A new Comintern for the New Era: The CCP International Department from Bucharest to Reykjavík

[By Jichang Lulu and Martin Hála. Also published on Sinopsis and China Digital Times.]

The CCP’s efforts to cultivate foreign political parties and generate an appreciative consensus around Xi Jinping’s policies have now reached Iceland. During a visit by the CCP International Liaison Department (ILD, 中共中央对外联络部), Icelandic MPs had a chance to learn about “Xi Jinping Thought” and pose for pictures with a copy of Xi Jinping’s magnum opus The Governance of China.


MPs including Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir (with Xi Jinping’s book), Smári McCarthy and Ari Trausti Guðmundsson meet ILD vice director Wang Yajun. Source: ILD.

Two weeks ago, an ILD delegation headed by Wang Yajun 王亚军, one of its vice directors, visited Iceland, as part of a three-country tour that also visited Nepal and Cyprus. The following account of the meeting appeared on 2 August on the ILD’s official website:

At the invitation of Iceland’s foreign ministry, ILD vice-chair Wang Yajun led a delegation to visit Iceland between 31 July and 2 August, meeting with the chairman of the Independence Party [(Sjálfstæðisflokkur)] and minister of finance and economic affairs, Bjarni] Benediktsson, former president [Ólafur Ragnar] Grímsson, [and] the chair of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, [Áslaug Arna] Sigurbjörnsdóttir, deepening exchanges with the various main political parties, and promoting and introducing to persons from various sectors of society Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and the situation of the Chinese side’s implementation of the spirit of the 19th Congress [of the Communist Party].

Xi Jinping Thought or weather talk

While the ILD was quick to propagandise the success of the trip, no public announcement of it was made in Iceland. News about the visit spread among ‘China watchers’ on social media after a few days, originating with the Party Watch Initiative’s Weekly Report, which regularly covers the activities of the ILD and other Party departments.

News eventually reached the Icelandic press. Only after Icelandic journalists had started to work on coverage of the visit did an announcement emerge on the website of the Icelandic Cabinet, a full week after the ILD’s own account.

Representatives of the Communist Party of China, CPC, visited Iceland a few days ago and requested a meeting with Bjarni Benediktsson, the Minister for Finance and Economic Affairs. During the meeting, the CPC representatives explained the party’s ideas for increased cooperation with other countries.

At the meeting, the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs reviewed the state of the Icelandic economy, developments since the 2008 economic crisis and a comparison with other OECD countries.


Iceland’s minister for finance and economic affairs Bjarni Benediktsson with ILD vice director Wang Yajun. Source: Stjórnarráð Íslands.

DV then reported on the visit, with quotes from participating MPs. Their recollection of the “exchanges” with the CCP cadres differed from the ILD’s official account. None of the parliamentarians mentioned Xi Jinping Thought or the spirit of the 19th Congress. Smári McCarthy of the Pirate Party (Píratar) talked of a “diplomatic reception” with “much talk about the weather”.

Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, secretary of the Independence Party and chair of the Althing’s foreign affairs committee, told DV that she “spoke openly” to the ILD officials about “the importance of human rights in Iceland’s foreign policy”. The answer she recalls, with the ‘out-of-poverty’ trope, will be familiar to our readers. The CCP’s long-time efforts to dilute the concept of human rights follow the age-old ‘look, puppies!’ recipe: economic growth exists, the people benefit, and any human rights abuses are irrelevant. At the UN Human Rights Council, of which Iceland is now a member, the PRC has garnered the support of governments from Eritrea to Venezuela to pass resolutions advocating the concept of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” Áslaug was likely told about. If anything, Áslaug’s satisfaction that she raised human rights with the ILD visitors only serves to validate the CCP’s claim to hold a ‘dialogue’ where the voice of rights abusers drowns that of the victims.

Unusually for someone concerned with human rights, Áslaug Arna chose to pose for a picture with writings by the head of a human rights-abusing regime. Under Xi Jinping’s apartheid-like security crackdown in Xinjiang, possibly over a million Uyghurs are interned in ‘reeducation’ camps.

Áslaug did not reply to a request for comment.

The finance ministry told Kvennablaðið that human rights were not discussed in Bjarni’s meeting with the ILD. The conversation was about Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, among other topics.

Roads of influence

On the same day that news about the ILD meeting reached the Icelandic public, Björn Bjarnason, a journalist and Independence Party politician who was a minister under six cabinets, published an op-ed on China in Morgunblaðið. Titled “Chinese pressure, near and far”, the article calls on Iceland to maintain its indepndence in the face of pressures it can expect once it assumes the Arctic Council chairmanship next year.

Björn’s piece notes China’s interest in becoming a ‘polar great power’ (极地强国), officially proclaimed at Xi Jinping’s 2014 speech in Hobart. He discusses the case of Greenland, where certain aspects of the PRC’s interests, such as CCCC’s possible involvement in airport development and General Nice (俊安集团)’s attempt to buy a derelict naval base, have led to Danish and American concerns. In Iceland, he points to the long-delayed Kárhóll Chinese-Icelandic Aurora Observatory project, predicting its eventual opening will attract international attention as a sign of China’s assertiveness in the Arctic. Kárhóll will give China “an important foothold” in Iceland.

Björn places the PRC’s Arctic interests within the context of a push for global influence, and mentions the newly introduced anti-interference legislation in Australia.

The CCP’s influence activities in Australia are not, in fact, disjoint from the ILD’s Reykjavík lesson in Xi Jinping Thought. A central role in political influence operations is being played by the United Front (UF) system. A Leninist creation originally imposed on the CCP in the early 1920s, this set of cooptation tactics eventually developed into a major institutionalised area of the PRC political system. Under Xi Jinping, it has gone global. United Front activities are being studied in an increasing number of locations. To mention just three: Hamilton and Joske’s 2017 parliamentary submission provides an overview of United Front groups in Australia; Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons proposes an influence ‘template’ illustrated in the New Zealand case; Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu’s ongoing collaboration on the CCP’s influence activities in Central-Eastern Europe has described a piece of the Czech United Front puzzle.

The United Front is not, however, the only avenue for Xi’s extension of the CCP’s domestic and diasporic control tactics to the global domain. The Propaganda system seeks to obtain global ‘discourse power’ through tactics that range from attempted extraterritorial censorship to overt and covert propaganda outlets. (An Icelandic version of the latter once attracted some attention.)

From Stalin to Xi

The ILD is another tool of foreign influence. Like other core areas of the political system, the ILD traces its origins to the Soviet management of the world Communist movement. One or more departments governing relations with fellow Communist parties (in power or not) are a feature of Leninist systems. The ILD is similar in name to a secretive Comintern intelligence agency (Отдел международных связей). Post-Comintern, its Soviet analogue was Stalin’s International Department (Международный отдел). The predecessors of the Chinese ILD were Party sections that conducted relations with the Comintern, and later an office whose functions included “researching the revolutionary potential” of Eastern countries and the diaspora. The Department was formally established in 1951. The Sino-Soviet split made it focus on aggressively countering the USSR, supporting splinter groups against orthodox pro-Soviet parties. After the Cultural Revolution, it turned to restoring relations with an expanding circle of Communist and, since the mid-1980s, non-Communist parties. As the DV piece remembers, Geng Biao 耿飚, once an envoy to Scandinavia, visited Iceland in 1979 as vice premier, months after leaving his post as head of the ILD.)


Vísir, 8 June 1979, one day before the end of Geng Biao’s visit. Source: Tímarit.

True to its nearly centenary history, the modern ILD still maintains especially close relations with Communist parties, in particular those in power. The current ILD chief, Song Tao, is often involved in high-level contacts with North Korea. While contacts with mainstream politicians are increasingly frequent, the ILD continues to nurture relations with even insignificant foreign Communist parties, such as the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), whose vice president was invited to Karl Marx’s 200th birthday party in Shenzhen, organised by the ILD.

Contrary to the impression some Icelandic MPs seem to have received, the ILD’s functions go beyond weather talk. Shambaugh’s classic study of the ILD lists among its tasks “collecting current intelligence“ on the politics and societies of foreign countries. Brady lists the ILD among the main Party-state organisations recruiting intelligence agents abroad. Gitter and Bowie note the role of the ILD and its front groups in efforts to “constrain” Taiwan’s diplomacy. A candid view of the ILD’s intelligence role was provided in the Czech intelligence service BIS’s 2015 annual report:

In 2015, the dominant Chinese intelligence force in the Czech Republic was military intelligence, whose activities supplemented the efforts of a specific Chinese intelligence organisation, the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party. This is an agency under the Central Committee of the CCP, whose remit includes, besides foreign relations, intelligence activities.

This assessment has not deterred many Czech politicians from making the ILD their main point of contact during visits to the PRC.

The rise of the New Comintern

Xi’s global expansion of the CCP’s toolkit is accelerating the ILD’s embrace of foreign ‘bourgeois’ parties. However, not everyone wants to play along; in the West, each ‘friendly’ contact achieved with the political mainstream, like the Reykjavík meeting, is still significant. In Western Europe, post-Communist and other leftist parties are still the ILD’s best friends. Last July, ILD director Song Tao and vice director Qian Hongshan 钱洪山 received a delegation from the Party of the European Left, led by Gregor Gysi of Die Linke who heaped praise on the CCP as a model for European left-wing parties to learn from.

In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), managed by the same ILD bureau as the post-Soviet space, old Communist ties still survive to some extent and provide a basis for the rightward growth of ‘friendly contacts’. The ILD’s favourite interlocutor in the Czech Republic is the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM, Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy). Last year, the Party’s current Chairman, Vojtěch Filip, listed as an agent under the cover name “Falmer” in Communist-era Secret Police (StB) files, even posed for a picture with ILD head Song Tao 宋涛 for a promotional calendar distributed by the PRC embassy in Prague that highlighted major achievements in the newfound Sino-Czech Friendship.


Czech Communist leader Vojtěch Filip (“Falmer”) with ILD head Song Tao in 2016. Source: PRC Embassy in Prague

Like in Iceland, the ILD’s visits to the Czech Republic are sometimes only reluctantly publicised. In November 2016, ILD sent their “assistant minister” (部长助理) Li Jun 李军 to the annual China Investment Forum in Prague, after PM Li Keqiang abruptly cancelled his visit over the growth of local anti-CCP sentiment that followed a series of embarrassing incidents. His sudden appearance was not publicly announced, and even the event organisers were at loss as to his status, apparently not figuring out in the protocol that he was now the most senior Chinese visitor, far above the Chinese ambassador.

Similarly, when Jan Hamáček of the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), who as Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies is the fourth highest constitutional figure, attended the ILD-organised “Meeting of Political Parties from China and CEE” (中国—中东欧政党对话会) in Bucharest the following year, there was no public record of him even leaving the country. Only after Sinopsis broke the story did sketchy details emerge.

The Bucharest gathering was also interesting in other respects. It was already the second such meeting bringing together representatives from various CEE political parties and ILD cadres. The first one took place in Budapest, Hungary, a year earlier. The Bucharest meeting was attended, on the Chinese side, by Liu Yunshan 刘云山, at that point the 5th-ranking CCP Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of ideology. (He has since been sidelined.) On the CEE side, there was a mixture of parties ranging from the usual (post-)Communist suspects to more opportunistic friends, such as the Polish People’s Party (PSL, Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe).

All hail humankind‘s shared New Era

Neither “16+1” meeting of political parties was much publicised. They were, in fact, rehearsals for the big-time event, the “World Political Parties Dialogue” held by the ILD in Beijing in December 2017 under a somewhat clumsy title: Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting (中国共产党与世界政党高层对话会). This was, in essence, an ILD coming-out party, showing its power to convene representatives of, supposedly, 300 political parties from 120 countries (a full list was never made public). A previously secretive organization came out into the limelight.

The purpose of the meeting was to reach nothing less than a consensus on the future of humankind. That task apparently went smoothly, with a healthy dose of lecturing on the spirit the 19th Congress. Participants got copies of Xi Jinping’s book. The new consensus for the future of mankind was then enshrined in the “Beijing Initiative (北京倡议)”. It “applauds” Xi‘s “full and rigorous governance” of the Party, improving its “ability to govern and lead” and generate “historic achievements” and other desirable effects. Attendees called for “win-win cooperation” before expressing their “heartfelt appreciation” for the ILD.

Two Antipodean visitors to the Dialogue may provide a taste of humankind’s brave new Shared Future. From New Zealand Labour Party president Nigel Haworth, noted for his praise of Xi Jinping’s “wise leadership”, spoke highly of Xi’s “very brave step” as he tries to “lead the world”. Former Australian Labor politician Bob Carr, who now heads a CCP-‘optimistic’ institution set up with UF-linked donations, was also there.


Bob Carr with then ILD assistant director Wang Yajun on the sidelines of the CPC “dialogue”, 2 Dec 2017. Source: ILD.

The “summit” illustrated the ILD’s innovative concept of “friendly contacts” without ideological constraints. Unlike its Soviet and Maoist predecessors, the facelifted ILD will not just make friends with Communist and revolutionary parties. In the “New Era”, it will work with whoever implicitly recognises the CCP’s role in a “Community of Shared Future for Humankind”, without necessarily understanding what that actually means. Cooptation tactics become truly universal, with the ILD as a central hinge.

Beyond intelligence gathering and ‘weather talk’, the ILD plays a role in the CCP’s efforts to shape global discourse and build an international consensus endorsing its authoritarian political system. Foreign political parties, from Bucharest to Reykjavík, aren’t its only targets. As the next piece in this series will show, the ILD’s purview within the Xiist discourse-management enterprise extends well beyond professional politics. The propaganda goods Iceland’s MPs delivered to the ILD fall, however, within a newly-normal genre: what Gitter calls “push[ing] China’s vision of the future” with politicians both in power and opposition, building up “reserves of foreign influencers” able to ensure long-term CCP-friendly policies.

All the world’s a stage

After news of the ILD visit became known, Björn Bjarnason wrote a post on his blog, intended as a “supplement” to his Morgunblaðið article on Chinese “pressure”. Comparing the ILD’s official account of the meeting to the explanations by Icelandic participants, Björn notes that the latter might not have been aware that they were “actually taking part in a scene staged on behalf of the Communist Party”. What they saw as a “courtesy visit where they talked about the weather” was presented in China as “promoting Xi Jinping Thought to Iceland’s political parties”.

Plays so staged that foreign and local audiences may perceive them differently are the Party’s trademark. For years, the CCP has sustained such differential messaging in the Arctic, exploiting a general lack of familiarity with China and its political system. If Iceland and other countries in the region intend to preserve their interests in asymmetric relations with China, their political, business and scientific élites may wish to understand their counterparts better. As long as only the CCP knows what’s going on, ‘win-win cooperation’ will mean it wins twice.

[Thanks to Geoff Wade and Anne-Marie Brady]



UN with Chinese Characteristics: Elite Capture and Discourse Management on a global scale

[By Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu; also published on China Digital Times]

The PRC’s involvement in UN affairs has been on the rise in recent years. It has become one of the largest contributors to the organisation, in terms of both funds and soldiers. Now it wants influence. 

True to its attention to propaganda, the CCP has made it a major goal of its UN work to maximise its ‘discursive power’ at the organisation, seeking to redefine ‘human rights’ and get Xi Jinping’s pet initiatives institutionally endorsed by an international body. These goals, repeatedly stated by authoritative sources, are being pursued through both diplomacy and other means. 

Specialised CCP organs like the United Front Work Department and party-linked entities like CEFC employ some unorthodox tactics. These tactics, including elite capture and bribery, are applied both locally in vulnerable countries, and globally at the world’s foremost multilateral body. Some actors flawlessly span the whole range from individual East European and African states all the way to top UN officials. Evidence from recent court cases suggests a pattern of global interference combining both local and global “political work”.


The UN talks the Xi-Talk

Growing Chinese influence has made UN officials more and more willing to explicitly support the CCP’s political, economic and purely propagandistic projects. The PRC has managed to pass two resolutions at the Human Rights Council (HRC). The most recent one, in March, promoted “mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights”together with such illustrious champions of said field as Eritrea, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela. The first resolution invoked a favourite concept of Xi Jinping’s, the “community of shared future”, thus officially making  Xi-speak (习语) part of the UN lingo. 

Controlling discourse at the UN human-rights system has been a priority for the CCP since the PR-debacle it suffered post-Tian’anmen. Tactics to impose “human rights with Chinese characteristics” have ranged from usual diplomacy to more characteristic intimidation. A central goal is to obstruct the work of NGOs within the UN system, embedding the CCP’s abhorrence of civil society into a new global ‘human-rights’ normal. 

In what a former HRC special rapporteur has called a “Trojan horse”, the vague ‘win-win’ language in the UN resolutions channels a state-centric approach that sees human rights as primarily the rights of rulers. Not long ago, the CCP had to rely on a few bizarre characters to promote its ‘human rights’ redefinition: from Tom Zwart, a Dutch academic who finds talk of repression “unfair to the progress in human rights under Xi”, to a mysterious  “Human Rights Co., Ltd” of New South Wales. The HRC is now part of that club and this language infiltrates its resolutions. The US withdrawal from the Council will further accelerate this process. 


The PRC joins like-minded states in the pursuit of mutual benefit. Source: UNHRC.

Xi Jinping’s ‘discursive power (话语权)’ isn’t limited to the human-rights system. International endorsements of Xi’s pet ‘Belt and Road’ initiative (BRI) are a major goal of propaganda efforts involving media, domestic and foreign like-minded think tanks, and various multilateral organisations. “Multilateralist” language has indeed been recognised as a tool to “dispel misgivings” about Xi’s geopolitical project. When conducting “external propaganda [对外宣传, exoprop]”, instead of haranguing countries to “participate in the construction of the ‘Belt and Road’”, implying a leading role for China, one should call for countries to “cooperate” in such construction: with China, but also “with each other, multilaterally”. China’s Belt and Road should not be called “China’s Belt and Road”; “let us stress ‘us’, not ‘me’”. The predilection for the term ‘initiative’ over ‘strategy’ in external propaganda reflects this: although we don’t deny that the Belt and Road is part of the national strategy, when “propagandising and explaining it” abroad we can’t call it “a national strategy led by one country”: “would a country want to participate in another’s national strategy?” In this quest for multilateral-sounding backing, the UN was the big prize.


Discourse management at the UNDP

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) provided a suitable avenue. In early 2015, in a journal under the State Council Development Research Center (DRC, 国务院发展研究中心),  Wang Yiwei 王义桅, a senior BRI-proselytising academic with his own column on the People’s Daily theory website, advocated “integrating the Belt and Road into the [UNDP] Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, implementing the 18th Party Congress ‘Five-in-One’ [五位一体] concept” and “building a green Silk Road”. Propaganda portal Zhongguo wang 中国网 reposted Wang’s article on 4 May, coinciding with a Beijing visit by the head of the UNDP, former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark. Talking to state media, Clark was at that point still non- committal about BRI. She was more receptive towards efforts to associate BRI with the UNDP 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Less than a month after the Agenda’s adoptionshe told Xi and others in Beijing that China’s “commitment” to his BRI project helped make the country “a major contributor to development co-operation”. 

On the same trip, she had a chance to discuss BRI and an attendant discourse-management endeavour, the Silk Road Think-Tank Network (丝路国际智库网络), at the signature of an agreement with the DRC.  By early 2016, an SIIS paper was already celebrating the expected propaganda milestone: the convergence between BRI and the Sustainable Development Agenda “helps China obtain more discursive power and influence within the new international system of development governance and even the entire global governance architecture.” Mid-year, Xi himself linked BRI to the Agenda at a meeting with secretary general Ban Ki-moon. The Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), a UN department described by a European diplomat as “a Chinese enterprise”, endorsed the BRI-Agenda link in a study commissioned by the PRC State Information Center (SIC, 国家信息中心) and written by a DESA employee who began his career at the SIC’s predecessor entity. 

In September, now campaigning for UN secretary general, Clark signed a memorandum with the National Development and Research Commission “to enhance collaboration” for the “implementation” of BRI and the Agenda, this time literally pledging the organisation’s “support for the Belt and Road Initiative”. Clark praised Xi’s Initiative, a “powerful platform” that “can serve as an important catalyst and accelerator for the sustainable development goals”. Clark would later deny any connection between her support for BRI and her campaign for the top UN job, during which her successor as New Zealand prime minister helpfully opined she was “recognised as a friend of China”. She lost (ironically blocked by, among others, China), but the winner, António Guterres, endorsed BRI at the 2017 Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Post-Clark, UNDP has preserved her Xiist legacy.


Li Wei 李伟, head of the Development Research Center of the State Council, and then UNDP Administrator Helen Clark oversee the signature of an MoU, October 2015. Source: DRC.

Guterres’ promotion of BRI as a useful tool to fight poverty blissfully disregards multiplestudies warning that the Initiative can lead poor countries into a “debt trap”. Perhaps the same logic lies behind his praise for the PRC’s diplomatic efforts in solving the Korean crisis, despite its violation of UN sanctions by shipping oil to North Korea.


CEFC at work locally and globally 

The CCP presumably owes these propaganda victories at the UN to good old diplomatic horse trading, sheer economic size and some harassment. But its growing influence has also been accompanied by a striking, unprecedented phenomenon: a series of corruption scandals reaching to the top levels of the organisation. Surfacing cases of bribery raise suspicions that China is effectively buying the UN, top down. 

This approach appears to mirror at a global level the PRC’s tactics in its bilateral relationships with individual states, especially the more vulnerable ones in Africa, Latin America, SE Asia and Eastern Europe. “Elite capture” in many of these countries has been accompanied by reports of and court indictments for outright corruption at the highest political level. Moreover, reported cases of global and local corruption intertwine, linked by specific actors operating both at the level of nation states and the UN system. Among these, perhaps the most curious is a mysterious Chinese conglomerate called CEFC. Various parts of the company have been connected with elite capture in Eastern Europetop-level political corruption in Africa, and bribery at the UN headquarters in New York. 

The director of CEFC’s non-profit subsidiary, former Hong Kong official Patrick Ho (何志平), was indicted last year in the US, accused of bribing several African politicians, including Ugandan foreign minister Sam Kutesa, former president of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Coinciding with his arrest, CEFC donated 1 million USD to the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA, the UN organ described as “a Chinese enterprise”). Just a day after Ho’s arrest, both the UN secretary general and UNGA president excused themselves from attending the ceremony to award a $1m DESA grant with “funding support” from CEFC. But DESA still kept the money.

According to the indictment, Patrick Ho had 500 000 USD wired to an account chosen by Kutesa, months after making CEFC chairman Ye Jianming, Ho’s boss, his “special honorary advisor” as UNGA president. (Kutesa denies the allegation.) Ho has been quoted as claiming that the case is not just against him, but against CEFC and the Belt and Road.


Sam Kutesa, UN General Assembly president, CEFC chairman Ye Jianming and his second in command, Chan Chauto 陈秋途 at Ye’s appointment as advisor. August 2015. Source.

Earlier that year, in April 2015, Ye had been appointed “economic advisor” to Czech president Miloš Zeman. (Except for one news item on the Chinese internet, Ye’s Czech appointment would remain unreported until September that year.) Ye Jianming is currently being held by the Chinese authorities at an unknown location.


Vratislav Mynář, head of the office of Czech president Miloš Zeman, Ye Jianming and Chan Chauto at Ye’s appointment as advisor. April 2015. Source.


Serial Corruption at the UNGA

Remarkably, these accusations against CEFC are already the second case of a UNGA’s president bribed by Chinese entities. Last May, Macau tycoon Ng Lap Seng 吴立胜 was sentenced to 4 years in prison for bribing Kutesa’s predecessor as UNGA president, the Antiguan John Ashe, and a Dominican deputy ambassador to the UN, Francis Lorenzo. The indictment claimed that Ng spent more than $1.3m to get the UN to support the construction of a large UN conference centre in Macau; in exchange for bribe money, Ashe and Lorenzo submitted to the UN secretary general a document stating that the conference centre would “support the UN’s global development goals”. In other words, Ng’s bribery had similar goals to those pursued by the PRC through usual diplomatic channels (with the addition of direct profit for Ng’s company). Ashe died while awaiting trial. Ng claimed the case was politically motivated. He was found guilty on all counts.

At the time he bribed Ashe and Lorenzo, Ng was a sitting member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an advisory body part the United Front system that did not expel him despite his arrest. He was not reappointed last January.

CEFC also interacted with Ashe. In 2014, DESA and CEFC’s think tank co-organised an event about China’s urbanisation plans, with PRC academics as speakers, Patrick Ho as moderator and Ashe as “officiating guest”. An announcement for the event published by DESA, written in a style somewhat resembling Ho’s own, asserts CEFC’s dedication to “the post-2015 development goals”. The event was hailed by PRC state media. Not three months earlier, Ashe had attended a CEFC-organised “Luncheon talk” in Hong Kong, where he delivered a speech titled “The Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage!”. 


UNGA president John Ashe, bribed by CPPCC member Ng Lap Seng, with CEFC chairman Ye Jianming at a CEFC event in Hong Kong. April 2014. Source.

CEFC has also cultivated Ashe’s predecessor, Vuk Jeremić, former Serbian minister of foreign affairs. After he left office in 2013, the Chinese company hired him as a consultant. His cooperation with CEFC included “[d]iscussing […] China and the New Silk Road” with Patrick Ho, who lectured at Jeremić’s think tank on BRI and the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda. Jeremić also moderated a CEFC event with Wang Yiwei, the BRI-UN harmonisation advocate cited above, and a Silk and Road forum with DRC director Li Wei as keynote speaker. Serbian media claim CEFC has donated money to Jeremić’s think tank.


The Australian connection

Two consecutive UNGA presidents being bribed is hardly a coincidence. Moreover, the Ashe and Kutesa cases are personally linked: Kutesa’s wife was a board member at the Global Sustainable Development Foundation, an organisation used by Sheri Yan (严时玮), the “Queen of the Australia-China social scene”, to bribe Ashe “in exchange for official actions […] to benefit several Chinese businessmen”. The arrangement, which began before Ashe’s presidency, and continued through and after it, involved Ashe’s appointment as (remunerated) “honorary chairman” of the Foundation and its later reincarnation, the Global Sustainability Foundation. She pled guilty in 2016 and was handed a 20-month sentence.

In China, Yan’s Foundation enjoyed a disproportionate degree of access given its novelty and vacuity. Two months before Yan’s arrest, Chinese media reported, the Foundation bestowed an appointment to a former Shenzhen propaganda chief and counsellor to the State Council at no less a venue than the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. Sheri Yan was there, accompanying not Ashe but his successor Kutesa. Yan has used her CCP connections to facilitate Australian access in China, and, allegedly, vice versa: an Australian media investigation claims she “introduced an alleged Chinese spy to her Australian contacts”.

Yan’s Ashe-pampering included arranging for the dignitary to attend a private conference in his official capacity, hosted by “a real-estate developer” whom the indictment names only as “C[o-]C[onspirator]-3”, who was not himself charged. “One of [CC-3]’s companies” paid Ashe a $200k fee for his attendance. Although it doesn’t name him, the indictment (p. 33 ff.) provides sufficient information to identify CC-3. As open, authoritative sources show, the date for the conference (17 Nov 2013), where Ashe “gave a speech”, points to the event held at a venue provided by Kingold Group (侨鑫集团), owned by Chinese-Australian billionaire Chau Chak Wing 周泽荣. Its official agenda, in Chinese and English, shows both Ashe and Chau spoke at the event; the official Kingold website also bilingually summarises his speech. The event was widely reported online by state media, in Chinese (CCP News) and English (China Daily). In short, if the quotes in the US indictment are correct, CC-3 is indeed Chau. 

Chau has sued local journalist John Garnaut for defamation over a piece that reached similar conclusions. Based on the reasoning above, however, Chau’s identification, which Garnaut claims to have confirmed with additional sources, can only be called solid journalism. Moreover, Andrew Hastie, chairman of the Australian parliament’s joint intelligence and security committee, recently confirmed he had learnt “from US authorities” that CC-3 is Chau, and that he had not been indicted for “reasons that are best not disclosed”. Chau, whose links to the United Front system are well-documented, has generously donated to both sides of Australian politics, as well as to various causes. 

As quoted in the US indictment, “CC-3” seemed to share the PRC’s interest in UN affairs: Ashe’s “sincere friend” in Guangdong “has the pleasure to offer you a permanent convention venue for the UN meetings on the sustainability and climate changes [sic] in the efforts to fully realize the Millennium Development Goals.”


New world a-comin’…

Despite charges of high-level bribery, the non-profit subsidiary of CEFC, China Energy Fund Committee, 中华能源基金委员会), still holds the title of special consultant to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC), whose current chair is Czech diplomat Marie Chatardová.

Czech President Zeman has supported Chatarodová both for the ECOSOC position and as possible minister for minister of foreign affairs in discussions on cabinet formation. Zeman, known for his pro-Beijing stance, has not dismissed his own honorary advisor, the ex-chairman of CEFC, Ye Jianming, who is now detained by the Chinese authorities at an unknown location. Similarly, the non-profit wing of CEFC remains in ECOSOC even as its leader Patrick Ho lingers in US custody on corruption charges. 


ECOSOC chair Marie Chatardová with Czech President Miloš Zeman. New York, September 2017. Source.

Chatardová and other high-ranking UN officials had been declining to comment on the situation despite repeated requests from Inner City Press, a project specialised in investigative journalism within international institutions such as the UN or the World Bank. 

After repeated inquiries from both Inner City Press and Czech media, the UN finally released a statement on June 5 explaining that Chatardová could not have done anything to dismiss CEFC, as that power lies with member states. Further communication with the Czech mission at the UN clarified that the corruption charges against one of their associates have not even been discussed at ECOSOC. The only official body interested in the corruption at the top of the UN seems to be the FBI.

It is hard not to see a connection between the corruption cases in the United Nations and the rise of China’s “discursive power” in the organisation. As top UN officials get arrested for corruption by Chinese actors, the global body increasingly adopts Beijing’s narrative on a new “Globalisation 2.0”, epitomised by the Belt and Road Initiative. The strange happenings at the UN could indeed offer glimpses of this new world coming. 

[Edit (Jul 2): “CCP News website” to “People’s Daily theory website”.]

My name is Wu, James Wu: The United Front in the Czech Republic

[By Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu]

The Czech president’s bromance with CEFC has most saliently illustrated the intensity of CCP influence in the country’s high politics, teeming with links to the Party’s International Liaison Department (ILD). However, in the shadow of this high drama, the United Front (UF) system, famous for its Antipodean prowess, is also active in the Czech Republic, cultivating lower-level decision makers below the media radar. There are many foot soldiers in this more pedestrian side show, but one in particular stands out. His name is Wu. James Wu.

Czech president Miloš Zeman famously appointed CEFC chairman Ye Jianming 叶简明 as his ‘advisor’. Ostensibly a private businessman, Ye has been linked to CAIFC, a ‘friendly contact’ organization under the Central Military Commission’s Liaison Department. CEFC has since fallen out of favour, in what some interpret as a move to prevent international bribery allegations involving the company from reaching the Party itself (‘forsaking a soldier to save the general’ (舍率保帅) was the idiom chosen by Chinese writer Yu Jie 余杰). CEFC’s Czech creditors and CITIC, involved in its nationalization, are now fighting over its local assets. (Oblivious to the debacle, Zeman still officially keeps ‘friendly contact’ Ye at his advisory post, without clarifying what advice can possibly be sent from an undisclosed location where the Chairman is now held for internal Party investigation.) Apart from Zeman’s peculiar choice of advisors, the Party’s International Liaison Department (ILD) can also boast of friendly exchanges with the Czech political élite.

The ILD’s friendly Czech liaising with political elites have left the United Front with smaller fish to fry, but its role within the CCP’s foreign policy shouldn’t be underestimated. Discreet contacts with local organizations attempt to make ties and deals faits accomplis before the media notices, thus preempting what Beijing’s propaganda officials call the ‘China threat theory’ (中国威胁论). In decentralized administrations and free media environments, such local work can provide better results than the kind of high-level engagement seen in Cambodia, Chad or at Prague Castle. Top level politicians get voted out of power; grassroots links often tend to prove more durable.

A discussion of UF tactics in the Czech Republic  can hardly avoid acknowledging the common Stalinist heritage. After some reluctance, the CCP came to like the UF policy imposed on it (cogently expounded by Stalin in 1927). It greatly expanded it, turning it into a tool to co-opt not just the political parties typical of the Leninist concept, but also business groups, religions and secret societies. Meanwhile, Czechoslovakia also got its ‘national front’ as a gift from Uncle Joe, as an increasingly Communist-led coalition after the war, destined to eventually demote its non-Communist partners to an ancillary role. Despite Mao’s claims that the CCP had become independent of the Comintern by the mid-’30s, as late as 1947 he wrote to Stalin about his wish to “study the work of the national front” in Eastern Europe. In the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the region, Beijing’s UF work just brings back home a tactic that should sound vaguely familiar. The Xiist ‘Community of Common Destiny’ (命运共同体) Czech politicians recently signed up for at the ILD’s invitation could perhaps be better called a ‘Community of a resurgent Comintern’.


Making friends in Olomouc

Olomouc, a city of 100 000, is mainly known for its historical landmarks. Less well-known is the flourishing of a provincial version of the Czech-China druzhba that brings together local Czech politicians and Chinese businesspeople with colorful connections. In cooperation with the independent media outlet Hlídací pes, Sinopsis has mapped a web of local connections all going back to one man, James Wu (Wu Ruizhen 吴瑞珍). Strange things happen. Town squares in Prague get blocked from protestors. Provincial “embassies” of the region are being opened in China.


Olomouc “embassy” to Fujian. Source: CECDC.

The first time Wu, originally from Fujian province, appeared in Czech media was in 2008, when he lost his goods to a fire at an Asian market in Prague. His name resurfaced again in 2016, when one of his “trade” organizations booked prominent public spaces during Xi Jinping’s visit in Prague, thus effectively blocking protesters from meeting the general secretary face to face. Wu founded the Czech-Chinese Trade Association in 2009, but left it two years later and established another organization, the China-Europe Cooperation and Development Center.



A presentation on the Olomouc office in Fujian, by Roman Spáčil and James Wu.


The Office was run at the Czech end by an Olomouc businessman, Roman Spáčil. He was  introduced to Wu by a senator ) for SPO, a party based on personal loyalty to President Zeman. He was also behind the establishment of an Olomouc “embassy” in Fujian, an institution with the stated primary goal of strengthening the cultural and trade relations between the two provinces. All with the financial and political support of the local government.


Roman Spáčil with James Wu. Ca. 2015. Source: CECDC.

Wu and Spáčil had big plans for the institution, but for no clear reason (all parties give different explanations) nothing came out of it and today there is only scarce information about what the Center is actually working on—if anything. The local government is unable to name any benefits of the above mentioned “embassy” or its current activities, three years after its establishment. According to Spáčil, it is Wu who is still responsible for the institution, now using the name Economic and Trade Coordination Centre of Olomouc Region. In his own words:  “It is all about making contacts. Also, there is no concrete project we could cooperate on.” At the same time, Wu claims to be the representative of Olomouc government in Fujian province in his own bio.


Good relations are the key

Wu’s main quality seems to be his ability to make contacts, as his former partner confirms:

“James has very good, even excellent long-term relations with top-level Fujian officials. I have started working on my other projects and we parted our ways,” says Spáčil. He also adds that Wu demanded as much access to Czech politicians as possible and to get pictures taken with them, which Spáčil rejected.


James Wu gets his picture taken with former PM Petr Nečas. 2016.

Excellent relations with top-level Fujian officials are also mentioned in documents prepared for the founding of the “embassy”, quoted by Hlídací pes.

Wu’s bio on the website of the European Confederation of Fujian Associations (欧洲福建侨团联合总会) can shed light on his prominence in United Front activities. Out of more than twenty members of the institution, Wu boasts the longest CV (most of the others only have photos next to their names). Only Dong An 董安, the chairman of the German Fujian Association, comes close.


Navigating the diaspora

James Wu graduated from Jimei University (集美大学) in Xiamen with a degree in maritime navigation. After school he worked at a Hong Kong logistics company, Orient Overseas Container Lines (OOCL). In 1997 he moved to Prague and entered the luxury furniture and shoe businesses. Since 2006, he has been “participating in events” organized by the the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council (OCAO, known by its abridged Chinese name Qiaoban 侨办), first at its Shanghai branch and later at the national and other regional levels. The Qiaoban, which, like many state organs, exists at the national, province and municipality levels, coordinates Overseas Chinese affairs (Qiaowu 侨务) across the PRC government.

Qiaowu is a major domain of CCP policy, dealing both with PRC citizens living abroad and foreign nationals of Chinese ancestry. James To, the author of the most complete study of the subject, describes Qiaowu as “a massive operation involving incorporation and co-optation of the [Overseas Chinese] at every level of society, and managing their behaviour and perceptions through incentive or disincentive to suit the situation and structural circumstances that the CCP desires”. Qiaowu is also a major aspect of United Front work: the United Front Work Department (UFWD) has always had a central role in guiding diaspora policy, now undergoing further institutional consolidation. Under Xi’s ongoing restructuring of the Party-state, the Qiaoban will cease to exist as a government organ to be absorbed into the UFWD, a Party department.


United Front tour on the way to the Expo

In 2010, Wu led a delegation of Czech businesspeople to the Shanghai Expo. “Along the way” they visited several local offices of the Qiaoban, the UFWD and the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce in Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Fujian. Everywhere they “established friendly cooperation relations”.

The UF system’s official recognition of Wu’s role came soon afterwards, through the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The CPPCC, a major UF body with committees at multiple levels of administration, has an “advisory” role to the government, and mostly consists of representatives of extra-Party groups vetted by the UFWD. Between 2012 and 2016, Wu was a member of the city-level committee of the CPPCC in Ningde 宁德, a municipality of 3 million in northern Fujian that includes his hometown.

His CPPCC role did not, however, stop at the city level. In 2013, he helped organize a visit to the Czech Republic by Zhang Changping 张昌平, then chairman of the Fujian province CPPCC. Wu’s bio claims he himself attended the Fujian CPPCC three times as a non-voting delegate, an important recognition. In an endorsement of his work in the Czech Republic, last year Yang Gensheng 杨根生, a vice chairman of the Fujian CPPCC, and the PRC ambassador attended the opening of the Czech-Fujian Association (捷克福建同乡会) presided by Wu.


Fujian CPPCC vice chairman attends the opening of the Czech-Fujian Association presided by James Wu. Prague, May 2017. Source: Ningde Qiaoban.

Wu himself says that he is now mainly focused on projects in Fujian through the China-Europe Cooperation and Development Center, but at the same time willing to help with culture exchange and other activities beneficial to Czech-Chinese friendship.


An accomplished networker

Wu keeps getting awards, praise, invitations and appointments from the Chinese authorities. Last January, his bio claims, he received an award for extraordinary individual contribution at the Belt and Road International Talents Award Ceremony from the hands of former vice-ministers of commerce and foreign affairs. The same month, he was invited to a Chinese New Year Celebration for senior retired officials and PLA officers, co-organized by popular spirit brand Kweichou Moutai.


Martial entertainment at a booze-themed VIP gala attended by James Wu. Beijing, January 2018. Source: Moutai.

Months ago, Wu appeared to jump across the division of labour among Sino-Czech influencers, rising from his United Front world to approach an orbit around CEFC. According to his bio, in February he became vice-chairman of the World Fujian Youth Organization. Another prominent Fujianese active in the Czech Republic, Chan Chauto (Chen Qiutu 陈秋途) was appointed chairman of the body. Chan was president of CEFC, a corporation plagued by corruption scandals at the UN and in Africa, until apparently falling from the CCP’s grace in recent months.

CEFC president Chan Chauto, Fujian CPPCC chairman Zhang Changping and James Wu.  Xiamen, September 2016. Source.

Before Ye Jianming’s fall, Wu claimed plans to cooperate with CEFC and praised its “grand” projects. He was looking for “the right time and the right project”; they just never came. Now that the tide has turned against CEFC, he might choose his words more carefully. As the CEFC saga has taught us, the CCP’s highest awards are no guarantee of permanent favour. Chairman Ye, disappeared since last winter, could surely confirm that. If CEFC’s flamboyance had a role in its undoing, United Frontlings like James Wu might want to stick to their more discreet approach.

great minds think alike: the People’s Daily (mis)copies Lulu

An early April story by Kou Jie 寇杰 for the English-language People’s Daily website (“Breaking the ice: China’s entry in the Arctic region”) displays remarkable similarities with my early February piece for CPI Analysis (“The Arctic White Paper and China’s Arctic Strategy”). Viz.,

me, February:


An Arctic strategy document had long been expected. Internationally, China’s silence contrasted with Arctic policy papers published by fellow non-Arctic players: South Korea’s 2013 Arctic Strategy Master Plan (북극정책 기본계획), the Arctic sections of Japan’s 2013 Ocean Policy Master Plan (海洋基本計画) and the 2015 Arctic Policy (我が国の北極政策), the German and Italian Guidelines, among others.


Peep’s Deli, April:


The document had long been expected, as China’s non-Arctic players, including South Korea and Japan, established the Arctic Strategy Master Plan in 2013 and Arctic Policy in 2015 respectively.

—and again:

Lulu, Feb:


Proper emphasis is placed on opening trade routes and exploiting natural resources, recapitulating two known pillars of Chinese polar policy.

Peep’s, Apr:


In the document, China has emphasized its interests in opening trade routes and exploring natural resources as well as recapitulating two known pillars of its polar policy which are in line with the needs of many Arctic countries.

It will not escape the astute reader that the august Peep’s chose to steal the most innocuous bits of my piece, rather than its substance, which mostly deals with aspects of the PRC’s Arctic policy the January white paper doesn’t discuss. Another topic was the paper’s reception among those relying on exoprop materials, of which Kou’s less-than-fully-original article is itself a specimen.

The journalistic standards of exoprop media are well known, which makes ‘expert’ reliance on them even more telling. An interesting example of cheating readers and interviewees involves a China Daily op-ed attributed to a person who didn’t write it. But cheating higher-ups on the successes of propaganda efforts is also common. Memorious readers will remember this case at China Radio International I described in 2015 (“China’s state media and the outsourcing of soft power”, CPI Analysis):

In the 2009 article quoted above, CRI head Wang Gengnian bragged about how during the previous year the state broadcaster had “received more than 2.7 million letters and emails from listeners in 161 countries and regions.” At least for those countries and regions served through the Finland-based affiliate, that figure might not be entirely reliable: a Danish former employee wrote that, short of the reader reactions CRI demanded to see about their 2008 ‘Two Sessions’ coverage, the outfit’s staff simply penned a few themselves and submitted them to Beijing.

Indeed, the entire ‘borrowed boat’ / fake-foreign-reporter business is only successful as a charade meant to entertain the internal exoprop bureaucracy. Its actual propaganda value is negligible or negative, as these exercises often backfire. A recent example, the ‘eye-roll of the century’, was recently described in some length by Victor Mair in a guest post for this blog.

In another incident, China Daily online editor-in-chief Han Lei 韩蕾 reported last year in a piece posted on the website of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC, 国家互联网信息办公室) that the outlet had recruited nearly 200 foreign think-tankers to write “more than 300” op-eds “to influence more overseas audiences and explain China’s story well” (CAC, April 2017; partial translation by C.A. Yeung posted to a microblogging site). Such prowess had been achieved through “cooperation” with foreign think tanks, including the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. However, no evidence of such op-eds by Lowy-affiliated scholars could be found besides the fabricated piece referred to above, and a person from the institute, responding to Leung, called Han’s claims “[f]alse”.

Even more instructive is an incident involving higher-level authorities, the Confucius Institutes, a dubious ‘survey’ and the universally loved China Daily, resulting in multiple reports in English and Chinese repeating some remarkable linguistic claims. (The following paragraphs are an edited form of my earlier comments on Language Log, where the incident was discussed.)

A recent post by Victor Mair (“The language impact of the Confucius Institutes“) enigmatically proposed a list of pinyin words and phrases from a China Daily article. These had supposedly become known among foreigners, but the list included some Xiist Newspeak items that even people with some exposure to Chinese couldn’t recognise. As it emerged in the comments, the whole exercise was a manifestation of internal processes of the exoprop bureaucracy: a rather peculiar ‘survey‘ had been produced to prove the success of “people-to-people exchanges” mandated by Central Committee injunction (《关于加强和改进中外人文交流工作的若干意见》). The ‘survey’ was in turn used to produce positive-energy news stories that eventually reached the China Daily.

This involved writing, presumably with a straight face, that a Mandarin term sometimes translated as ‘Sincerity, Practical Results, Affinity and Good Faith’ (zhēn-shí-qīn-chéng 真实亲诚) enjoys 10.3% awareness in the Anglosphere, and is in fact better known among English speakers than the word for ‘dumpling’. To obtain such auspicious results, the “survey” was blended with online media searches. Another remarkable item: fèng 凤 ‘phoenix’ (36.7% awareness in India). What sort of “survey” can make toneless pinyin feng (as opposed to fenghuang (fènghuáng 凤凰)) recognisable as ‘phoenix’? Once you get 0 ‘awareness’ of feng=phoenix from a (hypothetical) survey with actual (hypothetical) people, how do you even design a biased online search to raise that to 36.7%, specifically in India? The Xi-speak item Mingyun gongtongti 命运共同体 (now officially translated as ‘community of shared future’; recently discussed by Nadège Rolland (“Beijing’s vision for a reshaped international order“)) has no less than 8.0% Anglosphere awareness. (A personal favourite, Ass Theory (驴论), didn’t make it to the survey, as it’s a Xiism only meant for domestic propaganda (endoprop).)


The theoretical framework for the report invoked no less an authority than peculiar ‘million-word’ business the Global Language Monitor (and its honcho Payack) to the effect that Chinese has been the main source of loanwords into English since 1994. The Monitor has been discussed on Language Log, and Payack had some interesting ‘exchanges’ with Zimmer, Pullum and Nunberg. There’s precedent for Payack being quoted in propaganda pieces (“Chinese puts in a good word for the English language“).

Quite likely, no one involved in the process believes these claims, but incentives are such that concocting the mock survey and attendant articles is easier and more fun than asserting this exoprop task has failed.

I look forward to reports to Relevant Honchi up the exoprop echelon on the Relevant Lulu ‘contributing’ to ‘telling China’s story well’ in the Arctic ‘new frontier’. Meanwhile, those following Arctic (or other) affairs are advised to take ‘analysis’ primarily relying on exoprop with a catty of salt.

Victor Mair: Eye-roll of the century

[This guest post by Victor Mair expands on his Language Log coverage of the ‘Two Sessions’ eye-roll. As I commented there, this isn’t the first time a state-media affiliate abroad (in this case, AMTV (全美电视台)) causes a propaganda failure at a peak-sensitivity event. ‘Foreign shills’ (such as Question Sister (提问姐) or a less known Question Brother (提问哥)) are indeed a feature of these press conferences, and reporting on them has hardly generated much ‘positive energy’ (正能量).

A major purveyor of faux-foreign media entities is China Radio International (CRI), whose network of affiliates, affectionately known as ‘borrowed boats’, have made several appearances on this blog, reflecting my interest in propaganda for foreigners (‘exoprop’, 外宣). (The Australian part of CRI’s borrowed fleet was recently covered in reporting by McKenzie and Joske.)]

Eye-roll of the century (illustrated)

by Victor Mair

Materials assembled by informants from China, together with their comments, supplemented by my own findings and with additions by Jichang Lulu.

The protagonists

Ms. Red, Zhang Huijun, representing an alleged American television station

Ms. Blue, Liang Xiangyi, representing a Shanghai financial journal


From sources in China, I have collected a tremendous amount of materials about the “epic eye-roll” incident at the 13th NPC (Two Sessions).  Much of it is in Chinese, which I don’t have time to translate, and there is an abundance of visual materials, which  are difficult to post in circulars and on e-mail discussion lists.  Consequently I am writing this guest post on Jichang Lulu’s blog, which enables me to share these materials with a larger audience in a convenient format.

Needless to say, most of the sentiments expressed in what follows are strongly pro-Blue and anti-Red.  Indeed, many of the comments about Ms. Zhang are devastating, as will soon become obvious to those who continue reading this post.

Ms. Zhang has a strange way of speaking.  I base this not just on the 44 second video clip that records her remarks, but on other recordings of her speech as well.  Sometimes she halts and stops at odd places, and then she dashes along at lightning speed for a phrase or two (probably the bits she has memorized beforehand).  Also, the way Ms. Zhang moves her head and smiles is very sājiāo 撒娇ish / coquettish / flirtatious — unprofessional for a journalist.

The rolling of the eyes incident is not a simple matter.  I think that it will have long and lasting implications for the CCP and the PRC.  In my estimation, ultimately it will be one of the most celebrated events of the Xi reign.

N.B.:  While I hope that anyone with an interest in this monumental imbroglio will be able to extract meaning from these materials, full utilization assumes some familiarity with the Chinese political, social, economic, and cultural realms.  Furthermore, my usual practice on Language Log and elsewhere is to provide transcriptions and translations for all Chinese characters, but here I will forego the phonetic transcription in most cases, though I will generally provide translations.


For a video of the encounter, a transcription and translation of Ms. Zhang’s “question”, and basic explanatory information, see:

Epic eye-roll” (Language Log, 15 March 2018)

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leading Chinese scholar discusses Greenland’s independence

My latest on China and Greenland, written for China Brief, discusses the two major mining projects with (or awaiting) Chinese investment and the rather peculiarly “launched” plans to set up a satellite ground station near Nuuk, revealed last year on this blog. The Brief piece also mentions, I believe as the first English-language source to do so, a mid-2017 paper with Guo Peiqing 郭培清, a well-known scholar of polar politics at the Ocean University of China (中国海洋大学), as lead author, on the geopolitics of Greenland’s independence. Guo’s paper openly talks about the “inevitability” (必然性) of Greenland’s independence as seen by Denmark, analyses its significance for the interests of Denmark, the EU, South Korea and the US (stressing the latter’s military presence), describes various economical and social challenges faced by Greenland, and concludes with the necessity of help from the “international community”. The article carefully avoids discussing China’s own interests. As I mention in the piece, Guo’s past statements, and Greenland’s importance within China’s Arctic strategy, warrant a reading of the piece as advocating China’s involvement in such international cooperation with a nascent Greenlandic state.

This would be entirely unremarkable, were it not for the extreme caution Chinese officials and academics exert, at least in public, on the delicate issue of Greenland’s independence. Although an independent Greenland with China as a major economic partner would be geopolitically advantageous to the PRC, any sign of support would generate unwelcome debate in Greenland, potentially hurt relations with Denmark, and trigger the feared “China threat theory” (中国威胁论, a propaganda term used to refer to discussion of negative aspects of PRC influence abroad). In fact, Greenland’s authorities appear interested in ‘talking up’ the relationship with China, which doesn’t quite reciprocate. The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs once publicly reminded Greenland it “should follow the foreign policy upheld by Denmark”, after a minister had been forced to cancel a planned visit to Taiwan on a trade mission. When a high-level delegation led by Greenland’s premier Kim Kielsen visited China right after the 19th Party Congress, it was not invited by a state organ, but by the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (中国人民外交学会), a state-affiliated think tank; Kielsen was received by a foreign-affairs vice-minister, Wang Chao 王超, the same protocol accorded to a Danish parliamentary delegation a few days later. The Greenlandic government, however, called the visit “official“. Greenland’s main interlocutors are, in fact, the Ministry of Land and Resources and its subordinate the State Oceanic Administration (responsible for Arctic affairs).

Protocol aside, Greenland’s apparent interest in ‘upgrading’ its relationship with China stems from its need for foreign investment, specifically in mining projects. Although (largely state-driven) Chinese interest in Greenland’s minerals is real, as documented on this blog, and is often related to national resource-acquisition strategies, a Chinese mining boom capable of powering Greenland’s economic independence has failed to materialise. As I say in the Brief piece, talks with Chinese SOEs on infrastructure development, including controversial airport projects, have so far not resulted in any announcements of Chinese interest, something probably related to the financial uncertainty that surrounds these plans. China is still of minor importance for a crucial industry, tourism, although there is clear growth potential. China is, on the other hand, a major destination for Greenland’s only major export, seafood (most of it reexported through Denmark; based on a recent estimate of yearly seafood exports to China and official export statistics for 2016, China’s share of seafood exports could be around 40%).

Besides the actual level of trade and investment, the perception of increasing Chinese interest can help Greenland’s position in negotiations with Denmark, in such aspects as having a greater say in, e.g., defining the Kingdom’s Arctic policies. The obvious answer to any Danish concerns about ‘sensitive’ Chinese investments and other activities in Greenland is that China is simply filling a vacuum left by other actors. Chinese activities in Greenland are mostly state-driven; it’s hard to imagine how other actors could compete for economic or other influence without clear state policies. The Brief piece mentions, in particular, the extent of MLR-led efforts to identify and study mining projects of interest and promote them to Chinese companies.

The modest scale of the economic relationship and the potential pitfalls of any overt support for independence will likely continue to define China’s cautious approach, but the publication of Guo’s paper could be a sign of more open discussion of the issue in academic and policy circles.

The paper is also a window into how knowledge is made: just like much ‘Arctic studies’ literature continues to rely on second and third-hand sources and blissfully ignore Chinese-language materials, Guo’s article contains a telling mistake. The paper gives “April 2017” as the date for the Danish rejection of General Nice’s plans to buy the abandoned Grønnedal base. In fact, the events took place before the summer of 2016, and were widely reported in Danish and English in December that year (I discussed them in January 2017). Guo’s source is a Chinese-language reporting based on a Reuters story that arrived much later.

I will discuss these and other aspects of the China-Greenland relationship in a forthcoming report.

The Nones of March

The CCP Central Committee has ‘proposed’ to remove presidential term limits from the constitution of the PRC, providing the temporal unboundedness other Xiist endeavours demand. The following are to be constitutionally enshrined: Xiism as a doctrine (“Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想)); “reform”, as part of a long process in the past, after “revolution” and “construction”; the “Rejuvenation/Revitalisation/Renewal of the Chinese Nation” (minzu); perhaps most relevantly to this blog, United Front work. (The changes can be most conveniently read, in Chinese and English translation, on NPC Observer.)

Imperial analogies are obvious, and are keeping censors busy. As usual in such cases, censorship is being tracked by the China Digital Times (CDT, 中国数字时代), who maintain a Sensitive Word Database (敏感词库). Any number of terms alluding to the Imperial ascent have been blocked; many refer to the last person to assume the title of Emperor, Yuan Shikai 袁世凯. Less obviously, the Latin letter n was also briefly blocked for some users on February 25, as Sandra Saverdia, senior Chinese editor at CDT, first reported on a microblogging site. As I speculated there, this could refer to n as an integer variable, with n ≥ 2. Victor Mair devoted an entire post to the event (“The letter * has bee* ba**ed in Chi*a“). Referencing Mark Hansell (“The Sino-Alphabet: The Assimilation of Roman Letters into the Chinese Writing System“), Mair notes that “the Roman alphabet is part of the Chinese writing system”, so that letters have the same right to being censored as Chinese characters. Here’s how he explains the inequality:


This is probably out of fear on the part of the government that “N” = “n terms in office”, where possibly n > 2; as in “liánrèn n jiè 连任n届” (“n successive terms in office”), which would be forbidden anyway because of the liánrèn 连任 (“continue in office”) part.


Mair’s comments on n reached all manner of media (The Garudian, the Gray Lady, Newsweek, peculiar Millennial haunt 9GAG, CNN (who, regrettably, called the inequality an “equation”), the Riga-based Meduza…). The ban was short-lived, and it only affected some users; other than Saverdia and CDT, it was independently reported by Douban users later that day.

The letter ban is of anecdotal significance, but it shows the demands put on the censorship system by the discontent and mockery the ‘proposal’ generated. As for the more substantive aspects of Xi’s term-unboundedness and the Amendment, little needs to be said, as a great many have commented. From The Onion (洋葱报)’s “American Voices” Panel of Experts


It’s so great that Xi Jinping has found something he wants to do for the rest of his life.


to a Voice from the Land of Heart’s Desire (NZ, kāmadhātu, 欲界):


Should President Xi continue onto a third term, the constitutional change will lessen the usual personal, institutional and policy uncertainty that accompanies a leadership succession every 10 years in China. This may be desirable given that China has been undergoing massive long-term economic and military restructuring and embarked on the Belt and Road initiative. Stability at the top, to some extent, may enable better chances of successful policy outcomes.

(Dr Xiang Gao of the Eastern Institute of Technology, Auckland, channelled by an outlet of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.)

As of press time, it’s unclear if such views on the desirability of perpetual dictatorship are also common among New Zealand’s policymakers; an earlier post of mine might help inform an informed guess.


More cogently, Geremie Barmé points to the use of refloated imperial imagery by both Mao and Xi (“The Real Man of the Dog Year“). Introducing a piece by Hong Kong commentator Lee Yee 李怡, Barmé has this to say on the personality cult:


Despite the fitful de-Maoification of the late 1970s and early 1980s China as a one-party state has never really bid farewell to the cult of personality. The grand architect of the country’s successful economic, and failed political, reforms, Deng Xiaoping, was deified both during and after his rule. The media adulation showered on him certainly never reached the absurd heights of the Mao cult, but for analysts and commentators to have claimed at the time — or thereafter — that by instituting a form of collective leadership he and his fellow gerontocrats rid the country of the cult of the leader is ridiculous. Ever since the rejection of substantive political reform in China, the reappearance of the authoritarian personality at the apex of the party-state hierarchy has been a dark possibility. Given the decade of charismatic deficit under Hu Jintao, both Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai promised lineage, competence and personal domination. The forty-year arc of return is long but its workings would now appear to be irresistible.


Meanwhile, China Radio International (CRI), this blog’s favourite exoprop organ, ran an interview with Hubei NPC delegate Zhou Hongyu 周洪宇, who called for “severe punishment” for those who mock or “defile” (亵渎) Red Songs, such as The East is Red (东方红), the Yellow River Cantata (黄河大合唱) and the Internationale. He was surely referring to recent stories about a TV talent show from a couple of years ago (perfectly apolitical, and unfunny) and a number of online videos which were probably funnier but seem to have been deleted. In a way, Xi’s impending enthronement is itself a defilement of the Internationale, or at least makes it harder to sing 不靠神仙皇帝 (ni Dieu, ni César, ni Tribun) with a straight face.

Even a Finnegans Wake bot had something timely to say:



Fengyang 凤阳 was the birthplace of Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋, the founder of Ming dynasty.


All this late-winter Imperial Resurgence brings to mind another title the Ministry of Truth might not like: the one Julius Caesar was accorded approximately 2061 years ago, in January or February.

The exact wording occurs in different variants. Dict[ator] perpetuo (‘dictator in perpetuity’) is probably the original form, as it was used on coins at the time (Grueber, I, p. 545ff.)





Livy (Per. 116) has dictator in perpetuum. Dictator perpetuus (‘perpetual dictator’) occurs later, in Florus (Epit. 2.13.90); and there’s also perpetua dictatura (‘perpetual dictatorship’) in Suetonius (Iul., 76). Cicero (Phil. 2.87) should have precedence as a contemporary, but he has the noun phrase in the dative (dictatori perpetuo), which is compatible with both dictator perpetuo and dictator perpetuus.

Caesar wasn’t able to enjoy his perpetual title for more than a few weeks, as he didn’t make it past the 15th (the Ides) of March. Quite a bit of the “uncertainty” ensued that the NZ expert above thinks “desirable” perpetual dictatorship can prevent; as it tends to happen when personalised rule meets Personal death, but some people never learn.



Seiner regierung im V. jar und in LVI. seines alters ward er mit [s]chendtlichen mordt unuersehenlich [CORRECTION: I first mistranscribed unuerschenlich; see comment by David Marjanović] umbracht. (‘In the 5th year of his rule, the 56th of his age, he was unexpectedly killed in a shameful murder.’ The final –n in the strong dative schendtlichen could be due to Dutch or Low German influence.) Engraving published by Ahasuerus van Londerseel ca. 1587-1635, British Museum.


The National People’s Congress opens a.d. III Non. Mar. (two days before the Nones of March, i.e. ten before the Ides).