Insecurity and Authority in the Sinosphere

19 January 2018

Albert Wu is assistant professor of history at the American University of Paris. He specializes in the global history of health and religion, and his latest book is From Christ to Confucius, offering a revisionist history of how European missionaries in China went from outspoken opponents of Confucianism to ardent defenders of it.

In March of 2017, the Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-Cheh disappeared. Traveling from Taipei to Macau, Lee had planned to meet a friend at the Macau airport. He never appeared at the arrival terminal. Frantic, his family tried to make calls to find out his whereabouts. Within a week, it was evident that Lee had been detained by the Chinese authorities, even though officials denied it.


Six months later, Lee resurfaced for the first time in a widely-televised court trial. He confessed to the crimes of “subverting Chinese state sovereignty.” The “civilized method of China’s legal system,” he stated, had helped him to realize his previous past errors. “What I previously learned about China was a mistake,” he stated. He admitted that he been brainwashed by Taiwanese media. Lee pledged to relinquish his quest for Taiwanese independence.


Two months later, on November 27, the Yueyang People’s Intermediate Court of Hunan Province sentenced Lee to five years in jail. At the sentencing, Lee once again admitted to his guilt, commenting that he was willing to undergo the reform and punishment that the Chinese had mandated to him.


Lee’s case is the latest in a series of attacks on the Sinophone activist community agitating for democracy in China. October and December of 2015 saw the disappearance of five members of Causeway Bay Books, a Hong Kong bookstore that sells books that are banned in China. Four of the booksellers were detained for months, while one member, Gui Minhai, remains in custody. Foreshadowing Lee’s predicament, the booksellers released scripted testimonies, admitting to performing seditious acts against the Chinese state.


Several aspects of these arrests mark a divergence from previous Beijing policy. The first is their location. Gui Minhai was arrested in Thailand, where he owned an apartment, after the Chinese government pressured the Thai military junta to hand him over. One of the other booksellers was detained in Hong Kong and shipped across the border to Shenzhen. Lee was stopped in Macau. The Chinese government’s message is clear: zones that it had previously marked as “free” are no longer such, and it is tightening its control over those areas. The Chinese Communist Party is further broadening its definition of what it considers its territorial jurisdiction.


The other symbolic shift is the nationality of those arrested. The fact that the Chinese government has been detaining dissidents is, of course, not new. In July 2017, Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Prize laureate jailed for penning Charter 08, died after eight years in prison. Suffering from liver cancer, Liu had been moved to a hospital to receive treatment, but the Beijing officials refused to allow him treatment overseas. It was a reminder of the cruel fate that awaited Chinese citizens for challenging the Chinese Communist Party. But Lee represents the first Taiwanese citizen to be arrested on Chinese soil. One of the Hong Kong booksellers had Swedish nationality, and another was a citizen of the United Kingdom. Since 2016, the New York Times and other major Western media news outlets have reported that restrictions have increased on foreign workers in China. Reporters have been harassed; visas have been denied. In January 2017, the Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin was detained for over three weeks in a “black prison” in Beijing. This past December, the French artist Marine Brossard, along with her husband Hu Jiamin, went missing after they painted a mural in tribute to Liu Xiaobo at an art exhibition in Shenzhen.


Accompanying this crackdown on human rights activism is the political ascendance of Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. As numerous reports have emerged from China since he rose to power in 2012, Xi has launched an ambitious campaign to consolidate his power. The 19th Party Congress, held in October 2017, cemented Xi’s political domination of the party. Party members officially enshrined Xi’s speech, “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” into the constitution. “Xi Thought” has now entered the Chinese canon as a continuation of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and Deng Xiaoping Thought. And as the new Politburo Standing Committee contains no clear successors, it appears that Xi is intent to hold on to power indefinitely. Following the Congress, a wave of “Xi-Fever” swept through China. The vice director of the Buddhist Association of China, the official state organ of Buddhism in China, announced that Xi’s thought is a “modern Buddhist classic,” and that he had “already hand-copied Xi’s Thought three times already.”


In this context, the future does not look bright for those working towards the democratization of China. Xi’s grip over the country appears so firm that many observers are speaking of a return to authoritarianism not seen since the days of Mao Zedong. Recent reports also make it clear that the Chinese government is investing heavily in its surveillance apparatus, intending to install facial-recognition software at every street corner, create a National DNA database, and use big data to build a “fortress city” in Xinjiang.


Most chilling about the televised confessions of human rights activists is not merely their forced nature, but the insignificance of the alleged crimes. Lee Ming-Cheh was no Guy Fawkes—he was accused of forwarding books and exchanging text messages with academics in China. It is precisely this disproportion between crime and punishment that marks the shift in intimidation tactics. The Chinese government’s message to human rights activists is clear: no matter where you are, we see your every move, and we will pursue you no matter how modest your actions may be.


For many in China, the government’s ability to surveil the population is not alarming, it is part of the fabric of everyday life. The expansion of state capacity further reflects China’s rapid development in the past three decades. I was recently at a party with a group of Chinese students studying in Paris, when the subject of China’s technological progress came up. One of the students began to praise large-scale infrastructural developments in China. He commented on how life had become much more convenient in China in the past five years. Nobody carried cash anymore—mobile payment technology has become so ubiquitous, one could even pay street vendors through smartphones. I asked him if he was concerned for his privacy, given that this technology allows for all of his movements to be tracked. He looked at me with a sort of pity, amazed by my naivety. “We always assume we’re being watched,” he replied.


But at the same time, the triviality of the alleged offenses, and the intensification of crackdowns in China betrays a sense of insecurity on the part of Xi’s regime. It is important to read these attacks on Chinese civil society within a context of unprecedented democratic and anti-Chinese protests in the broader Sinosphere. Since 2014, a series of pro-democratic movements—sparked by the so-called Sunflower Movement in Taiwan and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong—have energized activist communities in the Chinese-speaking world. Led by college-age activists, the younger generation in Taiwan and Hong Kong have made it clear that they seem themselves as culturally distinct from China. They have also signaled to China that they are wary of the increasing encroachment of Chinese political and economic influence in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Beyond the Sinosphere, China’s geo-political ambitions and expansion in East Asia and South-east Asia have also led to the rise of Sinophobic sentiments in Japan, Vietnam, Myanmar, and the Philippines.


Thus the political legitimacy of the Chinese government within its larger geo-political sphere of influence is at an all-time nadir. As Laura Kipnis reminds us, “Toppling power isn’t about storming the Bastille these days, it’s about changing the way people talk and think…. [C]reating a crisis of authority for those in power is still how the world changes.” The Chinese government knows that it rules with a fragile authority, and any crack in the facade must be quickly patched. The recent clampdowns on democratic activists in China reflect as much the Communist Party’s feeling of political insecurity as it does its authority.


Photo Credit: othree, 太陽花學運 2014/03/30, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.

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