The New Era
Ready or not, China is here
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?”