The New Era

Ready or not, China is here

The Monthly (Australia) - - CON­TENTS - by Linda Jaivin

As China rises, its rul­ing party places greater de­mands and expectations not just on its own cit­i­zens but also on the peo­ple and gov­ern­ments of other coun­tries. Play ball, and we too can have a share of the China Dream. Or don’t, and suf­fer the con­se­quences.

“I have a ques­tion.” A girl sit­ting at the back of the class­room raised her hand. When I lec­ture at main­land Chi­nese uni­ver­si­ties in film and tele­vi­sion sub­ti­tling, dis­cus­sions tend to be lively, with stu­dents ask­ing about ev­ery­thing from prob­lems of cul­tural speci­ficity to the chal­lenges of rhyming text. But this was a new one: “Another teacher told us that we shouldn’t trans­late the word zhuanzheng into English as ‘dic­ta­tor­ship’ be­cause, while we don’t see dic­ta­tor­ship as a neg­a­tive thing, for­eign­ers do, and it will give them a bad im­pres­sion of China. The teacher told us to choose a neu­tral word like ‘gov­ern­ment’ in­stead. What do you think?” The room went very quiet. Ear­lier in 2015, China’s min­is­ter for ed­u­ca­tion, Yuan Guiren, had for­bid­den the pro­mo­tion of “Western val­ues” in univer­sity class­rooms across China. As the of­fi­cial me­dia help­fully ex­plained, these in­clude a “uni­ver­sal­ist” view of hu­man rights and “nar­row” Western def­i­ni­tions of con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy. Also not al­lowed were any re­marks that could be con­strued as “slan­der­ing the lead­er­ship of the Com­mu­nist Party” or “smear­ing so­cial­ism”. The “New Era” of Xi Jin­ping, pres­i­dent of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China (PRC) and chair­man of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party (CCP), el­e­vated to Mao-like sta­tus by the 19th Party Congress this past Oc­to­ber, is one of in­creas­ing au­thor­i­tar­ian con­trol. It is a fact that the PRC is a one-party state led by the CCP: it is a Party-led state, a Party-state. The PRC’s con­sti­tu­tion ex­plic­itly de­fines its form of gov­ern­ment as ren­min minzhu zhuanzheng, or Peo­ple’s Demo­cratic Dic­ta­tor­ship (an up­dated ver­sion of what was pre­vi­ously known as “the Dic­ta­tor­ship of the Pro­le­tariat”). In this us­age, “Peo­ple” (ren­min) in­di­cates the great ma­jor­ity of cit­i­zens who are deemed to be pa­tri­otic and good and there­fore whose in­ter­ests are rep­re­sented by the van­guard of the pro­le­tariat, namely the Party. The Party, in turn, ex­er­cises right­eous dic­ta­tor­ship over the treach­er­ous and bad mi­nor­ity in the name of the Peo­ple – hence “Demo­cratic” – over the En­e­mies of the Peo­ple. You use dif­fer­ent phrases for “peo­ple” in talk­ing about, say, “all the peo­ple in the room”. But zhuanzheng is dic­ta­tor­ship is zhuanzheng. I chose my words care­fully. “It’s not my pur­pose here to com­ment on pol­i­tics or pro­mote ‘Western val­ues’.” Some stu­dents smiled en­cour­age­ment. “But the ac­cu­rate trans­la­tion of zhuanzheng into English is ‘dic­ta­tor­ship’, and not ‘gov­ern­ment’. Trans­la­tion is a pact of trust – in this case, be­tween you the sub­ti­tler and the film­mak­ers on the one hand and be­tween you and for­eign au­di­ences on the other. Pur­pose­ful mis­trans­la­tion is a breach of trust. Some peo­ple will no­tice, and, with the in­ter­net, they will make sure ev­ery­one else no­tices as well. It could kill your ca­reer. So, from a pro­fes­sional stand­point, I’d say that trans­lat­ing ‘dic­ta­tor­ship’ as ‘gov­ern­ment’ isn’t great ad­vice. But I also know that here in China you may have obli­ga­tions beyond the pro­fes­sional. So all I can say is that it’s a de­ci­sion you need to make for your­self.” A mo­ment passed, the girl thanked me, and the dis­cus­sion moved on to a par­tic­u­larly vexed line from Wong Kar-wai’s The Grand­mas­ter. The 1.4 bil­lion cit­i­zens of the PRC, whether they are among the nearly 89.5 mil­lion mem­bers of the Party or not, live their lives in high aware­ness of and con­stant ne­go­ti­a­tion with the de­mands and expectations of the Party-state. These can be gen­eral or de­tailed. They may be passed down in of­fi­cial doc­u­ments, taught in class­rooms, dic­tated in work­places, ex­pressed through me­dia in­clud­ing tele­vi­sion and film, trum­peted from bill­boards or pro­claimed from printed no­tices on com­mu­nity no­tice­boards. They can touch on any as­pect of life and thought, from ad­her­ence to the prin­ci­ples of Xi Jin­ping’s “So­cial­ism with Chi­nese Char­ac­ter­is­tics for a New Era” to man­dat­ing how of­ten peo­ple need to visit their el­derly par­ents. A friend re­cently sent me a pho­to­graph of build­ings in Haikou, the cap­i­tal of Hainan province, lit up with the Chi­nese char­ac­ters for “Keep the faith and bear the mis­sion in mind” – the first half of the new slo­gan that fin­ishes “Ex­ert your­self to the ut­most to travel the road of the new Long March of the New Era”. To jus­tify its right to make these de­mands, the Party fre­quently re­minds China’s cit­i­zens that only it was able to end, with the found­ing of the PRC in 1949, the “cen­tury of hu­mil­i­a­tion” by Western and Ja­panese im­pe­ri­al­ist pow­ers that be­gan with the ex­ploita­tive Opium Wars. The Party, of­fi­cially self-de­scribed as Great, Glo­ri­ous and Cor­rect, is the Peo­ple’s cham­pion and saviour. Pub­li­ca­tions, mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tions, block­buster films and even chil­dren’s songs re­in­force the mes­sage. What’s more, the Party that lib­er­ated the Peo­ple in the past is also the only one that can shep­herd them into the fu­ture

The Party fre­quently re­minds China’s cit­i­zens that only it was able to end the “cen­tury of hu­mil­i­a­tion” by Western and Ja­panese im­pe­ri­al­ist pow­ers

Dis­obe­di­ence to the Party or any ques­tion­ing of its le­git­i­macy is framed as trai­tor­ous, tan­ta­mount to wish­ing upon the na­tion a re­turn to for­eign sub­ju­ga­tion and weak­ness.

– and it’s a shin­ing one. “Two cen­turies af­ter the Opium Wars, which plunged the ‘Mid­dle King­dom’ into a pe­riod of hurt and shame,” the of­fi­cial news agency Xin­hua re­cently pro­claimed, “China is set to re­gain its might and re-as­cend to the top of the world.” One of the ear­li­est slo­gans of the post-Mao re­form years that be­gan with Deng Xiaop­ing’s as­cen­sion to power in 1978 was “Look to the fu­ture.” The CCP be­gan scrub­bing its his­tory of the awk­ward bits: the hor­ror of the anti-right­ist cam­paign that con­demned hun­dreds of thou­sands to labour camps, the three-year famine that killed tens of mil­lions, and the decade-long Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion that be­gan with an orgy of violence and ended with China’s so­ci­ety in trauma and its cul­tural her­itage in tat­ters. As a re­sult, the nearly 53% of the Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion (731 mil­lion peo­ple) that was born af­ter 1976 know lit­tle of these things or even about the events of 1989, when the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army crushed the mas­sive stu­dent-led, pro-democ­racy protests in Bei­jing and else­where with ex­treme violence. They are a for­tu­nate gen­er­a­tion that has grown up amid a con­stant rise in liv­ing stan­dards, so­cial free­doms and eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity. Since the start of the eco­nomic re­forms, in which the Party be­gan fix­ing the prob­lems cre­ated by its own com­mand econ­omy, China has ex­pe­ri­enced a phe­nom­e­nal trans­for­ma­tion. There are many ways to mea­sure this. Here’s one: in 1981, 88.3% of the pop­u­la­tion sur­vived on less than US$2 a day; to­day that fig­ure has dropped to 5.8%. China to­day is the world’s largest trad­ing na­tion. Its econ­omy is a unique mix of mar­ket mech­a­nisms and state over­sight – its Five Year Plans are an up­date on the old Soviet model – and has grown to be­come the se­cond largest in the world. It helps to power a num­ber of oth­ers, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia’s: one out of every three ex­port dol­lars we earn, in­clud­ing from ed­u­ca­tion and tourism ser­vices, comes from China. De­spite con­sid­er­able struc­tural and other prob­lems, the Chi­nese econ­omy is still grow­ing. But the CCP’s very suc­cess poses an ex­is­ten­tial co­nun­drum: does 21st-cen­tury China, with its dy­namic and in­creas­ingly mar­ket-driven econ­omy, and a mid­dle class that num­bers in the hun­dreds of mil­lions, still re­quire those 20th-cen­tury arte­facts, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mu­nist party and a Peo­ple’s Demo­cratic Dic­ta­tor­ship, to guide them? The tight grip on pub­lic dis­course and his­tory and the in­ces­sant fanning of a na­tion­al­ism built on griev­ance are among the ways the Party strives to re­in­force its right to rule. Dis­obe­di­ence to the Party or any ques­tion­ing of its le­git­i­macy is framed as trai­tor­ous, tan­ta­mount to wish­ing upon the na­tion a re­turn to for­eign sub­ju­ga­tion and weak­ness. To defy the Party is to risk one’s rep­u­ta­tion, ca­reer, free­dom and pos­si­bly even one’s life, as shown by the death in cus­tody this year of the No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate and democ­racy ac­tivist Liu Xiaobo. The re­wards for com­pli­ance, on the other hand, be it proac­tive or sim­ply ac­qui­es­cent, are many, and come in both ma­te­rial and spir­i­tual form. They in­clude a share in the “China Dream” of na­tional pros­per­ity and strength, a civilised and har­mo­nious so­ci­ety, and a clean and healthy en­vi­ron­ment. Aus­tralia has be­gun to re­alise that this bar­gain ap­plies to it as well. As the PRC grows richer and stronger, the Party in­creas­ingly places de­mands and expectations on the cit­i­zens and gov­ern­ments of other coun­tries. What it asks of Aus­tralia, in the broad­est terms, is to not in­ter­fere in China’s in­ter­nal af­fairs and to wel­come the rise of the PRC as a strong and pros­per­ous na­tion, equal to oth­ers and en­ti­tled to its place in in­sti­tu­tions of global gover­nance and its role in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs. If we do this, Chi­nese eco­nomic state­craft will en­sure that we profit, lit­er­ally and oth­er­wise, from China’s rise; we too can have a share of the China Dream. If we don’t, we won’t. But it doesn’t stop there. As Xi Jin­ping de­clared to the Party Congress, “No one should ex­pect China to swal­low any­thing that un­der­mines its in­ter­ests.” There are many as­pects of China’s rise to a global power that are of ben­e­fit to the world. It is strongly com­mit­ted to com­bat­ing cli­mate change within the con­text of in­ter­na­tional ac­cords and is in­tro­duc­ing an emis­sions trad­ing scheme at home. (What im­pact this has on Aus­tralia’s econ­omy de­pends on whether this gov­ern­ment can shake its ad­dic­tion to fos­sil fu­els.) The PRC pro­vides more troops on av­er­age to United Nations Peace­keep­ing than any other per­ma­nent mem­ber of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and con­trib­utes more fund­ing to

it than any coun­try but the United States. It par­tic­i­pates in in­ter­na­tional anti-piracy pa­trols and is a ma­jor for­eign-aid donor, spend­ing US$354.3 bil­lion on mainly in­fras­truc­ture and other eco­nomic devel­op­ment projects across 140 coun­tries. The sum is al­most three times, in cur­rent dol­lar value, what the US gave post­war Europe through the Mar­shall Plan. A sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of this goes through the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive that is build­ing roads, ports and other in­fras­truc­ture to cre­ate “new Silk Roads” link­ing China to Cen­tral Asia, South-East Asia, Europe and Africa. Joint polic­ing op­er­a­tions be­tween China and Aus­tralia, mean­while, have pre­vented 7.5 tonnes of il­licit sub­stances, in­clud­ing metham­phetamine, trav­el­ling from il­le­gal Chi­nese labs to Aus­tralian streets in the last two years alone. Of course, all these ac­tions ben­e­fit China as well – but no coun­try acts without re­gard to its own in­ter­ests. Wel­com­ing China’s good global cit­i­zen­ship is the easy part of the bar­gain. The prin­ci­ple of non-in­ter­fer­ence in “in­ter­nal af­fairs” is solid: no coun­try wants any­one mess­ing with its sovereignty. It’s just that the PRC’s def­i­ni­tion of “in­ter­nal af­fairs” en­com­passes ev­ery­thing to do with Tai­wan and Hong Kong, ev­ery­one’s deal­ings with the Dalai Lama, China’s pro­gram of is­land-build­ing in con­tested re­gions of the South China Sea, and even the de­ten­tion of Chi­nese cit­i­zens or for­mer cit­i­zens who are per­ma­nent res­i­dents or pass­port-hold­ers from other coun­tries – the week-long de­ten­tion and in­ter­ro­ga­tion of Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Syd­ney pro­fes­sor Feng Chongyi in March this year, for ex­am­ple. As for the treat­ment of rights ac­tivists like Liu Xiaobo, for­get it. None of our business. The Aus­tralian re­cently re­vealed that Xi Jin­ping seems to have de­ci­sively re­buffed the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts to restart the bi­lat­eral Hu­man Rights Di­a­logue that was ini­ti­ated in 1997 as an an­nual event but has been on hold for more than three years. The Party-state strictly reg­u­lates do­mes­tic pub­lic dis­course, but what hap­pens when per­ceived trans­gres­sions oc­cur abroad? Does the CCP ex­pect to be able to po­lice these as well? And is the CCP en­ti­tled to use any means at its dis­posal to try to in­flu­ence how well its in­ter­ests are be­ing served over­seas? These are not the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions for Aus­tralia. Last year, La­bor sen­a­tor Sam Dast­yari pub­licly stated that Aus­tralia had no right to in­ter­fere with China’s ac­tiv­i­ties in the South China Sea, con­tra­dict­ing his own party’s plat­form that Aus­tralia should be able to con­duct free­dom-of-nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tions in the dis­puted area. It turned out that he had re­cently re­ceived fi­nan­cial help from donors with of­fi­cial PRC con­nec­tions. In June this year, a sub­stan­tial joint in­ves­ti­ga­tion by Four Corners and Fair­fax Me­dia, ‘Power and In­flu­ence: The Hard Edge of China’s Soft Power’, al­leged that Dast­yari’s state­ment had come a day af­ter the Chi­nese bil­lion­aire Huang Xiangmo threat­ened to with­draw a $400,000 do­na­tion to the La­bor Party. (Huang, who in 2016 told the Aus­tralian Fi­nan­cial Re­view that “to me, pol­i­tics is just like sport”, said he “took strong ob­jec­tion” to any sug­ges­tion in ‘Power and In­flu­ence’ that he ex­pected for­eign pol­icy out­comes in ex­change for po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions.) The in­ves­ti­ga­tion claimed in­flu­ence ped­dling, es­pi­onage, and at­tempts to con­trol and mon­i­tor pub­lic dis­course in the me­dia and on cam­puses by peo­ple act­ing on be­half of China’s Party-state threaten Aus­tralia’s se­cu­rity, sovereignty and the in­tegrity of its po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. The rev­e­la­tions spurred the gov­ern­ment to pledge stricter reg­u­la­tion of po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions, and in Novem­ber At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Ge­orge Bran­dis an­nounced a “for­eign in­flu­ence trans­parency scheme”, promis­ing to in­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion by the end of the year that “com­pre­hen­sively re­vises our es­pi­onage, sab­o­tage, trea­son and se­crecy of­fences” and will crim­i­nalise “cer­tain acts of covert for­eign in­ter­fer­ence”. The Chi­nese am­bas­sador to Aus­tralia, Cheng Jingye, ac­cused those be­hind ‘Power and In­flu­ence’ of in­tend­ing to stir a “China panic”. The jin­go­is­tic main­land jour­nal the Global Times had re­sponded sar­don­ically to pre­vi­ous al­le­ga­tions of es­pi­onage: “China spy­ing on Aus­tralia? Why? Tell us, Aus­tralia, who do you think you are? What have you got in Aus­tralia that is re­motely worth spy­ing on, apart from the Opera House, the Great Bar­rier Reef, clean air and killer ul­tra-vi­o­let sun­shine?” It pub­lished a stream of ar­ti­cles in re­sponse to ‘Power and In­flu­ence’ writ­ten in var­i­ous reg­is­ters of dud­geon. Yet over the same gen­eral pe­riod, it also pub­lished re­ports on such top­ics as the ex­cel­lence of Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties and the afore­men­tioned joint polic­ing op­er­a­tion, not­ing that Aus­tralia was the only coun­try in the world “China spy­ing on Aus­tralia? Why? Tell us, Aus­tralia, who do you think you are? What have you got in Aus­tralia that is re­motely worth spy­ing on?”

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