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China: A Party of governance and control, not revolution

This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.

Last week, self-proclaimed Marxist labour activists across China were rounded up by the authorities. Many were students or graduates of some of the country’s most prestigious universities.

Peking University – my own alma mater – has reportedly taken extreme measures to prevent further dissent. In late October, Cornell University cancelled exchange agreements with Renmin University following its blacklisting and surveillance of known student labour activists.

These are the latest developments in an ongoing crackdown on labour activism that began in July when attempts by employees of a Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen to form a union were met with physical abuse and arrest. Student activists formed the Jasic Workers Solidarity Group, writing open letters, and demonstrating and petitioning on their behalf. These protests gained the support of older Maoists, who brandished portraits of Mao and placards declaring the workers’ innocence.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s position is clear. Party-run People’s Daily argued the Jasic workers had acted illegally, with some allegedly using force to barge onto company premises, and in their effort to form an independent trade union (current regulations stipulate that all unions must be registered with the state-affiliated All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which has been criticised for inadequately representing workers’ interests). People’s Daily also claimed the workers’ cause had been hijacked by “external forces” and “ulterior motives”, including funding from an unregistered Western NGO.

These developments highlight a fundamental contradiction between the image of itself the Party has promulgated and the underlying substance of its governance model.

Continue reading “China: A Party of governance and control, not revolution”

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Now Beijing is closing the door too

This article originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review.

There is a rising tide of protectionism worldwide. For Australians its most immediate manifestation is Donald Trump’s in-your-face “America First” approach, which has seen the US withdraw from and rewrite bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, or threaten to do so. It has also seen the imposition of tariffs on $250 billion worth of imports from China, culminating in a looming trade war. Brexit and European populist movements stand as other prominent examples of this trend.

China is another example.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017, shortly before Trump took office, Chinese President Xi Jinping touted the benefits of “economic globalisation” and stated, “China will keep its door wide open and not close it”. He said, “An open door allows both other countries to access the Chinese market and China itself to integrate with the world”. Xi claimed China would “enable the market to play a decisive role in resources allocation”.

At the time, some applauded his speech, and considered it evidence that China would be taking the mantle of global trade leadership; that it represented an antidote to Trump’s disdain for free trade and open markets.

The reality, of course, is much more complicated.

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Andrey Grushnikov/Flickr, 2015

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of “reform and opening up” in China. Introduced in 1978 – just two years after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution – it enabled participation of private enterprise. The policy ultimately led to China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse, which in 2011 became the world’s second largest economy. This was an achievement previously unimaginable for a purportedly socialist country.

Since reform and opening up, the Chinese government has proclaimed its commitment to openness and fairness, while continuing to implement protectionist policies. Under Xi, China is becoming less, not more, open – both economically and politically. But now, in contrast to Xi’s speech at Davos, less is being said to mask this.

The image and narrative of reform are changing.

Rewriting history

Continue reading “Now Beijing is closing the door too”