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China’s ‘rule of law in international relations’

This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.

In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the term ‘rule of law in international relations’ to describe the Chinese government’s vision for the interaction between states within the international order. He said:

We should jointly promote the rule of law in international relations (国际关系法治化). We should urge all parties to abide by international law and well-recognised basic principles governing international relations…There should not be double standards when applying the law. We should jointly uphold the authority and sanctity of international law and the international order.

The term is related to – but used in distinction from – existing concepts of international law (国际法) and international rule of law (国际法治). The Chinese government’s application of ‘rule of law’ to ‘international relations’ specifically indicates a new concept in its global governance lexicon.

But what does it mean?

Xi’s use of the character hua (化) here is instructive: it signifies a change in state, meaning the Chinese government does not believe international relations are characterised by the rule of law, and this requires revision.

The reference to ‘double standards’ is also telling. The Chinese government frequently accuses other states of having ‘double standards’ when they criticise China’s human rights record and its occupation or militarisation of features in the South China Sea. Invoking the ‘rule of law in international relations’ could serve as a more sophisticated rebuke.

The timing of the introduction and dissemination of ‘rule of law in international relations’ coincides with China’s domestic push for ‘rule of law’. The Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress in October 2014 passed a set of reforms to the judicial system and government, including provisions ensuring greater accountability of party members and officials and the centralisation of the court system, all under the auspices of ‘socialist rule of law‘. These reforms are explicitly Party-led: they emphasise that ‘the Party’s leadership is…the most fundamental guarantee for socialist rule of law in China’.

Following the 18th Party Congress, Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised Xi’s introduction of ‘rule of law in international relations’, writing in an opinion piece for state media that:

diplomacy is an extension of domestic politics; China, with its firm commitment to promote rule of law internally, is inevitably a firm protector and active builder of international rule of law.

This strongly suggests that the Chinese government’s understanding of the rule of law in its domestic context informs its international approach.

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Xi Jinping and the end of China’s term limits

This article originally appeared in China Policy Institute: Analysis.

The 1982 amendments to the constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) indicated that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had set upon a path to evolve from a party of revolution to one of governance. This was the difficult mission led by Deng Xiaoping, following the death and destruction wrought by the decade-long Cultural Revolution and the excesses of Mao’s cult of personality.

China needed stability in order to recover from the chaos and tragedy enacted under Mao’s rule. The Party agreed to build strong institutions and introduce a so-called ‘collective leadership’ system to ensure this stability and prevent the the concentration of power in any one individual.

The 1982 constitutional amendments reinstated the then-defunct position of President (or ‘State Chairman’) and mandated a limit of two consecutive, five-year terms for the President, Vice President and National People’s Congress (NPC) members. This encouraged incumbent leaders to groom protégés to take up the mantle after their time was up.

China’s internal politics is notoriously opaque. Nevertheless, for more than three decades Sinologists and scholars relied on these conventions for clues into the CCP’s machinations. Such assumptions have now completely eroded with the CCP’s proposal, announced on 25 February, to remove the term limit clause from the constitution.

A couple of hours before state news agency Xinhua broke the news, it ran this brief article:

Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, stressed the important role of the Constitution.

‘No organization or individual has the power to overstep the Constitution or the law,’ Xi said on Saturday when presiding over a group study session of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee.

But Party leaders would not be ‘overstepping’ if they act within the re-written rules.

When the elimination of the term limit clause is considered in conjunction with other proposed constitutional amendments, it is clear the Party is making institutional changes to cement its control over all aspects of state decision-making.

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What would a US war – or peace – with Iran mean for China?

This originally appeared in ChinaFile as a contribution to a Conversation.

Beijing’s reactions to rising tensions between the US and Iran have been quite predictable, and this latest development is unlikely to cause a sudden shift in China-Iran relations. China maintains its commitment to the nuclear deal, is unlikely to implement proposed US sanctions, and will continue to balance its relationships with rival states in the Middle East without necessarily being ‘sucked into’ political hostilities.

In response to Trump’s late-night, all-caps tweet, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson simply called on the US and Iran to ‘resolve disputes and issues through dialogue and consultation.’ This is the standard Ministry of Foreign Affairs response to any diplomatic tension, and will remain so.

On May 9, the day Trump issued his executive order withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, Beijing expressed its ongoing commitment to ‘upholding and implementing the agreement with an objective, fair, and responsible attitude.’ China is invested in holding to the deal, the result of years of negotiations with the ‘P5+1’ (of which it is a member) and the EU. Inked in 2015, it was seen as an important regional stabiliser in aid of its Belt and Road Initiative, in addition to its securing of oil supplies.

It’s important to remember that while China is Iran’s largest buyer of oil, purchasing around a quarter of its crude oil exports, in 2017 it came in sixth place on China’s list of top suppliers. Russia came in first, followed by Saudi Arabia, Angola, Iraq, and Oman. In fact, China’s total crude oil imports from Russia were double those from Iran.

China has thus far been adept at balancing its relations with rival states in the region. For example, following the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar beginning last June, China arguably played a crucial role in the small Gulf state’s economic recovery, building one of its main World Cup stadiums and increasing two-way trade by 36 percent. Saudi Arabia is also hardly on friendly terms with Iran. Nevertheless, it hasn’t shunned China: Earlier in July, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir called China an ‘important strategic partner’ and said both countries would ‘enhance the alignment between the Vision 2030 of Saudi Arabia and the Belt and Road Initiative.’ Despite the United Arab Emirates’ fraught relationship with Iran, it too has been courting China.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on July 12 that ‘it is our intent to enforce sanctions on Iran related oil against everybody including China.’ China, however, is unlikely to acquiesce. When asked on July 3 whether China would comply with proposed US sanctions, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson replied, ‘China is always opposed to unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction. China and Iran are friendly countries. . .This is beyond reproach.’

But China is not completely uncritical of Iran. Earlier this month, Beijing rebuked Iran when, in response to proposed US sanctions, it threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz — a strategically critical port for China’s oil imports from the Middle East. China will protect its economic interests, regardless of who makes the next move.

Muslim states’ responses to Xinjiang re-education camps: Comments

Since 2017 a growing number of concerning reports have emerged of re-education camps for Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. These camps seem intended to replace religious and cultural identities with loyalty to the Party-state. Questions have been raised about academic self-censorship on this issue, as well as the general lack of response by Muslim leaders.

I was quoted on this subject in this Foreign Policy essay by Nithin Coca, ‘Islamic leaders have nothing to say about China’s internment camps for Muslims’.

Part of the answer is that money talks. China has become a key trade partner of every Muslim-majority nation. Many are members of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or are participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In South Asia, this means infrastructure investment. In Southeast Asia, China is a key market for commodities such as palm oil and coal. The Middle East benefits due to China’s position as the world’s top importer of oil and its rapidly increasing its use of natural gas.
“Many states in the Middle East are becoming more economically dependent on China,” said Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Chinese-Middle East relations expert at the University of Technology Sydney. “China’s geoeconomic strategy has resulted in political influence.”

Students of Mandarin: Dare to take the plunge

This article originally appeared in the December edition of China Matters’  YP Stance.

Chinese international students in Australian universities have come under the spotlight in recent months. This is not surprising; there are more than 131,000 university students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Australia, accounting for almost 40 per cent of all international students in the higher education sector.

At the same time, student mobility from Australia to the PRC is almost completely absent from public discussion. The numbers are stark: there are 4,796 Australian students in the PRC, or just over one per cent of international students there. Furthermore, while the total number of Australians studying in the PRC has increased, the majority stay for less than six months.

In order to improve Australians’ grasp of Chinese language and understanding of the PRC’s influence in our region, students need to be spending more time in the PRC and enrol in Chinese- rather than English-taught programs. To facilitate this, both the tertiary education sector and the federal government should provide greater incentives for students to take part in these longer programs.

Research by the Australian Department of Education shows that the PRC is the second most popular destination for Australian university exchange and study abroad students. Additionally, while the numbers have fluctuated over recent years, there has generally been an upward trajectory (see figure 1).

Figure 1

However, the number of students in longer programs has stagnated (see figure 2). According to the most recent data from the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, of Australians studying in the PRC in 2016, 69 per cent stayed less than six months.

Figure 2

There are several problems with shorter-term stays. Most participants in short-term Chinese language immersion programs engage more on a day-to-day basis with their foreign classmates than with local Chinese students. Chinese universities usually offer separate accommodation for international students. Thus, while the classroom experience might be immersive, the social environment outside the classroom often dilutes linguistic and cultural engagement.

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Xi, Orwell and the language of Chinese politics

This piece originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.

The 19th Party Congress closed earlier this week with the announcement that ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ would be enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) charter. This eponymous ideological contribution is the first since ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’ was posthumously written into the charter in 1997, and the only ‘Thought’ since ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ was introduced as the CCP’s guiding ideology in 1945.

Even before this announcement, commentators were drawing comparisons between Xi and Mao. Australian scholar Geremie Barmé calls Xi the ‘Chairman of Everything’. Since early last year, such allusions have become popular, especially following Xi’s designation as the Party’s ‘Core Leader’ in March. Xi’s anti-corruption drive, which some argue is being used to consolidate his personal power by purging rivals, is also reminiscent of Mao’s campaigns.

An official state media release suggests that the Party charter will not shorten Xi’s contribution to the more pithy ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the same vein as ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ or ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’, but maintain its full, somewhat awkward title. This is a small but significant detail.

1024px-Opening_ceremony_of_19th_National_Congress_of_the_Communist_Party_of_China_(VOA)
Opening ceremony of the 19th National Congress of the CCP. Photo by Voice of America (Wikimedia Commons, 2017).

George Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Politics and the English language’ that ‘political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. In political language, Orwell said, ‘one almost never finds a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech’. This is especially true of the CCP’s carefully cultivated and scripted political language.

All political movements and institutions face decisions of continuity and change. The CCP leadership understands that at certain times it must change, or at least be seen to be doing so, in order to continue to rule. Evolution rather than revolution has been a bastion of China’s political life since Deng Xiaoping took the helm. The CCP’s political language is instrumental – it enables those in power to take ownership of certain ideas in order to increase their potency, and justify the Party’s continuity and change. Thus, each generation of leaders espouses a ‘new’ ideology, which is in fact simply an extension of and improvement upon their predecessors’.

For all Party leaders since Deng Xiaoping, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has been the guiding light.

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19th Party Congress: Comments

On 18 October the Chinese Communist Party began its weeklong, quinquennial Party Congress.

My comments to the Agence-France Presse (AFP) appeared in SBS News.

But Xi may lobby to retain his 69-year-old right-hand man Wang Qishan, who heads the leader’s signature anti-graft campaign. This would create a precedent for Xi himself to remain in charge beyond retirement age in 2022.

“If Xi expresses intent to lead beyond his 10-year limit, this would be reminiscent of the Mao era, which would be damaging to Xi’s legacy and call his legitimacy into question,” said Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Sydney-based researcher and co-author of China and the New Maoists.