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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.
China Change, November 6, 2018
Teng Biao interviewed Prof. Stein Ringen on August 2, 2018 and October 5 via Skype. Stein Ringen is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Oxford and Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London. Teng Biao is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, New York University and a Chinese human rights lawyer. – The Editors
Teng Biao (TB): I think your book, The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, is one of the best books on Chinese politics in recent years. Is this your first book on China? What inspired you to study China?
Stein Ringen (SR): First, I’m interested in governments and states and how they work. This is the biggest and most challenging one. So if you want to understand states you need to understand the Chinese state, and so there’s the challenge. The other reason is that I had already done a study of the South Korean state. And I thought that the developmental states’ experience of Korea might be a relevant background for looking into the Chinese story. I thought it might be rather similar. In fact, it turned out that the Chinese story is very, very different.
TB: Yes, and then you wrote the book The Perfect Dictatorship. Why did you choose this title?
SR: I found that it is a dictatorship that is, from its own point of view, functioning very well. It is a dictatorship that is in full control. So my idea with the title was not to praise the Chinese system but to give a warning that this is a dictatorship that is very hard, and very much in control.
TB: In your book you created some interesting concepts, like “controlocracy.” What do you want to suggest by creating this term?
SR: The idea was, on the one hand, to say that this is a regime that is dictatorial, but in a way that sometimes it doesn’t even look dictatorial. It is obsessed with being in control. It is not obsessed with dictating everyone in their daily lives. It’s not like under Mao that people have to dress in a certain way or like certain forms of entertainment. But, it is in control. So control is the commanding feature of this dictatorship and it is very good at keeping and staying in control. The party-state is everywhere. It sees everything and knows everything, and they are in their very big population in perfect control.
TB: Another thought-provoking term in your book is “sophisticated totalitarianism.” In a piece I wrote recently for ChinaFile, I cited your term and elaborated on it a bit. I wrote: “This totalitarianism is strict and refined without being brittle and dogmatic; it’s cruel and barbaric without being chaotic. China’s booming economy, social stability, and apparent popular support for Xi have fooled both the world and most Chinese citizens.” What’s your view on the difference between this “sophisticated totalitarianism” and Stalin or Mao Zedong-style total control system? Is this system more adaptable, flexible and resilient, than traditional totalitarianism? Is the CCP able to learn from the collapse of other party-state dictatorships and maintain its own monopoly on power for quite a long time, say 40 or 50 years?
SR: It’s not acceptable. It is a very hard dictatorship and is therefore an unacceptable form of government. But they are very clever in making themselves look acceptable. I think both within China, but also in the outside world. As you know, people keep travelling to China and when they come back they are starry-eyed in admiration of the delivery of the system. So they are very much able to control their own narrative both at home and abroad. And, of course, they have learned very much from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which in Beijing was studied very carefully. And they understood the weaknesses in the Soviet Union that they had to prevent at home. These are, for example, to never lose control of the narrative, to always consolidate the alliance between the Party and the military, to maintain surveillance and propaganda and censorship ruthlessly, and to never let go, and also to not allow factions in the Party system. This they learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union and they are determined that there shall not be a similar kind of collapse in the Chinese system.
TB: Former Singapore UN ambassador Kishore Mahbubani once said that every year tens of millions of Chinese people travel internationally and then they voluntarily go back to China. He used this as a strong example to praise the so-called “China Model.” What do you think are the reasons? Do you agree with that?
SR: Many Chinese are traveling. Mainly, I think, because they can afford it; they have enough money to be able to travel internationally. We know that very much in Europe, for example, that there are very many Chinese tourists who travel here. They go back. On the other hand, there are many people in China who leave the country either because they have to, you know something about that, or because they wish to send their children to education outside of China. They try to bring their own money out of China to invest it and secure it outside of China. So many of those who are able, are showing with their behavior that they do not have much confidence in the future of the Chinese regime. The idea that the Chinese regime is better, the Chinese model is better than a democratic model, for example, is a very powerful narrative from the regime’s side. But we need to keep priorities right here. It is not a system that is better just because it delivers development, because it does that at the cost of depriving all Chinese of freedom. We know about authoritarian, totalitarian regimes previously, and that is the main characteristic of this regime. It is to the benefit of some, but it deprives everyone of liberty and freedom.
TB: Relatedly, George Orwell’s 1984 was famously regarded as a perfect dictatorship, do you think China’s “controlocracy” is equal to 1984, or is it even an advanced version of 1984? And I also used the term “technical totalitarianism” to analyze the advanced version of totalitarianism in China, with such examples as networked “stability maintenance,” big data, street cameras, facial recognition, voiceprint recognition, artificial intelligence, DNA collection, strengthening of the secret police, the Great Firewall, etc. Are we exaggerating the ability of the dictators’ use of high-tech? Aren’t high-tech and new tools a double-edged sword that can be utilized by civil society or resisters as well?
SR: Yes, China is very much like Orwell’s warning, including in the control of language, control of history, control of the narrative. But they have moved on because they now have technologies that Orwell could not even imagine at the time. And these technologies, these modern technologies, are being used for control in a very sophisticated way by the Chinese authorities. They are in control of the Internet. It was long thought to be obvious that no dictatorship can control the Internet. But the Chinese dictatorship is in control of it. They are actively using the Internet by engineering the stories that circulate. They are using other technologies, big data systems, facial recognition. All of this in order to control what is happening in their country. I mean this is now very advanced, particularly in Xinjiang, which is a police state of the kind that has never been seen previously. In the last few years, as you well know, the security budgets in that province have doubled year by year. And the control, explicit control there, by old-fashioned means –– police and military forces –– and modern means –– electronic surveillance, is still a kind that has never been seen previously. There has never been control of this kind anywhere in any country before, like the way we see now. We now see it unrolling in China.
TB: You know I was a human rights lawyer for 14 years in mainland China. Harshly speaking, during Hu Jintao’s era, we had some space to develop our human rights movement. And we felt that the Internet-related technology were more in favor of the civil society than the government, even though we knew both the human rights communities and the rulers made use of high tech. Now it seems that we should not be that optimistic.
SR: You know better than I do. The community of human rights lawyers has suffered very badly in China in the last several years. What was at one time, you say, a movement is now really crushed, and it has become very much more difficult for your brave colleagues to continue their work in China. Many have their businesses shut down. Many have been imprisoned, persecuted in other ways, and their ability to stay in touch with each other has been reduced very strongly. So it’s a very sad story what’s happened to that brave community. This is a story you know better than I do, but it is very hard to watch from the outside. There was a vibrant, brave community of lawyers, and they have really been taken down.
TB: Yes. The 709 crackdown on rights lawyers is the worst crackdown on lawyers since the legal system was reconstructed in 1978 after the Cultural Revolution.
TB: Most people know that China is one of the most unfree countries, but forget China is also one of the most unequal countries. How does this inequality affect the CCP’s political legitimacy? Or is it a necessity of the one-party rule of the Communist Party?
SR: Well, in my book about China, I looked at both inequality, poverty and public services. And I looked at taxes. I found that the tax burden of the Chinese people is very, very high. What is returned to the people in the form of services is minimal. Inequality has been increasing very rapidly. So now China is one of the most unequal societies in the world. And I think this is part of the reason for the dictatorship, because these are realities that could not be maintained under a democratic system ––the combination of very heavy taxes and very inferior services. It just doesn’t always look like that to observers, but that is the way it is. So the system, the political economy, extracts enormous resources from households and returns to the household sector a system of rising inequality. That is explosive in any society and is part of the reason why this regime needs to maintain such draconian controls as they do.
TB: The ideology of Marxism-Communism-Maoism has gradually declined in China. The CCP, and most Chinese people believe in money and power. How does this shift influence the CCP’s rule? Is this the reason why Xi Jinping tried to resort to a return to ideology and a cult of personality?
SR: Yes, among the innovations of Xi Jinping is the reintroduction of ideology, but now not Marxist ideology, but a strongly nationalistic ideology. His slogan of the “China Dream” and all that is a nationalistic narrative. So here we have a regime that is very strong, very dictatorial that is giving itself guidance by an ideology of nationalism and chauvinism. These are Xi Jinping’s innovations, the heart of his relentless movements of the regime into a heavier and heavier dictatorship.
TB: You mentioned nationalism. You know when the Chinese Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China, they strongly — and successfully — utilized nationalism. Theoretically, nationalism is in conflict with Marxist theory—i.e., communism and internationalism. So, from the beginning, paradoxically, the CCP employed a mix of Marxism and nationalism, and now maybe they feel they need more nationalism. Do you agree with that?
SR: Yes I do. I think that part of the regime’s efforts to control the narrative is that they need an ideological superstructure. They need a story of purpose for the regime, and for the nation. And that they are now finding not in Marxist internationalism but in Chinese nationalism. And that story of nationalism has been notched up very strongly and very explicitly by Xi Jinping. This is again part of the control system. This is a regime that gives itself the praise that they have the support of the people, but at the same time, it never ever trusts in the support of the people. So they never relax controls even though they say that they are governing in such a way that they have the support of the people. They do not for one moment trust that that support is genuine. So they rely on controls.
TB::Some scholars noticed the similarity between the current Xi Jinping regime and Hitler’s Third Reich. The one-party rule and the total control of society. Ideology, propaganda, brainwashing, nationalism. What happened in Xinjiang is race discrimination, mass detention and cultural elimination, secret police and the cult of personality. So in your opinion, how possible is it that China’s political system goes toward fascism in the future?
SR: Well it’s a system that has very many characteristics of fascism in it now. Important in that statement is the use of ideology. Deng Xiaoping and his followers presented themselves as non-ideological, just pragmatists, engineers of economic progress. That is all gone, and the regime is back to ideology. So it is a dictatorship that is very hard. I now call it a totalitarian system. It is a totalitarian system that is informed by ideology and that ideology is nationalistic. These are characteristics of fascist rule. Now, I think, we should always be aware that the Chinese system is very much of its own kind. It’s very different from anything else, but it is a system that has taken very clear likenesses with the characteristics of fascism under the rule of Xi Jinping.
This regime does not present itself to the world as a bully in the way, for example, Putin’s Russia does. It is a bullying state. Ask democracy activists, who routinely get beaten up. Ask human rights lawyers, who are now pretty much forbidden from practicing. Ask the people of Xinjiang, now a horrific police state, complete with a vast network of concentration camps. Ask international corporations that are forced to humiliate themselves and pay tribute if they want to do business, or governments in smaller countries if they want collaboration. Or ask neighboring countries around the South China Sea. But it is also a state with the clout and skill to disguise its bullying side and make itself look sophisticatedly elegant.
TB: In a recent letter, you were publicly calling for China analysts to describe China as a totalitarian, not an authoritarian state. It aroused interesting debates. In your opinion, what are the academic and non-academic reasons behind the reluctance to categorize China as totalitarian?
SR: I think there are now very few academic reasons for not categorizing the PRC as a totalitarian regime. I go by Hannah Arendt’s pioneering work and I think the PRC under Xi now fits the bill. The final straw has been the imposition of outright terror in Xinjiang.
In the debate following that open letter, there was much support for my position, but also, as you note, reluctance. Some of that reluctance is simple self-censorship. Many China scholars have invested their careers in work that requires being in China, having access to Chinese universities, archives and so on, and they cannot risk this being refused. That is understandable and I do not find it particularly upsetting. Another reason is what I have called “China fascination.” China, with its long history and rich culture, has an uncanny ability to fascinate. I think some academics in the field really wish for the best for China and the Chinese people and are for that reason reluctant to accept so negative a label as “totalitarian.” I think this kind of reluctance is misplaced, but also understandable. Related is a view that China is unique and that it is, therefore, too crude to apply a categorization that puts the Chinese regime in the same class as various other unpalatable regimes.
I should add that when I speak about totalitarianism in China it is of course the regime I am talking about and not the country, the culture or the people.
TB: You had analyzed the Chinese state as “trivial”. How “trivial”–– in your context, it means having no purpose beyond itself ––is the Chinese state? F.A. Hayek emphasized the “purposelessness” of a state. How should we understand the difference between purposelessness and triviality?
SR: I thought that one kind of dictatorship could be called “trivial” in the sense that it is nothing but control for the sake of control. There is no mission, no idea. I do not think that applies to the Chinese system, certainly not now. There is now a mission; there is an ideology, a vision of what this is for, and that vision is for China to regain its position as the Middle Kingdom in the world. This is a very ambitious idea that gives the dictatorship a purpose that makes it–– in my terminology––more than trivial. It makes it an ideological system, a system with a strong purpose of its own definition.
TB: So you mean Deng Xiaoping had no big ideology, and his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, had less ideology, and Xi Jinping has more ambition to “make China great again?”
SR: I mean that may have been the ambition all along. Deng Xiaoping perhaps understood that it would take time before China had the economic and other powers to really accept the ambition of making itself the central power in the world. Now, they have the economic and other powers. And they are hard at work in making China the dominant power in the world.
TB: Some people argue that Xi Jinping’s personal dictatorship is a collective choice of the Communist Party, when it is facing comprehensive crises –– political, financial, and ideological crises. Do you agree?
SR: There’s always one branch of thinking about the Chinese system that says that it is in crisis. As you know, people have been predicting that it would collapse for a long time, but that hasn’t happened. I think it’s a system with many tensions in it. And I think Xi Jinping made his first mistake from his own point of view, his first mistake, when he had the time limits on the presidency abolished earlier this year. That was a mistake, because it wasn’t necessary. It was a display of power that was demonstrative; it pulled aside the curtain for the rest of the world to see that this is a ruthless dictatorship where the top man can change the constitution by flicking his fingers, and it exposed the inner conflicts in the regime. Of course, there are disagreements and conflicts within that regime. And this step by Xi Jinping was demonstrative towards anyone who is not firmly within his camp, and he gives those others a motivation for organizing factional activity. We see some signs of that now, so I think this was a mistake on the part of Xi Jinping. He undermined, to some degree, his own position. And he let himself become the victim of the hubris of too much power.
So he committed a great mistake, in my opinion, and that mistake has followed through to some tensions within the system. Those tensions are now being stimulated by what is seen as not strong enough economic growth, and so on. So there are now visible signs of tension. That tension has been stimulated by Xi Jinping’s mistake. I think this was really the first mistake he did in his first five years. Otherwise, he has been consolidating power and cohesion within the system. And suddenly he took a step that undermined some of the “achievements” that he had made in his first years. However, I do not think this is a system on its own terms that is in any way in crisis. The control is very, very strong, and the strengthening of control that has happened under Xi Jinping is in anticipation of difficulties with economic growth, for example.
TB: Relatedly, will Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaigns hurt the dynamic or motivation of the CCP cadres? As to the totalitarian dynamic, like interest, ideology, nationalism, brainwashing, violence, or fear, will they be exhausted in China or elsewhere?
SR: The anti-corruption campaign has had two intended results, I think. One is to make the regime look more attractive in the eyes of many Chinese people. There have been improvements in the corruption environment. So most Chinese are now less exposed to arbitrary corruption than they have been previously, or at least, they have seen improvements in that respect. The other result is that it has been a powerful weapon of power, control within the system. When everyone is corrupt, anyone who needs to be taken down can be taken down in the name of corruption. So under the auspices of the corruption campaign, Xi Jinping and the other leaders have been able to eliminate anyone within the system whom they’ve seen as not approving of them, or are seen as in anyway threatening. These “achievements,” dictatorial achievements, have been notable in the anti-corruption campaign. It has worked in both respects. It’s a remarkable system in the way it gives itself credit for liberating the people from the miseries that it, itself, has imposed on them.
TB: Some Chinese people, I think, are unhappy with the anti-corruption campaigns, even though they feel good once some corrupt government officials are arrested or sentenced, or even executed. But first, some privileged families are not affected. Most of the privileged families, those very high-level families, are not affected, like Deng Xiaoping or Li Peng’s families. And second, more and more Chinese people realize that this kind of corruption is embedded in the political system. It exists everywhere and is systematic. So what’s the next step of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign? Will the anti-corruption campaign influence Xi Jinping’s political agenda?
SR: As I see it, I think the anti-corruption campaign has done its work. You know, we hear much less about it now than previously. I think there is less ordinary workday corruption. So it’s done its work, cleaning up a bit, in the daily lives of many people. Many potential opponents of the regime have been eliminated, so I think it’s really done its work. As I understand it, it goes on, but now it’s more of a routine. It’s not a big show anymore. I think it’s mainly had its time; it has run its course. And it does not have the prominence in the regime’s self-presentation as it did for a while. I’ve no doubt it will continue, but it is not the central instrument that it once was.
TB: Samuel Huntington distinguished performance legitimacy from procedural legitimacy; and A. John Simmons made an even clearer theoretical distinction between legitimacy and justification, arguing that recognition, through free elections, is the only source of modern legitimacy. In the context of post-Mao Chinese politics, is “performance legitimacy” enough for the regime’s political legitimacy?
SR: Well, not in the opinion of the leaders themselves. They do not trust that they are seen as legitimate, so this is why they never relax controls. They praise themselves for the delivery to the people. They praise themselves for the gratitude that they are getting back from the people. But they never trust that they are seen genuinely to be legitimate, so they always fall back on control — never relaxing controls and always maintaining controls. No genuine trust that there is genuine legitimacy.
TB: Has the world had second thoughts about China after Xi Jinping removed the presidential term limit from the Constitution? Is the image of China changing in light of the facts of the deteriorating human rights situation, failure to abide by WTO rules and UN norms, even the CCP’s abduction of dissidents on foreign soil? You know the Gui Minhai case, a Chinese publisher with a Swedish passport who was kidnapped in Thailand and sent back to China and detained. So can we say that the presumption many people accepted, that is, that a market economy and globalization would lead China to become a democratic, open society, has been proven wrong?
SR: Yes, I think so. It is now very difficult for anyone in the world to escape the recognition that in China there is a hard dictatorship. It’s a dictatorship that in many ways is good for business. Many people are fascinated with China and want to see the good in the system. But the development under Xi Jinping clarified to the rest of the world that this is a hard dictatorship. This is not a mild, benevolent autocracy; this is a hard dictatorship. I think the regime has brought upon itself a more difficult evaluation from the outside world.
TB: Have you seen many scholars, Beijing watchers, start to rethink the assumption that the market economy and globalization will guide China to become a liberal democracy?
SR: I mean this was a strong theory for a while. But it is not a theory that anyone subscribes to anymore. In the long run, we do not know. In the immediate future, it’s clear that this is not a system that is on a path towards a more open society. It’s a system that, for the last five or six years under Xi Jinping, has been on a very clear road towards tighter dictatorial controls. In a way, it is moving politically in the opposite direction than was previously assumed because of its economic development. Economic progress, and political regression –– this was not thought to be possible previously. We are seeing in China that this is possible. It’s possible for the country to modernize economically and to regress politically towards an increasingly hard dictatorship.
TB: For the past two decades or so, there has been a return to totalitarianism, the expansion of authoritarian influence, in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and, of course, China, and some countries in South America. What’s behind this phenomenon?
SR: I think that there are, at least, some very clever dictators out there. Vladmir Putin in Russia is from his own point of view a clever operator. I think also there is a problem on the democratic side that democracies have been functioning quite poorly in many ways in recent years after the global crash. In 2007-2008, the democracies had not really managed to govern in a way that seemed to be beneficial to most people. And to be fair, I think we are seeing a revolt against what is perceived to be inadequate governance in the democratic countries, in particular, in the United States and in Britain. So that is weakening the democratic side. Why the autocratic side is strengthening, for someone like myself, that is a source of great concern and sadness in the world. And, I think, we on the democratic side really need to get our own house in order and to step up and to see that there have been real shortcomings in the way we are managing our affairs. That’s true in much of Europe and the European Union. It’s true in America. We really need to step up and do better than we have been doing.
TB: What’s your view about Francis Fukuyama’s claim (deepening a tradition of Hegel and Kojève) that liberal democracy is the end of history?
SR: Well, the history of democracy is not a very encouraging one; it was invented 2500 years ago but we have had very little democracy since then, so it’s possible that democracy will not survive. And right now, there is, for my tastes, too much admiration of autocratic strength and not enough appreciation of democratic liberty. And what I’m, in modest ways, trying to do is to encourage the understanding of the importance for our way of life of democratic governance. I think again, we need to step up and to do better in the democratic world.
TB: When Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chinese government tried to punish Norway with “Salmon politics.” My personal experience is that the American Bar Association rescinded my book proposal for fear of angering the Chinese government, and some universities canceled my scheduled talks to avoid the risk of infuriating Beijing. In Hong Kong, China has torn up the “one country, two systems” commitment and the Sino-British Declaration. Hong Kong’s freedom is in danger and the UK has remained silent to a great extent. From your point of view as a Norwegian scholar living in the UK, is the policy of “buying silence” successful? What should the world do to fight the growing aggressiveness of the CCP?
SR: Yes, the policy of buying silence is successful. This is sad to say, but it’s the case. You see that in my own country, as you mentioned, in Norway, they have normalized relations with China on the condition, in writing on paper, that the Norwegian government shall do nothing to disturb the new normal relations between the two countries–– a commitment to silence. And in Britain, the authorities here want Chinese investments for various purposes. They are silent. So severe human rights abuses that occur in China, they go on without much mention in the rest of the world. What we should do, I think, is to continue to be in contact and collaboration with Chinese people and Chinese authorities. For example, in the academic world where I operate, we should continue to be in contact. But, we, and our governments, should at the same time speak, in clear language, about the Chinese regime’s transgressions against human rights and the regime’s aggression in international politics. This happens to some degree but it does not happen as clearly and straightforwardly as I think it should, given the harshness of the Chinese dictatorship. And I think the democratic countries should collaborate and find some kind of common voice against the excesses in dictatorship and aggression from the Chinese side; we should speak with clear language.
TB: China is playing a more and more active and aggressive role on the international stage, and shapes the international order. How far will China go on the way to influencing the international order? Or how possible is it for the West to give up its appeasement policy toward China, before it is too late?
SR: I’m very pessimistic about all of this. I think that the Chinese regime is, by and large, able to control the narrative, and they are widely regarded to be a positive influence in the world as they present themselves. This is for many reasons; partly it is for reasons of self-censorship. Many of us have interests in China, economic interests, interests in being able to do research, for example, and we exercise self-censorship. So there is no common voice from the democratic side in response to Chinese totalitarianism.
TB: To what extent does the CCP in foreign affairs, represent the interests of China and the Chinese people, and to what extent does it represent only the Party itself, every diplomatic choice is aiming to maintain its one-party rule and the interest of the privileged?
SR: I always start from the basic premise that the PRC is a political project. Policies, domestic and foreign, are always designed to the perpetuation of the party-state. In foreign policy, that includes making this party-state ever more influential and dominant on the world stage. Is it in the interest of the Chinese people that the party-state gains in strength? I would say no, since it is not in the interest of the Chinese people that the dictatorship becomes stronger and more invincible. However, the nationalistic narrative of “national rejuvenation” no doubt has resonance in much of the population. This dictatorship, as many others, finds nationalism a strategically useful card.
TB: So these are my questions, do you have other comments before we wrap up?
SR: I know that many China observers always see signs that things are cracking in the Chinese regime. The economics are not performing well enough. There is disagreement within the regime, and so on. Personally, I think that the right description is to see this as a regime that is in control and that we can expect very little improvement in that respect in the foreseeable future. So I’m deeply pessimistic about any movement on the Chinese side towards a more open society, and a more collaborative profile in international relations. I think, on the contrary, it’s increasing control domestically and increasing its quest for domination internationally.
TB: Thank you very much, Professor Ringen.
Also by Teng Biao on China Change:
Politics of the Death Penalty in China, January 16, 2014.
The Confessions of a Reactionary, August 27, 2013.
Yaxue Cao, October 18, 2018
Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, is a small liberal arts college with around 2500 students. The Campus Center is the central meeting place with a bookstore, a cafe, a post office, computer terminals, a small auditorium, lounge areas and art exhibit space. On October 1, a photo exhibit was mounted along the hallways of the center. It is called, adopting a well-known Mao Zedong quote, “Weightier Than Mount Tai, Lighter Than a Feather: Human Rights Experience of Chinese Contemporary Art.”
Featuring ten artists (all but two lived in China), the exhibit includes photographs, conceptual compositions, negative images of Tiananmen Square in 1989, and photographs that depict a wide range of life in China: the student movement in Beijing, migrant workers in the slums outside Beijing, prostitutes and homesexuals. Photographs of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014 and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan the same year are also on display. It is a traveling exhibit and was first shown at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. It ends on October 19 at Bard.
On October 3, Siyuan Min (闵思渊), who goes by the name ‘Frederick S. Min,’ a political science major and chair of the Chinese Student Organization on campus, wrote a long letter to one of the two curators of the exhibit, Patricia Keretzky. Keretzky is Oskar Munsterberg Lecturer in Art History and author of more than 10 books about Chinese art, religious and secular, medieval and contemporary. From his letter, we gathered that the exhibit stirred quite a bit of sentiment from a WeChat group that consisted of current Chinese students at Bard, recent graduates and visiting scholars from China. In his letter to Ms. Keretzy, Mr. Min summed up this “vibrant and highly intellectual conversation” on WeChat, China’s popular but heavily censored and surveilled online messaging platform.
The community of Chinese students (currently over 100) and scholars at Bard took issue with the exhibit on three points: the topic, the date and the offensiveness of it.
They objected to the sensitive nature of the topic, singling out “the images of protests,” “an armed person waving a gun in front of Mao Zedong,” and “a Statue of Liberty photoshopped to be on Tiananmen Square where the Monument to the People’s Heroes actually stand(s),” the last of which implying that the two symbols of struggle contravene each other.
They took issue with the date. Why launch the exhibit on October 1, our National Day, “the equivalent of July 4th”? When “a rather reckless man insisted on attending a military drill” on the Serbian national day, he said, a diplomatic crisis ensued causing World War I. He then walked back a little bit from the parallel between Archduke Franz Ferdinand causing World War I with his assassination and the two curators provoking Chinese students at Bard, but we get the idea: it’s a grievous provocation.
Mr. Min went on conveying how Chinese students felt: they feel ‘ambushed’ by such an exhibit at the student center; they feel embarrassed when asked questions by their curious American friends; their pride in their nationality is hurt; they feel “a certain sense of betrayal” because at Bard the atmosphere has been “pluralistic yet always respectful.”
So the photo exhibit is a deviation from the pluralistic and respectful atmosphere at Bard according to this junior. When Chinese students at the University of California San Diego opposed the Dalai Lama giving the commencement speech, they applied the same awkward, brain teaser logic.
Because of the exhibit, the Chinese students and scholars feel, Min went on, judged by “our nationality, our ethnics, the history of our country or the policies of our government.”
But isn’t it the case that the Chinese students and scholars have all these hurt feelings precisely because they themselves identify with the repressive regime, with the policies of the Chinese government and its political sensibilities? They do not seem to recognize that each and every Chinese citizen has the right not to identify with the government. As a political science student, young Mr. Min should know better.
In reply, Ms. Keretzky invited the junior and the Chinese students to come to the screening of dissident films by Chinese artists and a roundtable discussion afterward on Saturday at the Campus Center. None of them came. She also ask Mr. Min to post her response on WeChat. I don’t know whether this has been done. I doubt it, because the words ‘human rights’ and the name ‘Liu Xiaobo’ will not pass through the censorship, even if Min tries to. I doubt he would try in the first place.
“I want to have a dialogue with the Chinese students on campus,” Wu Yuren (吴玉仁), a participating artist, said on Saturday at Bard. “This is a serious exhibit. In 2015, Patricia met with us in Beijing and we had a discussion about it. We know why we do this. Today’s China is undergoing a massive transformation, and artists have the acutest sense it. As freedom of speech is being choked off and art creation faces more and more restriction, it’s only natural that artists are going to express such repression.”
I asked Mr. Wu what would happen to these artists living in China, he said, they are used to regular police summons known as ‘drinking tea,’ forced evictions, and shutdowns of exhibits. “Under dictatorship, artists who explore its manifestations face big dangers.” Wu Yuren himself was detained for ten months in 2010 for using what they called the “rights defense performance art” to oppose forced demolition of art districts in Beijing where he and hundreds of artists had their studios.
“By the way,” he said at Bard, “I want to state a common sense here: October 1st is not the birthday of our motherland.”
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao, or follow China Change @chinachange_org
Yaxue Cao, October 15, 2018
On the morning of October 11, Ms. Pu Wenqing (蒲文清) arrived in Beijing accompanied by a couple of supporters. Ms. Pu is 85 years old, a retired doctor living in Neijiang, Sichuan province (四川内江市). As soon as she stepped off the train at Beijing West Railway Station, she spotted six people who had followed her all the way from Sichuan. In China, they are known as “jie fang renyuan” (截访人员), or local government workers whose job is to trail, stop and take back to their hometown petitioners who have gone to the capital on a quest for justice.
That is what brought Ms. Pu to Beijing –she was seeking justice for her son. With the help of activists, Ms. Pu got rid of her minders, but they kept texting her demanding to know her whereabouts.
In the afternoon, she went to the Ministry of Public Security and stood in line, along the gray wall encircling the Ministry’s compound, to submit documents detailing how the case against her son was a miscarriage of justice. Then she went to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and did the same.
Ms. Pu’s son Huang Qi (黄琦) is a renowned human rights activist who runs the website 64tianwang.com (六四天网) which reports human rights violations and social injustices. This is not the first time the 55-year-old Huang was in jail. An electronics engineer by training, he founded the 64tianwang website in 1999. He was arrested in 2000 for his human rights activities and sentenced to five years in prison. Following the Wenchuan earthquake in May, 2008, Huang Qi worked to provide humanitarian assistance to victims and at the same time wrote articles exposing shoddily constructed school buildings that killed thousands of children. In June 2008, he was arrested again for “illegally possessing state secrets” and later sentenced to three years in jail.
This time around, Huang Qi was arrested on November 28, 2016, for allegedly “illegally providing state secrets to overseas.”
The incident that led to the arrest of Huang Qi, Yang Xiuxiong (杨秀琼) and Chen Tianmao (陈天茂), ostensibly anyway, went like this: in early April 2016, at the office of a Neighborhood Committee in Youxian District, Mianyang city (绵阳市游仙区), a low-level communist cadre showed Chen a report by the Party’s Political and Legal Committee about Chen’s petition, and asked him to photograph it. Yang Xiuqiong passed on the information to Huang Qi. In April, Huang Qi ran an article on his website citing what that document says about the authorities’ “plans to crackdown on 64tianwang and Huang Qi.”
Such are the ‘state secrets’ and how they were ‘provided’ to overseas — the server of the website is overseas to prevent government hacking.
The ‘top secret’ document, as Ms. Pu would point out over and over again, has no red official heading; contains no label of ‘Secret’, no official markings or document codes, and no signature or date. “They fabricated this document to frame Huang Qi and jail him,” she said.
The same night the police took her son, a swarm of 20 plus policemen also came to Ms. Pu’s home, literally carried her off and shoved her into a car that took her first to the rural guesthouse and later to the 15th floor of Neijiang People’s Hospital where she had worked as a doctor of internal medicine until 1991. About ten people watched her in three shifts, 24/7, for nineteen days. They told other patients that she was a ‘political prisoner’ so that no one would dare to talk to her. When she was released nineteen days later, she found that her doorway was fitted with surveillance cameras and she had to get a locksmith to open her sabotaged door lock. Every time she came back from outside, someone would poke in to see who else was with her. One evening she sneaked out of her apartment in the dark and stayed the night with a friend. The next morning she got into a taxi and went into hiding in Chengdu, the provincial capital.
She hired two human rights lawyers for her son.
For eight months, lawyers were denied permission to meet with Huang Qi. Police told them that Huang’s case was a special one overseen by a special team; they were the ones who decided whether Huang Qi could see his lawyers.
Ms. Pu, anxious about her son’s health and whether he had been mistreated, sent an information request to the Sichuan provincial Department of Public Security and the Mianyang Municipal Bureau of Public Security, but got no answers. She wrote an open letter to Chinese leaders asking for medical parole for her son who suffers from a host of illnesses, including chronic nephritis.
At the end of July, 2017, lawyers finally met with Huang Qi for the first time since his detention eight months ago and learned about grueling interrogations that had lasted long hours and night watch that required Huang Qi to stand on his feet for six hours. At lunch after the meeting, everyone ate, but the mother who had accompanied the lawyers on each of their futile visits sat quietly and didn’t touch the food. She was despondent.
In the fall when the weather turned, she went to Mianyang again to deposit warm clothes and cash for Huang Qi.
On November 6, 2017, when lawyer Sui Muqing met with Huang Qi, the latter told him how two inmates had beaten him.
Ms. Pu couldn’t take it anymore. She embarked on a train all by herself and went to Beijing, where she mailed letters, postcards and documents to the Minister of Public Security, to the Ministry’s office for supervising police enforcement, and to the office that monitors official abuses at the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. She demanded that they correct the abuses and discipline the perpetrators. She met with foreign diplomats for help, pinning her hope on President Donald Trump who was visiting Beijing that week. She gave an interview to Radio Free Asia: “Investigation has concluded with Huang Qi’s case, but an officer continued to interrogate him, illegally, a dozen times and threatened 12-15 years of imprisonment in order to force Huang Qi to confess. Instructed by detention center officials, two inmates beat Huang Qi repeatedly.” Huang Qi was denied treatment, and wasn’t allowed to spend money deposited for him by his mother and supporters – all to break him and force him to admit guilt.
He reportedly told the interrogators that if they forced him, instead of a confession, they would get his dead body.
On January 15, 2018, Huang Qi was indicted by the Mianyang municipal procuratorate. In the months followed, Ms. Pu filed requests with the court in Mianyang and the superior court of the province for an open trial. She supported her son in sueing Tencent – the company that provided Huang Qi’s private communication with Yang Xiuqiong which was used as evidence against both of them. When the CCP Central Committee’s disciplinary team visited Sichuan, she submitted letters to them reporting the misconducts of the police and prosecutors in Sichuan, and asked for the release of her son. She submitted an application for her son’s medical parole to the Mianyang Intermediate Court. On Mother’s Day of this year, she appealed to Chinese leaders to correct the wrongdoings of the local authorities.
By mid-year, the trial neared and still the lawyers were denied permission to see the so-called “top secret documents.” Ms. Pu feared that the authorities, with the intent to keep Huang Qi locked up, would convict Huang Qi without even showing the documents during the hearing. She requested that the Sichuan Public Security re-evaluate the “secret documents.”
The trial, scheduled for June 20, was canceled. By then Huang Qi has been detained for nearly nineteen months without trial, beyond the statutory limitation for pretrial detention.
In late June, Ms. Pu mailed a complaint to China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate in Beijing refuting the nature of the “secret documents” and asking the body to correct the mistakes of the local judiciary and release her son.
In mid-August, three officials from her former employer Neijiang People’s Hospital visited her. They told her that higher level leaders had asked them to come to check on her.
Scribbling on her cellphone laboriously, she wrote one open letter after another, arguing point by point what a sham the case against Huang Qi was, and how it was a deliberate act to imprison Huang Qi. “How is a petitioner’s letter to the government a top national secret?” She asked. “If the neighborhood director who had given the document to Chen Tianmao is still going to work every day and wasn’t charged with leaking secrets, how are those who received the document ‘leaking secrets?’”
It is indeed a deliberate act, and it is part of a broader campaign to wipe out rights advocacy websites in China. In June 16, 2016, Lu Yuyu (卢昱宇) and Li Tingyu (李婷玉) were arrested in Dali, Yunnan. They ran the 非新闻 (Non-News) website that searched, collated, and published information about mass protests across China. Lu has since been sentenced to four years in prison on charges of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” In Suizhou, Hubei, Liu Feiyue, the founder and editor of minsheng guancha, or Civil Rights & Livelihood Watch, was arrested in November, 2016. He was tried in August for “inciting subversion of state power” after 20 months in detention. No verdict has been delivered. Also in November, 2016, citizen journalist Sun Lin (孙林), known for videotaping human rights activism, was arrested in Nanjing, and has since been tried and sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” and “illegal possession of firearms.” In September, 2017, Zhen Jianghua (甄江华), the founder and editor of hrcchina.org website, was arrested. He has been denied legal counsel, and recently there were reports that he had been secretly tried.
In late September, lawyer Liu Zhengqing (刘正清) received a reply from the Mianyang Public Security, denying his request for Huang Qi’s medical records. The records, it reads, “do not fall within the scope of free government information.”
On October 8, lawyer Li Jinglin visited Huang Qi and learned that his condition had deteriorated. He suffers pain and swollenness and decreased urination. The detention center has kept the testing results from him. Based on her son’s description, Ms. Pu believes that Huang Qi is showing symptoms of late term uremia which is life threatening without treatment.
On October 9, Ms. Pu, accompanied by lawyer Li, went to see Judge Zhou who presides over Huang Qi’s case. At the entrance, court bailiffs grabbed her arms and prevented her from going in. She shouted, “My son Huang Qi is gravely ill! Give him medical parole!”
On October 11, she came to Beijing again with a renewed urgency.
On October 13, a decision by the prosecutors to bring more charges against Huang Qian was made public. It was mailed to lawyer Liu Zhengqing in Guangzhou via EMS and it was dated September 12. But one can never be sure that was the real date, and if it was, no explanation has been made as why the lawyers were not notified sooner. In addition to charges of “illegally providing national secrets to overseas,” Huang Qi is now also charged with “leaking national secrets.” “Given that Huang Qi is a repeated offender,” the revised indictment says, “he will be subjected to more severe punishment.”
So, what is going on? Instead of addressing the 85-year-old mother’s appeals, the Chinese government has just raised the stake higher for her and for her son.
They won’t release him, and they want to stop her.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao, or follow China Change @ChinaChange_org.
Matthew Robertson, October 11, 2018
China’s rapidly expanding interest in researching and applying artificial intelligence has been widely noted. Last year, the Chinese government published a plan to become a world leader in the field by the end of the next decade; billions of dollars are being funnelled into AI startups; and China is competing head-to-head with industry in the United States on the cutting edge of the field.
What makes AI developments in China so different from those in the United States, however, is that as with any technology, if it can be used by the Chinese Communist Party to strengthen its grip on power or further its panoptistate, it will.
This is almost a truism, of course, and military adoption of new technologies applies just as well to the U.S.
The real difference is that in China, exploitation of new technologies is almost always attendant with human rights abuses. The area of AI may end up becoming a particularly grim demonstration of this principle, if current trajectories continue.
And researchers from the West may have already given China a significant helping hand. Witness the case of the French research institute Inria’s (French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation) collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and in particular its assistance in developing the technology underpinning one of China’s AI ‘unicorns,’ Cambricon (寒武纪).
Cambricon, the company featured in Science’s February 2018 profile of the burgeoning AI sector in China, was supported and spun out of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Computing Technology (中科院计算所). Their flagship AI chip, the Cambricon-1A, hit the market last year and has been incorporated into Huawei smartphones, among other products.
It was one of Inria’s researchers, Olivier Temam, who was instrumental in helping to lay the technical foundations of Cambricon’s breakthroughs.
“Cambricon’s founding team came from academia, and I myself was a professor and doctoral tutor at the Computing Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences,” writes Chen Tianshi (陈天石), Cambricon’s co-founder and CEO. He goes on to thank Inria and and long-time academic collaborators Chen Yunji (陈云霁) and Olivier Temam.
Temam’s LinkedIn profile describes him as a senior research scientist at Inria from September 2004 to May 2014.
The three — Chen Tianshi, Chen Yunji, and Olivier Temam — have collaborated on a dozen journal and conference papers, including many that won best paper awards. With names like “DianNao: A Small-Footprint High-Throughput Accelerator for Ubiquitous Machine-Learning” and “ShiDianNao: Shifting Vision Processing Closer to the Sensor.”
It is papers like this that underlie innovations in AI chip development that Cambrion built its company on.
The chip architecture has another highly useful feature for China’s security authorities: use in image recognition systems for filtering and processing the bucketloads of data collected by the Communist Party’s pervasive surveillance apparatus.
VOA quoted a Cambricon employee in June 2018 commenting on a provider of surveillance cameras to the Party, Hikvision:
“A staff member at Cambricon, another Chinese company that provides the government technical support for security needs, told VOA that major video surveillance companies in the Chinese market are working with the government and that government authorities can access the information from any company at any time.”
The engineer remarked that surveillance technology, in attempting to identify ethnic minorities, might “consider beards, facial, and head accessories.”
There is as yet, at least as far as China Change could discover, no public evidence that Cambricon’s chips have been used to drive surveillance technologies.
Its chips, however, have been listed as among those that Hikvision could make easy recourse to.
When the subject is reported in the Chinese media, surveillance technology is just another one of the potentially lucrative uses that Cambricon can exploit, alongside self-driving cars and cloud computing.
Along with Inria, MIT has also begun collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company whose AI technologies are being deployed by the security apparatus.
“Authorities are collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company that produces 80 percent of all speech recognition technology in the country, to develop a pilot surveillance system that can automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations,” Human Rights Watch wrote in an October 2017 report.
HRW shows clearly how iFlytek has marketed the security uses of its technology, including deep relationships with official entities that have helped the authorities build the Golden Shield Project, one of the key components of China’s surveillance apparatus.
The MIT relationship with iFlytek was announced in June 2018.
Olivier Temam did not respond to an email requesting comment. Since July 2018 he has worked at Google — a somewhat ironic move given the context.
Under the guidance of Google’s former AI chief, Fei-Fei Li (李飞飞), the company opened an AI lab in China. Aside from meeting Google’s own research needs, the institution will without doubt also help fertilize China’s own AI ambitions and talent.
Li, born in Beijing in 1976, immigrated to the United States at 16 and went on to gain a BS from Princeton and a PhD from Caltech. She was appointed as AI leader and Chief Scientist at Google while on sabbatical from Stanford where she was a full professor, and while there became among the most outspoken opponents of Google cooperating with the Pentagon.
“Weaponized AI is probably one of the most sensitized topics of AI — if not THE most. This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google,” Li wrote in an internal email seen by The New York Times.
But Silicon Valley, for one reason or another, does not seem to be as intent on opposing all forms of cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party and its appurtenances.
Google recently discontinued its contract with a Pentagon artificial intelligence program, saying that “we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI Principles,” but it has shown no qualms developing the Dragonfly search engine, in cooperation with the Chinese government, which would aid the official internet censorship regime. Meanwhile, Google has been recommending security keys manufactured by a Chinese company that has deep ties with the PLA and government.
Matthew Robertson is a Research Fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He was previously a translator and editor with China Change.
Google Recommends Product From a Chinese Company with Communist Party and Military Ties for its ‘Advanced Protection Program’, Matthew Robertson, August 23, 2018.