China’s ‘modernitarianism’ is so yesterday


If “America, the Has-Been” were a TV series, it would now be in its fifth season, notes Stanford University’s Josef Joffe:

The first, Decline 1.0, opened in the 1950s, after the Soviets launched their Sputnik. ….Decline 2.0 swept the nation during the Vietnam War, and once more the U.S.’s best days were over, intoned a chorus of pundits and politicos…. Decline 3.0 was initiated in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter when he moaned in his so-called malaise speech that the U.S. was beset by “a crisis of confidence,” one “that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our nation.” ….

Decline 4.0 cast Japan as the next No. 1. Having failed in Pearl Harbor with their bombers, these super-samurais would now triumph with their Toyotas and Sonys. ….Now it is Decline 5.0, starring China as the master of the universe. The World Bank should have looked at history. As early as 1984, China’s growth peaked at 15 percent. Now, the rate is down to one-half that. The sluggish world economy plays a part, but the underlying reasons are structural.

But China’s politics are wrong, Joffe writes for Bloomberg View:

Authoritarian modernization — call it “modernitarianism” — runs up against its built-in limits, as did the Soviet Union’s. Frenzied industrialization under the knout of the party is easy, but the knowledge economy takes its cues from the markets. The watchword is “freedom” — for entrepreneurs and capital, ideas and innovation. There is no Silicon Valley in China’s future.


Josef Joffe, the editor-publisher of Die Zeit, teaches American foreign policy at Stanford University where he is also a fellow at the Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution. He is author of “The Myth of America’s Decline.” 

China launches major crackdown on Uighurs

UYGHURSChina has launched a major crackdown on the Muslim separatist Uighur community, arresting more than 200 people for allegedly distributing terrorist videos 

Beijing says it faces a real threat from militant Islamists in Xinjiang who want an independent state called East Turkestan. Authorities say many have links with foreign groups, though rights groups and some foreign experts say there is little evidence to support this, Reuters reports:

Many Uighurs say they are unhappy at Chinese restrictions on their culture and religion, though the government says they are given widespread freedoms. More than 100 people have died in unrest in Xinjiang in the past year, prompting a crackdown by Chinese authorities. …..

In March, Thai police said they had rescued about 200 people believed to be Uighurs from a human smuggling camp in southern Thailand. In 2009, Cambodia deported a group of about 20 Uighurs to China. Cambodia, the recipient of increasingly large amounts of Chinese investment and trade, was sharply rebuked by human rights groups for deporting them.

With China in a “grim and complicated” fight against terrorism, Beijing has deployed 150 special armed teams to carry out “antiterrorist stability maintenance” at key junctions throughout the city, according to The New York Times Sinosphere blog:

The mission of these teams, which began their patrols at 9 a.m. Monday, is to ensure that the capital is “completely covered in space and time, direction and position” against terrorist and other violent acts, the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau was quoted as saying.

“Their main responsibilities will be to deter those using guns or violence or other kinds of weapons in mass incidents, violent terrorist incidents and so on,” said The Beijing News, China News Service and other news outlets. The term “mass incident” suggested that the government was concerned not just about terrorism, but also other kinds of unrest, particularly with the approach of the 25th anniversary of the crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement on June 4 and following major environmental protests in south and central China. 

A poet, linguist and globe-trotting polyglot, Abduweli Ayup had a passion for the spoken word, notably Uighur, the Turkic language spoken in his homeland in China’s far northwest, Andrew Jacobs reports for The New York Times:

In 2011, soon after finishing his graduate studies in the United States, Mr. Ayup returned home to open a chain of “mother tongue” schools in Xinjiang, the vast Central Asian region whose forced marriage to the Han Chinese heartland has become increasingly tumultuous. But in a country where language is politically fraught, Mr. Ayup’s devotion to Uighur may have proved his undoing.

Last August, Mr. Ayup and two business partners were arrested and accused of “illegal fund-raising,” charges that stemmed from their effort to finance a new school by, among other means, selling honey and T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s insignia. Mr. Ayup, 39, and his two associates, Dilyar Obul and Muhemmet Sidik, have not been heard from since.

In recent weeks, his plight has begun drawing attention outside Xinjiang through a small group of supporters in the United States, some of whom have created a Facebook page and a petition on to publicize his case. Human rights advocates have also begun raising his name in Washington, Jacobs adds:

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said the Chinese leadership has come to view the promotion of Uighur culture and identity as a covert effort to foment disloyalty to Beijing and subvert the drive for assimilation.

“The Chinese state appears to place no value on the Uighur way of life and traditions beyond the Disneyfied version it offers to tourists,” he said. “Every other aspect of Uighur life must be either destroyed, remodeled or neutered so as to prevent it from becoming a potential vehicle for Uighur ethno-national aspirations.”

After a string of ­brazen attacks attributed to Islamist extremists, Chinese authorities have ratcheted up surveillance of and restrictions on Muslim Uighurs as their relations with the large minority population continue to deteriorate, William Wan writes for The Washington Post:

In the past week, Chinese ­authorities have clashed with residents of the restive western province of Xinjiang, sentenced others to prison and announced new measures that critics say amount to religious and ethnic persecution.

 “The Chinese authorities’ intensified drive to repress religious practice and belief among Uyghurs has led to a marked decline for religious freedom in the past year,” said Uyghur Human Rights Project director Alim Seytoff.

By conflating extremism and terrorism with regular Uighur customs such as wearing long beards and with religious practices such as praying, the government has decided that “nearly every Uighur is complicit in ‘illegal religious activity’ and forces Uighur believers to abandon their faith in order to avoid state punishment,” Seytoff said.

Some experts on Chinese ­terrorism disagree, however, saying that such measures are not targeting religion but responding, of necessity, to a growing terrorist threat. Li Wei, director of the anti-terrorism center at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said that many countries encourage their residents to report suspicious ­activities.

“We should not mix terrorism with issues of ethnicity and religion,” Li said. “That’s what terrorists want.”

“There has been a shift over the past couple of years from targeting symbols of the party and state in Xinjiang – police stations and government buildings – to targeting people to create terror,” says James Leibold, a Sinologist at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

“Xi is afraid to look soft on public security issues,” he says. “His visit was very carefully orchestrated and had many elements, but certainly it led with security. I think he wants to calm the nerves of a slightly jittery Han population.”

China’s labor activism ‘crossing the line’?

Credit: China Labour Bulletin

Credit: China Labour Bulletin

A recent Walmart dispute in China was typical of a growing number of protests as the balance of power slowly shifts from employers to workers because of demographic and technological trends, the FT’s Tom Mitchell and Demetri Sevastopulo report:

Factories find it increasingly hard both to find skilled workers as China’s labour force shrinks and to manage them. Workers have been empowered by their ability to tap social media with cheap smartphones, allowing them to compare employment conditions more easily and mobilise support for strikes.

Many multinationals operating in China have been taken aback by the surge in labour unrest, especially in situations where workers did not previously flex their muscle. A western executive involved in one recent dispute said: “Workers use these moments to try to get more compensation and they band together to do it. We just do what we can to treat them in accordance with the law.”

“Multinationals that have been given the red-carpet treatment ever since they came to China are now waking up to the reality that they can’t bulldoze their way through people’s lives any more,” says Geoff Crothall of China Labor Bulletin, a workers’ rights group in Hong Kong. “If they want to close down operations or reorganise their business, fine, but you have to negotiate with your employees first.”

Protests have also been damped by the All China Federation of Trade Unions, the country’s only officially sanctioned union, Mitchell and Sevastopulo add:

It is widely widely derided in activist circles as a weakling that lacks the stomach for a real fight with management and cares more about helping the government preserve “social harmony” than battling for workers’ rights……The potential for unrest is only increasing. Chinese employees have been emboldened by demographic trends that are creating labour shortages – especially for skilled positions – and tilting negotiating power decisively in their favour.

There are even some signs of dissent within the ranks of the ACFTU. Walmart’s Changde employees are being led by Huang Xingguo, the head of the store’s ACFTU chapter. His role has excited labour activists, who see it as a landmark development in the history of China’s worker movement. It has also worried local authorities.

Mr Huang, 42, a powerful orator and charismatic leader, was the star speaker at a gathering of about 30 of China’s most prominent labour lawyers, activists and scholars held last month in Dengfeng, Henan province.

“The ACFTU says it wants to protect workers’ rights but it also wants to support companies’ development,” says Chang Kai, a professor and labour expert in Beijing who is advising the Walmart workers in Changde. “It is pulling in two directions and is not firmly on the workers’ side.”

Some observers suggest that the state-controlled ACFTU appears to realizes that it can no longer simply function as a one-way transmission belt for enforcing labor discipline and conveying party diktats to workers. But it will need to undergo thorough overhaul if it is to function as a credible and legitimate representative of workers who are becoming increasingly vocal and militant, not only in expressing economic grievances but also in demanding the democratic rights of freedom of association and expression.

“It might sound counterintuitive that organized unions lead to more stable labor relations. If the union cannot negotiate a deal with management, striking is still an option,” said Han Dongfang, editor of the China Labour Bulletin. “But absent a union that can engage in collective bargaining, striking becomes the workers’ only option.”

Like the Chinese Communist party it ultimately serves, the ACFTU is a vertically structured bureaucracy that does not encourage horizontal linkages between “grassroots” chapters such as Mr Huang’s, Mitchell and Sevastopulo note:

That greatly reduces the chances of other Walmart store unions striking in support of their Changde colleagues.

“Walmart has almost 400 stores in China, all of them with unions,” Mr Huang says. “But each union is established under the local government. There is no larger alliance to link them.”

The ACFTU also maintains a strict divide between activists such as Mr Huang and its career bureaucrats, whose interests are more aligned with government officials preoccupied with social stability.

“Huang Xingguo was democratically elected by his fellow workers,” says He Yuancheng, a legal adviser. “But there is no chance that he could ever rise through the ACFTU’s ranks despite his obvious leadership talent.”


China Labour Bulletin is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.

Civil society activists detained as Tiananmen anniversary looms

In the latest sign of the Chinese authorities’ anxiety over citizen action ahead of the 25th anniversary of the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests, the Beijing police detained as many as nine civil society activists early Wednesday, The New York Times reports:

Seizing the cellphone of one of the detainees, the police then sent a text message to about 30 participants in a meeting set for later in the day and canceled it, according to Yu Fangqiang, one of the meeting’s organizers.

Although the meeting was a seminar on obstacles facing gay groups wishing to register as nongovernmental organizations in China, it had also advertised itself as an event examining “civil society and the state.”

Five people have been detained in Beijing after they attended a low-key event marking the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, CNN reports:

Among those detained is prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who is accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” according to a notice of detention released Tuesday by Beijing’s Municipal Public Security Bureau. Pu is well known in China’s mainstream media for representing high-profile dissidents, such as artist Ai Weiwei, and Chinese detained in the now-defunct re-education through labor system. He is being held at the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center.

 Mr Pu, 49, participated in a weekend seminar to commemorate the massacre that occurred when the People’s Liberation Army was ordered to clear Tiananmen Square of student protesters over the objections of then Communist party head Zhao Ziyang, who was later purged, the FT reports:

Mr Pu is the highest profile activist to be caught in the security dragnet since January, when Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to a four-year prison term on similar charges of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order”. Mr Xu was a prominent figure in the self-styled New Citizens Movement that embraced causes ranging from mandatory asset disclosure by Chinese officials to equal educational opportunities for the children of migrant workers.

“The step-up in security measures is certainly occurring earlier this year than normal,” said Bao Pu, a Hong Kong-based publisher whose father Bao Tong was an adviser to Zhao and is subject to strict police surveillance. “My father was warned not to speak about Tiananmen as early as January.”

China spends more money on internal security than it does on military defence, giving rise to a domestic show of force each year in the run-up to the Tiananmen anniversary.

“You cannot underestimate the security bureaucracy that the government has created,” Mr Bao said. “The pressure the security forces are under not to have any incidents is immense, so they go all out.”

On Thursday, May 8, at the United Nations in Geneva, a committee of 18 international experts will review China’s implementation of its obligations to protect and advance a broad set of rights under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, says Human Rights in China.

A Lesson in Polite Protest

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the nationwide, student-led democracy movement, China Digital Times  is posting a series of original news articles from 1989, beginning with the death of Hu Yaobang on April 15 and continuing through the tumultuous spring. The full series can be read here.

From the May 7, 1989 New York Times:

If South Korean university students are at the militant extreme, totally rejecting the Government and battering lines of police with firebombs and wooden staves, then Chinese demonstrators are at the peaceful extreme. They sometimes go out of their way to say nice things about the Communist Party, even when it is clear they do not believe them, and they overwhelm the police as much with courtesy as with force.

When approaching lines of the police, the students try to ingratiate themselves by chanting, ”The people love the people’s police; the people’s police love the people.” After some hard pushing, but never any blows, the police usually give way to the students. RTWT

CDT and HRIC are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO. 

How China buys friends and influences nations

china soft power‘If you can’t beat them, outspend them’ seems to be the thinking behind a huge new infrastructure investment fund being promoted by China as an alternative to established international lending agencies, notes analyst William Pesek.

With an anticipated $50 billion kitty, Beijing’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank could begin to put the Manila-based Asian Development Bank out of business as China effectively bribes leaders from Dili to Ulaanbaatar, he writes for Bloomberg View.

If you’re Vietnam, why go to the IMF and submit to the policy changes and increased transparency its officials demand in exchange for aid? All China asks for is friendship and support against rivals

For Asia’s developing nations, this bargain might look attractive in the short run. But Africa’s experience with Chinese financial diplomacy offers a cautionary tale. Over the last decade, China Development Bank, often called the mainland’s “Superbank,” became the core of China’s efforts to procure both energy and influence in Africa. Trouble is, Beijing’s see-no-evil-hear-no-evil approach has propped up rogue governments in Sudan, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. It’s deadened incentives to build competitive economies that rely on diverse sources of growth. And the dynamic has ushered in a new colonialism, whereby China grabs raw materials, while enriching corrupt governments rather than ordinary citizens. A similar phenomenon can be seen in Latin America, including in Brazil.

On Monday, Premier Li Keqiang announced that China would expand an existing credit line to several African nations by $10 billion and add another $2 billion to the China-Africa Development Fund, according to reports:

China has established a reputation of investing in Africa without attaching humanitarian strings. The strategy has been lauded by those who believe the terms are more honest than outdated Western development aid, but vilified by critics who see China as propping up corrupt, brutal regimes across the continent. 

On the ground, many are wary of China’s labor practices, and of a barrage of fake and substandard products, medicines, and consumer goods. Chinese-owned and managed mines and construction sites in several countries have suffered labor disputes. In addition to a lack of transparency in the terms agreed between Chinese and African dealmakers, China also faces an image problem among ordinary Africans.

The risk is that in its drive to reduce U.S. and Japanese influence, China will foster a new moral hazard in a region that needs better governance and more transparency, not less, Pesek cautions.