Neil O’Brien: Bullying, hostage taking, censorship, bribery. How China is dealing with its critics abroad.
Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.
I wrote in my last column about the Chinese government’s coronavirus cover ups and how its unfair, mercantilist economic policies are hurting us. This article is about the Communist Party’s attempt to “export” its model, and bully the west into self-censorship.
Let’s start by considering China under Xi Jinping. It’s diverging from the west. Xi declared himself President for life, proclaiming a “new era” with a stronger role for the Party. He has a personality cult: “Xi Jinping Thought”.
He’s purged rivals, cracking down on human rights. Up to a million Uyghur muslims are imprisoned in “re-education camps”. Under cover of coronavirus, Beijing arrested leading pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. It deploys unprecedented technology to control the population (imagine the Stasi with access to AI).
It’s developing “social credit” systems mean small things like crossing the road when the light’s red, or not buying a train ticket, are held against you. Journalists and lawyers disappear without trace. People are tortured in jail. The internet is censored in real time. Several people were jailed just for calling President Xi a “steamed bun” in private texts.
“Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken… It’s a profound lesson for us! … to dismiss Lenin and Stalin… confuses our thoughts and undermines the Party’s organizations on all levels. Why must we stand firm on the Party’s leadership over the military? Because that’s the lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union… Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”
To say the Chinese regime is no longer westernising is an understatement. China is taking control of disputed areas of the South China sea, reneging on promises to Barack Obama not to build military bases there. But the problem I want to talk isn’t the military threat.
The issue is this. China has a huge, dynamic economy. It’s highly integrated with the rest of the world. That integration both gives it both a huge incentive to mute criticism, and huge leverage to do so.
There are two levels to the Chinese government’s approach.
In developing countries where democracy is weak or absent, the Chinese government takes a direct approach, using infrastructure loans and the offer of surveillance technology to make friends with leaders.
In developed democracies the approach is more sophisticated, it tries to influence public opinion, and encourage self-censorship using economic clout.
Let’s take them in turn, starting with developing countries.
President Xi Jinping says China offers an alternative to Westernisation:
“Scientific socialism is full of vitality in 21st century China, and that the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics is now flying high and proud for all to see… socialism with Chinese characteristics [is] blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization. It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”
Through the “Belt and Road” programme (BRI) China offers to build developing countries infrastructure and lend them the funds to pay for it. Unlike western aid, there’s no pesky human rights, or environmental strings attached.
The programme has a triple advantage for China: allowing it to dispose of surpluses produced by its state-run economy, directly growing its power over borrowing governments, and helping ensure Chinese firms in those markets beat western rivals. Up to $1 trillion in loans have been promised and 138 countries signed up.
Sometimes the transaction is direct. In Djibouti, China exchanged infrastructure for a new military base. But often the loans are a debt trap. China borrows from the World Bank at one per cent (that’s your money) and loans it on at up to six per cent. When countries can’t pay back, they have to hand something over. China has secured everything from a port in Sri Lanka to a deep-space tracking facility in Argentina.
But money isn’t all China’s government can offer developing country leaders. In Uganda and Zambia, Huawei employees used mobile phone data to track down members of opposition parties and intercept their communications.
In some countries, there’s been so much corruption associated with BRI that it’s led to Beijing-friendly governments getting kicked out, as in Malaysia.
More often, corruption often gives China a further degree of leverage. If you are an autocrat leader in a developing country, the mix of funds for modernisation, plus the prospect of pocketing some for personal gain, plus access to advanced surveillance technology adds up to a very attractive proposition.
But the Chinese government wants to influence developed countries too.
First, business leaders must censor themselves if they want to do business in China. Daimler quoted the Dalai Lama in an advert. It had to apologise. Sony Pictures re-edited the global versions of films to please China’s censors. US basketball was banned from lucrative Chinese TV after just one manager’s pro-democracy tweet. Despite an apology, state media says it won’t come back till he is dealt with, i.e. sacked. Some western business people proactively suck up to the government or even help Beijing embarrass their own governments.
Britain’s universities and local government are desperate for Chinese students and investment. Just a whiff of it changes behaviour. In the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman reported:
“A politics lecturer at a British university told me recently that he had been asked by university authorities if he could remove a poster of the Tiananmen Square “tank man” from his office wall because it might be offensive to Chinese students.”
Several universities have cancelled events or uninvited speakers after pressure from Beijing.
China invests in shaping public opinion. A recent EU report found China was spreading disinformation online. Beijing put pressure on the EU to delete the finding that it was running “a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak”.
Such ironies abound. I was reading a Washington Post article about China’s disinformation campaign online. Placed in it there was a paid-for advert taking readers to a Chinese state media report on… what a great job the Communist Party is doing. At least during the Cold War you didn’t get pop-up ads for Pravda.
China puts pressure on governments directly. Mette Frederiksen, the Danish Prime Minister, was threatened that investment in her country will suffer if Huawei isn’t allowed to supply 5G. China’s ambassadors now talk like Mafiosi: their ambassador to Sweden warned: “for our enemies we have shotguns”.
They behave like mafia too. Canada arrested Huawei’s Chief Finance Officer on fraud charges. So China took two Canadians hostage. It works.
A journalist asks a WHO official about Taiwan. He hangs up. MPs ask François-Philippe Champagne, the Canadian Foreign Minister, if he will say thanks to Taiwan for face masks. He can’t bring himself to say it.
China’s mute button is getting more effective. The Chinese government is adept at harnessing the west for things it needs, while promoting self-censorship: one writer compared to it an anaconda which doesn’t need to move much to provoke fear.
Economically and politically, Beijing takes advantage of asymmetric openness: we’re open to them, but they are not to us.
My fear is that with China as the world’s biggest economy, with firms and western institutions desperate to curry favour, we’ll fall into a kind of Finlandisation. For politicians it will look attractive to steer well clear of criticising Beijing. So we need to speak up now – or forever hold our peace.
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