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Jeff Rambin, December 11, 2018
“There is no word for the pain, sadness, humiliation and anger I feel in my heart.” After six years and four months of tweeting, Wang Jiangsong was forced to delete his account. Wang calls himself a “labor scholar,” but he is too modest. William Nee of Amnesty International calls Wang “arguably the most prominent labor academic in China.” This is due not only to Wang’s scholarship, but also to his connections, and most importantly, his compassion. Wang’s perspective has been relied on by the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, and Reuters. Last year, Wang became part of the news himself. As reported by Radio Free Asia, officials in a Beijing neighborhood used a November fire as a chance to evict migrant workers. With winter effectively underway, Wang and others not only set up shelters for the workers, but also penned an open letter condemning the evictions as illegal.
In a farewell tweet, Wang said that the deletion was “due to force majeure which you all understand.” Though he said that “the sun will continue to rise,” Wang spoke of the deletion of his account as an “obituary.”
5,614 tweets to more than 23,300 followers will be gone in a few hours.
[As of now Prof. Wang’s handle is still alive, and he’s subsequently tweeted an account of the police visit.]
This happened on Tuesday, December 11, 2018, the day after the 70th anniversary of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
As followers of ChinaChange.org are aware, Wang Jiangsong’s story is far from isolated. It is part of a recent and accelerating crackdown on the use of Twitter by Chinese authorities. On November 9, 2018, Wu Gan’s Twitter account was deleted. That deletion carries concerns of its own, because Wu has been in prison since 2015. What is more, the deletion was unannounced. Yaxue Cao just happened to be online at the right time to see it go down. As with Wang Jiansong, Wu Gan used his Twitter account for the cause of the oppressed. Time and again, Wu rallied support to those who were ignored.
30,277 tweets from 2009 to 2015. Erased as though they never existed.
The list of names is rapidly growing. The campaign against Chinese Twitter users is being followed with increasing alarm on Twitter itself. It has been reported by outlets including Beijing Spring, the Epoch Times, the Hong Kong Free Press & Agence France Presse, and Human Rights Watch. As reported by Eva Xiao of AFP: “Despite being blocked in China, Twitter and other overseas social media sites have long been used freely by activists and government critics to address subjects that are censored on domestic forums — until now.” More and more Chinese Twitter users are receiving invitations to “drink tea” at the police station. To put it mildly, this is a consent issue. These accounts are not being deleted voluntarily.
What Wang, Wu, and so many others are up against is the “People’s Republic of Amnesia,” as described by former BBC and NPR reporter Lousia Lim in her book by that title. Indeed, the first rule of imposed political amnesia is that there is no amnesia; China has banned novelist Ma Jiang’s book China Dream, in which he describes both the efforts to erase memories, and the way those memories come back to the surface like a ball which has been held under the water.
The systematic campaign to erase history is now reaching out to Twitter users. Not via technological means, but by the knock on the door in the middle of the night.
This is loss on a staggering scale, and the worst of it is that there’s no way of knowing exactly how bad it is. How do you account for the damage done by severing the connections of someone like Wang Jiansong? How do you assess the impact of the collective body of free-minded people tweeting everyday acts of individuality? We can get some idea of their value from the extent to which oppressors are going.
Has the next Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, or Martin Luther King, Jr., been formulating ideas tweet-by-tweet? Purists might laugh, but I wonder if today’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, or at least its existence and how to access it, wouldn’t be spread via Twitter. Imagine such tweets permanently disappearing.
Imagine that the perpetrators of the June 4, 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square had the ability to delete every image of Tank Man. No doubt they would.
That is not an armchair historian’s counterfactual. Through the deletion of Twitter accounts, we are losing the record of what is happening right now in the Xinjiang camps. We are also losing the record of non-Uighur Chinese who are trying to stop that atrocity. In other words, this is not only about a historical record. Twitter users are trying to save lives in the here and now.
The “Dual Key” System
What is Twitter going to do about this? Twitter may not have the resources to investigate consent in so many cases. Besides, determining whether a deletion was voluntary or under duress could embroil Twitter in political issues. Same for issuing a blanket order that no deletions will be permitted from China, or any other country. Twitter is by-and-large, what the users make of it.
Given what is at stake, though, Twitter should find a way to do something.
The point of a dual key system would be to protect the dissenter, the dissenter’s tweets, and Twitter. Twitter would not be involved in assessing consent.
The second key would be held by a person of the primary account holder’s choosing, most likely in another country. The second key holder would have no ability to tweet, only the ability to approve or veto deletions. The conditions under which deletion would be permitted would be determined up front between the keyholders.
Such a program presents moral quandaries. To state but one: If the ground rules between key holders are to never delete no matter the circumstances, do you abide by that as a second key holder?
The thing is, we are already in the moral quandary whether we acknowledge it or not. As things stand, when the knock on the door comes, Chinese Twitter users are alone. And we’re letting that happen, pretending that none of the responsibility falls on us. To my mind, though, as I’ve gone about my daily business, I’ve been a free rider on what Wang Jiangsong and so many others have done and are doing to fight darkness in this world. So in some way I owe this to him — even though we’re a world apart and we’ve never met. Perhaps others see things the same way. Perhaps Amnesty or Human Rights Watch or others would be willing to coordinate this with volunteers from around the world. Electricians, teachers, retirees, college students – the variety of volunteers will be surprising.
This is about connection and shared burden. When a Twitter user is sitting in an interrogation room facing a demand to delete their account, they should not be alone. The very existence of a second key holder changes the dynamic in that room. If a deletion request is made, the notification to the second key holder will be a pre-arranged call for help. A dual key system turns the table on the interrogator by shining a light into a dark place.
Please, Twitter, do something. Brave dissidents are already risking punishment by speaking. Give them the option of a dual key account to preserve their words. In these trying times give us reason to sing “All people become brothers where your gentle wing abides.”
Jeff Rambin is a father and attorney from Tyler, Texas. He is a lifelong student of history and politics. Years ago, he served as the chairperson of the foreign-policy focused Wiley Lecture Series at Texas A&M. Memories of 1989 have stuck with him. At some point he grew sick of reading books and watching the news and decided that he had to do something.
He can be followed on Twitter at @RespectHope.
China Steps up Nationwide Crackdown to Silence Twitter Users – the Unmediated Story, Yaxue Cao, December 5, 2018.
Liao Yiwu, December 10, 2018, International Human Rights Day, Berlin
I’ve so often said that my courage and everything about me comes from prison. This is how I differ from other Chinese writers. In prison, I was tortured ‘til I could no longer bear it, and tried to kill myself twice. But I learned to write secretly; and I learned to play the xiao (ancient flute) from an over-80-year-old monk. From the sound of his xiao, I realized that freedom comes from the soul.
A man of inner freedom is the natural enemy of a dictatorship. His political views come in a pale, second place.
The key is that, only after experiencing the horror, sadness, and pity of losing freedom and being trampled upon, does one fight for the freedom of others with all one’s heart, and moreover turns the fight for freedom into a kind of personal faith.
Most of the time, outside of writing, I’m a failure. For example, my friend Liu Xiaobo, four times jailed, was murdered in a cage on July 13, 2017. We did our best to rescue him, but it was all a failure. Although his wife, Liu Xia, was eventually released and allowed to come to Germany, the price was too painful and too great. And soon it will all be forgotten.
China is still the world’s largest capitalist market, and with the US-led trade war against China and the constant thrashings-about in the news, already the memory of Liu Xiaobo and his wife is being diluted and lost. It’s a vulgar and cruel world that no longer needs a martyr like Liu Xiaobo to strive and be jailed for the cause of democracy. I understand all this. I know that though the records already are numerous, I must continue to write. It’s just as, over 2,000 years ago, when Plato recorded the philosophical debates in Socrates’ cell before his death; without those words Plato left behind, Socrates would have been erased by time, and his death left a vague mystery. His words would no longer stir us so deeply.
Yes, I wrote “June 4: My Testimony” and “Bullets and Opium,” both of which are part of a single whole describing the victims of the Tiananmen massacre nearly 30 years ago, many of whom died, many of whom were destroyed by prison. (Although, even when released from prison, they went on to die in a larger prison without walls.) The idea that “the internet will destroy autocracy and open markets will lead to democracy ” has been a popular notion for American politicians, and coincided with the administration of then-US President Bill Clinton. It’s this phrase that lubricated China’s entry to the WTO, and helped grant it most-favored nation status over 20 years ago.
But it’s clearly not the case that “the internet undermines dictatorship.” Instead, it’s the authoritarian regimes that have made extensive use of Western network technology to comprehensively monitor the entire Chinese populace. No matter where you are, as long you’re a dissident, you’ll be tapped and tracked; all your trips to the bank and online speech will be recorded, and in a moment’s notice, all will become evidence of your intent to harm the state. At hotels, train stations, and airports, your face will be automatically identified by the police using their mobile phones and computers — technology invented by Westerners and augmented by the internet and open markets, all of which has given a tremendous boost to the dictatorship.
What follows naturally is that the dictatorship will challenge Western democracy. For instance, China has the Great Fire Wall, and if you circumvent it and visit foreign websites, this is called “illegal” and perhaps you’ll be arrested. Western countries have no firewall, and almost all overseas Chinese, and many foreigners interested in China, are free to use WeChat, Weibo, and Huawei cell phones — but then they’re silently monitored and tracked too. And if you say ‘extremist’, suspicious, sarcastic, or subversive remarks about China, WeChat administrators will issue a warning that your account may be cancelled — or simply cancel it without a word. Or maybe you’ll temporarily go “missing”, and your family and friends in the country may also find themselves under a cloud of trouble. Dictators not only borrow the propaganda of “counter-terrorism” to carry out concentration camp-style forced brainwashing of millions of Uighurs in Xinjiang, but also use the internet to prevent those in the free world from actually being free.
Many dissidents around me also use WeChat and accept the regime’s control and surveillance without really thinking it over. So today, I, a writer among dissidents, not only refuse to use Chinese-made smartphones, but I refuse to install any software from China, and I only publish my work in democratic Taiwan and the free West.
More importantly, I don’t flinch, I don’t succumb to silence, I continue to fight for the freedom of others, and in this oft-failed struggle, I’m drawing from a passionate need to make a record of this era.
Coming up next, I shall prepare another book; I shall get ready to turn defeat into victory in the history that will soon be upon us.
“1984” itself makes one hopeless — but the act of writing “1984” is already a flickering of hope from the depths of despair.
Also by Liao Yiwo:
‘Dona, Dona,’ Give Freedom To Liu Xia, May 2, 2018.
Acceptance Speech for the 2018 Annual Disturbing the Peace Literary Prize for a Courageous Writer at Risk, Liao Yiwu, September 27, 2018, New York City
China Deals Another Blow to the International Human Rights Framework at its UN Universal Periodic Review
Andrea Worden, November 25, 2018
Over the past several years, the Chinese government has steadily been promoting its own version of human rights –– “human rights with Chinese characteristics”–– at the UN, and maneuvering to insert language trumpeted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with Xi Jinping as its core wordsmith, into various UN resolutions, with an eye toward assuming a leadership role in global human rights governance. China’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the Human Rights Council (HRC) on November 6, 2018 provided a high-level global forum for the government to announce its newly formulated five-pronged “human rights development path with Chinese characteristics.” In a press conference following the review, Assistant Foreign Minister Zhang Jun claimed that more than 120 countries supported China’s path during the review, and that China’s formulation was “completely correct.” In prioritizing “the right to development” as the fundamental human right and implicitly discarding the fundamental principle of the universality, interdependence, and indivisibility of all human rights, China’s “path” poses a serious threat to the international human rights system.
Although the key components of the PRC’s human rights path are not new, they have been repackaged into a tidy framework, which China confidently proclaimed at its 2018 UPR (@1:25 and 6:09). Earlier, at its 2013 UPR, the PRC stated in its national report that it was “working to explore paths for human rights development.” By 2018, China had discovered the path, described by Zhang Jun as “national conditions-based, people-centered, development-oriented, rule of law-guided and openness-driven.” This article takes a look at some of China’s moves to promote its “development-trumps-all” human rights narrative and agenda, weaken the UPR mechanism (and, in the process, the credibility of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)), and further its efforts to gut the international human rights framework as we know it.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Mechanism
The UPR is a key mechanism of the Human Rights Council (HRC); indeed, it was intended to make the HRC, established in 2006, more robust and equitable than the body it replaced, the UN Human Rights Commission. In this intergovernmental, State-driven mechanism, all 193 UN Member states are reviewed every four and a half years. The review is conducted on the basis of three documents: the national report of the State being reviewed, and two documents prepared by OHCHR–– the compilation of UN information on the State under review, and the summary of stakeholders’ information, which includes information submitted by NGOs.
Three and a half hours is allocated for the review. The UN Member State under review is allotted a total of 70 minutes, which it uses for opening and final remarks, and comments and responses during the interactive dialogue. The remaining 2 hours and 20 minutes is apportioned equally among the countries that sign up in advance to speak at the review. In China’s 2018 UPR, each State that registered to speak was given 45 seconds to make their statements; in 2013, each country had 50 seconds. The Chinese government uses its influence to stack the roster with its friends (e.g. aid recipients, like-minded dictatorships, BRI partners, etc.) and as a result, countries poised to offer remarks critical of the PRC’s human rights record and make substantive human rights-based recommendations have less time to do so.
The review is intended to evaluate the State under review’s progress toward achieving and implementing recommendations it accepted during its previous review; fulfillment of the State’s human rights obligations and commitments; and the country’s overall human rights situation. During the interactive dialogue portion of China’s 2018 UPR, 150 delegations made statements, and offered 346 recommendations (@1:30). The Chinese government will provide its position on the recommendations by the 40th session of the Human Rights Council in March 2019. Regarding which recommendations the PRC is likely to accept, and those it’s likely to reject, the head of the UPR delegation, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, suggested the answer during his final remarks. He said “an overwhelming number of countries have fully recognized China’s efforts and achievements in promoting and protecting human rights over the last five years,” and that the Chinese delegation sincerely appreciated their “many constructive comments and recommendations.” @3:07:22) As for certain other countries, Vice Minister Le said, “We will not accept the politically driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases, and in total disregard of facts; even less will we entertain attempts to use human rights as an excuse to interfere in China’s internal affairs or undermine its sovereignty and territorial integrity.” (@3:08:14)
China Finds its Human Rights Path for the New Era
In the PRC’s National Report submitted for its 2013 UPR (2013 Report), the section that lays out the government’s human rights theory is titled, “The concept and theoretical system of human rights under socialism with Chinese characteristics.” There is no mention of “human rights with Chinese characteristics.” As noted above, the government stated at that time it was “working to explore paths for human rights development.” (para. 5.) The 2013 Report further states that China:
“respects the principle of universality of human rights and is of the view that all countries have a duty to take measures, commensurate with their national conditions, continuously to promote and protect human rights in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and the basic spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the relevant international human rights instruments.” (para. 4)
By the time of its 2018 UPR, the PRC had finished its exploration and discovered a “distinctively Chinese” path (@6:35), a path that abandons international human rights norms. The relevant section of the 2018 Report is titled, “The concept and theoretical system of human rights with Chinese characteristics.” There is no mention of the principle of universality of human rights; indeed, the only mention of “universal” is in the negative: “There is no universal road for the development of human rights in the world.” (para. 4) Nor is there a mention the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), or “relevant international human rights instruments.” Australia noted the change from 2013 in an advance question to China, and asked:
“Does China still accept the principle of universal human rights, and if not, can China explain how its conception of human rights fits into the international human rights regime built on the concept of universality? Can China explain how “human rights with Chinese characteristics” differs from universal human rights, and if it does not, why it wishes to introduce this distinction?” (Advance Questions, Addendum 3)
This is clearly a human rights path grounded in Xi Jinping’s New Era. Not only are fundamental norms of the universality and interdependence of human rights jettisoned, the Chinese government has also dispensed with any mention of theories articulated by Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. While the 2013 Report contains references to Hu’s “scientific outlook on development” and “harmonious society,” they are absent from the 2018 Report. The Report states:
“[T]he cause of human rights must be promoted on the basis of national conditions and the needs of the people of that country, and cannot be defined on the basis of a single authority. Guided by Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, China attaches great importance to the promotion and protection of human rights, ever acting as an advocate, practitioner and promoter of the cause of protecting human rights and always following the road of developing human rights with Chinese characteristics.” [2018 Report, Para. 4, emphasis added]
The translated phrase “on the basis of a single authority” is a curious rendering of the classical phrase 定于一尊 (dingyuyizun). The meaning is more along the lines of “no one (path of human rights development) should be regarded as the only choice,” or superior to all other choices.
In its 2018 Report, the Chinese government argues, in effect, that the international human rights framework is just one choice among others, and that it should not be taken as the highest authority. What, then, is the highest authority, or “the right system”? For China’s human rights development, there is only one “correct path”–– and it lies with Xi Jinping. The report describes the five-pronged path as the “road of developing human rights with Chinese characteristics” –– a road that “takes national conditions as the foundation”; “takes the people as the centre”; “takes development as the priority”; “takes the rule of law as the criterion”; and “takes openness as the motivator.” (paras. 5-10.)
The PRC’s “Development First” Agenda Gains Further Ground in the HRC
Development, and the right to development, were front and center during the interactive dialogue portion of the UPR, punctuated by strong concerns raised by a smaller number of States about the mass detention of Muslim minorities in “vocational training centers” in Xinjiang, and a wide range of other human rights abuses in China.
As it’s done in the past, the Chinese government seemingly rounded up its friends and beneficiaries to engage in what could be taken as an example of offline “flooding”: the UPR, whose purpose is to review the human rights obligations and actual human rights on the ground of the State under review, was inundated by comments and recommendations from countries praising China’s development, requesting China share best practices, expressing gratitude for aid, and asking for more. Many developing countries and members of the so-called Like-Minded Group (including, e.g., Russia, Syria, China, Cuba, Venezuela, etc.), which are decidedly not human rights-friendly, offered recommendations to China such as the following:
Namibia: “Continue sharing experiences and best practices in implementing people’s right to development.” (Draft Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: China (11/8/18); A/HRC/WG.6/31/L.3, para. 6.128)
Pakistan: “Continue to promote discussions in the Human Rights Council on the role of development in promoting and protecting human rights” (para. 6.33); “Continue to promote the Belt and Road Initiative to help other developing countries in their development endeavours” (para. 6.45).
And in an advance question to China before the review, Pakistan asked: “China has made tremendous achievements in implementing the right to development. Could China share relevant experience?” (Advance Questions to China First Batch –Rev)
Lao People’s Democratic Republic: “Continue to communicate with other developing countries on the experience of the state governance, including promoting and protecting human rights” (para. 6.52).
Nigeria: “Sustain its efforts in the global fight against terrorism and extremism” (para. 6.145).
Venezuela: “Continue to forge a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice, and win-win cooperation and building a community with a shared future for human beings” (para. 6.36).
It’s worth noting that Venezuela didn’t quite get the New Era lexicon right during the interactive dialogue, and its recommendation was amended in an early version of the draft report for political correctness. Venezuela did not utter the CCP’s “win-win” slogan during its oral statement, and it described the future as a “shared future for human beings,” neglecting the “building” of “a community.” The Spanish-to-English interpreter used “forms” instead of “type” (as in “new type of international relations”) and “equity” instead of “fairness.” These “mistakes” were subsequently fixed, in what seems to be another example of PRC influence and discourse management at the UN.
Money Matters and OHCHR
In its 2018 Report, the PRC notes that it donated $100,000 to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Development mandate, a new special procedure created in September 2016 (para. 76). At first glance, it’s puzzling that this mandate was created in the first place when a Working Group on the Right to Development already exists, but it turns out to have been another move by the PRC to promote development within the HRC, and occupy more “space” and resources focused on the right to development. Not surprisingly, Venezuela introduced the resolution creating the mandate on behalf of China and the Non-Aligned Movement, which was adopted by a vote of 34-2, with 11 abstentions. France and the UK voted against the resolution. The first (and current) special rapporteur, Mr. Saad Alfarargi of Egypt, participated in the first South-South Human Rights Forum held in Beijing in December 2017, by invitation from the Chinese government. During the UPR, Vice Minister Le said that the PRC will invite the Chair of the Working Group on the Right to Development to visit China (@10:24).
At the 2013 UPR, the PRC announced a dramatic increase in its funding for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Special Envoy of the MFA, Wu Hailong, said that China would increase its annual donation to OHCHR from $50,000 to $800,000 for the next four years (@17:30). During the 2018 review, Vice Minister Le announced that China would (again) donate $800,000 annually to the OHCHR for the next five years (@10:20). The PRC stated in the 2018 Report that it “maintains constructive contacts with [OHCHR], encourages them to perform their duties objectively and impartially, and attaches importance to the concerns of developing countries” (para. 76).
The Chinese government clearly has influence at OHCHR, which it uses to shield its human rights record from scrutiny, mute criticism, and control access to information it would rather keep hidden. The extent of the PRC’s influence, and the different tactics and leverage it uses to exert it, awaits an investigative journalist to thoroughly unravel, but in its groundbreaking report on China’s interference in UN human rights mechanisms, Human Rights Watch provides several examples of Chinese pressure on the OHCHR and special procedures, quoting one UN official as saying: “China keeps bullying us, saying, ‘Don’t do that,’ ‘Don’t do this,’ or ‘We urge you not to do this.’”
One of the main functions of OHCHR is to provide support for the work of the HRC, including the UPR, and, as mentioned earlier, it is responsible for drafting the compilation of UN information, and the summary of stakeholders’ information. In the run-up to the 2018 UPR, OHCHR was involved in machinations that point to PRC interference in the Office’s work. The details of the disappearing and reappearing NGO submissions on the OHCHR website, inputs from groups the Chinese government views as particularly “troublesome,” and exclusion of their information from the stakeholders’ summary prepared by OHCHR, are explained in a joint statement signed by concerned NGOs, which include, among others, the Uyghur Human Rights Project, World Uyghur Congress, Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Demosistō, and the International Service for Human Rights. The NGOs stated that despite the OHCHR’s belated fix of most of the issues (mere days before the review), they “remain very concerned that the removal of these reports gives further credence to well-documented NGO concerns of China’s growing influence within the UN human rights system, and the deliberate silencing of critical voices.”
After China’s success in the HRC in June 2017 with its resolution titled, “The contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights,” I wrote, “What this means, in short, is that China will continue to promote, and attempt to expand, the importance of the right to development and economic rights, while at the same time endeavoring to curtail and weaken the enforcement of civil and political rights.” And so it has. During the UPR, the Chinese government touted its self-described “correct” human rights path, and by presenting a depraved defense of its “vocational training centers” in Xinjiang demonstrated that it was wholly unconcerned with civil and political rights, and the truth. Despite strong, rights-based recommendations from the human rights-friendly countries that participated in the review, China was nonetheless able to use the global stage of the UPR to further advance its “development trumps all” agenda at the expense of the established international human rights framework.
Andrea Worden is a human rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She has worked on human rights and rule of law issues involving China throughout much of her career, and previously held positions as the Acting Executive Director of Asia Catalyst, Advocacy Director with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Senior Counsel at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Her essays and articles on human rights issues in China have appeared in such publications as the The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, Yale-China Review, Georgetown Journal of International Law, South China Morning Post, and China Rights Forum, among others.
Follow her on Twitter @tingdc
Andrea Worden’s UN human rights series on China Change:
China Pushes ‘Human Rights With Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN, Andrea Worden, October 9, 2017.
As the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Turns 20, China Wages a Multi-Pronged Attack on Rights Defenders, Andrea Worden, March 14, 2018.
With Its Latest Human Rights Council Resolution, China Continues Its Assault on the UN Human Rights Framework, Andrea Worden, April 9, 2018.
Hu Ping, November 19, 2018
Recently, there have been two hot topics in China: the Sino-U.S. trade war and the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of China’s Reform and Opening up.
We have noticed that many people in the system have written articles or made speeches enthusiastically praising Deng Xiaoping while covertly and in some cases even openly criticizing Xi Jinping. They believe that in bringing back lifelong leadership terms and the cult of personality, abandoning Deng’s policy of “hiding one’s capabilities and biding one’s time” (韬光养晦) and promoting state-owned businesses over private firms, Xi Jinping has significantly deviated from Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up.
For this year’s May 4th anniversary, Fan Liqin (樊立勤), a Peking University alumnus and an old friend of Deng Xiaoping’s eldest son Deng Pufang (邓朴方), posted a 24-page big-character poster in the Campus Triangle at Peking University calling Xi Jinping out for “going against the tide.” On July 24th, Xu Zhangrun (许章润), a law professor at Tsinghua University, published an article titled “Our Fear and Expectation,” which explicitly demanded restoration of presidential term limits and even the vindication of the June 4th Incident.
Also, some economic scholars criticized the boastful propaganda of “Awesome, my country!” that was launched a while ago, saying it invited the U.S. to begin the trade war and caused serious difficulty for the Chinese economy — with this they implied that the leadership was to blame. In the past six months, more people in the system are choosing to support Deng’s policy over that of Xi. Such phenomena has been quite rare during the six years since Xi Jinping took office.
Not long ago, on Sept. 16, Deng Pufang said at a conference of the Disabled Persons’ Federation that: “We must persevere in seeking truth from facts, keeping clear-minded, knowing our actual ability without being boastful or self-deprecating. We should adhere to our national conditions and plan all work based on the reality of being in the primary stage of socialism.” Anyone who is even remotely keyed in can immediately see who Deng is referring to.
Interestingly, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence expressed similar views promoting Deng and opposing Xi in his Oct. 4 speech given at the Hudson Institute. Pence criticized Xi Jinping several times without naming him directly. For example, he mentioned that “China’s top leader” had visited the China Global Television Network (CTGN) headquarters and said that “the media run by the Party and the government are propaganda fronts and must have the Party as their surname.”
Pence said that when the United States decided to develop extensive economic relations with China, they had hoped that Beijing would allow its people to move toward greater freedom. At one point, Beijing did make slow progress toward giving greater respect for human rights. However, in recent years, China has turned sharply in the direction of controlling and oppressing its own people.
The vice president noted that now, “while Beijing still pays lip service to ‘reform and opening up,’ Deng Xiaoping’s famous policy now rings hollow.” Pence hopes that Chinese leaders will change course and “return to the spirit of reform and opening up” when relations between the two countries began decades ago.
Slovenian scholar Slavoj Žižek recently published an article titled “Will our future be Chinese ‘capitalist socialism?’” in which he mentions an anecdote told many years ago by a Chinese scholar who knew Deng Xiaoping’s daughter. “When Deng was dying, an acolyte who visited him asked him what he thought his greatest act was, expecting the usual answer that he will mention his economic opening that brought such development to China. To their surprise, he answered: ‘No, it was that, when the leadership decided to open up the economy, I resisted the temptation to go all the way and open up also the political life to multi-party democracy.’”
We can’t confirm whether Deng Xiaoping actually said this before his death, but it would be in keeping with his legacy. In the 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party, the Soviet Communist Party, and many other communist parties in Eastern European countries were pushing for economic reforms. However, while the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe moved away from dictatorship, the CCP held onto and even reinforced the Party’s authoritarian rule.
Deng Xiaoping played the most crucial role in guiding China to embark on a path different from these other communist countries. He differed from the communist leaders of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in that he promoted economic reforms while rejecting political openness.
Within the CCP, the forces demanding political openness were once strong and it was unclear whether the CCP would be able to maintain its authoritarian leadership. The reform of the communist countries, even if confined to the economic sector at the beginning, was symbolic of digging their own graves. Because the communist countries’ economic reforms were essentially equal to altering socialism and restoring capitalism, it effectively became a self-denial of the communist revolution and with it the communist dictatorship.
In the past, the only “magic weapon” for the Communist Party to suppress freedom and democracy was to accuse others as “bourgeoisie” and “taking the capitalist road;” but once the Communist Party itself consciously and openly took the capitalist road and became the bourgeois class, what other excuse would it then have to insist on communist dictatorship? In this way, even if they did not actively choose to change the system, then tens of thousands of people would do it for them — by demanding the end of one-party dictatorship and the implementation of liberal democratic reform. To paraphrase American scholar Adam Przeworski, the leadership couldn’t convince themselves to pull the trigger.
This is how the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe embarked on the path of peaceful democratic reform. How did Deng Xiaoping resist calls for political openness coming from both outside and within the CCP? The answer is the June 4th Massacre.
As I said earlier, China’s reform is not one but two reforms. June 4th, 1989, was a turning point. Deng Xiaoping ruthlessly suppressed China’s democratic forces and led Chinese reforms in the wrong direction.
There is no essential difference between the Xi Jinping route and the Deng Xiaoping route. Xi Jinping’s actions are basically an extension of Deng Xiaoping’s political line, but he has deviated from it by bringing the pernicious elements inherent to Deng’s policy to extremity. In this regard, it is something of a positive sign that there are people in the system who oppose the Xi route in the name of returning to the Deng route and promoting Deng. The Xi route is indeed worse than the Deng route.
Furthermore, if Xi’s policies are stopped and he loses power, things will not simply return to the era of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. When Hua Guofeng (华国锋) arrested Jiang Qing and the other Cultural Revolutionaries, China didn’t just return to the pre-Cultural Revolution period; instead, a strong impetus brought China into a new era of Reform and Opening up. Similarly, if anti-Xi forces within the CCP strike down the Xi route in the name of returning to the Deng route, then the resulting political momentum would surely break through and beyond the boundaries set by Deng Xiaoping.
The June 4th Massacre was not just a brutal event, but an atrocity by many measures. Only by clearly recognizing this truth can we understand the nature of “Chinese characteristics” and the “Chinese model,” and what it means for the future of humankind if such “characteristics” and such a “model” are allowed to triumph.
Hu Ping (胡平) was one of the most respected and prolific dissent intellectuals living in New York. He edited Beijing Spring (《北京之春》), “a monthly Chinese-language magazine dedicated to the promotion of human rights, democracy and social justice in China” for more than two decades before retirement. This article combines two recent articles (here and here) by Hu Ping, and edits were made for clarity and fluency with the author’s authorization.
Also by Hu Ping:
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, June 2, 2015. (This is one of the most read essays on this site.)
Reconsidering Deng Xiaoping the Reformer: What Did He Really Reform? Li Xuewen, February 21, 2017.
Deletion of Wu Gan’s Twitter Posts Reflects the Urgent Need to Protect Chinese Human Rights Activists’ ‘Data Ownership’
Yaxue Cao, November 11, 2018
Around 10:10 pm eastern time on Nov. 8, as I was browsing my Twitter timeline and taking a breaking from editing a website post, a tweet by Wu Gan (吴淦) jumped into my vision. Even though he has gone for three years and a half, his avatar immediately stood out. It’s an auto-generated tweet that reads: “I just activated @Tweet_Delete on my account to automatically delete my old tweets (is.gd/delete)!” Instinctively, I pressed the “prt src” key:
It was 11 am on Nov. 9, Beijing Time. Wu Gan, better known as the “Super Vulgar Butcher,” is serving an eight-year sentence in a prison somewhere in the mountains on the border of Fujian and Jiangxi provinces. He was detained on May 20, 2015, outside the Jiangxi High People’s Court where he had been protesting the court’s denial of lawyers’ access to case files in the “Leping Wrongful Conviction Case.” In December 2017 he was sentenced to eight years in prison for “subversion of state power” following secret detention, torture, and his refusal to admit guilt in exchange for lenient punishment.
I clicked his account. It was emptied out – all 30,277 tweets from Nov. 2009 to May 2015 were gone. The tweet announcing the deletion soon disappeared as well. The circumstances of the deletion are shocking to many Chinese Twitter users because of the scale of the loss.
Wu Gan’s Twitter feed is not just anybody’s feed. In late 2008 he began to actively surf Internet and frequent a vibrant forum called “Cat Eye Forum” (猫眼论坛) at www.tianya.cn, one of China’s earliest Internet portals. He wrote: “I learned of the earthquakes, the shoddy school buildings [that killed thousands of students]; I learned Ai Weiwei’s investigation into the school deaths. I was rather stirred. I began to write articles, and in 2009, I became an activist.”
In a remote town in western Hubei in May 2009, three township officials asked 21-year-old hotel waitress Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) for “special services” and attempted to force themselves on her. Yujiao defended herself using a fruit knife, stabbing one of her would-be rapists to death and wounding another. She turned herself in to the local public security authorities, and was charged with intentional homicide.
The incident found instant resonance with netizens around the country. Compared to today, that time was still something of a “golden age” for online free speech, as the Great Fire Wall was not as fully developed as it is today and the Chinese government had yet to introduce a mechanism of effectively and thoroughly curbing public opinion on the internet.
The way the authorities handled Deng Yujiao’s case stirred outcry among masses of ordinary Chinese. They did not want to see a young girl be imprisoned as a murderess and possibly receive the death sentence for standing her ground against abusive officials. But help could only come from the people and the forces of public opinion.
Wu Gan, a 37-year-old Fujianese businessman who had served in the southern border troops, called upon fellow frequenters of the Cat Eye Forum to “take action to help this young lady who had defended her dignity with a fruit knife.”
A few days later, Wu Gan went to Hubei, spoke with Deng Yujiao’s family, and managed to meet Yujiao in hospital. A photo of the two together went viral. He persuaded the Deng family to engage lawyers for Yujiao, and made arrangements with two lawyers in Beijing. A month later, the local court held a public hearing for Deng Yujiao’s case and handed down a verdict exempting her from punishment.
The Deng Yujiao incident was seen as an encouraging example of how public opinion could lead to justice; at the same time, it became the starting point for Wu Gan to enter the public sphere and conduct online and offline activism. Next, Wu Gan got involved in the case of Shenyang street vendor Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰), who had killed two chengguan (城管) officers (note: chengguan are Chinese urban enforcers infamous for using violence and intimidation) in self-defense. Wu Gan travelled to Shenyang to help Xia’s wife and son get legal help, and rallied public opinion on social media and at the same time recorded his activities and reflections.
Sadly, Wu Gan and thousands of concerned netizens were unsuccessful this time. Xia Junfeng was sentenced to death and executed in 2013. Over the next six years, Wu Gan helped with hundreds of rights defense cases across China by mobilizing public opinion online and working directly with victims on the ground. Most of the people he helped were the socially disadvantaged, such as Deng Yujiao and Xia Junfeng, who had suffered humiliation and deprivation at the hands of the powers-that-be.
Wu Gan’s activism, which he styled “butchering pigs,” aimed to pressure local officials using public opinion, the law, and his unique performance art to pursue social justice in places where the rule of law did not exist. In order to popularize his experiences, Wu Gan, who lacked university education, wrote three handbooks: “Guide to Butchering Pigs” (《杀猪宝典》), “Guide to Drinking Tea” (《喝茶宝典》), and the “Guide to Petitioners Fighting Against Forced Demolition of Homes” (《访民杀猪宝典》). In these pamphlets, Wu taught fellow activists how to protect their rights by resisting the government and dealing with police interrogation and intimidation.
In China’s rights struggle over the last decade, Wu Gan occupies a unique position of seminal importance. He was the first detainee during the 709 crackdown; his steadfast resolve to expose torture and refusal to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence is awe-inspiring.
In an editorial, the Washington Post quoted Wu Gan’s statement to the court: “For those living under a dictatorship, being given the honorable label of one who ‘subverts state power’ is the highest form of affirmation for a citizen. It’s proof that the citizen wasn’t an accomplice or a slave, and that at the very least he went out and defended, and fought for, human rights.”
Social media revolutionized Chinese citizen resistance, and Wu Gan was one of the most creative user of it. Not surprisingly, he quickly found himself in the crosshairs of the Chinese government’s censorship organ and was barred from domestic platforms like Weibo, so Twitter became a safe haven for him and other human rights activists. There, they didn’t have to worry about their accounts being deleted, and they expressed their thoughts freely and left a record of their activities and thoughts – Twitter was their open diary.
Wu Gan’s Twitter account was such a diary.
At the beginning of this year, when I was doing research for an article, I was able to download his tweets from May 19, 2015, going back to the same date in 2014, reaching apparently the limit Twitter set for retrieving archives.
Take May and June, 2014, as an example: in May, Wu Gan and lawyer Li Heping (李和平) were in the county of Mayang in Huaihua, Hunan Province (湖南怀化麻阳县), where they were assisting a family that had been expropriated of their land, had their house demolished, and relatives in detention. In June, Wu Gan organized a few dozen people to observe the trial of a political prisoner in Hunan, as well as paying attention to the sentencing of Jiangxi’s Liu Ping (刘萍) and the detention of three civil disobedience activists in Guangzhou. That month, Wu Gan also went to Jingdezhen (景德镇) and met with a group of lawyers to work on overturning the the death sentence against four peasants who had been wrongfully convicted of murder. There, he talked to the relatives of the accused about how to use and weaponize the internet. At the same time, he had followed the development of practically all political cases, including those of Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), and Gao Yu (高瑜). Wu Gan also released information about donations he had received for completed activities, as well as his experiences, for instance in the Jiansanjiang case [involving rights lawyers beaten up for defending Falun Gong practitioners].
Wu Gan had some rather big ideas: he hoped that Chinese democracy activists overseas could set up a mock voting system for Chinese citizens to elect a Chinese president, as well as judges, legislators, and local officials.
As for current events, his views were often direct and insightful. He said, “If Taiwan still cannot take a hint from today’s situation in Hong Kong and continues to flirt with the Communist Party thinking that trade will lead to a good and risk-free future and think the wolf’s milk they’re drinking is free, one day the Chicoms are going to take back everything when they have an epileptic attack. No good can come of making a deal with the devil.”
In June that year he also said he was occupied with his marriage, fixing up his house, and family matters in his hometown. He said he had to deal with his family life and that [his work on] justice would have to take a back seat for the time being. But afterward, it seems that he had forgotten about this statement.
One of my favorite Wu Gan tweets is: “Some people fancy that after Xi Jinping finishes the anti-corruption campaign and consolidates power, he will return back to the right path. How many times were these people kicked in the head by donkeys to come up with this kind of idea?”
As you can see, due to his extensive contacts with various groups and his involvement in many incidents, his Twitter served as a veritable history of China’s human rights struggle between 2009 to 2015. Today, while he finds himself behind bars, cut off from any means of communication with the outside world, his tens of thousands of tweets have been deleted with just a single click.
This goes beyond Wu Gan’s personal loss; it is a huge setback for researchers and anyone who cares about the struggles of contemporary Chinese society.
What happened to Wu Gan’s tweets isn’t unique. In 2016, Sichuan human rights activist Chen Yunfei (陈云飞) not only had his Twitter posts deleted, but his entire account was closed and erased without any trace. There may well be more political prisoners who have been liquidated from online existence — it embarrasses me to admit that I have not paid the matter enough attention thus far.
The internet age has made information easier to produce and more convenient to circulate. However, It has also made it convenient for a highly sophisticated dictatorship, like the one in China, to wipe out the memories and records of people and even entire communities in an instant. They have been doing this all along, but in the last two or three years, the censorship has reached unprecedented heights in its scale and intensity.
For the Chinese government, it’s not enough to delete domestic social media content. They have been trying to extend their control to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — all of which are banned in China.
Like me, a scholar who studies the Chinese resistance movement was shocked and concerned about the erasure of Wu Gan’s Twitter record. She proposed the concept of “data ownership.” Chinese netizens are not only deprived of data ownership inside the Great Fire Wall; political prisoners and currently active Twitter users face threats to their data security as well.
The researcher urged me and my fellow human rights advocators to study methods of protecting Chinese netizens’ “data ownership” in foreign social media. The data security of those political prisoners who are in prison, or “sensitive people” who are not in prison but are strictly monitored and threatened by the government, is particularly urgent. Seeing the deletion of Twitter content belonging to Wu Gan and Chen Yunfei and the recent round of censorship targeting Chinese Twitter users (I will report on this in a separate article), we sense that the Chinese government will stop at no means to delete more content that they disagree with.
Large companies like Twitter should be held responsible for protecting the data security of political dissidents in authoritarian states. The researcher suggested that human rights organizations should negotiate with Twitter to develop a third-party mechanism to protect the social account data for Chinese political prisoners based on CECC’s relatively complete and constantly updated database (http://ppdcecc.gov/) of Chinese incarcerated for their dissident activities. This system could provide regular backups and prevent the prisoners’ account from being modified.
Right now, what is most urgent is that Twitter needs to know the shocking attacks on free speech that are quietly taking place. We ask Twitter to restore Wu Gan’s Twitter content and Chen Yunfei’s account from its backup database.
Ms. Wang Lihong (王荔蕻), another noted human rights activist and a close friend of Wu Gan, tweeted, “Can someone go talk with Twitter about this? We’re not in jail, and wouldn’t it be a shame if we couldn’t even protect the Twitter account of a prisoner of conscience?”
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
A Month Or So In The House Of Twitter, Yaxue Cao, January 23, 2012.
Jeff Wang, November 8, 2018
The Chinese government has been gradually tightening its foreign exchange controls to the great detriment of enterprises and citizens, as well as the country’s economic vitality. What are the reasons for this heavy regulation, and what does it tells us about the economic and political state of China?
Over the last two years, members of the Chinese middle class have found it increasingly challenging to access foreign exchanges or make international remittances.
Ms. Zhang (张女士), a Chinese woman who had immigrated to the United States and who declined to disclose her full name, returned to Beijing this October to sell her apartment. However, the process of sending the money to the U. S. has proved a daunting experience.
“I’m still stuck here waiting,” she said. “I see exchange rates for the dollar get higher every day, and I think about how much I’m losing.”
The obstacles that Ms. Zhang faces have been commonplace in China after the authorities started tightening up on foreign exchanges in the second half of 2016.
In January 2017, the China Foreign Exchange Administration announced new rules that, in addition to maintaining the $50,000 per person limit on foreign exchanges, required purchasers to fill out a form, the “Application for Foreign Exchange Purchase” (个人购汇申请书). Additionally, purchases of foreign exchanges could not be used for buying real estate or making investments in securities overseas.
This January, the Foreign Exchange Administration also stipulated in its “Notice on Regulating Large-Scale Cash Withdrawal Using Bank Cards While Abroad” (《关于规范银行卡境外大额提取现金交易的通知》) a 100,000-yuan limit on overseas withdrawals when using a Chinese-issued bank card.
In June, the daily limit for Chinese citizens to withdraw foreign cash deposit from bank was reduced to $5,000 from $10,000. Many banks decline transaction requests by saying they lack sufficient foreign cash.
On October 10, the government issued its trial version of the “Anti-Money Laundering and Anti-Terrorism Financial Management Measures for Internet Financial Institutions” (《互联网金融从业机构反洗钱和反恐怖融资管理办法（试行）》). Per the Measures, customers who make trades with online financial institutions in excess of 50,000 yuan or foreign money worth more than $10,000 must have their transactions reported to the government.
As Beijing tightens the financial screws, Ms. Zhang has found herself being given the short end of the stick. “A lot of people, including me, are looking for relatives and friends we can give our renminbi (yuan) to, asking them to use their quota to exchange as many dollars as we can. But after making the exchanges, we run into a huge problem: how to remit the money overseas?”
She said that in order to bypass foreign exchange controls, ordinary Chinese use the “ant move” method to incrementally transfer their exchanges.
In addition to controlling foreign exchange transactions by individual citizens, the authorities also aim to limit capital movement on the part of private enterprises. Hu Liren (胡力任), a private entrepreneur living in the United States, said: “At present, China’s [private enterprises] foreign investment has basically stopped. Although there’s no law banning it, it has in fact stopped, because foreign investment requires a process, which in turn depends on government approval.”
Such policies started in 2017. In the first half of last year, China’s foreign direct investment fell by 40 percent, the first time since 2015 that it has decreased so sharply.
An extreme example is that in 2017, the Chinese government obstructed Wanda Group in the process of making a large-scale overseas merger and acquisition. The China Banking Regulatory Commission prohibited large state-owned banks from granting loans to Wanda for overseas M&A projects. At the same time, the authorities, making reference to private enterprise groups such as Wanda and Anbang, and forced them to sell their overseas assets and transfer the funds back to China.
The Chinese government has also used administrative measures to delay the withdrawal of foreign capital. In 2016, Deutsche Bank sold more than 3 billion euros of shares in China’s Huaxia Bank in China, but it took nearly a year before the money could be moved out of the country. In September of that year, when a large Japanese economic delegation visited China, its members made direct complaints about the procedural obstacles that Japanese companies faced when trying to withdraw capital.
The impetus for the rapidly tightening bureaucratic measures comes from the serious loss of foreign exchange capital in China in the past few years. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, during the two-year period from 2015 to 2016 — when losses of foreign exchanges reached a peak — capital outflows recorded in China’s international balance sheet reached $1.28 trillion.
It is a market truism that private enterprises and individuals convert their renminbi assets into U.S. dollars and transfer them abroad. This is the main reason for China’s capital loss. Ye Zhao (叶昭), a former finance journalist who lives in the United States, described four grades of capital outflows:
“Once a family makes a few million, it first sends its children abroad; if they make tens of millions, the whole family will emigrate. The ones with hundreds of millions will set up business overseas. If billionaires are leaving China, that means their decisions have are political, and it has become too difficult for them to do business in China.”
It can be said that entrepreneurs and common people have concocted brilliant schemes to transfers their assets abroad. In addition to the aforementioned “ant move” adopted by members of the middle class, private enterprises have funneled large amounts of funds out of China chiefly by means of foreign investment and “underground money houses.” The two giants, Anbang and Wanda, took out loans from Chinese banks and used the money to buy up large amounts of overseas assets.
Ye Zhao said: “I have been in touch with these entrepreneurs. Speaking directly, they told me that one of their motivations is to explore business opportunities that might be available overseas, and the other is to have an escape route in case they are implicated during the investigation of some corrupt official.”
Ye Zhao’s words point to a fundamental dilemma among private enterprises operating in China. Since the marketization of the economy, China’s private enterprises have been carrying a so-called “original sin,” namely, that in order to flourish, they have no choice but to resort to illegal means including tax evasion and illicit collusion with officialdom. These illegal acts and their potential legal consequences have become the “Sword of Damocles” hanging over the heads of many entrepreneurs.
Recent changes in China’s political and economic situation have squeezed the private sector. Since 2011, China’s economy has been in a downward spiral, with domestic consumption sluggish and the market running out of space for expansion. Private enterprises face many obstacles such as high tax burdens and difficulty in acquiring loans.
Meanwhile, the trend of “the state advances, the private sector retreats” (国进民退) has become increasingly prominent, and the living space of private enterprises has been gradually eroded by state-owned enterprises. Earlier this year, someone even opined that private enterprises should be eradicated. The difficult environment has forced private companies to seek overseas investment.
The Chinese middle class is feeling likewise constrained. Kai Wen (凯文), who has long been engaged in business between China and the United States, believes that “whether in terms of education, clean air and clean water, and food safety, China cannot meet the demands of its emerging middle class, who want more security in their lives. So they have taken matters into their own hands.”
As companies and individuals flock to transfer their assets overseas, the PoBC intervened in the foreign exchange market in order to hedge capital outflows and maintain the exchange rate, which caused China’s foreign exchange reserves to fall from their peak of nearly $4 trillion in June 2014 to less than $3 trillion in January 2017. The sharp drop in foreign exchange reserves has set off alarms bells in the Chinese government.
Foreign exchange reserves are seen in China as a financial buffer for turbulent times. Although Beijing’s foreign reserves dropping below $3 trillion has little real impact on the Chinese economy, Cheng Xiaonong (程晓农), a U.S.-based commentator, believes that it will cause the government a host of other problems. “Part of China’s economic security is the demand for foreign imports. If China loses the reserves it needs to import goods, oil and food prices will present a massive dilemma. Therefore, retention of these three trillions is something the Chinese government keeps a close watch on.”
The loss of foreign exchange reserves would also lead to an accelerated depreciation of the renminbi and an increase in the chances of triggering a financial crisis.
Xia Ming (夏明), a professor of political science at the City University of New York, believes that, “the Chinese government is very worried that if there are insufficient foreign exchange reserves to serve as a protective firewall, the national currency might come under attack, the economy may experience turbulence, and that this could even lead to regime collapse.”
The decline in China’s foreign exchange reserves has directed public attention to their real composition. According to the China Administration of Foreign Exchange, as of March 2018, China’s foreign exchange reserves were worth $3.11 trillion US dollars, while China’s balance of foreign debt was $1.84 trillion. This means that more than half of China’s foreign exchange reserves must be reserved for repaying foreign debts, and are not true assets.
At the same time, about half of China’s foreign exchange reserves exist in the form of US dollar bonds, which are not easily realized at any time. This kind of bad composition has added to public concerns about Chinese foreign reserves.
Along with the decline of foreign exchanges, there is also the risk of brain drain, said Hu Liren. “China has reached a period of great risk in terms of human resources, and many people have emigrated. There are still many [talented] people in the country, but their children have emigrated. The Chinese government does not want these thoughtful and intelligent people to leave, but it is difficult to change the current political status in China.”
The Chinese government’s moves to exercise stricter control over its foreign reserves have greatly slowed the momentum of capital loss. According to a report released this February by the Washington-based International Finance Association, the net outflow of China’s capital in 2017 was 60 billion US dollars, just a tenth of the $640 in outflows recorded in 2016.
Chinese financial scholar He Jiangbing (贺江兵) has applied the Mundellian impossible trinity, of Nobel Prize fame, to explain China’s foreign exchange controls:
“Among the three ‘impossibles,’ the first is the independence of monetary policy, the second is the relative stability of the currency exchange rate, and the third is the free flow of capital. Of these, you can only choose two.”
In other words, China has no choice but to impose strong controls on foreign exchange if it wants to maintain independent monetary policy and a relatively stable currency exchange rate.
This kind of foreign exchange control is useful for settling financial balances, as well as keeping the exchange rate and domestic prices stable. But at the same time, the burden it places on some classes is considerable. “Who is to bear the consequences?,” said a rather emotional Ms. Zhang. “I feel it’s us members of the middle class who are being hit hardest by these strict foreign exchange controls.”
Foreign exchange control not only puts unreasonable pressures on enterprises and citizens: the Chinese government’s restrictions on foreign companies remitting profits to their parent firms have done tremendous damage to the country’s credit.
Jacob Parker, vice president and head of China Operations at the US-China Business Council, said last year that as the United States lowered its corporate tax rates, some members of the Council expressed their desire to quickly bring back the profits they received in China, so as to minimize the risk of capital controls.
The serious loss of foreign exchange reserves and the urgency of foreign exchange control reflect a tandem battle between the Chinese government and civil society being fought in the context of economic downturn and political totalitarianism. When the people lack trust in the government and want to avoid political and economic crisis, they vote with their feet. At the same time, the stubbornness of the political system manifests itself in high-pressure policies that grab civil liberties by the throat in order to maintain control.
Beijing’s foreign exchange controls give us but a glimpse of the reality in China, where political and economic pressures have been compounded by the U.S.-China trade war. Whispers of the “China collapse theory” are getting louder as the struggle between the Chinese state and the people heats up in different arenas and on different levels.
Signs of China (1), September 16, 2018.
Signs of China (2), September 22, 2018.
Signs of China (3), September 30, 2018.
Signs of China (4), October 8, 2018.