Activism, Asia, Must Reads, Recommended, World Affairs

China and the Difficulties of Dissent

Over the last couple of weeks, a small but dedicated band of free speech advocates at the University of Queensland (UQ) have managed to catch the attention of the international media with their protests against the Chinese government. The struggles of the protest organisers have a significance far beyond university campuses, as the recent media attention devoted to China’s influence over our politicians, technology, infrastructure, and educational programs demonstrates. The recent campus protests provide a timely reminder of the difficulties of dissenting from the entrenched orthodoxy that China’s rise is benign or even beneficial for Australia and the wider West.

The Rise of Fascist China

It is important to understand that China is a fascist dictatorship. The term “fascist” is now thrown around with such carelessness that it has lost most of its meaning outside the offices of a few historians or political science professors. But fascism, in its original early twentieth century incarnation, meant a political system defined by three attributes—authoritarianism, ethnonationalism, and an economic model in which capitalism co-existed with large state-directed industries and partnerships between the government and corporations.

China is an ethnonationalist, corporatist, authoritarian state. The government harasses, imprisons, or murders those who demand the right to vote. It engages in cultural genocide and seeks to make the Chinese dictatorship ideologically inseparable from the self-image of the Chinese people. It protects its domestic economy from foreign competition, subsidises all its important industries, mandates that government officials sit on the boards of all large companies, and does not allow independent labour unions. Despite the use of the word “communist” in both the name of the state and the name of its ruling elite, China is fascist. The label of communism is now merely a historical anomaly, relevant only to the extent that totalitarianism remains an underlying principle, the source code of a regime that has likely killed more people than any other in history.

Enter the Dragon

As the world’s most powerful fascist regime, one would expect China to encounter great difficulties spreading its influence on liberal Australian university campuses, the student bodies of which are hypersensitive to right-wing teaching or teachers. The student opposition to the Ramsey Institute teaching UQ students about the achievements of Western civilisation is particularly instructive in this case. China, however, has had no problem spreading its influence.

This is partly because most of its influence is not visible to students or the general public. For instance, China scholars from Western universities require access to Chinese sources and travel visas. In order to secure interviews or travel permits, they must not write anything the Chinese government dislikes. To be critical of the Chinese government’s stance on Taiwan is to be blacklisted. To speak out against China’s treatment of the Uighurs, Falun Gong, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, trade, technology theft, or espionage is dangerous academic territory. Students do not see this influence. Media representatives who interview “China experts” are typically unaware that they are speaking to a self-censored source, even though that source may be an Australian citizen, resident, and not ethnically Chinese.

Most academics speak euphemistically about this self-censorship. They will claim that you “have to be measured” when talking about China and that you have to be “sensitive” to Chinese feelings, which makes acquiescence to Chinese coercion sound warmer and fuzzier than it really is. They will claim that you have to see things from “China’s perspective,” and omit that this is the perspective of a regime that makes dissidents disappear.

The corporatisation of Australian universities has also made them vulnerable to implicit threats of Chinese sanctions. The commodity at stake is student fees because China can control how many students it will allow to leave the country to study at a foreign institution. Should a particular university prove hostile to Chinese interests and decide to, for instance, invite the Dalai Lama to speak, it can expect reduced enrolments. And although Chinese cyberattacks aimed at stealing technology from universities are extremely common, it must cross the minds of administrators that China has considerable disruptive powers in cyberspace, and that those powers can be put to work against “anti-Chinese” staff to the detriment of all.

Students and outside observers may, in the abstract, see the presence of so many Chinese studying on campus as another element of China’s growing influence. While that observation is correct, the modes of influence are, again, mostly invisible to the uninitiated. The mere fact that Chinese students are now the largest single national group in many classes does not automatically mean that the Chinese state gains something other than an education for those students (maybe). However, these students play an important role in shaping debate on campus.

For instance, when I was a lecturer it was relatively common to go through an entire semester without a single criticism of the Chinese regime by Chinese students in front of their classmates. Occasionally, a courageous student would privately explain why. Students who voiced objections were monitored by their classmates and denounced to the home government. They in turn had representatives within the student bodies whose job it was to warn students about their activism and remind them of the consequences of dissent. By making sure the students knew they were being watched, the students would self-censor (as a minimum requirement) or defend China in whatever debate was taking place.

In this way, the Chinese students provide something priceless to the cultivation of China’s national image—they make the regime appear to be popular at home. Ask a Chinese student (from the mainland) in public whether or not they approve of Chinese government policies, and you’re likely to get either a nervous and uncertain reply, and possibly a question about why a Westerner cares about Chinese affairs, or you’ll be provided with a vigorous defence of China’s reputation. This isn’t accidental. This is a product of deliberate, well considered policies, crafted by a dictatorship to subvert countervailing foreign policy initiatives.

Naturally, in the same way that China only allows self-censoring or friendly academics to enter the country, it only allows politically reliable students to leave it and study abroad. Students need to have family at home, good “social credit” scores, and it is best if they have family members who work for the Party. Hence, when I privately asked a friend why he could not speak out against China, despite his liberal inclinations and many years of residency in Australia, he excused himself from open dissenting duties with reference to his family at home. “It is dangerous for them,” he said.

Although Chinese governmental coercion is real and far-reaching, it is important to understand that visiting Chinese lecturers and students often firmly believe in all the fundamental elements of Chinese fascism (although, they do not call it that). They are brought up in a nationalist education system. They have usually made a lot of money under the regime (otherwise they could not afford to travel). They are taught there is no difference between the people, the Party, and the state. They are taught that all opposition to Chinese policies is either hypocritical, a misunderstanding, or racist. They are taught that China is being contained, hemmed in, limited in its growth by pernicious outside forces. And nothing will persuade them otherwise. Our openness to Chinese students, immigration, technological cooperation, investment, and trade is meaningless. Chinese victimhood is an ideology crafted for expedience, not because it accords with reality, and it is believed, disseminated, and defended by an indoctrinated, nationalistic establishment that has done rather well out of the regime.

The Confucius Institutes

Not content with the influence they have acquired over academics and students, the Chinese government decided to back the creation of “Confucius Institutes” in Western universities. These universities use the ancient name of a Chinese cultural icon but their role is to disseminate modern propaganda. Confucius Institutes run classes on Chinese language and culture, host debates, fund lecturers and conferences, and do not even bother to conceal their role as monitors and censors of other academics.

Amazingly, Politburo member Li Changchun actually admitted that Confucius Institutes were “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup” as far back as 2009, and by 2014 some of the Institute leaders were openly censoring conferences by tearing out pages and refusing to hand them back. As comically juvenile as China’s representatives can be, the boldness with which China is attempting to stifle debate is alarming. Their success, even more so.

The University of Queensland, like the other universities around the world which have Confucius institutes, signed agreements on hiring policies and academic discourse which gave China significant control over what is taught on who is teaching it. That is an extraordinary concession to grant a fascist state at a liberal university, and UQ, like other local universities, is still in denial about its impact. Despite the fact that Confucius Institutes have been caught censoring debate and influencing the curriculum in literally hundreds of universities around the world, and despite the fact that foreign dictatorships don’t generally fund Western, liberal colleges out of the goodness of their hearts, some university administrators are still keen to host the Institutes.

Nonetheless, China hasn’t had it all its own way. Some governments have moved to review Chinese influence on campus, and others have said they will close those centres that are not transparent in their contracts. The U.S. government has even managed to prevail upon some universities to close their institutes due to well-founded fears of espionage from Chinese government employees. Others universities have closed the Institutes voluntarily, perhaps realising that fascist propaganda centres are a bad idea, although it seems that threats by other sources to withdraw funding are frequently a part of the calculus.

The Protest

It began in Hong Kong. A bill was brought forward by Hong Kong’s legislature which would allow suspected criminals to be sent to face trial and imprisonment in mainland China. Although Hong Kong has been part of China since 1997, it has a local police force, its own courts, a limited democracy, and generally more political freedom. Predictable as ever in its patterns of oppression, China has been rolling back Hong Kong’s freedoms and the “extradition bill” was correctly identified as part of that pattern by the population of Hong Kong.

Street protests quickly developed. Millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets in defiance of the government. When the government suspended the bill, the protestors demanded its complete withdrawal and the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief minister. As the weeks passed, rounds of protests and police actions increased amid gathering international activism by Hong Kongers overseas. Some of that activism made it to the University of Queensland where I was able to witness it firsthand.

What started as a rather innocuous demonstration against the Confucius Institute was joined by those protesting the slow death of Hong Kong’s self-governance and it gradually escalated into scuffles between pro-Beijing and pro-Hong Kong protestors. The pro-Beijing students angrily surrounded pro-Hong Kong and anti-Confucius Institute students until police and security managed to defuse the situation. From this point on, things only became more confusing.

The University Takes Sides

Following a successful social media campaign, these confrontations caught the attention of local and international media, and the pro-Hong Kong camp decided to protest again. Amid Facebook and Twitter wars freely available to the reader (particularly UQ Stalkerspace), it became clear that Chinese nationalists were making threats of violence against pro-Hong Kong protestors. Even the Chinese consulate in Brisbane got involved, sending a message of support to “patriotic” Chinese protestors, a clear indication of how Beijing likes to deploy its “soft” power.

Quite rightly, the University of Queensland decided to act. Unfortunately, UQ shares a great deal of commercialised intellectual property with fascist China. It has even promoted a Chinese diplomatic representative to the post of adjunct professor without advertising the fact. It was therefore not entirely surprising that, when the university did finally act, it was against free speech.

First, they attempted to shut down future protests by threatening the enrolment of the protest’s student leaders. The pro-Hong Kong students would be “held responsible” for any violence in a future protest and potentially expelled. In effect, Chinese nationalists were handed a “heckler’s veto”—they were free to cause disruption, secure in the knowledge that the university would silence the speakers, not those disrupting them. The university said it was acting in the interests of safety. Fortunately, the protestors refused to be intimidated, and plans went forward for the protest.

In a final gambit, the University of Queensland decided it would allow the protest but wanted it moved, away from everyone else and away from the plaque commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which is where it was due to be staged. Again, the protestors refused to back down and the protest went ahead. By now, the issue had become wider than Hong Kong.

The Fragility of Collective Action

The media attention generated by the first two groups of students and their allies caused other dissidents to emerge from the shadows. Free speech advocates, Taiwanese, Uighurs, Falun Dafa practitioners, and Tibetans came out in support of the Hong Kongers and their protest, and soon formed a tiny but determined coalition. Their enemy, however, had changed.

Originally, the enemy had been the Confucius Institute on campus and the extradition bill in Hong Kong; now, it was now the University of Queensland, the Confucius Institute and its propaganda, the lack of transparency regarding Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence, Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj, and the Chinese nationalists on campus. By the time the protestors gathered a second time, they had various speakers arranged from China’s persecuted minorities, Australia’s own left-wing political parties, and a woman from Hong Kong. As if that wasn’t broad enough, the Taiwanese (ROC) flag was hung above a nearby building, emphasising the common struggle of those threatened by the CCP.

Chants were directed against the oppression of the Uighurs, Tibetans, Hong Kong, and Falun Dafa. Former Greens senator Andrew Bartlett said in his speech that these events should be understood in the broader context of Chinese influence, UQ and freedom of speech, digital surveillance, and colonialism. There were land acknowledgements to the Aboriginal people of Australia, who were neither present nor lending any support to the protest. There were party policies on free speech read aloud to little fanfare or resonance. And there was a speech on the executions and organ harvesting of Falun Dafa practitioners which (if I read the mood correctly) was treated with incredulity and disbelief.

China’s government teaches its people that all dissent against its policies is ultimately directed towards the breakup of the country, and the protest served that narrative perfectly. Protestors really did shift from “close the Confucius Institute” and “withdraw the Hong Kong extradition bill” to “free Hong Kong, free Xinjiang, free Tibet, free Taiwan, free Falun Dafa” in a single move. I agree with all of those aims, but that is exactly why the Chinese nationalists on campus are hypersensitive to any protest movement, to any sense of dissent, to anyone who dares delegitimise the CCP, to anyone who opposes the dictatorship.

In such circumstances, even more moderate Chinese nationalists, who may not be enamoured by many of China’s internal policies, will line up to defend the regime. The status quo seems much more attractive to the average Chinese person than the anarchy they (falsely) think is demanded by liberalisation protest movements. Collective action is fragile and vulnerable to fragmentation, and leftwing protestors who had initially shown solidarity with Hong Kong broke away. UQ’s Socialist Alternative student group refused to back the protest, fearing that somehow it would be hijacked by racists, a fear which proved unfounded.

The Protestors Lose Control of the Narrative

As protestors gathered for the second protest, I saw two curious and unrelated things which I suspected would become related and consequential. First, I watched a man with a deliberately insulting, profane, homophobic sign directed at China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, being led away by police. Second, I watched a Caucasian reporter conduct interviews which appeared to be aimed at creating a pro-China angle.

The interviewer was a left-wing, pro-communist journalist eager to conflate protests against China’s government with racism, and to ignore the depredations of Chinese fascism. The protest, he reported, was “ugly,” and the presence of a former Greens senator was a “cynical effort to put on a more favourable face” on Australian racism. When the protestor with the profane sign was arrested, no one from the protest movement followed him, supported him, or attempted to interfere with his arrest. Indeed, when someone pointed out the arrest taking place, two of the protest organisers urged people to “ignore him” and reiterated “he’s not with us.” However, because the arrest was the only piece of action that day, a media scrum ensued and the headlines followed.

The pro-China Left had a field day, and used that protestor to tarnish everyone else as racists and homophobes, and, naturally, fascists. The Tibetans and Greens in attendance had been duped and used, the argument went. This was all dismayingly predictable. No matter how often the speakers reiterated their commitment to universal human rights and their opposition to the CCP not the Chinese people, their reassurances only succeeded in making them sound defensive. The pro-Hong Kong protestors had been drawn into a bitter squabble with the leftists who ought to have been their allies against Chinese fascism. Their battle has been lost.

A similar argument now prevails in academia, where scholars cannot shake the reputation of being “anti-Chinese” or racist simply for criticising China’s rather open attempts to influence Australian politics. Their battle is probably also lost.

The Danger is Real

Interestingly, and contrary to expectations, the pro-Beijing counter-protestors and most of the Hong Kongers decided to stay away from the second protest. This was not providence—at least, not in every case. Several Hong Kongers were told by family or friends not to attend. Several people reported visitations by the local branch of China’s party representatives. These representatives are either Australian residents or Chinese students who act as informants and messengers for the regime. The message from the Chinese government seemed to be that it was best to stay away entirely, rather than create more publicity in defence of the regime. The absence of the counter-protestors was, in its own way, a fascinating look into Beijing’s ability to discipline its own people in other countries.

Of course, this isn’t new or surprising. Chinese students have been known to report anti-Beijing activists directly to their embassy, and there have been concerns about China’s leverage of its students here for a long time. China’s diplomats in Australia have even been recorded explaining to a Chinese-Australian audience in great detail how “they are at war” and their job as soldiers for China is to influence the Australian political system. The danger is real. Given that China is a country that arrests you if you want to vote, unionise, or criticise the Party, it would be rather surprising if there were no risk involved in allowing China unfettered access to our politicians, academics, infrastructure, and markets.

 

Simon Leitch is a former lecturer in international relations and a free speech advocate.  His PhD focused on China’s post-Cold War strategy.  He can be reached at sleitch080@gmail.com

Featured Image of protests in Hong Kong courtesy of Studio Incendo