There are real problems with Chinese influence in Australia and other Western countries, but they need to be carefully discussed. It will be of vital importance to draw clear lines about what is important or threatening, what only concerns and what is hysterical or racist. Expect similar stories in the future – and be ready to read them critically and in context.
Bloomberg Employees arrested. Haze Fan, a talented Chinese reporter who works as a so-called news assistant for Bloomberg in Beijing, was arrested last Friday on suspicion of endangering national security. Legally, Chinese members of foreign news organizations can only be employed as news assistants, but in practice they often do most of the work. Internally, Bloomberg is one of the fairest employers for Chinese employees. It pays off well and publishes many articles under one general newsroom title rather than giving credit to overseas employees for work done by Chinese employees.
The fan arrest is worrying on a number of fronts. It is part of a general attack on freedom of the press, and particularly on the foreign press, over the past year. Since Fan is a Chinese citizen, there is little Bloomberg can do to protect her. Since the point of sale is being punished for exposing Xi’s family assets, it has been cautious in dealing with authorities, including moving some vulnerable workers overseas. It is possible that Fan’s case was related to the detention of a friend of hers, Australian citizen Cheng Lei, earlier this year.
Mongolian sales. The ethnic Mongolian head of the National Commission on Ethnic Affairs has been replaced by a new leader from the Han Chinese. This is the first time since 1954 that the body has been ruled by a non-minority member. The move comes after protests against linguistic imperialism in China-ruled Inner Mongolia triggered a new wave of state violence. It is another sign that ethno-nationalism is dominating the CCP’s policies under Xi.
Jimmy Lai attacked. Democracy-friendly Hong Kong lawyer and tycoon Jimmy Lai has been formally indicted under Beijing’s National Security Law. This makes him the best-known victim of the draconian measures to date. Lai, who was denied bail, was arrested in August on trumped-up charges relating to the lease of his building, and China appears determined to set an example for him. Hong Kong’s billionaire class generally supports Beijing and quietly diversifies their wealth into other countries.
Game effort. Polish company GOG has discontinued Taiwanese game Devotion, which was ousted from main PC gaming platform Steam for capturing a derogatory picture of Xi after the mainlanders bombed their rating area. The decision sparked an outcry among gamers, who view the move as indulging in Chinese censorship.
This is becoming a sensitive issue for video game companies as China has gradually legalized video games and opened up its market while imposing significant censorship. It is feared that the platforms used for video games are reluctant to accept material that China has criticized outside of the mainland.
Mickey Mouse, Beijing Ambassador. The Hollywood Reporter reports that Disney’s chief executive officer Bob Iger is being considered for an ambassadorial post to the UK or China. Despite Iger’s weight in Hollywood, this seems unlikely even in the ridiculous US system that sends millionaire donors to critical diplomatic roles.
Disney had a reputation for filming Mulan in Xinjiang and working with Chinese censors. The appointment would be a gift to a Republican party that wishes to paint Biden as a Chinese tool, and Iger would be torn apart for confirmation.
Forced labor chain. The extent of the forced Uighur labor – effectively slavery – in the cotton market in Xinjiang may be greater than feared. This is emerging from new research showing that more than half a million workers were forcibly mobilized from three areas for the cotton-picking season alone. China claims that forced labor is a job creation program. However, those forced to do so include a large number of professors, managing directors, and other professionals.
Foreign clothing companies are under increasing pressure in the supply chain, according to research by the BBC and others.
Monkey King: Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en, translated by Julia Lovell
Julia Lovell’s upcoming translation of Journey to the West, the most beloved Chinese classic, is a vivid delight: it really brings out a really fun book to its fullest. (No disrespect for Arthur Waley’s rightly beloved translation.) Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is as important a figure in Chinese as Robin Hood and King Arthur are in English. Its barely contained anarchism is also a good reminder that the Chinese were never the gentle, obedient figures portrayed in Orientalism.
That’s it for this week.
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