To mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, experts from ANU College of Asia and the Pacific share their insights into China’s past, present and possible future.
Is China destined to become the world’s technology leader? How could century old ideas help understand Chinese foreign and economic policies? How does the state undermine the ‘unofficial civil society’? What does ‘more ethnic unity’ look like under President Xi Jinping?
Read on for insight from some of Australia’s leading China scholars.
Just two days before 1 October, I am sitting in a fancy hotel room in the fanciest part of Beijing, feeling somewhat in awe of the incredible development that I have personally witnessed over two decades of visiting this wonderful city. National flags are on display at every turn, and there is an undeniable – and understandable – sense of pride as the country prepares to celebrate 70 years of a ‘new China’.
Yet I also feel more uneasy here than I ever have before. Catching up on the CCTV news, I see 20 minutes dedicated to a goose-stepping army battalion, meticulously dressed and impeccably timed, rehearsing for the National Day celebrations. I can’t post my photos on WhatsApp, nor of course on Facebook or Twitter, and I hear from local friends that censorship and security has been extraordinarily tight in the lead up to the big day.
The front page headline of the English-language newspaper, The China Daily, on this fine Beijing morning is particularly alarming: “More ethnic unity urged across the nation”. There is no mincing of President Xi’s words, with the report stressing that “China should be on high alert for, and severely crack down on, all kinds of infiltration, subversion, destructive activities, terrorist incidents, ethnic separatist movements and religious extremism.”
With wealth comes power – that is to be expected. But power will only be respected if it is used benevolently. I’ve always believed that the PRC government has the capacity and potential to earn this respect, even if others disagree. Now I only have (diminishing) hope that I am not completely wrong.
A once vibrant civil society has been brought to heels under President Xi’s reforms. Chinese civil society has always been split into two spheres. On the one hand, there is the so-called ‘official civil society’, which is composed of organisations legally recognised by the Party-state and largely played an ancillary role in providing public services. On the other hand, there is the ‘unofficial civil society’, made up of organisations that operated in a grey area, without any legal recognition and often in politically sensitive fields such as labour rights, human rights or public advocacy.
Under Xi, the Chinese authorities have passed a whole new set of laws and regulations that have the overarching aim of reinforcing the official side of Chinese civil society while substantially undermining the unofficial side. This has been accompanied by a very harsh crackdown on those organisations and individuals that operate in the realm of unofficial civil society, in particular human rights lawyers, labour activists and feminist groups.
The outlook is grim. Even people involved in fields that were not considered particularly sensitive are getting arrested. For instance, at the end of July three anti-discrimination activists were detained in Changsha and they have been held incommunicado since then. They have been charged with 'subversion of state power', a very serious escalation especially if you consider that anti-discrimination used to be a relatively safe field to operate in.
On this 70th anniversary of the formation of the People’s Republic of China, it is instructive to look back 70 years to explore the origins of contemporary Chinese foreign and economic policy ideas. In the 1940s and 1950s, Chinese scholars, officials and journalists of different political stripes were engaged in domestic and international debates about “self-reliance”, economic statecraft, the importance of technology and industrial strength for rising powers, and how to create an international economic order that would better meet the needs of developing countries. Understanding where these ideas came from, and how they have evolved over the past 70 years, is crucial to thinking about China’s past, present and future.
As the PRC gets set to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding in 1949, a human rights emergency is unfolding in the country’s far north-western province, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Researchers estimate that somewhere between one and two million of the XUAR’s Turkic Muslim population is currently detained in what the Chinese government defines as “vocational training internment centres”.
Detainees experience a regimented daily existence, compelled to repeatedly sing ‘patriotic’ songs praising the benevolence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and study Mandarin, Confucian texts and President Xi’s ‘thought’. Meanwhile, the hardened security features of many of these facilities - including CCTV surveillance, heavily armed security personnel, watchtowers and razor wire – belie Chinese government assertions that many “trainees” undergoing “vocational training” in them are in fact there voluntarily.
Significantly, the ‘re-education’ centres themselves are but the most glaring manifestation of the fact that Xinjiang is now a domain of ‘unfreedom’ defined by a digitally-powered surveillance state that combines long-standing practices of ‘collective’ supervision with technological innovation in the name of security and stability that penetrates Uyghur society in unprecedented ways. The objective of this is to compel Uyghurs to turn away from central markers of their own ethnic identity — the Uyghur language and Islam — in order to, in President Xi’s words, “enhance their sense of identity with the motherland, the Chinese nation, Chinese culture, the CCP and socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
Is China destined to become the world's technology leader? With breakthroughs in fields ranging from 5G to facial recognition to quantum computing, China is challenging the notion that innovation and authoritarian politics cannot co-exist. China's rapidly growing investments in research and development, meanwhile, promise more innovations to come. Even so, a range of challenges hold China back. Crucial reforms have been neglected, and state-favoured tech firms too often rest on their laurels. China struggles to attract top scientific talent, and entrepreneurs must contend with an increasingly intrusive communist party. And while international collaboration has been key to China’s emergence as a science and technology power, the world’s most advanced countries - particularly the United States - have turned unfriendly in recent years. China's trajectory is thus uncertain, but one thing is clear: the global technological landscape is changing fast. To chart a course in this uncertain world, we must strive to understand how much has changed, how much has not, and how a range of forces propel and impede China’s rise as a technological power.
For more in-depth pieces on China, read the latest edition of the China Story Yearbook: Power. Published by ANU Press and available to download for free online.
Photo credit: Tony Gu / ANU College of Asia & the Pacific