Huawei’s Christmas battle for Central Europe

[By Jichang Lulu and Martin Hála. Published on Sinopsis on 28 Dec 2018. On the Greenlandic connection, see links and tweets here. For additional Czech coverage, cf. „Ztraceno w překladu w průhonice Sokolovně“ by Hála and earlier Sinopsis pieces.]

An unusually blunt warning by Czech intelligence against the use of Huawei and ZTE products in telecommunications infrastructure was met with similar bluntness from the PRC. The embattled Babiš government, whose survival depends on the support of the country’s most CCP-friendly figures, was subjected to a pre-Christmas diplomatic ritual hyped by the state-media as “correcting” the spooks’ “mistaken” advice. After an outrage in the Czech Republic, the PM backpedalled and reiterated the NÚKIB warning was being treated “seriously”.

The Czech intelligence warning against Huawei and ZTE equipment via NeoVlivní.cz.

The Party-state’s concerted diplomatic and propaganda effort spent on awaking Czech politics from Yuletide hibernation and attempting to neutralise the intelligence warning signals the strategic stakes: a Czech Huawei ban could trigger a domino effect in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), a region still untouched by the wave of Western measures against the use of its equipment in 5G networks. Should Poland, in particular, join the Czech and Anglophone scepticism, Huawei could risk losing the region’s biggest market, and the one where it has placed its biggest 5G bet.

This post summarises some of the open-source evidence on Huawei’s background and practices behind the concerns about the company aired in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, before illustrating the PRC’s likely fears of CEE contagion with a brief discussion of the Polish case. The peculiar pre-Christmas démarche involving Babiš, the PRC embassy and the domestic and external propaganda machine is described in the context of the support Huawei frequently enjoys from state media and foreign entities cultivated through ‘friendly contact’ activity, a connection demonstrated in Australia and New Zealand.

The PR strategies Huawei has adopted, as well as its targets, overlap with those encountered in the analysis of global United Front work; the Party-state’s support for the company demands a wider discussion informed by the CCP’s international influence operations, a main focus of Sinopsis’ coverage of the Czech Republic and other locales. The Polish case neatly illustrates this connection: a local Huawei interlocutor is known as a contact favoured by the CCP’s International Liaison Department, a Comintern-inspired organ whose expansion to general political influence work we have been describing in a series of posts.

Among Huawei’s links to the Party, state and Army, its collaboration with Public Security in the PRC and, in particular, Xinjiang, could make its role in state surveillance and repression of particular interest in Central and Eastern Europe, a region that found itself on the receiving end of earlier totalitarian regimes. Huawei’s technology is among those that could fuel an upgrade of the CCP’s systems of social control to a new level of authoritarian governance; as Lenin stressed, Communist rule relies on both Party power and technological breakthroughs. For Lenin, Communism was Soviet power plus electrification; extrapolating, Xi’s New Era is orthodox Communism plus “intelligentisation” (智能化).

Huawei as a Party-state champion

Open-source information and previous statements from the intelligence community squarely back up the concerns aired by Czech cyber-intelligence.

The warning, issued by the National Cyber and Information Security Agency (Národní úřad pro kybernetickou a informační bezpečnost, NÚKIB) on 17 December, calls the use of software and hardware products of Huawei, ZTE and their subsidiaries a “threat against information security”. According to Czech press reports, the warning was originally meant as a classified document for internal government discussion. The unusual step of going public reportedly resulted from the fact that some of the intended recipients lacked the security clearance to read the report.

Besides the companies’ legal obligation to cooperate with PRC intelligence activities, the text mentions “organisational and personnel links between these companies and the state”, the agency’s knowledge about the companies’ work in the Czech Republic and the PRC’s “influence and espionage” activities there to justify fears that the presence of Huawei or ZTE products in information or communication systems could affect “the security of the Czech Republic and its interests”.

The 2017 National Intelligence Law (国家情报法) mandates “all organisations and citizens” to collaborate with intelligence work as requested. This legal obligation and the characteristics of the activity of such companies as Huawei and ZTE makes such ‘requests’ likely. As Elsa Kania notes,

[T]he trend towards fuller fusion between the party-state apparatus and commercial enterprises—and the ways in which that fusion might be leveraged to support intelligence work—should be taken into account in business and governmental assessments of risk.

Huawei’s current and previous top management includes individuals with backgrounds in the PLA, military-linked universities and the Ministry of State Security.

Huawei chairman Ren Zhengfei 任正非 was enlisted in the PLA between 1974 and 1983, after which he went on to manage Huawei using “Mao Zedong’s military thought”.

Sun Yafang 孙亚芳, Ren’s “most trusted deputy” and Huawei’s chairwoman until 2018, studied at the Radio Technology Department of the Chengdu Institute of Radio Engineering (成都电讯工程学院), then still under the joint management of the PLA General Staff Department. (The Institute’s successor, University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC, 电子科技大学), remains committed to servicing national defence and takes pride in its military research, one foot of its research “tripod”. Hacker groups linked to UESTC were allegedly behind attacks (p. 37f.) against Indian targets, including the Offices of the Dalai Lama.) After graduating, Sun did communications work at the Ministry of State Security, the PRC’s main spy agency, until joining Huawei in 1992. According to Chinese press reports, these connections helped the company obtain state support when experiencing financial difficulties.

The company’s early contracts with the PLA, while a small part of its sales, were reportedly seen as important in terms of “relationships”. Kania estimates that Huawei is “still engaged in defence-related research and development”, citing its recent participation in projects related to civil-military fusion. Adam Ni, an expert on the PLA, argues that Huawei, although a private company, depended for its success on the state’s support “through a combination of protectionist measures, cheap financing, subsidies, favourable regulations, and diplomatic support abroad”.

A recent investigation by Danielle Cave found that Huawei was “the key ICT provider” for the African Union’s headquarters, whose servers had been transferring data to China until the breach was discovered, implying that the company was either incapable of detecting, or complicit with, massive data theft.

In 2012, a US House of Representatives committee heard statements from former Huawei employees alleging illegal practices. A former employee is suing Huawei in the US, alleging the company ordered him to participate in the theft of trade secrets and retaliated against his whistleblowing. An Israeli solar-energy technology manufacturer is suing Huawei for patent infringement in Germany.

Leninism plus smart surveillance

Telecommunications infrastructure and equipment are central to surveillance, a key tool of authoritarian social control. Xi’s stress on Party control, repression and propaganda stands to benefit from emerging technologies that can take the state’s ability to monitor, analyse and shape the private behaviour of large numbers of individuals beyond the wildest dreams of his predecessors in the Leninist tradition. Propaganda, far from being drowned out by the arrival of digital and social media, has embraced it, if anything getting closer to a literal form of Lenin’s boast of having the Party’s “truth” penetrate “everyone’s head”.

Likewise, the Party-state-Army’s repressive apparatus stands to benefit from advances in surveillance technology, notably aided by artificial intelligence. Like earlier totalitarian regimes, Xi’s CCP could find a technological breakthrough empowering a ruling “vanguard” to upgrade its domination of its state and society and project social control beyond its borders, achieving what Heilmann calls “Digital Leninism”. If, as Lenin put it in 1920, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”, Xiism could be Leninism plus artificial intelligence.

The security and human-rights implications of Huawei’s “smart” and “safe city” solutions are of particular relevance to the Czech Republic. Adriana Krnáčová, mayor of Prague until last month for the ruling ANO party, displayed a special interest in PRC smart-city technology: during her 2016 visit to Shanghai, she talked about smart cities “intensively” with the local government. Krnáčová revisited the topic during a meeting with the PRC ambassador the following year. The Prague government signed an agreement with Huawei on intelligent freight transport at a 2017 event that also promoted the company’s smart-city technology. Smart and “safe” cities are among the areas the company wants to cooperate” on in the next five years.

Huawei has recently partnered with the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, aiming to guarantee the region’s “social stability”. The company signed a strategic cooperation agreement with the Xinjiang government in 2016. Huawei has partnerships with city-level public security organs throughout the country, including in Ürümqi, as well as with the national Ministry of Public Security. The involvement of companies such as Huawei and Hikvision in Tibet and Xinjiang, the CCP’s “digital Leninism lab”, further clarifies their function as tools of state policy and makes a state-subordinate role abroad even more likely.

Huawei signs a strategic cooperation agreement with the Xinjiang government. Source: Huawei.

Huawei’s exports of smart-city technology have been expanding from authoritarian and hybrid towards democratic countries. The former Soviet Union is a potentially important market, with, e.g., a smart-city project slowly progressing in Baku, a 2017 agreement in Armenia, an (aborted) deal in Kyrgyzstan and talks with local governments in Russia.

Huawei signs an agreement with the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau.

Smart-city forays farther West have arguably used the localisation tactics often deployed by PRC entities in Europe, seeking subnational-level faits accomplis by courting local officials and eschewing the attention of potentially critical national audiences.

Huawei’s ‘smart cityproject in Valenciennes seemed well received locally, with the mayor calling it “a €2bn gift to the city”.

Smart-city deals in Prague would give Huawei an upgrade from the regional successes it has seen in France and Germany to claim a capital city as it has done in Azerbaijan. It remains to be seen if the less authoritarian-friendly Czech public opinion will welcome this westward advance.

Global warnings

These circumstances have been largely known for years, and have long generated concerns among analysts, politicians and intelligence agencies in multiple countries. Only in the last few months, however, have these concerns crystallized into actual measures limiting the use of Huawei equipment, triggered by the United States and its intelligence partners rushing to exclude Huawei from 5G, the next generation of mobile phone technology.

The NÚKIB statement explicitly refers to previous warnings from Czech civilian and military intelligence. Indeed, the Czech concerns are not new: the 2013 annual report of the main Czech counterintelligence agency, the Security Information Service (BIS), called Huawei’s growing share of the local telecommunications market a “potential danger”. The use of Huawei phones at the presidential palace has generated controversy.

Since a US House of Representatives committee found in 2012 that Huawei had failed to establish its independence from the PRC state and the PLA, bad press has constantly rained on Ren’s company. That year, experts found Huawei equipment “riddled with holes”. A deal with AT&T to sell Huawei products fell through earlier this year “because of security concerns” after lawmakers from both houses wrote to the Federal Communications Commission warned about “espionage” risks. In February 2018, at a US Senate hearing, intelligence chiefs would not advise private citizens to use Huawei products.

Australia banned Huawei from the country’s broadband network in 2012. A 2016 deal to build an undersea communications cable between Australia, the Solomon islands and Papua-New Guinea was dropped over Australia’s concerns.

These difficulties pushed the company to focus on other markets, such as Europe. While Huawei has become a major player in network technology in several European countries, concerns about the security implications have been growing among analysts and security services.

Propaganda materials supportive of Huawei have used the British example to dismiss security concerns elsewhere. However, such concerns have long been present in the UK as well. In 2013, a parliamentary committee found the “self-policing arrangement” put in place to evaluate the security of Huawei equipment used in network architecture “highly unlikely” to provide “the required levels of security assurance”. Last July GCHQ downgraded their assessment of Huawei’s security, after finding shortcomings and exposing “new risks in the UK telecommunication networks”. Earlier this month, the head of the MI6 called for a “conversation” on the role of Chinese companies in the country’s 5G network, as news emerged that BT was removing Huawei equipment from its core 3G and 4G networks.

In Germany, Deutsche Telekom made headlines with a statement about “reassessing” its procurement strategy. Although the Federal Office for Information Security (Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik, BSI) has explicitly denied there are grounds for a Huawei ban, some within the ruling coalition are reportedly concerned about allowing Huawei to participate in the country’s 5G network. Analysts and politicians have expressed worries over Huawei infrastructure, earlier this year in the light of the intelligence service’s public concern about cooperation between Chinese companies and PRC security services, and now specifically on the 5G issue.

The NÚKIB warning came shortly after unusually blunt statements cautioning against Huawei from the Anglophone intelligence alliance known as the Five Eyes. Intelligence chiefs from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US met in Canada last summer to discuss the risks presented to their countries by Huawei in particular, and the PRC more broadly. The meeting took the unusual step of making its concerns public. Four Five-Eyes prime ministers had earlier agreed in London to avoid becoming dependent on Huawei’s 5G technology.

A series of measures against public procurement in the Five Eyes countries followed. Australia banned Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network in August. In late November, New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau blocked Huawei from providing 5G equipment to a telecom after identifying “a significant network security risk”. The New Zealand case is especially remarkable: with the exception of the Green Party, which had already called for an investigation of Huawei in 2012, the political class had avoided criticism or explicitly supported the company’s growth in the country.

The Danish case provides a good illustration of the effect the Five Eyes’ newly militant attitude can have on European allies, giving Huawei cause to worry about a domino effect. The Danish Defence Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste, FE) advised in strong terms against giving Huawei access to the country’s infrastructure in a 2011 classified report, before changing its mind two years later to approve a deal with TDC, the country’s largest telecom. While politicians and media reports continued to raise suspicions about Huawei, the FE continued to defend Huawei’s presence, stating in 2015 that TDC-Huawei agreements had “increased the security” of telecommunications networks. As late as last February, reacting to US warnings against Huawei equipment, the FE saw “no concrete grounds to advise against smartphones from specific manufacturers of countries”. Following the MI6 head’s recent statements, however, his Danish counterpart admitted Huawei’s possible involvement in the country’s 5G network is now of interest to the security organs, explicitly referring to “the dynamics between companies in China and the Chinese state”.

Perhaps most dramatically, Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou 孟晚舟, who happens to be the daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested in Canada on Dec 1 at the request of the US. An extradition battle is now being fought at Canadian courts, with the stakes illustrated by PRC’s counter-move – the arrest of at least two Canadian citizens in China in what looks like preemptive hostage-taking. The current climate extends those concerns to a third case, and has lent media interest to the cases of several “forgotten” Canadian victims of politically motivated arrests in China, notably of Chinese or Uyghur ethnicity. Some of these cases feature the increasingly extraterritorial application of the PRC’s repression apparatus, with abductions outside the PRC’s jurisdiction and the unlawful treatment of foreigners of Chinese origin as PRC nationals—two characteristics illustrated in the case of Swedish editor Gui Minhai 桂民海, recently discussed on Sinopsis.

Huawei’s CEE front: the case of Poland

Given the very public concern about Huawei in Five Eyes countries, there isn’t much the PRC can do to counter the procurement bans there. Just like in the trade war, much of the battle is therefore taken to third countries, especially those cultivated by China recently through the BRI and related activities. The countries in former Soviet-bloc Eastern Europe targeted in the PRC’s “16+1” initiative are one of the hottest battlegrounds, sitting as it were on two chairs that keep pulling further apart: the EU and NATO memberships, actual or desired, on one side, and the “special relationships” with the PRC on the other.

The Czech warning is particularly significant as it risks setting in motion a domino effect in other Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, an important market for Huawei.

Contagion to Poland, the largest country in the region, would be especially damaging. Huawei’s Polish foray has been particularly successful. The Polish government has remained silent on the security implications of the use of Huawei products. Huawei’s way to the Polish 5G network seems unimpeded: while its French parent declines to use Huawei equipment at home, Orange Poland has begun 5G tests in partnership with Huawei. Last month, Huawei co-sponsored and took part in a debate on artificial intelligence organised by the Polish state news agency and featuring two ministers.

Recent developments show Poland’s significance within the CCP’s discourse management activities. Official caution towards the PRC has become pronounced, with PM Mateusz Morawiecki’s recent call to “maintain the proper level of deterrence, not against the forces of the free world, but against China and Russia” and, not two weeks ago, a MFA statement on industrial cyber-espionage attributed to China. Efforts to create a more friendly image of the CCP are illustrated in a full-page advert praising Xi Jinping in Poland’s leading centre-right daily, paid by an entity the paper has refused to identify. Huawei’s link to the CCP’s broader propaganda and influence efforts can be seen in the fact that one of the company’s Polish interlocutors is a senior target of elite “friendly contact”.

It was Marek Suski, the head of the PM’s cabinet, who announced last month after talks with Huawei in Shanghai that the company planned to invest in a research and development center near Warsaw. Suski is a preferred interlocutor of the CCP International Liaison Department (ILD), the organ whose ‘party-to-Party’ purview has been extended from fellow Communist parties to embrace the ‘bourgeois’ spectrum in a form of United Front work that targets foreign politicians.

Marek Suski meets an ILD deputy head before the 19th CCP Congress.

At a meeting with ILD deputy head Shen Beili 沈蓓莉 in October last year, Suski congratulated the CCP on the occasion of its 19th Congress and stated his party’s willingness to use the “joint construction of the Belt and Road” as an opportunity for cooperation. Last May, Suski made news in the country after a Polish journalist spotted him at an ILD-organised ‘dialogue with world parties’ event in Shenzhen. As Sinologist Katarzyna Sarek commented soon after the event, it was remarkable for Suski, a member of the ostensibly anti-Communist ruling Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), to attend an event glorifying a ruling Communist party simultaneously with the celebration of Marx’s 200th anniversary (notably graced by a politician registered as an agent of the Czechoslovak secret police). To further illustrate the irony, in the very same month, the PiS government had to apologise after the police showed up at an academic conference on Marxism to establish whether a crime of propagating totalitarianism had been committed.

Friends on demand

Given the stakes, it’s hardly surprising the NÚKIB public warning against Huawei in the Czech Republic immediately led to a diplomatic showdown. In the Chinese press, the Huawei “ban” in the CR is portrayed as a litmus test of the company’s future in the “vast majority of countries in the World” (outside of the Five Eyes alliance). The CR is also relatively easy to put pressure upon, given the “elite capture” systematically performed in the last five years by, among others, the notorious CEFC conglomerate, one of whose top representatives, Patrick Ho (何志平), has just been convicted at a federal court in Manhattan on seven counts related to large-scale corruption involving senior UN officials and African politicians. Ho’s direct superior, (former) CEFC chairman Ye Jianming 叶简明, remains an official advisor to President Miloš Zeman, the most openly pro-Beijing Czech politician, despite being held for almost a year incommunicado in China by the CCP’s disciplinary organs.

Huawei has a history of employing ‘friendly contact’ and the recruitment of foreign figures for its PR efforts, intended to deflect attention from its background and practices and present itself as a ‘normal’ private company. As an high-profile entity linked to the Party-state-Army and enjoying its support, Huawei has used methods typical of the Party-state’s liaison and United Front activities, including ‘localised’ interactions targeting governments and academia. As the recent Czech developments illustrate, these efforts enjoy the backing of the PRC propaganda machine.

Despite the national ban, Huawei has continued to bid in Australia at the state level, notably winning a contract to build a railway mobile data network in Western Australia, ignoring security warnings. Years earlier, a minister involved in negotiating the deal had benefited from Huawei’s generosity during a China trip to get “an insight into Huawei’s operations”, partially paid by the company; the WA ruling party’s links with United Front figures have continued to emerge.

In New Zealand, a country noted for the degree of influence the CCP has achieved in local politics through years of United Front work, politicians have been particularly supportive of the company. Huawei has used the example of New Zealand’s “embrace” of Huawei “within their own security frameworks” in PR campaigns meant to assuage security fears. Former prime minister John Key’s support for Huawei goes back to 2010, when he personally announced its possible involvement in a broadband bid. Key defended Huawei in parliament in 2012, reportedly disagreeing with security agency warnings. Key’s “support” for Huawei, contrasting with Australia’s concerns, was recognised by PRC state media. The previous government lauded a Huawei investment last year. The current Labour-led government, which continues to refuse to address evidence of CCP influence activities in the country, reportedly hesitated before naming the PRC as the author of a global IP theft campaign. After the warning against Huawei 5G technology, the minister responsible for the intelligence services rushed to deny it was a “ban” against “a particular company or a particular country”.

Huawei has sponsored work praising its technology by the Brookings Institution, a US think tank.

Jeffrey Sachs speaks at a CEFC event with Patrick Ho in 2016. Source: 中国经济网.

Friendly ties and the state’s support for Huawei became activated as the company faced an unfavorable climate in the West. Notably, Jeffrey Sachs, an economist, published an op-ed attacking the US over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou. Challenged on Twitter, Sachs, a special advisor to the UN secretary general on sustainable development, praised “the many benefits of Huawei technologies for sustainable development” while denying he was aware of the Xi’s Xinjiang internment camps. Sachs had stated similar praise for Huawei in his foreword to a Huawei promotional brochure. Unusually for a Twitter discussion, the one involving Sachs motivated a condemnation from the Global Times.

Sachs is, in fact, linked to the efforts to install CCP discourse at the UN, recently covered on Sinopsis. As Inner City Press has noted, Sachs has been listed as an “advisor” in CEFC materials. For at least three years, he spoke at CEFC events featuring Patrick Ho, still at large, where he praised the agreement between CCP initiatives and the UN sustainable development goals. Crucially, Sachs has sat on the advisory board of former UN general assembly president Vuk Jeremić’s think tank CIRSD since its establishment in 2013. Jeremić is another of the UN officials Patrick Ho cultivated: he became a CEFC “consultant” right after leaving his post, and was paid hundreds of thousands to “open doors” for CEFC. Even though CEFC has been neutralised by the fall of Ho and Ye, CIRSD is among the organisations still active in the discourse engineering enterprise, which perhaps motivated the Chinese state-media intervention over a social media conversation. Sachs deleted his quarter-million follower Twitter account soon after these links were exposed.

Showdown in Prague

In the Czech Republic, the PRC has many “friendly contacts” to call upon. Unusually for the pre-holiday season, it only took four days after the NÚKIB warning for PM Andrej Babiš to convene the State Security Council (Bezpečnostní rada státu, BRS), a rather toothless government body, to urgently discuss the “ban”. PM Babiš has been much weakened by recent scandals around the apparent abuse of EU subsidies for his business conglomerate. In the state of almost permanent government crisis since the last elections more than a year ago, he is much dependent on political support from President Zeman. His minority government also needs the parliamentary support of the Communist party (Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy, KSČM). Zeman and the KSČM are among the most staunchly pro-CCP voices in the country.

The BRS issued a pithy statement emphasising, apparently for Chinese ears, the obvious fact that NÚKIB is independent of the government, which cannot make it revoke or revise its warnings. Among a series of brief paragraphs stating the obvious, one stands out: that the agency is not qualified to comment on the international situation or on other states’ legal arrangements. Since the main public justification for the NÚKIB warning was the legal requirement for PRC citizens and companies to assist in intelligence gathering when called upon, such statement sounds like an indirect rebuke to the document.

More importantly, the PRC side staged a peculiar diplomatic ritual when it forced a meeting between the Babiš and the ambassador in Prague, Zhang Jianmin 张建敏, on the rather undiplomatic date of Sunday, 23 December. The meeting was not reported by the government through the usual channels, but only by the embassy, on its website (Chinese, Czech) and in a Facebook post. The embassy’s account of the meeting makes Babiš appear as doing a full turn-around on the Huawei issue. He supposedly called the NÚKIB warning “a hasty decision”, caused by “a misleading warning”. The post then employs some rather arrogant language:

Ambassador Zhang pointed out that the warning issued by a Czech agency, which is not at all grounded on reality, had had a detrimental impact and the Chinese side resolutely protests against it. He said that the Chinese side acknowledges the Czech government’s effort to rectify the relevant mistakes and hopes that the Czech side adopts effective measures to prevent such events in the future and to effectively protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese firms.

The language did not go down well with the Czech public, already quite sensitive to Chinese activities in the country and the unconditional support it receives from part of the political establishment. Despite the holiday season, the FB post already generated a lot of discussion on social media, mostly highly critical. The opposition was quick to seize on it, with politicians variously stating that the Czech Republic has fallen “in the hands of servile collaborators with undemocratic powers” or that the PM’s reversal at “a meeting with representatives of a country that threatens” the country’s information security meant he was “escaping his responsibility” to protect it.

Andrej Babiš with ambassador Zhang Jianmin. Source: PRC embassy.

Such undiplomatic language, guaranteed to further undermine the PRC image in the Czech Republic, was more likely intended for international audiences, amplified through state media. The heavy-handed response by the PRC embassy seems intended to preempt a replicating effect in the region and beyond, where a similar debate about Huawei is likely to take place sooner or later.

The immediate propaganda reaction further cements the idea that the Babiš administration’s attempt to contain the effects of the NÚKIB warning followed coordinated PRC pressure. One day after the BRS statement, a story by Xinhua’s senior Prague correspondent declared the Czech government had “corrected its mistake” on Huawei. The story soon made it to the English-language Global Times, in the sloppy English characteristic of stories pushed by higher-ups in propaganda organs.

After the backlash over Christmas, Babiš resurfaced to refute the embassy’s account of the meeting.

The Chinese ambassador commented in an unusual and public way about a meeting he had urgently requested, where he stated the Chinese side’s position in a very non-standard way.

Babiš explicitly denied that the government had made a “mistake” with the intelligence warning, as PRC state media had proclaimed: “I don’t know what the ambassador is talking about”, he said, adding that “the government takes the NÚKIB’s warning seriously”. The Czech-language statement is, however, unlikely to reach the Chinese public or the larger audience targeted by the PRC external propaganda organs. The goal of ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkeys’ remains feasible, despite Babiš’ newfound sovereign zeal.

“Friendly contact” conquers all

The Party-state’s efforts to protect Huawei, from friendly op-eds to the Christmas démarche in Prague, show the usefulness of the long-term build-up of influence work. Even countries of less immediate international significance can become key assets: at a critical juncture for a ‘national champion’ desperate to keep the CEE market, politicians and commentators who have developed pro-CCP positions can be called in its defence. With a quick coordinated reaction between Xinhua and the embassy, the propaganda battle being waged in Prague can resonate throughout the region and beyond.

The PRC’s leverage over the Czech Republic, a country where its FDI has been negligible, ultimately reveals various forms of ‘liaison’ and United Front work as cheaper and more effective tools of foreign policy than trade and investment.

With thanks to Anne-Marie Brady and Geoff Wade

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The CCP’s model of social control goes global

[By Jichang Lulu and Martin Hála. Published on Sinopsis, The Asia Dialogue and China Digital Times on 20 Dec 2018.]

 

One of the most striking aspects of Xi Jinping’s “New Era” is the rapid externalisation of systems and policies previously only applied, for the most part, domestically. This external activism is of course a reflection of the CCP’s new effort to utilise the “historic window of opportunity” in international relations, identified by Xi as one of the defining characteristics of the “New Era”. The advancement of the PRC’s global interests, in particular through Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ and other geopolitical initiatives, includes the extraterritorial expansion of social control mechanisms once mostly reserved to the PRC. These mechanisms comprise cooptive and coercive tactics: United Front work and repression, both intensified under Xi.

The academic study of global cooptation by New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady has proven sensitive enough to trigger cross-border coercion: the publication of her Magic Weapons paper on global United Front work has been followed with state-media attacks and a harassment campaign. In response, we initiated an open letter in her support that gathered 303 signatures, largely from the Chinese studies community. Beyond solidarity with a researcher facing apparent retaliation for her scholarly work, the response reflects widespread concern with the CCP’s intent to project its repression mechanisms abroad, shielding its cooptive influence mechanism from expert scrutiny.

Three Magic Weapons for the three realms of control

The CCP’s Leninist model of governance applies several basic mechanisms to maximize control over a vast population by a small “vanguard” without the explicit consent of the governed masses. The model is onion-shaped, made up of three concentric layers of governance. The tools to control these three realms are, to echo a Maoist simile, “three magic weapons” (三大法宝): Party building, armed struggle (succeeded by state violence) and cooptation tactics (the United Front).

The inner realm is the Party itself, the “vanguard” of China’s working class, the Chinese people and the Chinese “nation” (民族), controlled by the party discipline imposed by its core leadership. Resuming a trend often encountered in Communist history, Xi as the Party’s “Core” (核心) has been consolidated as potentially perpetual dictator. Party discipline is mostly enforced through extra-legal bodies, notably the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI, 中央纪律检查委员会), prominent in Xi’s “anti-corruption” campaign. When these instruments are not deemed sufficient and  discipline loosens, the Party is brought under control again with periodic purges. Individual Party members enjoy various privileges and certain career paths are only open to them, but at the same time are bound by strict Party discipline that subjects them to more direct control by the Core than any other social group.

The Party leads it all. Source: 81.cn.

Apart from its own members, the Party also aspires to control everything else, a notion expressed by a famous Mao Zedong dictum, which Xi Jinping has quoted and added to the Party constitution: “The Party, government, Army, civilian sector and education, East, West, South, North and Centre – the Party leads it all” (党政军民学,东西南北中,党是领导一切的). [1] Xi’s tenure has also strengthened the Party’s (and thus Xi’s own) authority over the central institutions through which it controls China’s society and economy: the Army and the state. Xi’s reform of the PLA, following an anti-corruption campaign, has disbanded the general departments, seen as concentrating too much power. The restructuring after the 19th Party Congress has reduced the separation between Party and state. Party control over state-owned enterprises has increased, admonishing them not to “forget the Party spirit [党性, партийность]” and stressing the Party’s leadership and the role of Party committees. The Party’s extra-judicial discipline system, once reserved to Party members, has been extended into state administration with the establishment of the National Supervisory Commission (国家监察委员会), in practice subordinate to the CCDI.

Cooptation and coercion outside the Core

The Party may strive to control everything, but farther from the Core, the two remaining Magic Weapons are needed to rein in the two extra-Party (党外) realms: repression and United Front work.

The inner layer in the onion outside the Party core is reserved for those who do not openly challenge the Party’s dominance in the system, and can be, at least temporarily, “united” with. Such alliances are carefully managed, without absorbing them into the Party itself lest they dilute its “purity”. There is, after all, a difference between the inner and outer circles (内外有别).  The “magical” mechanism to achieve this uneven alliance is the United Front (UF) work.

UF tactics were first prescribed by the Comintern to non-Soviet Communist parties as a way to reach state power through temporary alliances, eventually in the French and Spanish Popular Fronts; later, United and ‘National’ Fronts were institutionalised to help govern Communist states in Eastern Europe and East Asia. The CCP’s variant of the concept seeks to dominate such key social groups as business, religions and the Chinese diaspora by rewarding members with positions within an elaborate system of UF organisations that institutionalises these alliances: eight ancillary parties, chambers of commerce, patriotic religious associations, Overseas Chinese groups, as well as membership of non-CCP delegates in the National People’s Congress, the national Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and their versions at lower levels of administration. These appointments, useful to their beneficiaries as marks of official support, in turn keep such influential figures under control, turning them into ‘United Frontlings’ who can help advance Party policy.

First meeting of the 13th CPPCC. Source: Xinhua.

These groups were as essential to the CCP’s revolutionary struggle as they are to its rule over today’s PRC; like his predecessors, Xi continues to repeat Mao’s adage on UF work as a magic weapon. Beyond speeches, Xi has strengthened the role of the UF system and the Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) within it, with tens of thousands of new cadres and the formal absorption of what used to be state organs.

As a third weapon, state repression can be seen as having inherited the role of armed struggle. It is reserved primarily for the outer circle in the governance model, inhabited by those deemed too hostile to be “united” with. The criteria for who falls into which circle outside the Party continue to shift, at the sole discretion of its Core. Those on the wrong side of this arbitrary divide can expect (often extremely vicious) repression.

Under Xi, persecution of lawyers and labour activists has dramatically increased. In Xinjiang, Xi’s apartheid-like policies criminalise expressions of non-Han and Muslim identity, confining hundreds of thousands, possibly over a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslim citizens to a network of internment camps.

Globalisation 2.0: Party control goes global

The traditional domain of the CCP’s control model is the territory it rules (the PRC), territories it aspires to rule (Taiwan and, before handover, Hong Kong and Macau), and the Chinese diaspora, target of the Qiaowu 侨务 (Overseas Chinese affairs) system.

As a natural consequence of the PRC’s increasing economic clout and Xi’s strengthening of Party power, this dual model of control is now spreading abroad. The Xiist expansion of the model globalises its domestic and diasporic version of social control, appropriating the existing political and social structures of target countries.

The tools of extraterritorial repression at the CCP’s disposal remain limited, but the PRC’s economic power continues to add new options. The crackdown in Xinjiang extends to the Uyghur diaspora, through forced repatriations, blackmail, threats, extensive  surveillance, spying and diplomatic pressure to prevent scrutiny of these activities. Threats of punishment to family members in China allows the Party to try and silence Chinese critics abroad. Direct harassment of dissidents overseas has also been documented. In Sweden, the Tibetan refugee Dorjee Gyantsan (རྡོ་རྗེ་རྒྱལ་མཚན་) was recruited by the MSS to spy on the local Tibetan community. Kidnappings beyond its jurisdiction have brought the PRC no major negative consequences, opening the door to more cases like that of Gui Minhai 桂民海, the Swedish editor abducted in 2015 in Thailand. Extraterritorial censorship, still often ineffective in the form of open threats to media outlets, works well with companies seeking business in China, as seen in the recent erasure of Taiwan from country lists on airline websites. The US government called the renaming requests “Orwellian nonsense”, but such rhetorical response did not prevent American airlines from eventually toeing the line.

Outside the overseas Chinese communities, extraterritorial coercion remains for the time being an exception, rather than a rule. Cooptation, on the other hand, encounters few impediments. The expansion of United Front work beyond its traditional domestic and diasporic domain preserves its core methods: empower friendly figures with favours, access and representation, while ostracising recalcitrant elements. Traditional UF groups, notably ‘Reunification’ councils, have seen their role expanded from the control of Chinese communities to the political and economic mainstream, as documented in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. UF organisations are instrumental in forging localised contacts with the PRC, as seen in the case of the Fujian ‘embassy’ of a Czech region. ‘Sinicised’ religion might become another way of targeting foreign societies, as already seen in state-driven contacts with Buddhism in Mongolia.

United Front worker James Wu with former Czech PM Petr Nečas. 2016.

Beyond the UF system, various organisations involved in international exchanges employ similar methods to coopt foreign elites. The CCP’s International Liaison Department (ILD, 中联部), which once mainly liaised with fellow Communist parties, has seen its purview expanded to include the ‘bourgeois’ spectrum. No less an authority than its former head Zhu Liang 朱良 has compared this rightward expansion to domestic UF work; the CCP’s ‘dialogues’ with parties from abroad indeed resemble the CPPCC. The China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT, 中国国际贸易促进委员会), linked to, e.g., recent subnational-level attempts to bypass Australia’s reticence towards Xi’s “Belt and Road”, frames its activity as “international UF work”, functioning as a sort of global version of domestic business associations.

International UF work straddles the borders between official and private, and between legal and illegal activity. The global activities of CEFC, an ostensibly private firm linked to a PLA front organisation, illustrate this ambiguity. The company’s role in the cooptation of the Czech political elite has been covered in detail by Sinopsis. Beyond the Czech Republic, CEFC was among the entities working to engineer the installation of CCP discourse at the United Nations. CEFC’s “economic diplomacy” exposed the dark underbelly of BRI: bribes were used as liberally as more traditional interactions with “friends” of the CCP. The conferral of symbolic appointments characteristic of UF work is once again encountered in CEFC’s exchange of honorary ‘advisor’, ‘consultant’ or ‘guest’ positions: the organisation’s top brass has ‘advised’, or appointed as advisors, such figures as UN General Assembly presidents Vuk Jeremić, John Ashe and Sam Kutesa, Czech president Miloš Zeman, former Georgian PM Irakli Gharibashvili or, apparently, development guru Jeffrey Sachs.

Jeffrey Sachs at CEFC’s “Sino-American Colloquium”, 2014. Source: CEFC.

More generally, the tactical logic behind UF thinking can be seen at play geopolitically. Positioning Eastern Europe as a more manageable tool for pressure on Western Europe under the ‘16+1’ arrangement and appropriating ‘South-South’ concepts to seek alliances in the Third World are among the best examples. Often subsumed under Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ geopolitical initiative, these interactions rely on the CCP’s methods of ‘friendly contact’ and UF cooptation of malleable political groups, businesses, think tanks and, importantly, academics and their institutions.

Coercion protects cooptation

Brady’s case combines the coercive and cooptive aspects of the CCP’s activity abroad. Brady’s study of the Propaganda system and her recent work on global United Front have brought tactical arrangements only accessible through Party writings to a broader audience. In particular, her Magic Weapons paper, on New Zealand as a case study of the CCP’s global influence operations, has revealed the remarkable success of UF work among the country’s elite.

Anne-Marie Brady. Photo by Silas Zhang.

The paper wasn’t universally welcome. Since its publication, burglars have stolen electronic devices from Brady’s home and office. Her car was tampered with in ways described as consistent with intentional sabotage. The months-long investigation of these attacks reportedly involves Interpol and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. Academics who hosted Brady in China have been interrogated by Ministry of State Security officials. State media in the PRC and New Zealand media under the CCP’s ‘guidance’ have carried attacks on Brady. It seems reasonable to interpret these events as a harassment campaign meant to intimidate Brady and others researching the CCP’s political influence. In other words, coercive measures seem directed to prevent the exposure of cooptation mechanisms.

Our letter, following a statement by a New Zealand Chinese community organisation and three other local appeals, calls for an adequate response by local authorities to this harassment, and engagement with the substance of Brady’s research, so far not exactly forthcoming in New Zealand. It thus advocates scrutiny of both the coercive and the cooptive sides of the CCP’s control mechanisms.

Preserving the integrity of political systems depends on informed analysis of UF tactics able to vitiate them. Left unchallenged, these tactics can gradually undermine democratic governance, repurposing local institutions as tools of extraterritorial control. The New Zealand case is of unique interest for research on such tactics: in this democracy noted for its transparency, a donation from a prominent United Front figure was recently discussed in connection with a parliamentary candidacy for one of his associates; among political parties, the main beneficiary of UF-linked donations has been the one to echo CCP propaganda calling internment camps “vocational training centres”.

The CCP’s effort to coerce analysts into silence greatly concerns the China specialist community, judging by the unexpected number of signatures the letter attracted. These concerns are hardly conjectural. A signatory, Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology Sydney, was detained and interrogated for ten days in Guangzhou in 2017. The Swedish NGO worker Peter Dahlin, who also signed, was detained in China 2016 and only released after a staged confession. Colleagues who expressed support for the contents of the letter chose not to sign, fearing, in one case, being refused a visa and, in another, being taken hostage in retaliation for the recent arrest in Canada of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou 孟晚舟.

Beyond solidarity with a fellow researcher and interest in New Zealand’s democracy, the extent to which the appeal has resonated within the Chinese studies community points to global concerns over Xi’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the cooptive and coercive modes of its projection abroad.

[1] In the 1962 form, “industry, agriculture, commerce, education, the Army, the government and the Party” (工、农、商、学、兵、政、党); Mao had expressed the idea in similar terms as early as 1942, and it has been frequently restated and elaborated since. The locus classicus for the now canonical form is from 1973.

Thanks to Kuan-chu Chou.

Calling the deer a horse: The CCP’s ham-fisted drive to control discourse in Sweden

[Interview with Magnus Fiskesjö posted on Sinopsis on 28 Nov 2018]

The Chinese-born Swedish publisher Gui Minhai 桂民海 was kidnapped in 2015 in Thailand during a wave of abductions of critical Hong Kong booksellers. He was later released, rearrested and forced to deliver a statement to CCP-friendly media, including Jack Ma’s South China Morning Post. Gui’s detention, as well as that of another Swedish citizen, the NGO worker Peter Dahlin, forced to endure a staged televised confession, have fueled public debate on Sweden’s relationship with the PRC. As discussed in a recent Sinopsis piece, the combative tactics implemented by a new Chinese ambassador have hardly improved the public’s appreciation of the CCP’s policies. The embassy devoted special effort to a character-assassination campaign against the still-imprisoned Gui Minhai, bombarding media outlets with a set of accusations an investigation by journalist Jojje Olsson found to be fabricated.

Days after the Swedish king’s cancellation of a China visit on short notice, reportedly because of negotiations over Gui’s fate, Sinopsis conducted an e-mail interview with Magnus Fiskesjö, one of the most prominent voices advocating for Gui’s release. Fiskesjö teaches Anthropology and Asian Studies at Cornell University. He was the director of the Stockholm Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (Östasiatiska museet).

You are among the most vocal advocates for Gui Minhai’s release. What are the reasons for your personal connection to this case?

I got to know Gui Minhai while I served as the Cultural Attaché of Sweden’s Embassy in Beijing, in 1985-88. He was one of numerous young and talented poets, writers, and artists that I knew at the time. My memories are of a very bright young man always up for a joke and a laugh, as well as for serious discussions about literature and culture.

This was in the optimistic times before the massacres of the students and ordinary Beijingers at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and before the despair and cynicism that took over China afterwards. Before the tragedy, I had already helped Gui, as well as many others, to go to Sweden to study. We had only intermittent contact: this was in the era before email, and I was away from Sweden, for years. But I knew that he completed an MA thesis on Communist historiography, as well as publishing Chinese books and articles on Scandinavian culture. And that he changed to Swedish citizenship.

Gui then moved to Hong Kong to enter the publishing industry. We met up there once, in 2012. He was still the same optimistic and jovial figure, someone whose company you would enjoy. When he was kidnapped from Thailand in 2015, and then put up for a forced confession on Chinese state TV in early 2016, it was a shock for me personally. I knew the regime could be cruel. But this kind of fake show was a truly bone-chilling horror. It was despicable for the government to stoop to such games, with no respect for human dignity. So, I felt I had to speak up, mainly by telling people, not least people in my own country, what was going on. Also, the forced confessions unavoidably became a new research topic for me (see, e.g., “The return of the show trial: China’s televised ‘confessions’”).

Voices in support for Gui Minhai in Sweden have gone beyond academic Sinology to include many journalists and others from the publishing industry. How well-known do you think his case is among the general public in the country?

Don’t forget that our elected Government has repeatedly spoken up for Gui and demanded his release, as has our Parliament (jointly, by all parties!). The Chinese embassy tries to paint the voices supporting Gui as a “handful of hostile elements” but people can see that’s total nonsense. Their critics include long lists of public figures, such as Ove Bring, our foremost expert in international law, and Björn Skala, one of our former ambassadors to China. The Chinese propagandists want to believe they are still in China, and they can decide what is the truth. But no, we are still a free country.

And, in addition to a vigorous independent press and publishing industry, we also have very good public service radio and TV. Overall, their reporting has been decent, and it has made the general public aware of the case. I say this even as I myself was mightily frustrated that it took quite some time for media to wake up to it, and also that media sometimes swallowed Chinese propaganda designs (such as the re-packaged traffic incident that the Chinese government first used to smear Gui, and to delay and confuse the response to the case; I wrote about this here).

In sum, most people now do know about Gui Minhai’s case, and paradoxically, all the new vitriol from the recently appointed Chinese ambassador has in a strange way clarified the situation for most people: China’s holding a Swedish citizen, they are lying about it, they don’t follow any laws but constantly move the goalposts. The whole affair is an insult against our country.

People in Sweden have previously had to learn about the Eritrean-born Swedish citizen Dawit Isaak, who has long been held by a pretty awful dictator in that country. And a few years ago, a Swedish tourist was held for years by an Al Qaeda terrorist band holding fort in the desert of Mali.

That’s now the league to which China belongs. Swedish people also know that China forced a second Swedish citizen, Peter Dahlin, to go through a similar ordeal; after he was released and deported, he has contributed his personal behind-the-scenes account of how he was coerced, as did Gui’s bookseller colleague Lam Wing-kee [林荣基]. After hearing these and other similar accounts, no-one can regard the official Chinese spectacle as credible in any way.

What is your assessment of the Swedish government’s actions on Gui Minhai since he was kidnapped in 2015?

Having worked as a diplomat myself, I have a lot of respect for the Swedish diplomats on the frontline that have to bang their heads bloody on those Chinese walls made of cold stone. I can appreciate the value of efforts that aren’t public, and I trust that our officials have been trying very hard to convince the Chinese regime to release Gui.

They were very cautious and only went public with rebuking China after the shockingly disgraceful mob-style re-arrest of Gui on that train in early 2018, after they had been told that he was now free to go. The shock may have been partly due to the fact that our foreign ministry would be talking to the Chinese foreign ministry, and believed that they were getting an honest deal. But of course that ministry has no real say: Chinese diplomats may well themselves have been aghast and mystified, that after they’d told the Swedes that Gui was now free, he’s suddenly dragged off the train by plainclothes men acting out a second kidnapping right in front of Swedish diplomats!

The Parliament, in May this year, instructed our government to give high priority to working for Gui’s release. They will continue to do so, however long it takes, and whichever party is the government. We will never forget a citizen languishing in detention and cruelly paraded and forced to parrot lies on camera, just because someone did not like the books he published. Giving up on him, would mean giving up the fundamental values of our democracy, and consequently giving up our country as it is.

The King has cancelled a visit to China on short notice, allegedly because of negotiations over Gui’s release. Do you think there is any substance to those rumours? Is there precedent for involving the royal house in similar negotiations?

It is possible that this is true, although the official message is that the cancellation was due to the still-ongoing post-election efforts to form a new government. (The King must be on hand to inaugurate it.)

I myself met the King several times, and he once granted me an audience in my capacity as director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (which was once founded with the help of his grandfather). I also often listen to his Christmas speeches, and I do believe he is genuinely concerned with the wellbeing of our citizens.

It is thus quite possible that he would have been appalled by the Chinese embassy’s vicious outbursts against Gui Minhai over the last few months, including just before the visit. I have no inside knowledge about whether the King might intercede with China on Gui’s behalf, but in fact I suggested just that in an op-ed co-authored last month with Kurdo Baksi, the well-known Swedish author and activist. While the King constitutionally cannot take foreign policy initiatives by himself, the elected government can request his aid, just as they often request his aid in traveling the world to promote Swedish companies and trade, as would have been the case here as well. We argued that there is a precedent in how the King was involved in successfully freeing several Swedish engineers that had been imprisoned by Saddam Hussein, in Iraq, in the 1990s.

How do you evaluate Sweden’s China policy in general, and do you think the case of Gui Minhai has had much influence on it? More generally, has the Gui Minhai case affected China’s image in Sweden?

I think that going into the future, for a long time to come, China will be associated in Sweden with the wanton kidnapping and imprisoning of a Swedish citizen, because he published books they did not like.

Because of the naïveté and shallow understanding of China that long prevailed in Sweden, as well as in much of Europe, it took longer than expected for our government to wake up to the seriousness of Gui Minhai’s case. Part of the reason was the once-popular but now largely defunct misunderstanding that China, as it turned to (state) capitalism, would also develop decent politics. The delay was undoubtedly due to how some businessmen and other pro-Chinese people welcomed (and benefited from) Chinese business ties, and were reluctant to accept the reality that for the Chinese regime, business is politics by other means.

But I think that by now, the case has caused many in Sweden to wake up and realise that China represents a threat. We have seen concretely what China can do, and does, to our country. This — together with other grim news from China, including the new concentration camps in Xinjiang, the brutal denial of basic rights to ordinary people, the censorship and silencing of every kind of dissent — has resonated in Sweden as well as around Europe, and like others, we are now also beginning to re-assess our policies on China. This includes the questions on whether to allow Chinese ownership of key infrastructure, and so on, so as to preserve our independence and democratic political system in the face of a China seeking economic and political domination, and evidently incapable of observing international rules. This is important.

Few were paying attention when China sent warships blasting around the Baltic Sea alongside the Russian Navy, just outside Sweden’s coast. But I think that was an unmistakable sign that the threat from China is now very real.

Gui Congyou 桂从友, the ambassador to Sweden appointed in 2017 whose background has been covered, among other places, on Sinopsis, has been unusually confrontational towards media coverage of China, which has failed to engineer a pro-CCP narrative. What do you think could be the reasons behind these new tactics?

The propaganda he issues is counterproductive, and surely harmful to China’s image in Sweden and in Europe. The Chinese ambassador is probably following orders. But the ambassador, and those who sent the orders, either may not fully understand the downside,or they think they can simply treat Swedes as they would their own people: barking out orders, and expecting not only obedience, but self-humiliation. I am sure that the ambassador is sending glowing reports back home, about how many times he’s figured in the local press.

But some Chinese people in Sweden, who do understand the harm that the propaganda campaign is causing to the image of his country, choose silence.

In this context one cannot fail to think about the old saying in China, about “calling a deer a horse” [指鹿为马] — which is what the ambassador is trying to do. To summarize the original story, during the first Chinese empire, over two thousand years ago, a power-hungry top official staged a confrontation to test the subservience and obedience of his subordinates by presenting them with a live deer, but telling them this was a horse, and then demanding they speak up on this. Those who jumped up to laud the “horse” were retained; those who hesitated, or said “But… it’s a deer?” were later executed. This story is eerily relevant today: the Chinese ambassador lives in a very similar world. He even gloated on Swedish radio that he would never tell anything but the truth, if he was made to confess (under torture). This is the equivalent of the kind of official who spoke up to praise the beautiful “horse”.

Have other European nations shown sufficient solidarity with Sweden over Gui’s case? Do you think such bilateral issues should be handled at the European level?

The EU has several times demanded Gui’s freedom, in statements from the high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, and as part of its “human rights dialogue” with China, last summer. Sweden has expressed its thanks for this. As a Swedish citizen, Gui is also a European and an EU citizen, so yes, it is a very good idea to bring it up at the EU level, and in the European Parliament where it has also been raised.

On the other hand, it has not been enough, perhaps partly due to Swedish hopes — until this year — to protect its “silent diplomacy” (which I think was a mistake). And so, with the exception of Germany and a few more member countries, not many individual countries have expressed support for Sweden on this case, and in that sense, the solidarity and the attention has not been enough. Similarly, in the recent review of human rights in China, at the UN in Geneva, only some countries asked about Gui (though the constraints of the UN format were draconian).

Britain, which sadly is abandoning the Union, is the only other foreign country so far (other than Taiwan) that has seen its citizens forced to confess on Chinese TV. The victim, Peter Humphrey (see the new book edited by Peter Dahlin, Trial by Media: China’s New Show Trials and the Global Expansion of Chinese Media), is now requesting that Chinese state TV should be barred from broadcasting in Britain as a result. But we in Sweden and the British as Europeans should be standing up together to Chinese propaganda abuses, not divided.

So I think this issue brings up the whole question of the future of the EU. Some nationalistic forces want to destroy and abolish it, and they are encouraged by China and Russia, because they would like to split us, and dominate us. But then it would be so much easier for them to bully a country like Sweden, and Britain, or Germany, for that matter. As the extraordinary Mogherini argues, the EU is our best future, and we can do even better.

Besides the horror of the treatment Gui has suffered at the hands of the PRC government, what is, in your opinion, the global significance of his case? What should Western governments do to deter similar extraterritorial kidnappings of their citizens by the PRC government?

Gui’s case raises the question of how China can fit in the world, if it cannot respect the painstakingly built rules for how to be neighbors in this world, which includes respecting the citizenship and rights of others. In the case of Gui Minhai, China’s government is imposing its own whims, in lawless fashion: kidnapping Gui, lying about it, denying him consular visits, and so on. Unfortunately, his case is not isolated, but part of an ominous trend where China imposes its wishes unilaterally, claiming to own people on racist grounds, while ignoring even its own laws on citizenship.

For other nations, the only way to deter this is to insist on international law, and to defend and strengthen this system.

But it is weakened, and not strengthened, when powerful countries like the US practice secret renditions, torture, and black jails, itself setting aside international law as it did for years, during its so-called War on Terror. Such practices embolden China’s regime, by providing convenient reference points for them: “If they can do it, so can we?”

Introduction and interview by Jichang Lulu.

New Zealand: United Frontlings bearing gifts

[Posted on Sinopsis on 16 Nov 2018]

When Todd McClay, foreign affairs spokesperson for New Zealand’s largest parliamentary party, repeated propaganda points on Xi Jinping’s policy of ethnic-based internment in Xinjiang, the CCP’s cultivation of his National Party proved it was worth the trouble. The National Party’s indifference towards torture and apartheid, which Labour, the senior partner in the ruling coalition, has not challenged, must come as a welcome display of solidarity with the totalitarian state’s propaganda machine as it fights mounting global criticism of Xi’s gulag.

The incident will not surprise those following New Zealand affairs. Each major party has a United Front-linked MP, ensuring CCP-friendly views are represented regardless of election results. Their numbers may soon increase: not a month ago, a recording emerged in which National’s leader can be heard discussing a further pro-CCP, seat in connection with a large donation from another United Frontling. Nor are New Zealand endorsements of Xiist policy new. The leaders of both major parties sent congratulations to the latest Party Congress. Both were represented at the CCP International Liaison Department’s December “Dialogue” with foreign political parties, a fact that went unreported in New Zealand.

The donation scandal has triggered media interest in the CCP’s influence, after a year of largely ignoring the local academic who exposed it. She has, however, consistently attracted attention from other quarters. A police investigation, involving Interpol and a national security unit, has been looking into break-ins in her house and office; it’s now also handling the case of the apparent “sabotage” of her car. Coincidentally, CCP-‘guided’ Chinese-language media has launched an attack on both her and New Zealand-Chinese democracy activists.

Internment camps as “vocational training”

McClay’s remarks were the National Party’s response to Harrison Christian’s story on Uyghur New Zealanders whose relatives have been detained in Xi Jinping’s network of “re-education” camps. His statement echoed the euphemisms currently used by the PRC government:

“Abuses of human rights are a concern wherever they occur. [H]owever, the existence and purpose of vocational training centres is a domestic matter for the Chinese [g]overnment.”

As shown in the next part in our series on the CCP International Liaison Department (ILD), McClay represented his party last December in Beijing. The ILD’s “dialogue” with Barbarian political parties reached a consensus:

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.

The ruling Labour party was represented by its president Nigel Haworth, noted for his comments on Xi’s “wise leadership”, who praised Xi’s speech for state media to see. While Labour’s Xiist tribute was shown to the whole world by exoprop organ CGTN, McClay’s presence seems to have gone unreported in English.

At a session titled “Jointly pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative: role of political parties” (共建“一带一露”:政党的参与和贡献), McClay told China Central Television that the ILD “Dialogue” was an “opportunity for leaders of political parties from different countries to discuss global issues”. McClay estimated that “the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by China not only benefits countries” along it, but also “builds a platform for developing a broader dialogue between countries”.

Readers of our coverage of the CCP’s drive to impose Xiist language at the UN, notably aided by former New Zealand PM Helen Clark, will recognise such language as similar to that prescribed in propaganda writing on Xi’s pet geopolitical initiative. National’s further endorsement of Xi’s ethnic gulag can thus be seen as the natural next step in the CCP’s discourse engineering work.

The road to Parliament, paved with $100k

In a recorded conversation (warning: coarse language), National Party leader Simon Bridges discussed with fellow MP Jami-Lee Ross a NZ$100k donation from local businessman Zhang Yikun 张乙坤. The exchange, secretly recorded by Ross, revealed that a dinner with the donor had included discussion of two Parliament seats, including one for Zhang’s associate Colin Zheng (郑时佳).

Bridges: [G]ood work though man, that’s a lot of money.
Ross: Yeah they’re good people. Now there’s no catch or anything to it. You may recall at the dinner they did discuss candidacy, and another Chinese candidate.
Bridges: Two MPs, yeah.
Ross: Colin Zh[e]ng? The younger one, he’s put his name in for Candidates’ College and so I assume he’ll get through and we’ll make some decisions as a Party further down the track as to what we want to do with candidates.

National claim the donation hasn’t yet reached them, but, according to Ross, Zhang already paid: he told Bridges that the money was “sitting in a Botany electorate account”. Meanwhile, Zhang’s associate’s ascent to Parliament remains unimpeded, indeed with the Party president’s “encouragement”. Two further members of the CCP-linked group he leads have been made justices of the peace.

A card-carrying United Frontling

Zhang Yikun’s United Front credentials are unimpeachable. His CCP links were first reported on a microblogging website by Geoff Wade, me and others, soon followed by a comprehensive Chinese-language article by Chen Weijian 陈维健 (an English translation is now available).

These links span several major components of the United Front (UF) system. He was a delegate at the Hainan provincial committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) for two sessions (2007-2018), and served on its Standing Committee during the second one. Until at least 2017 he was a member of the Chinese Association for Promoting Democracy (中国民主促进会), one of the eight ‘democratic parties and groups’ ancillary to the CCP (cf. Groot, p. 103f. et passim), and on its Hainan committee as early as 2002. Zhang and his association have exchanged visits with the Zhigong Party, another para-CCP group with significant New Zealand contacts. Zhang was a vice president of the Hainan Federation of Industry and Commerce and later an executive member of its national version, the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce (ACFIC). The ACFIC and other industry and commerce associations form an essential part of the UF system. The ACFIC is often effectively treated as a ninth ancillary party in official documents and meetings.

Zhang was the founding chairman of the Chaoshan General Association of New Zealand (新西兰潮属总会) and remains the chairman of its board; he also chairs the Teochew International Federation (国际潮团总会). Like many hometown associations worldwide, the ones Zhang leads are under the CCP’s aegis, the result of decades of Qiaowu 侨务 (Overseas Chinese affairs) work aimed at coopting diaspora groups. There can be little doubt about Zhang’s association’s subordination to the CCP, manifested in frequent interactions with Qiaowu and other cadres, notably United Front Work Department deputy head Tan Tianxing 谭天星, as well as in his being chosen to organise a world Teochew convention.

Like Yang Jian 杨健, the National MP whose background in PLA intelligence was revealed last year, Zhang is also linked to the Party’s Army. He was in the PLA Navy in Hainan in the ’90s and is also the honorary chairman of the New Zealand PLA Veterans Association.

Zhang Yikun signs the PLA flag at the NZ PLA Veterans Association 2017 New Year gala. Source.

Colin Zheng, whose induction into Parliament was discussed in one breath with the $100k donation, is an associate of Zhang’s. He has held leadership positions at the Chaoshan Association since its establishment and currently serves as its chairman. He’s Zhang’s business partner, frequently seen with him in public appearances, including at meetings with officials. Last November, it was Zheng who welcomed Xu Yousheng 许又声, then Party secretary of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and now vice head of the United Front Work Department, with a speech invoking Engels’ passing remark on Shantou (New York Daily Tribune, 18 Nov 1858) and the ‘New Era’ heralded by the 19th Congress of the CCP.

Frontling money hits the news

Ross made the recording public after accusing Bridges of attempting to conceal the donor’s identity by splitting the donation into amounts below the reporting threshold. Although the recording fails to yield evidence of that, and it remains unclear if the donation was made at all, media reporting initially focused on the scandal as a political dispute within the National Party. Indeed the saga did not lack media fodder: bullying and harassment allegations against Ross, his admission of extramarital affairs with a fellow MP and a member of Bridges’ staff, his involuntary confinement to a mental health facility for a few days, and indeed Bridges “speaking inappropriately”, to his mother’s dismay.

The elephant in the room, viz., the apparent offer of Parliament seats to a UF-linked donor, was slow to attract media attention. This is in line with the previous record of most New Zealand media outlets. Scandalous though it might seem, the Zhang Yikun donation saga simply adds to a defining trait of contemporary New Zealand politics: the widespread, though underreported, influence of the CCP.

UF-linked donations, mostly to the National Party, were documented in Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons paper, published more than a year ago. Although the paper doesn’t discuss Zhang Yikun, it covers earlier UF-linked donations to National, which Brady estimates total at least NZ$1.38m, as well as to Auckland mayor Phil Goff (formerly with Labour), who earned NZ$150k at a fundraising dinner by auctioning a signed copy of Xi Jinping’s book On the Governance of China I (the tome is often given away for free, and its contents are available online). Although some salient aspects of Brady’s paper (and the attacks against her) were covered by the local press, notably Matt Nippert and more recently Harrison Christian, the structural links between United Front entities and New Zealand politics received scant attention.

Between racists and Xi Jinping Thought

The Zhang Yikun case did, however, lead to increased coverage. After initial reporting narrowly focused on the Ross-Bridges dispute, more substantial coverage and analysis began to emerge. Branko Marcetic provided the first serious treatment (warning: profanity in the title) of Zhang’s UF links in English, including original reporting. Tze Ming Mok’s New Zealand Herald op-ed recounts her experience of “wonks […] extremely concerned” about PRC influence who “can’t say much publicly” lest they imperil “their own Chinese government-linked funding”. Debate is precluded by “a wall of silence” whose “chilling effect is harming Chinese people in New Zealand”, “trapped between knee-jerk racists and Xi Jinping Thought”.

As a fitting illustration, the Herald refused to print Mok’s mention of Zhang’s UF links (which were by then firmly established based on public, official PRC sources). These were, however, covered by other local media outlets; Charlotte Graham-McLay’s reporting for the New York Times brought them to a global audience. Brady, largely ignored by local media since the publication of her report, was now sought by major media outlets, including for a half-hour interview with state broadcaster Radio NZ. Even state-owned network TVNZ devoted a podcast to the CCP influence issue. A petition by Freeman Yu demands Parliament “inquire into foreign influence in New Zealand politics”. Yu has faced attacks from pro-CCP voices, which, through such outlets as local state-media partner Skykiwi (天维网), tell “anti-China Chinese people” they are “not welcome in New Zealand”. (Propaganda Department vice head Sun Zhijun 孙志军 once visited Skykiwi to provide “guidance” to “tell China’s story well”.)

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Planet…

The cultivation of politicians by individuals associated with United Front organisations is not restricted to New Zealand. Under Xi Jinping, the work of these groups, once primarily focused on the Chinese diaspora, is now targeting those with “political influence, economic power and social prestige” in foreign societies at large, in an attempt to use community organisations as tools of political influence. The case of Australia made global headlines when donations from the leader of a peak United Front body were linked to support for China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

In the Czech Republic, the case of James Wu (吴瑞珍), covered by Sinopsis and Hlídací pes, shows remarkable parallels with that of Zhang Yikun. Like Zhang, Wu leads several hometown associations. Both have had extensive contacts with the Qiaowu system. Wu was a member of a city committee of the CPPCC, and a non-voting delegate at the Fujian province CPPCC. In 2013, he helped organise a Prague visit by its chairman. According to a former business partner, Wu was always interested in political contacts, and indeed managed to become the ‘Fujian representative’ of Olomouc region. In other words, the interests of a Czech local government were represented in China by someone with posts within the CCP’s political system. In New Zealand, Zhang Yikun has established a close relationship with Southland District mayor Gary Tong, who indeed was in China as a “guest” of Zhang at the height of the donations scandal. Although Wu’s political influence bears no comparison to Zhang’s, he did try to fly higher than Olomouc: he managed, at least, to be photographed next to former PM Petr Nečas.

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

Repurposing the system

Despite the degree of attention, politicians from the major parties keep ignoring the issue. Given Zhang Yikun’s cultivation of links with both major parties, it’s hardly surprising that PM Jacinda Ardern continues to defend the country’s “transparency”. Four fifths of the donations to Ardern’s party between 2011 and 2017 were anonymous (a similar figure applies to National, which has maintained a similar proportion in the last year; Labour has admittedly improved).

The CCP’s long-term efforts to make New Zealand’s high politics serve its foreign-policy goals have successfully neutralised the country’s famed transparency. As a forthcoming ILD piece will continue to argue, tools Lenin and Stalin conceived with disruption in mind have been optimised to repurpose, rather than destroy, democratic political systems.