Archive for the ‘China’ Category

California versus Beijing: inside the spook war

December 22, 2020

You cannot beat a great tale of spooks fighting a covert war and Foreign Policy has one. Kudos to the reporter. This is as good as anything about Sino-US relations that I have read in recent times. Here is the original piece, with graphics — as good an invitation to subscribe to the venerable FP as you will get. Parts 2 and 3 are pending in the next couple of days.

CHINA USED STOLEN DATA TO EXPOSE CIA OPERATIVES IN AFRICA AND EUROPE

The discovery of U.S. spy networks in China fueled a decadelong global war over data between Beijing and Washington.

BY ZACH DORFMANDECEMBER 21, 2020, 6:00 AM

Around 2013, U.S. intelligence began noticing an alarming pattern: Undercover CIA personnel, flying into countries in Africa and Europe for sensitive work, were being rapidly and successfully identified by Chinese intelligence, according to three former U.S. officials. The surveillance by Chinese operatives began in some cases as soon as the CIA officers had cleared passport control. Sometimes, the surveillance was so overt that U.S. intelligence officials speculated that the Chinese wanted the U.S. side to know they had identified the CIA operatives, disrupting their missions; other times, however, it was much more subtle and only detected through U.S. spy agencies’ own sophisticated technical countersurveillance capabilities.

The CIA had been taking advantage of China’s own growing presence overseas to meet or recruit sources, according to one of these former officials. “We can’t get to them in Beijing, but can in Djibouti. Heat map Belt and Road”—China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure and influence initiative—“and you’d see our activity happening. It’s where the targets are.” The CIA recruits “Russians and Chinese hard in Africa,” said a former agency official. “And they know that.” China’s new aggressive moves to track U.S. operatives were likely a response to these U.S. efforts.

This series, based on interviews with over three dozen current and former U.S. intelligence and national security officials, tells the story of China’s assault on U.S. personal data over the last decade—and its consequences.

Part 2: Beijing Ransacked Data as U.S. Sources Went Dark in China
Coming Tuesday, Dec. 22

Part 3: As Trump’s Trade War Raged, Chinese Spy Agencies Enlisted Private Firms 
Coming Wednesday, Dec. 23

At the CIA, these anomalies “alarmed chiefs of station and division leadership,” said the first former intelligence official. The Chinese “never should have known” who or where these undercover CIA personnel were. U.S. officials, lacking a smoking gun, puzzled over how China had managed to expose their spies. In a previous age, they might have begun a mole hunt, looking for a single traitor in a position to share this critical information with the other side, or perhaps scoured their records for a breach in a secret communications platform.

But instead, CIA officials believed the answer was likely data-driven—and related to a Chinese cyberespionage campaign devoted to stealing vast troves of sensitive personal private information, like travel and health data, as well as U.S. government personnel records. U.S. officials believed Chinese intelligence operatives had likely combed through and synthesized information from these massive, stolen caches to identify the undercover U.S. intelligence officials. It was very likely a “suave and professional utilization” of these datasets, said the same former intelligence official. This “was not random or generic,” this source said. “It’s a big-data problem.”

The battle over data—who controls it, who secures it, who can steal it, and how it can be used for economic and security objectives—is defining the global conflict between Washington and Beijing. Data has already critically shaped the course of Chinese politics, and it is altering the course of U.S. foreign policy and intelligence gathering around the globe. Just as China has sought to wield data as a sword and shield against the United States, America’s spy agencies have tried to penetrate Chinese data streams and to use their own big-data capabilities to try to pinpoint exactly what China knows about U.S. personnel and operations.

This series, based on extensive interviews with over three dozen current and former U.S. intelligence and national security officials, tells the story of that battle between the United States and China—a conflict in which many believe China possesses critical advantages, because of Beijing’s panopticon-like digital penetration of its own citizens and Chinese companies’ networks; its world-spanning cyberspying, which has included the successful theft of multiple huge U.S. datasets; and China’s ability to rapidly synthesize—and potentially weaponize—all this vast information from diverse sources.

China is “one of the leading collectors of bulk personal data around the globe, using both illegal and legal means,” William Evanina, the United States’ top counterintelligence official, told Foreign Policy. “Just through its cyberattacks alone, the PRC has vacuumed up the personal data of much of the American population, including data on our health, finances, travel and other sensitive information.”

This war over data has taken on particularly critical importance for the United States’—and China’s—spy agencies. In the intelligence world, “information is king, and the more information, the better,” said Steve Ryan, who served until 2016 as deputy director of the National Security Agency’s Threat Operations Center and is now the CEO of the cybersecurity service Trinity Cyber. In the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, intelligence largely came in piecemeal and partial form: an electronic intercept here, a report from a secret human source there. Today, the data-driven nature of everyday life creates vast clusters of information that can be snatched in a single move—and then potentially used by Beijing to fuel everything from targeting individual American intelligence officers to bolstering Chinese state-backed businesses.

Fundamentally, current and former U.S. officials say, China believes data provides security: It ensures regime stability in the face of internal and external threats to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It was a combination of those threats that created the impetus for China’s most aggressive counterintelligence campaign against the United States yet.

The CIA declined to comment for this story. The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In 2010, a new decade was dawning, and Chinese officials were furious. The CIA, they had discovered, had systematically penetrated their government over the course of years, with U.S. assets embedded in the military, the CCP, the intelligence apparatus, and elsewhere. The anger radiated upward to “the highest levels of the Chinese government,” recalled a former senior counterintelligence executive.

Exploiting a flaw in the online system CIA operatives used to secretly communicate with their agents—a flaw first identified in Iran, which Tehran likely shared with Beijing—from 2010 to roughly 2012, Chinese intelligence officials ruthlessly uprooted the CIA’s human source network in China, imprisoning and killing dozens of people.

Within the CIA, China’s seething, retaliatory response wasn’t entirely surprising, said a former senior agency official. “We often had [a] conversation internally, on how U.S. policymakers would react to the degree of penetration CIA had of China”—that is, how angry U.S. officials would have been if they discovered, as the Chinese did, that a global adversary had so thoroughly infiltrated their ranks.

The anger in Beijing wasn’t just because of the penetration by the CIA but because of what it exposed about the degree of corruption in China. When the CIA recruits an asset, the further this asset rises within a county’s power structure, the better. During the Cold War it had been hard to guarantee the rise of the CIA’s Soviet agents; the very factors that made them vulnerable to recruitment—greed, ideology, blackmailable habits, and ego—often impeded their career prospects. And there was only so much that money could buy in the Soviet Union, especially with no sign of where it had come from.

But in the newly rich China of the 2000s, dirty money was flowing freely. The average income remained under 2,000 yuan a month (approximately $240 at contemporary exchange rates), but officials’ informal earnings vastly exceeded their formal salaries. An official who wasn’t participating in corruption was deemed a fool or a risk by his colleagues. Cash could buy anything, including careers, and the CIA had plenty of it.

At the time, CIA assets were often handsomely compensated. “In the 2000s, if you were a chief of station”—that is, the top spy in a foreign diplomatic facility—“for certain hard target services, you could make a million a year for working for us,” said a former agency official. (“Hard target services” generally refers to Chinese, Russia, Iranian, and North Korean intelligence agencies.)

Over the course of their investigation into the CIA’s China-based agent network, Chinese officials learned that the agency was secretly paying the “promotion fees” —in other words, the bribes—regularly required to rise up within the Chinese bureaucracy, according to four current and former officials. It was how the CIA got “disaffected people up in the ranks. But this was not done once, and wasn’t done just in the [Chinese military],” recalled a current Capitol Hill staffer. “Paying their bribes was an example of long-term thinking that was extraordinary for us,” said a former senior counterintelligence official. “Recruiting foreign military officers is nearly impossible. It was a way to exploit the corruption to our advantage.” At the time, “promotion fees” sometimes ran into the millions of dollars, according to a former senior CIA official: “It was quite amazing the level of corruption that was going on.” The compensation sometimes included paying tuition and board for children studying at expensive foreign universities, according to another CIA officer.

Chinese officials took notice. “They were forced to see their problems, and our mistakes helped them see what their problems were,” recalled a former CIA executive. “We helped bring to fruition what they theoretically were scared of,” said the Capitol Hill staffer. “We scared the shit out of them.” Corruption was increasingly seen as the chief threat to the regime at home; as then-Party Secretary Hu Jintao told the Party Congress in 2012, “If we fail to handle this issue well, it could … even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” he said. Even in China’s heavily controlled media environment, corruption scandals were breaking daily, tainting the image of the CCP among the Chinese people. Party corruption was becoming a public problem, acknowledged by the CCP leadership itself.

But privately, U.S. officials believe, Chinese leaders also feared the degree to which corruption had allowed the CIA to penetrate its inner circles. The CIA’s incredible recruiting successes “showed the institutional rot of the party,” said the former senior CIA official. “They ought to [have been] upset.” The leadership realized that unchecked corruption wasn’t just an existential threat for the party at home; it was also a major counterintelligence threat, providing a window for enemy intelligence services like the CIA to crawl through.

This was a global problem for the CCP. Corrupt officials, even if they hadn’t been recruited by the CIA while in office, also often sought refuge overseas—where they could then be tapped for information by enterprising spy services. In late 2012, party head Xi Jinping announced a new anti-corruption campaign that would lead to the prosecution of hundreds of thousands of Chinese officials. Thousands were subject to extreme coercive pressure, bordering on kidnapping, to return from living abroad. “The anti-corruption drive was about consolidating power—but also about how Americans could take advantage of [the corruption]. And that had to do with the bribe and promotion process,” said the former senior counterintelligence official.

The 2013 leaks from Edward Snowden, which revealed the NSA’s deep penetration of the telecommunications company Huawei’s China-based servers, also jarred Chinese officials, according to a former senior intelligence analyst. “Chinese officials were just beginning to learn how the internet and technology has been so thoroughly used against them, in ways they didn’t conceptualize until then,” the former analyst said. “At the intelligence level, it was driven by this fundamental [revelation] that, ‘This is what we’ve been missing: This internet system we didn’t create is being weaponized against us.’”

There were other ripple effects. By the late 2000s, U.S. intelligence officials had observed a notable professionalizing of the Ministry of State Security, China’s main civilian intelligence agency. Before Xi’s purges, petty corruption within the agency was ubiquitous, former U.S. intelligence officials say, with China’s spies sometimes funneling money from operations into their own “nest eggs”; Chinese government-affiliated hackers operating under the protection of the Ministry of State Security would also sometimes moonlight as cybercriminals, passing a cut of their work to their bosses at the intelligence agency.

Under Xi’s crackdown, these activities became increasingly untenable. But the discovery of the CIA networks in China helped supercharge this process, said current and former officials—and caused China to place a greater focus on external counterespionage work. “As they learned these things,” the Chinese realized they “needed to start defending themselves,” said the former CIA executive.

By about 2010, two former CIA officials recalled, the Chinese security services had instituted a sophisticated travel intelligence program, developing databases that tracked flights and passenger lists for espionage purposes. “We looked at it very carefully,” said the former senior CIA official. China’s spies “were actively using that for counterintelligence and offensive intelligence. The capability was there and was being utilized.” China had also stepped up its hacking efforts targeting biometric and passenger data from transit hubs, former intelligence officials say—including a successful hack by Chinese intelligence of biometric data from Bangkok’s international airport.

To be sure, China had stolen plenty of data before discovering how deeply infiltrated it was by U.S. intelligence agencies. However, the shake-up between 2010 and 2012 gave Beijing an impetus not only to go after bigger, riskier targets, but also to put together the infrastructure needed to process the purloined information. It was around this time, said a former senior NSA official, that Chinese intelligence agencies transitioned from merely being able to steal large datasets en masse to actually rapidly sifting through information from within them for use. U.S. officials also began to observe that intelligence facilities within China were being physically co-located near language and data processing centers, said this person.

For U.S. intelligence personnel, these new capabilities made China’s successful hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that much more chilling. During the OPM breach, Chinese hackers stole detailed, often highly sensitive personnel data from 21.5 million current and former U.S. officials, their spouses, and job applicants, including health, residency, employment, fingerprint, and financial data. In some cases, details from background investigations tied to the granting of security clearances—investigations that can delve deeply into individuals’ mental health records, their sexual histories and proclivities, and whether a person’s relatives abroad may be subject to government blackmail—were stolen as well. Though the United States did not disclose the breach until 2015, U.S. intelligence officials became aware of the initial OPM hack in 2012, said the former counterintelligence executive. (It’s not clear precisely when the compromise actually happened.)

When paired with travel details and other purloined data, information from the OPM breach likely provided Chinese intelligence potent clues about unusual behavior patterns, biographical information, or career milestones that marked individuals as likely U.S. spies, officials say. Now, these officials feared, China could search for when suspected U.S. spies were in certain locations—and potentially also meeting secretly with their Chinese sources. China “collects bulk personal data to help it track dissidents or other perceived enemies of China around the world,” Evanina, the top U.S. counterintelligence official, said.

Many felt the ground give way immediately. For some at the CIA, recalled Gail Helt, a former CIA China analyst, the reaction to the OPM breach was, “Oh my God, what is this going to mean for everybody who had ever traveled to China? But also what is it going to mean for people who we had formally recruited, people who might be suspected of talking to us, people who had family members there? And what will this mean for agency efforts to recruit people in the future? It was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.” Many feared the aftershocks would be widespread. “The concern just wasn’t that [the OPM hack] would curtail info inside China,” said a former senior national security official. “The U.S. and China bump up against each other around the world. It opened up a global Pandora’s box of problems.”

Others were more resigned, if no less disturbed. “You operate under the assumption that good tradecraft”—and not the secrecy provided, in theory, by cover—“will protect your assets and operations,” said Duyane Norman, a former senior CIA official. “So OPM wasn’t some kind of eye-opener. It was confirmation of new threats we already knew existed.”

There were other bad omens. During this same period, U.S. officials concluded that Russian intelligence officials, likely exploiting a difference in payroll payments between real State Department employees and undercover CIA officers, had identified some of the CIA personnel working at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Officials thought that this insight may have come from data derived from the OPM hack, provided by the Chinese to their Russian counterparts. U.S. officials also wondered whether the OPM hack could be related to an uptick in attempted recruitments by Chinese intelligence of Chinese American translators working for U.S. intelligence agencies when they visited family in China. “We also thought they were trying to get Mandarin speakers to apply for jobs as translators” within the U.S. intelligence community, recalled the former senior counterintelligence official. U.S. officials believed that Chinese intelligence was giving their agents “instructions on how to pass a polygraph.”

But after the OPM breach, anomalies began to multiply. In 2012, senior U.S. spy hunters began to puzzle over some “head-scratchers”: In a few cases, spouses of U.S. officials whose sensitive work should have been difficult to discern were being approached by Chinese and Russian intelligence operatives abroad, according to the former counterintelligence executive. In one case, Chinese operatives tried to harass and entrap a U.S. official’s wife while she accompanied her children on a school field trip to China. “The MO is that, usually at the end of the trip, the lightbulb goes on [and the foreign intelligence service identifies potential persons of interest]. But these were from day one, from the airport onward,” the former official said.

Worries about what the Chinese now knew precipitated an intelligence community-wide damage assessment surrounding the OPM and other hacks, recalled Douglas Wise, a former senior CIA official who served deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2014 to 2016. Some worried that China might have purposefully secretly altered data in individuals’ OPM files to later use as leverage in recruitment attempts. Officials also believed that the Chinese might sift through the OPM data to try and craft the most ideal profiles for Chinese intelligence assets seeking to infiltrate the U.S. government—since they now had granular knowledge of what the U.S. government looked for, and what it didn’t, while considering applicants for sensitive positions. U.S. intelligence agencies altered their screening procedures to anticipate new, more finely tuned Chinese attempts at human spying, Wise said.

The Chinese now had unprecedented insight into the workings of the U.S. system. The United States, meanwhile, was flying with one eye closed when dealing with China. With the CIA’s carefully built network of Chinese agents utterly destroyed, the debate over how to handle China would become increasingly contentious—even as China’s ambitions grew.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series. The second part, to be published Dec. 22, covers how U.S. intelligence under Barack Obama struggled as Xi Jinping consolidated his power. The third part, to be published on Dec. 23, covers the Donald Trump era and the growing cooperation between Chinese intelligence and tech giants. Zach Dorfman is a senior staff writer on national security and cybersecurity for Aspen Digital, a program of the Aspen Institute, and a senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Twitter: @zachsdorfman

Fat Pang’s Man of the Year

December 21, 2020

I have mixed emotions about Fat Pang, or Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong. I guess I am just suspicious of British Tory politicians holding forth about matters of political principle in former British colonies. When Fat Pang was recently arrived as governor, I asked to interview him about his understanding of British colonial history (he read history as an undergraduate). His press manager asked what books I had read on the subject, and for a rough idea of questions. When I provided the requested information, the interview failed to materialise.

Nonetheless, Fat Pang’s Man of the Year article from Project Syndicate (original version and subscription details here), is worth a read. It is, of course, about the estimable Jimmy Lai.

Dec 17, 2020 Chris Patten

By jailing fearless Hong Kong pro-democracy campaigner Jimmy Lai on charges of breaking its new national security law, the Communist Party of China intends to reinforce the new limits to the rule of law, dissent, and autonomy in the city. But imprisonment often ennobles fighters for democracy and bolsters support for their cause.

LONDON – On December 12, Jimmy Lai, a successful businessman and brave campaigner for freedom and democracy, was led into court in Hong Kong in handcuffs and chains, accused of breaking the national security law recently imposed by the Communist Party of China (CPC). The Chinese authorities’ goal in charging Lai was to reinforce the new limits to the rule of law, dissent, and autonomy in the city.

The judge was handpicked by Hong Kong’s pliant chief executive, Carrie Lam, whose primary responsibility is to execute the CPC’s malevolent instructions regarding the city. Supporters of the 72-year-old Lai, including Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, were in the courtroom to witness him being denied bail until a trial scheduled for April 2021.

The Chinese government hates Lai, because he embodies a passionate belief in freedom, and we must hope that any time Lai spends in prison will be in Hong Kong rather than the mainland. His handcuffs and chains are a tragic symbol of what has happened to Hong Kong’s once-free society in 2020.

The CPC has of course victimized us all this year. The party initially covered up the COVID-19 outbreak in China and silenced brave doctors when they tried to warn the world about what we would soon face.

Some national leaders have added to the gloom. US President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the result of an election that he lost by seven million votes has undermined America’s democratic system. His appalling behavior – abetted by Republican leaders and the GOP’s media allies – demeans him and his party and weakens the case for liberal democracy everywhere.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to connive in the security services’ murders of his opponents and to undermine democratic states wherever he can. Other authoritarian leaders, from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, have consolidated illiberal regimes by changing their countries’ constitutions and electoral systems.

But it is Chinese President Xi Jinping who has represented the most serious threat to liberal democratic values this year. Exploiting the world’s preoccupation with the pandemic, Chinese forces have killed Indian soldiers in the Himalayas, sunk and threatened other countries’ fishing vessels in international waters, and menaced Taiwan. Xi’s regime has also continued to pursue genocidal policies toward Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, in addition to targeting Hong Kong’s freedoms.

When Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, China’s leaders promised in an international treaty lodged at the United Nations that the city would continue to enjoy its way of life and high level of autonomy for 50 years. That promise, like so many of the CPC’s undertakings, has now been junked.

China was clearly horrified that elections and demonstrations increasingly showed that the majority of people in Hong Kong refused (like the Taiwanese) to accept that to love China, they had to love the CPC. But at least two-thirds of Hong Kong citizens were themselves refugees or relatives of refugees from the horrors of China’s communist history.

These people wanted to retain the system that had helped them prosper and made Hong Kong an international economic hub. The city’s governance, like that of other free societies, was based on the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers, freedom of expression, and a market economy.

These aspects of an open society terrify Xi’s regime. The CPC’s control depends on party bosses at the center maintaining an iron grip on everything. Universities and schools must be “engineers of the soul,” to use Stalin’s phrase. Courts should do what the CPC tells them. The free flow of information is too dangerous, and any notion of democratic accountability must be stifled.

Countries from Australia to Canada that criticize some of the CPC’s behavior are singled out for commercial bullying, or worse. China has taken two Canadian citizens hostage because of Canada’s 2018 decision to detain a senior executive of Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei; the men are about to spend a third Christmas in solitary confinement.

This year, it was Hong Kong’s turn. The comprehensive stifling of the city’s freedom has proceeded remorselessly, encompassing schools and universities, the legislature, courts, civil service, and the media. All dissent is to be crushed, with democracy campaigners thrown into prison.

Lai is the latest and most prominent victim of the CPC’s idea of law, which the American China scholar Perry Link once described as like “an anaconda in the chandelier.” Lai was born in China but escaped to Hong Kong as a 12-year-old stowaway without a penny to his name. He worked in a garment factory, earned enough to start his own business, and founded the international retail fashion chain Giordano.

Lai never forgot that it was freedom and the rule of law that allowed him and others to prosper, and he denounced communism’s contempt for both. After the 1989 massacre of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China, he criticized then-Chinese premier Li Peng directly. As a result, his home and businesses were attacked and bombed by United Front communist activists and their fellow travelers in Hong Kong’s criminal triads.

Forced to close his garment business, Lai established a hugely popular magazine and newspaper group. He strongly supported democracy and never toned down his criticisms of Chinese communism. A devout Catholic, Lai regarded Hong Kong as his home, and was determined to stay and fight for the city he loved.

For the apparent crimes of principle and courage, and his refusal to surrender his beliefs, Lai has been targeted by a vengeful CPC with the collaboration of a few Hong Kong lickspittles whose reputations will forever be tarred by shame and infamy. But imprisonment often ennobles fighters for democracy and bolsters support for their cause: think of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Václav Havel. And now think of Jimmy Lai, my man of the year.

Vogel passes, leaving lessons for us all

December 21, 2020

Ezra Vogel, a remarkable East Asia scholar, author of the best biography of Deng Xiaoping, and all round generous, decent man, has passed away. Below is an obituary posted by his son. If you work on developing countries, the takeaway for me is the breadth of intellectual tools that Ezra Vogel applied during his life to produce outstanding scholarship. This was no one-trick pony.

Ezra F. Vogel, 90, one of the country’s leading experts on East Asia through a career that spanned six decades, passed away in Cambridge, MA, December 20 due to complications from surgery.

Vogel studied an extraordinary range of substantive topics in multiple countries from the perspectives of various academic disciplines, retooling himself as a scholar many times over in his academic career.  He was originally trained as a sociologist studying the family in the United States.  He devoted two years to language study and field research in Japan in 1958-60, emerging as a specialist on Japanese society.  He then embarked on Chinese-language study in the 1960s, before it was possible to travel to mainland China, and became an accomplished scholar of Chinese society as well.  His scholarship spanned from family issues, to social welfare, industrial policy, international relations, and history.  He served as the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia with the National Intelligence Council from 1993 to 1995, and maintained a strong interest in U.S. foreign and security policy in Asia from that time.  He turned to history in his later years, producing magisterial works on Deng Xiaoping and Sino-Japanese relations. 

Vogel’s scholarship was not restricted to any single methodology, but rather reflected his drive to get the story right through whatever means necessary.  For his research on the Japanese family, he engaged in intensive ethnographic research with his first wife, Suzanne Hall Vogel, interviewing six families about once a week for a year.  He kept up with some of the families over the years, and the family friendships now span three generations.  For his first book on China, he relied primarily on interviews in Hong Kong with refugees who had escaped from the Guangzhou region.  He was a passionate life-long student of language, and he mastered both Japanese and Chinese.  He took pride in his ability to conduct research and give public lectures in both languages.

Vogel will be most remembered for his boundless good cheer and boyish enthusiasm.  He grew up in the small town of Delaware, Ohio, the son of Jewish immigrants, Joe and Edith Vogel.  His father ran a men’s and boys’ clothing store in the center of town, the People’s Store, and he often helped out.  He managed to transfer the effusive friendliness of a small-town shoe salesman to the unlikely corridors of Harvard University and Washington D.C.  He had an irrepressible ability to see the good in every person and every nation, while recognizing nonetheless that many of us fall short of our ideals.  He sustained a network of Japanese graduate students and young scholars at Harvard, the “juku” (study group), which met regularly at his home in Cambridge until the Coronovirus pandemic intervened.  He hosted smaller groups of students working on China as well.  He participated in a reunion of former students, colleagues, and “juku” members almost every summer in Tokyo.

Vogel was a devoted husband and father, who hosted a celebration for his extended family at his home every holiday season for the past 25 years.  The 2020 reunion was to be via Zoom on the day he passed away.  He loved keeping up with friends, family and colleagues.  Undeterred by COVID-19, he raved about his ability to talk to family and colleagues in Japan, China, and other parts of the world with Zoom.  He and his wife Charlotte were supportive companions.  Among other activities, they enjoyed running daily for twenty years.  When his knees began to falter, they turned to biking for the last twenty years.  He even biked four miles one day shortly before he died.  He maintained long-term friendships, regularly going back for high school and college reunions in his hometown.  He made a major gift to his hometown alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan, of the entire royalties from the mainland Chinese edition of his biography of Deng Xiaoping.

Vogel was the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus at Harvard.  After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan in 1950 and serving two years in the U.S. Army, he studied sociology in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard, receiving his Ph.D. in 1958.  In 1960-1961 he was assistant professor at Yale University and from 1961-1964 a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, studying Chinese language and history.  He remained at Harvard, becoming a lecturer in 1964 and a professor in 1967.  He retired from teaching in 2000.

Vogel was also an institution builder at Harvard.  He succeeded John Fairbank to become the second Director (1972-1977) of Harvard’s East Asian Research Center and Chairman of the Council for East Asian Studies (1977-1980).  He co-founded the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at the Center for International Affairs and served as its first Director (1980-1987) and as Honorary Director ever since.  He was Chairman of the undergraduate concentration in East Asian Studies from its inception in 1972 until 1991.  He was Director of the Fairbank Center (1995-1999) and the first Director of the Asia Center (1997-1999).  He was Chairman of the Harvard Committee to Welcome President Jiang Zemin (1998).  He also served as Co-Director of the Asia Foundation Task Force on East Asian Policy Recommendations for the New Administration (2001).

Drawing on his original field work in Japan, he wrote Japan’s New Middle Class (1963).  A book based on several years of interviewing and reading materials from China, Canton Under Communism (1969), won the Harvard University Press faculty book of the year award.  The Japanese edition of his book Japan as Number One: Lessons for America (1979) was a breakaway best-seller in Japan.  In Comeback (1988), he suggested things America might do to respond to the Japanese challenge.  He spent eight months in 1987, at the invitation of the Guangdong Provincial Government, studying the economic and social progress of the province since it took the lead in pioneering economic reform in 1978.  The results are reported in One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong Under Reform (1989).  His Reischauer Lectures were published as The Four Little Dragons: The Spread of Industrialization in East Asia (1991).  He visited East Asia every year after 1958 and spent a total of over six years in the region.  He returned from his most recent trip to China in January, just as word was first coming out about the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the age of 81, Vogel published the definitive biography of Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (2011).  The book won: the 2012 Lionel Gelber Prize, Lionel Gelber Foundation, Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto; Honorable Mention 2012 for the Bernard Schwartz Book Award, Asia Society; Finalist 2011 for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography; a Bloomberg News Favorite Book of 2014; and Esquire China Book of the Year 2012; a Gates Notes Top Read of 2012; an Economist Best Book of 2011; a Financial Times Best Book of 2011; a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice 2011; a Wall Street Journal Book of the Year 2011, and a Washington Post Best Book of 2011.  The book became a bestseller in China.

At the age of 89, he published China and Japan: Facing History (2019), which reviews the history of political and cultural ties between the two nations over 1500 years.  Vogel hoped that the book would offer an accurate portrayal of how the two countries learned from each other over the centuries, but also serve to encourage the Chinese and Japanese leaders to forge a more constructive relationship going forward.  Vogel was also concerned about the state of U.S.-China relations

Vogel received honorary degrees from Kwansei Gakuin (Japan), the Monterrey Institute, the Universities of Maryland, Massachusetts (Lowell), Wittenberg, Bowling Green, Albion, Ohio Wesleyan, Chinese University (Hong Kong) and Yamaguchi University (Japan).  He received the Japan Foundation Prize in 1996 and the Japan Society Prize in 1998.

Vogel is survived by his wife of 41 years, Charlotte Ikels; son David Vogel of Cambridge, MA; son Steven Vogel of Berkeley, CA; daughter Eve Vogel of Amherst, MA; sister Fay Bussgang of Dedham, MA; and five grandchildren. 

Resource links

Scholar profile here.

Harvard Fairbank Center profile here.

Wikipedia page here.

Amazon book page here.

YouTube videos here.

New York Times interviews here.

Oz and China go head to head

September 22, 2020

China’s relationships with all sorts of countries are, to say the least, fraying. Much of the coverage in this respect focuses on Sino-US relations. But more interesting from a fight-lover’s perspective is a confrontation such as Australia versus China. A nation of 25 million, heavily dependent on trade with the Middle Kingdom, squares up against a nation of 1.3 billion.

Without going into the background of why the Aussies are ready to deck Beijing, this article about personal experience highlights how ugly the fight is getting. A journalist describes a threat to put his 14-year-old daughter in prison and his family’s flight from China.

To my understanding, although the minimum age of legal responsibility in China is 14, it would not be easy under Chinese law to put a 14-year-old in prison for a non-violent crime (probably easier to lock up the parents and put the child in an orphanage — a favourite tactic in Tibet and spectacularly unpleasant). But the fact that Foreign Ministry and police employees threatened prison in this case tells you something about what is going on.

It is also a reminder of how un-Chinese the Chinese Communist Party is becoming. Respect for kids is one of the more reliable and charming aspects of Chinese culture. Just not in this case.

Busting Baidu

August 31, 2020

BuzzFeed, which I must confess I have not previously paid attention to, has produced a couple of fantastic reports on Chinese repression in Xinjiang. The two reports are here and here.

What is even more interesting than these reports if you are concerned about research methodologies is the nuts and bolts of how BuzzFeed used the efforts of China’s leading search engine, Baidu, to hide what is going on to instead expose what is going on.

That fascinating story is here. It is to do with how the airbrushing of satellite maps by Baidu actually led researchers to the location of hundreds of new internment and forced labour camps.

Baidu is often described as the Google of China. This is a near-literal comparison because most of what Baidu does it ripped off straight from Google, even down to ‘moonshot’ investments like self-driving cars. Baidu has never, to my knowledge, produced meaningful innovation, unlike firms such as Tencent and Bytedance, the Tik Tok creator.

If you own Baidu stock (BIDU), I would get rid of it. The rising Economic Social and Governance (ESG) movement that seeks to promote more ethical investing is presented with a very juicy target here. Plus, Baidu doesn’t seem to be able to innovate anyway, so you won’t even get rich from supporting the concealment of genocide.

Another day in Hong Kong

August 27, 2020

Further confirmation — if indeed it is needed — that press freedom is a thing of the past in Hong Kong. The city’s lickspittle government has denied a visa to the incoming editor of the excellent Hong Kong Free Press. This type of behaviour is standard practice in autocracies like China when governments want to censor without being seen to explicitly do so. However, it is a relatively new phenomenon in Hong Kong.

The piece pasted below explains the context. If you can spare any money, I would encourage you to donate to HKFP to support their free-to-reader coverage while raising a middle finger to the Hong Kong government. The donation process is very quick.

After Jimmy Lai was arrested and his Chinese-language tabloid Apple Daily‘s offices raided, Hong Kong people variously bought the company’s stock and purchased record volumes of the newspaper as a means to support Mr Lai and his paper and to show the government what they thought. The English-language HKFP doesn’t have the same audience-reach in Hong Kong and relies on donations from around the world.

The Hong Kong government will doubtless thank you for supporting quality journalism because it says the media are absolutely hopeless at their job. Only yesterday government and police spokespeople were pointing out that journalists completely misinterpreted photographs and video footage of police officers hanging out with suspected triad members.

The police were not consorting with triad members in attacks on pro-democracy protesters and random members of the public. Instead they were forcing the naughty triad types to go home. Anyone who cannot see the police actively pushing those ‘white shirts’ away hasn’t watched the video footage closely enough. The police didn’t take their names — despite the men being armed — because… err, well, that bit we haven’t come up with a cunning answer to yet. The main thing is that everyone agrees that there should not be an independent enquiry because we all trust the Hong Kong police and Carrie Lam.

Here is some ridiculous mis-reporting of the issue by more of those terrible journalists, in this instance ones who work for the Hong Kong equivalent of the BBC.

Visas ‘weaponised’: Gov’t denies Hong Kong Free Press editor a work visa, without explanation, after 6-month wait


Hong Kong Free Press has been denied a work visa for an established journalist following an almost 6-month wait. The Immigration Department’s rejection for HKFP’s incoming editor Aaron Mc Nicholas was handed down without any official reason on Tuesday, raising further concerns for the business community and the city’s press freedom in light of the new security law.

The news comes weeks after New York Times journalist Chris Buckley was forced to leave the city after being denied a visa without reason amid a tit-for-tat dispute between Washington and Beijing. The US newspaper subsequently shifted a third of their local workforce to South Korea.

Editor-in-chief Tom Grundy said that many other news outlets remain in limbo amid unprecedented visa delays, and a pattern had now emerged: “We are a local news outlet and our prospective editor was a journalist originally from Ireland, so this is not another tit-for-tat measure under the US-China trade dispute. It appears we have been targeted under the climate of the new security law and because of our impartial, fact-based coverage.”

He said that neither the applicant, nor HKFP, had been denied a visa before: “Other sectors can expect to be subjected to a similar bureaucratic rigmarole in light of the security law. Companies are already leaving or avoiding the city for this very reason,” Grundy said. “Businesses can be assured that visa issues are now a feature, not a bug. They may decide that Hong Kong is no longer a suitable place to set up a regional headquarters or base.”

He added that HKFP would press the government to offer reasons for the denial and will consider an appeal and legal challenge. 

Work visas ‘weaponised’

A senior lawyer – who has represented a number of media organisations and journalists but did not wish to be named – said the denial of visas for two respected journalists in such a short time was “unprecedented and deeply concerning.”

“This strongly indicates that the Hong Kong authorities, like those in the PRC [People’s Republic of China], have now weaponised work visas as a tool to control the reporting of Hong Kong affairs by international and local media, as well as silence free speech for all those needing a visa,” he said.

“Press freedom in Hong Kong has been under attack since the Victor Mallet case in late 2018. These actual and de-facto denial of visas for journalists since the national security law indicates how far and how fast the authorities are prepared to degrade press freedom in Hong Kong,” he added, referring to visa delays.

In an emailed response to HKFP on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Immigration did not state why the visa was denied: “Hong Kong has always adopted a pragmatic and open policy on the employment of professionals in Hong Kong, allowing those possessing special skills, knowledge or experience of value to and not readily available in Hong Kong to apply to come to work, including journalistic work,” they said. They added that each case was processed in accordance with the law.

‘Against press freedom’

The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia Programme Coordinator Steven Butler told HKFP that the incident undermined the city’s free status: “Denial of a work visa to a thriving local news operation bashes the most basic promise of press freedom given repeatedly by the Hong Kong government. It also severely undermines Hong Kong’s status as an international city and financial centre, which cannot flourish unless journalists are free to do their work.”

Meanwhile, in a statement, Reporters Without Borders’ East Asia chief Cédric Alviani told HKFP that months-long delays were highly unusual: “The Hong Kong government must revert this decision that clearly goes against press freedom, a principle enshrined in the Basic Law.”

The Hong Kong government must revert this decision that clearly goes against press freedom, a principle enshrined in the Basic Law”, Alviani said adding the the rejection is another sign of the decline in press freedom following the implementation of the security law whereby “the Beijing regime allows themselves to directly intervene on the territory.” He also cited the arrest of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai this month, and the raid on the Apple Daily offices.

6-month delay

News outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and South China Morning Post have also reportedly suffered months-long delays in a process that normally takes a few weeks. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, HKFP knows of visas for professionals in other industries that have been processed within reasonable time-frames.

Local media reported earlier this month that visas for journalists are now being vetting by a new national security unit within the Immigration Department. When asked about the unit last week, Immigration did not answer directly or deny its existence, but a spokesperson said that visas were processed by the Visa and Policies Branch.

Earlier this month, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club said that highly unusual processing delays have “affected journalists of multiple nationalities and in some cases have prevented journalists from working.” It has yet to receive a response to its latest letter demanding an explanation.

Jodi Schneider, president of the press club, told HKFP on Wednesday that they were closely following the issue: “This is obviously a key concern for the media working in Hong Kong. It is a press freedom issue.”

More:

I just ordered a new board game about Hong Kong police corruption via Kickstarter. It was inspired by the legendary Hong Kong police corruption of the 1960s and early 1970s. But maybe the game is relevant today? Let’s hope it arrives! Billionaire Seargeant is sold here.

Essential viewing for Johnson, Hancock and Trump

August 19, 2020

Just in case the leaders of Britain and the United States want to know what competent management of Covid looks like, Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang explains how the island identified the Covid threat early and used, built and modified technical systems to deal with it effectively.

The leaders of Britain and the United States are warned that the content is a bit ‘sciency’ and ‘experty’ and they may find it harder to follow than Love Island. However, it is well worth watching.

Ms Tang’s explication begins at 12 minutes.

She explains the advantages of attentive research and using your brain after minute 14.

She explains the advantages of trusting your population around minute 16.

She explains the advantages of being honest, open and transparent about levels of PPE supply after minute 17.

She explains how to counter idiotic misinformation and establish facts after minute 23.

She talks about data privacy and quarantine monitoring after minute 26. And again at minute 39.

She explains why masks are important and offers to share the technology to make millions of them every day after minute 49. After minute 56 she again stresses the point that masks stop you touching your mouth and nose with potentially infected hands.

She makes several points about false dilemmas that may be presented in relation to Covid after minute 58.

She notes that mainland Chinese whistleblower Li Wenliang likely saved the lives of many people in Taiwan (because Taiwan was paying attention) and reminds us that what is most different about Covid-19 is asymptomatic transmission, after minute 63.

As of today, Taiwan has had just 486 recorded cases of Covid and seven deaths. Here are ongoing data.

Unfortunately Ms Tang’s slides do not appear on the video below.

Good luck Boris, Matt and Donald!

The end of Hong Kong

August 10, 2020

What could be more symbolic of the end of freedom in Hong Kong than a huge police raid on the offices of the leading Chinese-language tabloid newspaper and the arrest of executives including its owner, Jimmy Lai? The raid took place today and was conducted by a police unit created under the new Beijing-imposed national security law. One of the alleged crimes is reported to be ‘foreign collusion’, a new mainland-style catch-all offence that can lead to years in prison.

The national security law is only a few weeks old and we don’t know exactly how it will be applied. However, it makes bail unlikely. Whether court sessions will even be open to the public is unclear. Police already barred several media organisations from a press conference following the arrests.

What amazes me is how the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong police force have entirely come on side for the new security law and seemingly flipped into an authoritarian police state without even a murmur.

The Communist Party of China hates Jimmy Lai. He escaped from the mainland as a child by sneaking across the Hong Kong border. His tabloid publications are the absolute antithesis of what the Party thinks the press should be. And he doesn’t give a fuck. He has been the victim of numerous attacks, including fire bombings, that are almost certainly Party-sanctioned or Party-condoned. But now the Party doesn’t need to use thugs to deal with Jimmy Lai because it has its national security law and a pliant, Vichy-style administration.

Here is the Washington Post coverage.

Here is a CBC interview with Jimmy Lai a few days ago.

Here is some coverage in long-form Chinese.

Here is the Twitter feed of Mark Simon, an American media executive who has worked for Jimmy Lai for decades.

Here is the Twitter feed of my old Hong Kong friend and rabid misanthrope Hemlock. I wonder which prison they’ll put him in? That said, he does know more Chinese history than the average paid-up Party member. Maybe they will create a prison library for him.

 

More, later:

Jimmy Lai was given police bail. That doesn’t mean he will get bail when he is charged which, as I wrote, the National Security Law (NSL) presumes against. What this means is that the police — or rather the people who are telling the police what to do — haven’t yet decided what to charge Lai with. However, the game looks distinctly mainland China in the way it is being played. In addition to NSL charges the police have also mentioned a fraud inquiry. This leaves the classic Chinese fallback of doing him for some trumped-up ‘economic crime’ if the powers that be decide that international (and local Hong Kong) reaction to a national security conviction will be unacceptably strong at this time. Whatever happens, what people from less brutal societies understand by rule of law is out of the window in Hong Kong.

 

Here is a short new piece about Jimmy Lai from the New Yorker.

Crazy optimism about China

May 8, 2019

There has been so much dreary news about repression in China under Xi Jinping. Lawyers, academics, civil society types, all locked up and brutalised. In the past five years under Xi, China has assumed a new and mundane identity. It is no longer the country of economic miracles, it is a regressive, bullying state, best known for herding a million Uyghurs into ‘re-education’ camps.

To me, Xi’s China recalls South Korea under Chun Doo Hwan in the 1980s. Chun, like Xi, came to power after economic lift-off. Chun, like Xi, established some sort of popular domestic political appeal with an anti-corruption campaign. But Chun, like Xi, was politically backward-looking and unimaginative. Chun was indeed even more politically repressive than what had gone before. Just like Xi Jinping.

It seemed in South Korea that Chun’s repression would go on for ever. And yet, in 1987, his authority quickly dissolved and a year later he was finished. Could such a thing happen to Xi Jinping, a leader who has done away with term limits in place since the demise of Mao Zedong? An essay by Ian Johnson in the New York Review of Books conjectures that such an outcome is not impossible. What a lift for the world it might be.

 

A Specter Is Haunting Xi’s China: ‘Mr. Democracy’

Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1989. China’s Communist authorities are wary about the approaching thirtieth anniversary on June 4

Beijing—Something strange is happening in Xi Jinping’s China. This is supposed to be the perfect dictatorship, the most sustained period of authoritarianism since the Cultural Revolution ended more than forty years ago, a period of such damning disappointment that all but the regime’s most acquiescent apologists have become cynics or critics. And yet the past few months have also seen something potentially more interesting: the most serious critique of the system in more than a decade, led by people inside China who are choosing to speak out now, during the most sensitive season of the most sensitive year in decades.

The movement started quietly enough, with several brilliant essays written by a Chinese academic that drew an attack from his university bosses, which in turn stirred a backlash among Chinese public intellectuals. None of this means that the Communist Party is getting ready to loosen its icy grip over the country, but it is a remarkable series of events that is challenging what was supposed to be possible in Xi’s China.

Although the party never ruled over a golden age of free speech in China, it was possible to argue that for a decade up until the late 2000s China was getting freer. The combination of economic reforms and proliferating new media appeared to be permitting citizens more personal autonomy and freedom of expression. That began to change slowly soon after Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics. First came the detention of Liu Xiaobo for helping to organize “Charter 08,” a document calling for modest constitutional reforms—a stand later recognized by the award of a Nobel Peace Prize. Then the overthrow of autocracies during the Arab Spring in 2011 fed into party neuroses about secret plots and uprisings, and this last decade has seen the end of meaningful public debate of almost any kind.

Enter Xu Zhangrun. A fifty-six-year-old professor of constitutional law at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, Xu is well known in Beijing as a moderate and prolific critic of the government’s increasing embrace of authoritarianism. Since 2012, he has published and spoken widely about his concern over China’s course. Some of his essays are mentioned in “China’s Moment,” translated by David Ownby, a University of Montreal history professor who, with several other scholars, started an invaluable website called “Reading the China Dream,” which makes available leading Chinese thinkers in English. Others are translated by the scholar Geremie Barmé and collected on this page of the China Heritage website.

While most of Xu’s earlier writing was couched in fairly dense language, he decided last July to make his message much more explicit. Writing for the website of the now-shuttered Unirule Institute of Economics, Xu issued what amounts to a petition to the emperor in the classical style. He bluntly explained that the government’s ever-tightening grip was leading the country to disaster, and he demanded measures to reverse course.

Xu’s original article last year, called “Our Immediate Hopes and Expectations,” was republished by The Initium, an independent Chinese-language website based in Hong Kong. That already helped to make it one of the most widely read recent articles critiquing the government; then it was translated as “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes” by Barmé, who added an invaluable preface explaining the long tradition of petitions or memorials to the throne.

Xu writes that ever since the Cultural Revolution, China’s rise has been based on four basic principles: an end to political campaigns; permitting private property and wealth accumulation; tolerance for some personal freedoms; political term limits to prevent the return of dictators like Mao. All of these, he implies, have been breached by Xi; the violation of the fourth principle enables Xi to serve beyond the end of his two five-year terms in 2022.

Xu then sets out eight expectations—in effect, demands of the government—that include the abolition of special privileges for Communist Party cadres, the disclosure of leaders’ personal assets, the end of what he sees as a personality cult around Xi, and a return of term limits. Most incendiary of all, he calls for the overturning of the official verdict on the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Massacre, which was that the use of deadly force was justified because the protests were a “counter-revolutionary rebellion.”

To get a measure of Xu’s bluntness, here is how he describes (in Barmé’s translation) the privileges enjoyed by party members, including health care:

On one side of the hospital Commoners face the challenge of gaining admission for treatment, while everyone knows that grand suites are reserved on the other side for the care of high-level cadres. The people observe this with mute and heartfelt bitterness. Every iota of this bottled up anger may, at some unexpected moment, explode with thunderous fury.

Also worrying for Xu is the state of Sino–US relations, which he sees as threatened by leaders on both sides of the Pacific. In the US, he says “a crowd of the Ghoulish Undead, nurtured on the politics of the Great Game and the Cold War” is pushing mercantilist politics that are “shortsighted and avaricious.” China, meanwhile, is run by Xi, referred to simply as “the One”:

The One is blind to the Grand Way of current affairs and is scarred indelibly by a political brand from the Cultural Revolution. Overweening pride and official competence leads this One to bend his efforts to serve the wrong ends; talented enough to play the bureaucratic game, and doubtlessly masterful at achieving high office, but as for Guiding the Nation along the Correct Path, [what the One does] is worse than arrant time-wasting for there is something perverse at work.

Xu followed this up with several other articles warning about silence and complicity, as well as an extensive three-part critique of the party since reforms began in 1978. Although all of Xu’s articles were immediately censored, Xu himself initially escaped official criticism—until this year, when in March he was suspended from teaching and placed under investigation.

That led to a series of courageous essays from Chinese public thinkers. One leading voice was Guo Yuhua, a colleague of Professor Xu’s at Tsinghua who has herself been sidelined by the university while her critique of the government has been censored and suppressed. (See the NYR Daily’s 2018 Q&A with her here.) Guo wrote that the university was destroying its reputation by attacking Xu.

Other scholars or prominent voices who joined in include the independent writer Zhang Yihe, the film critic and publisher Geng Xiaonan, the translator and scholar Zi Zhongyun, the law professor Xia Li’an, and the Peking University economics professor Zhang Weiying (who revised a folk ballad to support Xu; it can be heard here). Many others have followed, including some writing sarcastically of the need to get rid of all professors, and some using classical poetry to voice their support. In addition, Chinese and foreign scholars launched a petition to support Xu, which can be viewed, and signed, here.

All the more surprising is that these public statements are happening at an exceptionally delicate time. As always in China, the reason is history. This June 4 will be the thirtieth anniversary of Tiananmen, which will be preceded exactly a month earlier by the hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, itself a turning point in modern Chinese history when Chinese took to the streets demanding “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy”—in other words, a modern economy and military in tandem with a modern political system. As many commentators are bound to point out in the coming weeks, the country is in the process of obtaining the former while stifling all efforts to create the latter. Finally, this October 1 will be the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. The collision of all these momentous historical precedents means that it takes inordinate courage for critical public intellectuals to speak out now.

The government is, of course, adept at marginalizing such voices. Inside China, accessing these articles by Xu, Guo, and others requires a VPN, software that enables a user to bypass China’s censored intranet and access the global Internet. As a result, Xu and his supporters are unknown to the vast majority of Chinese people.

That makes it hard for public intellectuals to effect change. But they perform another, important function: reflecting the Zeitgeist of an era. Even though Xi is personally popular among many in Chinese society, my impression in traveling widely through different parts of China and observing different strata of society is that people are also conscious of a sense of loss—that the dynamism of the 1990s and 2000s has been turned into something more rigid and stagnant. Even China’s vaunted economic development, which for decades masked all sorts of popular discontent, is slowing, and the government lacks any impetus for reform that would create new motors of growth.

Xu’s case is therefore about far more than another dissident’s being silenced or a few lonely voices speaking out in protest. Instead, it captures a sense that the government has overplayed its hand on many fronts and that opposition is building.

All of this might well be impossible to sustain. But over the past century, even during the darkest times, the underlying humanism of Chinese culture has never been extinguished and has even, at critical moments, reasserted itself. This might seem too romantically hopeful, but it reminds me of a saying from traditional Chinese thought: wu ji bi fanWhen things reach an extreme, they must move in the opposite direction. We can only hope that this pendulum is now at its farthest extent, and that we are witnessing a slow but steady swing in the opposite direction.

The fight against fascism: China chapter

February 28, 2019

If you missed reports of the shenanigans at Canada’s McMaster University last week, then the following article by academic Kevin Carrico is well worth a read. Universities are letting a minority of Chinese students behave in ways that are utterly unacceptable. One speculates that they do this because many universities depend heavily on Chinese students for fee income, because they and their academics fear the Chinese Communist Party, and because university administrations tend to be pretty weak-kneed.

Colleges should punish international students who engage in threats, racial hatred and intelligence gathering for Beijing

Last week, Rukiye Turdush came to McMaster University to make a presentation on a sombre topic: the arbitrary and indefinite detention of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in concentration camps in the region that the People’s Republic of China calls Xinjiang.

Unsurprisingly, Turdush is critical of this policy, and rightly so. A group of students from the People’s Republic, however, disagreed with the critical impetus of the talk. They planned in advance to attend and disrupt the talk with shouting and cursing.

Why film the talk? Having experienced this form of intimidation myself, the not-so-subtle message implied is that recordings of the talk will be provided to the Chinese Consulate. This is not mere speculation on my part: the Washington Post has shown that students were in contact with the People’s Republic of China’s Consulate both before and after the talk.

The Consulate was reportedly interested to know whether any Chinese citizens were involved in the planning of the event, as well as whether any university administrators or other academics were present. The students involved also stated that they intended to “look into” the presenter’s son, who is also a McMaster student.

Disrupting events by speakers with whom one disagrees has unfortunately become the new norm on many university campuses in North America. But in terms of disruptions, this case is really only unique for the sheer horror of what the students were trying to defend: a race-based system of concentration camps.

Yet in the decision to film the event, as well as to coordinate with the PRC Consulate, the students involved crossed a significant red line. Here, the “Western-style” political correctness behind the “no platform” trend meets China-style “political correctness,” enforcing Beijing’s carefully protected orthodoxies abroad.

Filming and providing information to the consulate is an act of intelligence-gathering, as well as a threat, insofar as the intelligence is provided to a dictatorship engaged in crimes against humanity.

Not only the speaker but indeed students and academics in the audience could easily be blacklisted from China, and anyone with family in the PRC could see their family bear the brunt of the authorities’ anger.

If anyone present happened to have a Uyghur relative still in China then mere presence at this talk would be more than sufficient grounds to send their entire family off into the concentration camp system, perhaps never to be heard from again.

However, despite the gravity of these students’ acts, more than a week after the event, there is still no hint of any punishment for the students involved. Rukiye Turdush personally told me that she has asked the university if there will be any repercussions for the students, and has received no answer.

After a few mildly shocked newspaper articles, everyone now seems to have moved on.

Imagine for a moment if a group of white students had done this to Native Americans. Or if a group of Afrikaner students had intimidated indigenous anti-racism activists during the era of Apartheid. Or if a group of German students had during the Hitler years recorded and provided information to the German Consulate on Jewish refugees.

Let’s even imagine that a group of Japanese students had engaged in similar behaviour towards a Chinese student giving a talk on war crimes in World War II. The world would be outraged, and rightly so.

Are international students from China, unlike any other student group in today’s universities, allowed to engage in campaigns of racial hatred, intelligence gathering, and threats against those with whom they disagree?

In contrast to the parallel historical examples of white racism and anti-Semitism provided above, ideologies which we can all join hands in condemning, there sadly remains far too much vacillation in the “Western world” about racism and ongoing crimes against humanity in China today.

In both the North American and Australian contexts in which I have worked, racism is, for obvious historical reasons, perceived as the sole purview of a white majority. This notion and its particular vision of victimiser/victim can complicate discussions of the realities of Chinese racism.

Matters become doubly complicated when this intersects with the ostensibly anti-Orientalist idealisation of China as untroubled by the perennial problems of ‘the West’, widespread in both the popular imagination and academic writings.

For example, as a researcher on PRC nationalism and racism, I have academic colleagues who have expressed to me their discomfort with the idea that there could be racism in China. After all, ethnic identity in Chinese is expressed through the idea of minzu, which is markedly different from the idea of zhongzu as a blood-based race.

Ethnic identity in China, they say, is more open and fluid than the rigid constructions that have plagued us in the West.

That certainly sounds nice, but there really is nothing fluid or open about arbitrarily and indefinitely holding a million people from Turkic minority groups in concentration camps. Nor is there anything fluid or open about shouting down and harassing speakers attempting to raise awareness of these modern-day concentration camps.

All are manifestations of a malignant Han racial supremacism with deep disdain for an “other,” the troubling implications of which are becoming increasingly apparent by the day to anyone willing to face facts.

During my decades of travel in China, countless friends have confided in me that Uyghurs are different: dangerous, natural criminals, disease carriers, prone to terrorist violence, and inherent risks to social stability.

These ideas were already disturbing enough when they were used by interlocutors to argue that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities lived on an earlier stage of evolutionary development behind the Han. And of course, there is disturbingly limited space in both popular culture and academia in China to push back against such racism.

As a result, I have watched with trepidation as these ideas have provided the foundation for the development of an expansive network of concentration camps today in what was to be, just a few years ago, “the China century.”

It is of course disturbing that some students from the PRC, given the opportunity to learn important truths about the PRC government’s behaviour today, choose instead to maintain an information bubble in which any information that is not in the People’s Daily is somehow deceptive slander against an always “mighty, glorious, and correct” Party.

Yet we have truly reached a new level of “disturbing,” now that these students are attempting to intimidate and silence discussion in the Western world of the Chinese Communist Party’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

And undoubtedly the single most disturbing aspect of this entire affair is that when faced with this blatant supremacism, the response has been far too weak.

If the McMaster students involved in threatening and providing intelligence on Rukiye Turdush would like to attend a university in which the Communist Party’s crimes are not openly discussed, and wherein they can actively collaborate with the Beijing regime in its wars against the Uyghurs, there are plenty of such universities in China.

Allowing these students who have engaged in racial profiling, intelligence gathering for a foreign government, and intimidation and harassment to continue to study at McMaster without punishment sends the completely wrong message.

And this is a message that students will remember: that this type of behaviour is acceptable, or at least that they will not face any repercussions for it.

If the University truly wants to create an environment free from harassment, intimidation, discrimination, fear, and racism, the students involved in this affair must be held responsible for their actions.

Doing so will send the right message, not only to potential future offenders, but also to all Chinese, Taiwanese, Hongkonger, Uyghur, and Tibetan students in the West: we will not allow the persecution that you face at home to follow you here.


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