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).


Antipodica 0: Leading from the back end

This is the initial post of a triple on CCP influence in Australia and New Zealand. The first two pieces are a prelude to former PRC diplomat Chen Yonglin’s 2016 China in Perspective piece on Australia as “China’s backyard”, presented for the first time in English.

0. Leading from the back end
1. The cis-Tasman yard
2. Chen Yonglin: Australia as China’s backyard

Antipodean developments lured this blog away from its usual northern haunts last year. In September, Anne-Marie Brady published a comprehensive treatment of United Front (统一战线) activities in New Zealand (Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping; for the history of the Maoist ‘magic weapons’ (法宝, dharmaratnāni), cf. this post by Victor Mair). The CCP’s use of the political, business and academic élites of foreign countries for its policy purposes is a well-known aspect of United Front work, but the success of such ‘work’ in New Zealand, Brady’s systematic presentation of it, and reactions from the local élite make Kiwi United Frontics worth following even for those not specifically concerned with South Pacific affairs.

My interest in New Zealand politics had been triggered somewhat earlier, when I came across what I believed was a hoax attempting to discredit Labour MP Raymond Huo (霍建强) and his party by associating them to a bizarre Xi Jinping quote (‘roll up your sleeves and work hard(er)’) known for its masturbatory overtones and other pun potential (cf. “Comrades, ‘hike up your skirts for a hard shag’“). Only after extensive consultation and analysis, with many a face-palm, could I conclude that the quote was very much authentic, and Huo had been kite-flying it in earnest as the official Chinese version of Labour’s campaign slogan. After Brady’s report came out, I embedded my comments on the Xi quote (‘Skirts lifted, jewels unveiled’) into a post that detailed how the major political parties in New Zealand have essentially outsourced the political representation of a minority to individuals linked to organisations controlled by the Party-state (“United Frontlings always win”, in turn embedded into a China Heritage post (Geremie Barmé, “The battle behind the front“)).

For brevity, my ‘United Frontlings’ post focused on two individuals, Huo the rolled-up sleeved Xi-quoter and National Party MP Yang Jian 杨健, famous for his PLA intelligence background. While nominally competing for the Chinese-speaking electorate, Yang and Huo are functionally United Front eggs in different baskets. But various degrees of CCP influence are apparent across New Zealand’s political class, way beyond the Yang-Huo double act. Magic Weapons discusses political donations to the major parties, business links to politicians or their relatives, SOE jobs for former office-holders, MPs in Belt-and-Road lobbying groups, all traceable to United Front organisations and various entities linked to the Party-state. It’s a Who’s Who of New Zealand’s élite politics: former prime ministers Jenny Shipley, John Key and Bill English; former Labour leader, Auckland mayor Phil Goff; former National leader Don Brash; National MP Judith Collins, the ‘fun’ candidate to lead her party [UPDATE: she lost]. Better-known cases of successful PRC influence involve autocracies, structural corruption, ideological affinity, resurgent nationalism, debt diplomacy; in New Zealand, a prosperous, stable democracy among the least perceivedly corrupt, dependent on China for less than a fifth of its exports as of 2016, what has been published about CCP influence provides evidence for the effective exploitation, using legal, if little transparent, means, of a lack of relevant area expertise in policy-making, business influence on politics, and politicians and officials’ appetite for retirement options. Despite obvious differences, many of these tactics could be replicated in other Western small states, in particular some in Northern Europe, under this blog’s official remit.

With a sizable Chinese community, New Zealand is also the arena for the CCP’s long-term battle to win overseas Chinese support for a range of domestic and international strategy goals. Overseas work has been largely successful, at least at the leadership level, aided in part by attitudes among the monocultural majority that have evolved from a racist past to a form of respectful ignorance and undiscerning acquiescence with the pro-CCP takeover of community organisations.  Those not conforming to the  views of the alliance between the political-business élite and United Front organisations can expect to be doubly marginalised. As one Chinese Kiwi recently put it: in China, you have to cope with being a dissident, and abroad, with being both a dissident and Chinese.

Information has continued to emerge since the publication of Brady’s report. In this post, I will discuss two events that illustrate New Zealand’s outsourcing of ‘Chinese affairs’ to the Party-state, with an excursus on state efforts to control student organisations, before concluding that these achievements of United Front work are unlikely to be undone in the medium term.

Kiwi pollies mark the Year of Cerberus

The Magic Weapons have been inordinately effective in ensuring New Zealand’s cooperation with certain aspects of CCP propaganda efforts. One key goal of United Front work is to win the loyalty of overseas Chinese communities (by a broad jus sanguinis definition that purports to include even the descendants of people who emigrated a century before the PRC’s establishment), attempting to identify the CCP with all expressions of Chinese culture; another is to present a positive image of the Party-state’s leadership to non-Chinese-speaking foreigners, legitimising it as supported by the ruling élites of as many foreign states as possible. New Zealand’s politicians provide help towards both these goals.

According to a source with knowledge of the matter, recent requests from a CCP-unfriendly NZ Chinese organisation to have ministers send Chinese New Year greetings were reportedly redirected to Raymond Huo, effectively making the ruling party’s leading United Frontling, whose PRC-consonant views are wellknown, the government’s gatekeeper to contacts with the Chinese community. In contrast, ministers and other politicians didn’t hesitate to attend celebrations with PRC diplomats. In other words, the Party-state, through its local advocates, can vicariously veto official support for something as apolitical as a calendrical festivity, at least when the persons seeking such support happen to have Chinese surnames. Brady has quoted a “senior Chinese diplomat” as comparing New Zealand’s relations with China to Albania‘s dependence on the PRC during the ’60s; prophetically enough, Enver Hoxha’s name in Chinese (恩维尔·霍查) is interpretable as ‘[the Party’s] Benevolence (党恩) holds thee [and all else (Shi 191.3)] together; [Raymond] Huo inspects’.

鸡犬立而吠。 Cerberus, immanis ianitor Factionis.

Source: KPDNKK.

Still in the Avian Year, NZ grandees offered the Party-state fulsome praise at international propaganda events. Last November, former National PM Dame Jenny Shipley attended Chau Chak Wing 周泽荣’s Imperial Springs Forum. Dame Jenny, further elevated to the dignity of a China Construction Bank (建设银行) employee, attended a post-forum audience with Xi Jinping in Beijing, where her praise of Xi and his Belt-and-Road Initiative made it into a People’s Daily piece proclaiming the world’s support for ‘the Chinese Approach (中国方案)’. National’s president, Peter Goodfellow, quoted as valuing “the Chinese” because “they don’t complain and they pay up“, sent a congratulatory message to the 19th Party Congress, as did his Labour counterpart, Nigel Haworth, who also showed up in person at the Auckland consulate to talk about “Xi Jinping’s wise leadership“. Haworth also attended an ‘interparty’ meeting between the CCP and assorted foreign parties in December; he praised Xi’s speech on camera for state media CGTN: “I think he is taking a very brave step, trying to lead the world to think about global challenges”. (Ironically, before becoming an apologist for an authoritarian regime that jails labour activitists, Haworth had an academic career specialising in Latin American labour movements. One has to wonder what insights from that field led him to develop a sincere admiration for the likes of Pinochet.)

Huo as unofficial gatekeeper and all the official Xi-fawning should suffice to illustrate how New Zealand’s main political parties actively work to advance key aspects of the CCP’s propaganda work.

Jobs for the Frontlings

New Zealand leads the world, not only thanks to its pioneering time zone, but in terms of official interaction with United Front organisations. The political determination to outsource Chinese constituents to CCP-affiliated groups isn’t limited to the ascent of United Frontlings Yang and Huo. When Brady’s report came out, Labour was running another ethnic Chinese candidate, Chen Naisi 陈耐锶. A law student who sounded like a candidate malgré soi (Brady quotes an interview where she claims to be “not in the least bit interested in politics“), Chen has an important position that might have justified Labour’s choice: the former presidency of the New Zealand Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA, 中国学生学者联合会) and current vice-same of its Auckland chapter. As we will see, Chen didn’t become an MP, but was appointed to a largely taxpayer-funded post of some significance.

The significance of Chen’s appointment might not be obvious to a casual observer. What’s so unusual about a student leader becoming moving into ‘grown-up’ politics, or about someone born in the PRC leading a primarily PRC student organisation? Unlike the well-connected politicians and officials described above, Chen has hardly begun a career, and is, by herself, not terribly influential in NZ-PRC relations. Some of her views, quoted below, are rather remarkable, but the significance of her post lies in her capacity as CSSA leader. In the following digression, I will detail how, while CSSA membership can have little to do with politics, leadership of a CSSA chapter implies a willingness to work under the direct ‘guidance’ of the Party-state, as well as a degree of ideological agreement with it, often subject to the evaluation and supervision of PRC diplomats. As will soon become clear, Party-state control over overseas student organisations is mandated by Party regulations, has been documented by specialised academics, is observable through state-media sources, and is readily declared by the organisations themselves, also in New Zealand. Not only is agreement with authoritarianism apparently compatible with mainstream New Zealand politics: a major party and a state-funded organisation actively seek to work with a United Front group, perhaps trying to ‘improve China ties’ by giving jobs to those (correctly) perceived as linked to the Party-state.

Correct guidance

CSSAs have been receiving some English-language attention of late, highlighting state connections that remain less than obvious to the non-Chinese-speaking public. In Australia, Alex Joske has been researching them for some time; see e.g. his piece with Wu Lebao 吴乐宝, and a fuller treatment in a section of the Hamilton-Joske parliament submission. Even a cursory look at CSSA Chinese-language websites will show that they’re typically established by the local consulates or embassies, that often contribute funding and ‘guidance’. For convenience, a wealth of screenshots showing these links, primarily in US universities, has been shared these days on a micro-blogging site, notably by Shawn Zhang 章闻韶. After a recent piece focusing on one particular instance of Embassy funding, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is working on a longer treatment [UPDATE (Mar 7): Allen-Ebrahimian’s piece, with contributed research by Shawn Zhang, is out; plenty of detail on American CSSAs, based on multiple inside sources.]. Chen’s organisation, the Auckland CSSA, fits in this picture: a 2012 state-media article describes the association as “under the correct guidance of the education section of the Auckland consulate”. CSSAs are an aspect of the Party-state ‘Diaspora Affairs’ (侨务 qiaowu). James To notes that education attachés at diplomatic outposts began establishing CSSAs to support and ‘guide’ students abroad so as to “raise their patriotism” soon after 1989, as part of a general turn to nationalism intended to prevent the reemergence of dissent. The 1992 “State Council General Office Circular on matters relating to students studying abroad” (国务院办公厅关于在外留学人员有关问题的通知(国办发[1992]44号)) is clear about these policies: Chinese students abroad are welcome (or, if on government scholarships, required) to return, and graciously forgiven if they have been associated with “organisations opposed to the Chinese government”; those who take foreign passports must renounce PRC citizenship and will be “treated as ethnic Chinese of foreign nationality” (i.e., within the purview of qiaowu work); embassies and consulates are instructed to support them, as well as inform them of “our country’s situation”; students must be “educated” to respect local laws while “loving the motherland, protecting its reputation and interests and earning glory for the country”.

While these directives have been systematically implemented for decades, the Xi Era’s emphasis on United Front work also includes a stronger engagement with students abroad. In May 2015, in a speech at the work meeting of the Central United Front Work Department, Xi referred to those who study abroad as a “new focus of United Front work“. Within days, state media was featuring the work of the CSSAs and quoting selected CSSA leaders worldwide who answered this “call from the Motherland”, while popularising the gist of the speech on social media.

Quotes from the speech continue to be repeated and elaborated in doctrinary writing. A recent example is this piece published on Party theory magazine Qiushi 求是 under the Marxist Theory Research and Construction Project (马克思主义理论研究和建设工程) analysing Xi Jinping’s thought on the United Front, again with the “new focus” dictum.

The Party Central Committee’s 2015 “Regulations of the Communist Party of China on United Front Work (for trial implementation)” (中国共产党统一战线工作条例(试行)) include students abroad and back from overseas within the purview of United Front work, highlighting the role of the Western Returned Scholars Association (WRSA, 欧美同学会(中国留学人员联谊会); a venerable association no longer restricted to those who studied in the ‘West’). The WRSA, a United Front organisation, is having its purview extended to include supporting and liaising with students abroad and their organisations, pursuant to a set of recommendations issued by the Party Central Committee in 2016, emphasised in suggestions by a government-affiliated think tank ‘partnered’ with the WRSA, with which its leadership overlaps, and visibly implemented in links to at least some CSSAs.

The Ministry of Education (typically responsible for ‘guiding’ CSSAs through the education sections at diplomatic missions), in a celebrated directive from its Party organisation calling for more patriotic education, also called for the propagation of Xi’s “Chinese Dream” to students overseas through a network linking “the Motherland—embassies and consulates—overseas students groups—broad numbers of students abroad” (original; NYT coverage).

While this firmly anchors student organisations in official state policy and United Front doctrine under Xi, a recent example can illustrate the importance of students overseas for Xiism and show coordinated state ‘guidance’ of the CSSAs at work.

The Muscovite Letter

On 30 December last year, Xi Jinping replied to a letter from the Moscow State University CSSA on such edifying topics as the spirit of the 19th Party Congress. Its authors included the MSU CSSA’s president, Lu Sentong 卢森通, a lawyer who has also held positions at the Russian Association for the Peaceful Reunification of China (a United Front group) and the Union of Chinese Students in Russia (中国留俄学生总会, Союз китайских учащихся в России), to whose presidency the embassy has just elevated him. The letter was reviewed and forwarded to Beijing by the Embassy. Xi’s reply stops at around 300 characters, mostly used to extol the role of the young in the Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation and setting up a parallel to Mao’s 1957 speech at the same university during his visit for the Moscow Conference.

像早晨八九点钟的太阳。Inter ludis virgines, stellis nebulam candidis spargis.

Mao Zedong with diplomatic staff and student representatives at the Chinese embassy. Moscow, November 1957. Source.

State media found the missive newsworthy. On the very 30th, the letter was read on China Central Television, during the 7pm news (Xinwen lianbo 新闻联播). Selected students, including the CSSA leader, watched it live at the PRC embassy.

Students including MSU CSSA leader Lu Sentong 卢森通 watch the Imperial reply to their letter read live on Xinwen lianbo. PRC embassy in Moscow, December 30th, 2017 (Source). As of press time, it’s unclear if prior warning existed that Xi’s missive, dated that very day, had been given, or if the students and diplomats just happened to dress like that and meet up at 2pm on a Saturday to watch the universally loved broadcast.

The People’s Daily published Xi’s reply on its front page the next day.

People’s Daily, 31 December 2017.

Education sections of diplomatic missions worldwide then proceeded to organise study sessions with students and scholars under their jurisdiction, in order to analyse the ‘spirit’ of Xi’s reply. This process, involving CSSAs and other groups, was then widely reported by state media, government-affiliated sites and publications, and some of the associations themselves on their websites and social media. The WRSA, the United Front organisation given increased jurisdiction to liaise with those who study abroad, has also reported on these exegesis sessions; it also organised what could be seen as the Mother of All Muscovite Missive Exegetics Meetings, attended by Dai Junliang 戴均良, deputy director of the Central United Front Department. The exoprop system was also set in motion to bring the good news to foreigners, even including such foreign partners as TASS, thanks to its increasing cooperation with PRC media.

The spirit of the Moscow Letter was studied in Singapore, Sweden, the US, Finland, South Korea; in Moscow, again; and in Aukcland, where, already on 31 December, the Consulate arranged a forum with students and visiting scholars. (The Auckland session didn’t involve the CSSA, but a small group of students on government scholarships (公派), who are more often expected to participate in this kind of event.)

Season’s Greetings: Auckland New Year’s Eve Xi-Exegetics session organised for students on government scholarships, by Consular injunction. The banner quotes Xi’s 19th Party Congress report, with one character missing I believe (source).

No such thing as a discounted lunch

The global pantomime set up to fête Xi’s 300-odd characters is only one example of centrally coordinated political work aimed at students overseas; similar events, including ‘study sessions’, took place at other junctures, such as, of course, during the Party Congress. Of course, this doesn’t imply that political work constitutes the bulk of CSSA activity, or even a significant or noticeable part of it, as experienced by most members. Much as in the case of other student groups, the point of CSSA membership is surely access to social events, various forms of support or such goodies as restaurant discount vouchers, rather than the privilege of attending study sessions with Their Excellencies. In many cases, as in the rather poorly attended New Year’s Eve Imperial Moscow Correspondence Exegesis Symposium in Auckland, or, say, the Party Congress study session at Australian National University, involving the relatively rare sight of a (possibly ad hoc) Party cell on foreign soil, political work is only for visiting scholars or students on state scholarships, sometimes not even involving the actual CSSAs. On special occasions, however, the broad masses of CSSA members can be summoned, and not a few will respond: Hamilton and Joske describe the embassy-organised rallies to welcome Li Keqiang to Australia in 2017, with “hundreds of students” who were trained, and assigned roles in groups that included “security squads”.

Like other external groups involved in United Front work, the CSSAs spend most of their time and resources on non-political activities that offer actually useful services to a certain non-Party social group of UF interest. Members can be attracted by any number of incentives, from ‘discounted lunches’ to patriotic spirit. On the other hand, leaders of such organisations are surely clear about their political role: they place themselves under the ‘guidance’ of the education section of the local diplomatic mission (as in the case of Chen’s Auckland organisation); their election sometimes even takes place on consulate premises; candidates can be subject to the approval of a consulate, or directly designated by the embassy. A CSSA leader such as Labour’s Chen Naisi can’t credibly claim independence from its ‘guiding’ entity.

Chen’s own public statements are worth quoting. Asked about the revelations about Yang Jian’s military past during an English-language interview before the election, she claimed they would have “increased the level of support for Yang from the Chinese community.” She thought the community would have “emphatised” with Yang. Since the ‘community’ was actually divided over Yang, Chen probably had in mind her own ’empathy’ for a political adversary. She added: “In China it’s very hard not to have anything to do with the Communist Party, or even the military regime itself. It’s part of the working life. The hospital, the schools are all part of the regime.” Such a statement is either trivial (state institutions are of course somehow related to the Party in a one-Party state), or false (it’s not particularly easy to become a CCP member, let alone to have a career at a PLA institution; Yang’s career has little in common to that of, say, an average SOE employee).

Hätt’ ich nicht so viel getanzt

Although Chen lost the election, thus succeeding in staying away from all the ‘uninteresting’ politics, she is an advisor to the New Zealand China Council, a partially taxpayer-funded “cross-sector, peak body for the New Zealand-China relationship”. Its Advisory Council also includes both United Frontling MPs, Yang and Huo. Led by a former official turned consultant without known Chinese expertise, the Council works as a lobbying group advocating Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, sometimes in cooperation with such organisations as Confucius Institutes (cf. a recent “Belt and Road Forum“, a genre affectionately known as BARF). His own website shows him performing a bowing dance, too cringey to reproduce here, in front of Li Keqiang 李克强, to his Premierial hilarity.

Chen Naisi is certainly politically junior to well-connected United Frontlings Yang and Huo, but her organisation’s profile and her own views leave no doubt that, by giving her such visible roles, Labour and the NZ China Council are signalling their acquiescence with relevant CCP policies. Labour, just like National, clearly agrees that the CCP’s United Front organisations have a natural right to represent New Zealand Chinese. The Council is also clear in its commitments; it has summarily dismissed the evidence of CCP political influence operations, and reaffirmed its advocacy of Xi Jinping’s geopolitical Initiative.

Conic relief

Soon after the revelations on Yang Jian and Brady’s report, Michael Reddell, an economist and former official, complained of the “cone of silence that seem[ed] to have descended over elite New Zealand” around Yang’s case. Indeed, Yang remains an MP, was consistently defended by Bill English, former PM and until recently leader of the National Party. I don’t think I’ve seen any senior Labour politician air the slightest criticism of a rival MP with a background in PLA intelligence. As seen above, senior politicians, officials and state-funded lobbyists continue to offer adulation to the Core and to advocate his Initiative. Local coverage has been modest, mostly limited to the work of one investigative journalist, Matt Nippert, at the nation’s paper of record, and some articles from news outlet Newsroom.


原委如此。Conus insignis galeae cristaeque comantes. Source.

Brady was quickly placed under the cone. When Chris Finlayson, then the attorney general, was asked about Yang’s case and Brady’s work at a campaign event, he refused to “respond to any of the allegations” against Yang (which allegations Yang has confirmed himself) and proceeded to complain about “a whole class of people” being “singled out for racial abuse”, before insulting Brady: “I don’t think she likes any foreigners at all.” While her work has been quoted by scholars and journalists the world over, and was probably a key factor in initiating the current scrutiny of Chinese influence in the West, it has had little visible effect in her own country. Reactions came from state nationalistic tabloid Global Times (环球时报), which posted a piece through social media quoting NZ-based “young scholar” Ken Liu (Liu Yuxi 刘羽西) attacking Brady’s views (since she “lacks understanding of China and still looks at it using Cold-War thinking”). Liu is a member of the NZ China Friendship Society, as well as of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese (中国侨联), a United Front group. He has contributed praise of China’s political system to Skykiwi (天维网), a Chinese-language website linked to state media.

Ardern’s concerns

A more kinetic response followed. Brady had her office and house burgled. Laptops and phones were stolen, while “[[o]ther] valuables weren’t taken”. The burglaries did generate considerable press coverage; PM Jacinda Ardern expressed concern about possible links between the attack and Brady’s work, and announced she would “be asking some questions” of the intelligence service.

Whatever indignation the Relevant Burglaries might generate, New Zealand’s political, business and academic landscape makes it rather unlikely that the CCP’s influence operations will be seriously questioned. Ardern might be sincerely concerned about people being burgled, but, if my sources are to be believed, her government continues to keep a United Frontling as gatekeeper to Chinese-community interaction. Her party is presided by an apologist of totalitarian ‘wise leadership’. Her Loyal Opposition has even stronger CCP links, takes pride on its PLA-intel man; National, and so perhaps one day the government, might [UPDATE: not so] soon be led by Judith Collins, the peculiar business background of whose family couldn’t be freely discussed when she was a minister, and could become fully taboo under her premiership.

As observant readers might have noticed, Brady’s surname pops up rather frequently in this and other accounts of Zelanian United-Frontics. Brady is a well-known scholar and has pioneered the subject, but it’s rather unusual to see almost no one else broach the topic. New Zealand has, after all, a fair number of Sinologists; their silence speaks volumes. Discussion of CCP influence elsewhere has led to vigorous debate, while in New Zealand it’s just Brady. Brady, shm(r)ady!

More generally, nothing suggests a change is imminent in the monolingual, monocultural majority élite’s view of China (and everyone and everything ‘Chinese’) as an exotic totum that will rain deals, junkets and votes on you if you just help it conceal its dirty laundry, ape the lingo of its eternal Leader, entertain it with a mock-Asian bowing dance and show it your stupeur et tremblements. While an obvious improvement over ethnic prejudice, this is still intellectual laziness. Our favourite Frontlings know how to play the ‘inscrutable’ card to the China-naïve: when confirming he hid his background from the public, Yang Jian said the “system” in China was too “complicated”; Raymond Huo called his prosaic Xi-speak election motto “an auspicious Chinese idiom”; Chen Naisi explains Yang’s background as just everyday life in China, comparing PLA intel-school staff to rank-and-file SOE employees. If you don’t know Chinese, can’t find China on a map of China, and are too lazy to learn, those are acceptable responses. Such organisations as the NZ China Council, ~⅔-funded by the public to play a role in engaging with a major trade partner, are led by the China-illiterate, and effectively outsource all thinking tasks to advocates of the entity they’re meant to engage. When it comes to China, common sense is suspended; or do how-to-negotiate books sold at Wellington Station teach you to let the other side do your due diligence for you?

As it continues to slide down the BARF-y Road, New Zealand is worth keeping an eye on for those interested in United Front Work and techniques for coopting Western élites. Since no policy change seems likely, one should expect United Frontlings and the motley prancing lobbyhood will at least stay funny. Huo’s borderline-onanistic Xi-speak campaign slogan is admittedly hard to beat, but the ever-gushing geyser of what Barmé calls New China Newspeak will hopefully produce something on time for the next election. Should the Nats need an advisor, I might try and merge Holyoake’s “Steady does it” into Xi’s Donkey Theory (驴论); but there’s surely more potential in an amalgam of Xi’s rerefloatment of Mao’s “Knife Handle [in the Party-and-people’s hands]” (党和人民手中的刀把子) and Judith Collins’ “I stab from the [F]ront”.

This concise introduction to the Backyard piece will now continue across the Ditch.

1. The cis-Tasman yard

New Zealand: United Frontlings always win

[After the weekend’s election, a slightly edited and updated version of this post appeared on China Heritage, with a must-read introduction and collection of links by Geremie Barmé, to whom I’m grateful for republishing (and helping edit) the piece.]

A report by Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, just released through the Wilson Center, gives the first comprehensive description of efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to exert influence on New Zealand politics, business and media. This post focuses on one aspect of Brady’s paper, with considerable overlap with its sources but also some additional details and comments. It’s been written in a rush, whence the generally rambling character and typos.


Skirt lifted, jewels unveiled

This post will eventually resolve into a discussion of the Xi personality cult as embedded in New Zealand campaign slogans; specifically, a slogan with sexual associations that has spawned variations where skirts are lifted and pipes are rubbed. But beyond these juicy details, Brady’s report is about united front activities, and I’d also like to summarise what I see as the essential characteristics of the Front idea. An idea that goes back to the 1920s, but is seeing its most splendid implementation under Xi Jinping.

The title of Brady’s report (“Magic weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping”) alludes to a memorable bit of Maoist Scripture, the Chairman’s characterisation of the united front as one of the CCP’s revolutionary ‘magic weapons’ (法宝 fǎbǎo), the others being ‘armed struggle’ and ‘the construction of the Party’. The word fǎbǎo is (I think) first attested as a Buddhist term, a literal translation of Sanskrit dharmaratna. The ‘jewel of the dharma’, one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, refers to the teachings of the Buddha. The semantic shift to ‘magic weapon’ likely happened in Daoism. Rather than a skirt, the Brady report lifts the veil on Xi’s reactivation of Mao’s weaponised jewel.

Although focused on New Zealand, Brady’s report discusses the CCP’s United Front (统一战线) tactics in general. The idea goes back to early Communism, whose theoreticians talked of the need for strategic alliances with other parties and movements as a preliminary stage to a Communist takeover. After its role in the Bolsheviks’ rise in Russia, the concept was adopted by the Comintern in 1921 at Zinoviev’s initiative. The name was already ‘united (workers’) front’ (единый (рабочий) фронт). The Comintern language of those days talks of joining forces with other ‘working class’ forces, meaning various factions in the socialist movement, by then split into a variety of groups within which Soviet-loyal Communists were often a minority. A Comintern appeal from 1922 calls for those who haven’t yet made up their minds to take up arms and struggle for “power” and “dictatorship” to “at least unite in the struggle for ordinary subsistence” against “exploiters and traitors to humanity“. The harangue is directed to all working class representatives, be they “Communists, Social Democrats, or Anarchists, or Syndicalists”. That sounds like building alliances, but a key aspect is that the Communist movement saw these tactics as temporary, intended to eventually give it hegemonic power. The Communist Party intended to stay separate from reformists or Anarchists it ultimately saw as their ideological enemies. The first ‘united front’ was essentially about instrumentalising European Social Democrats in the 1920s; later on, these alliances would become narrower (shedding the Social Democrats under Stalinism), then broader (the ‘Popular Front’ with ‘bourgeois’ forces against Fascism) and later discarded altogether after Stalin’s pact with Hitler.

But there’s more to united front strategies than temporary alliances with working-class forces to the left or right of Soviet-style Communism itself. The instrumentalisation doesn’t have to stop at these notional ideological allies within the socialist spectrum. Brady’s report quotes from Lenin’s The Infantile Sickness of “Leftism” in Communism (Детская болезнь “левизны” в коммунизме), a 1920 tract where he attacks Western European Communists farther to his left. Although the work doesn’t literally mention any ‘fronts’, the tactics it describes subsume their description by the Comintern one year later as a particular case. Beyond the alliances with socialists and trade unionists mentioned the appeal quoted above, Lenin advocates tactical cooperation with ‘bourgeois’ organisations: it’s only possible to “vanquish a more powerful enemy” by “skillfully using […] opposing interests between the bourgeoisie of different countries” and between different bourgeois groups between each country, “as well as every, even the smallest, opportunity of gaining an ally0.” (From this Russian version.)

Lenin devotes an entire section of the tract to the question “[Should we] participate in bourgeois parliaments?” (Участвовать ли в буржуазных парламентах?). Lenin’s ‘infantile’ leftist adversaries would answer in the negative. But for Lenin, parliamentarism has become “obsolete” only “in the propaganda sense”, which somehow also means in the “world-history sense”; its “era” has ended. In practice, it’s not “politically obsolete”, it’s still there, so it should be used. Communists should participate in elections, with the purpose of awakening the “backward strata” (осталные слои), the “ignorant rural masses” (тёмная деревенская масса).

United-front tactics for China began in the 20s, with the Communists’ alliance with the (then much stronger) Kuomintang against warlords. The KMT saw this alliance as a way of controlling the emerging Communists, something they didn’t succeed at and led Chiang Kai-shek to purge the leftists in 1927. The idea was refloated later, to fight against the Japanese invasion. From the beginning, recognising the Chinese Communists Party’s weak position, the Comintern favoured playing united-front with the Chinese ‘national bourgeoisie’. Here’s what Stalin had to say on the topic in 1927, when Chiang turned against the Communists marking the end of the ‘first united front’. In a speech to the plenum of the Party Central Committee1, he talks of three “stages of the Chinese revolution”: the first one, already completed, was the “revolution of the nation-wide unified front”; the “bourgeois-democratic revolution”, then underway; and a “Soviet revolution”, still to come. The speech was summarising an earlier article in Pravda2, where Stalin differentiated between the need for an alliance with the entire KMT in the first, accomplished, stage, and the current situation, where the left wing of the KMT should be used against the right: in the ongoing “struggle between the two paths of the revolution” (its continuation or “liquidation”), “the revolutionary Kuomintang in Wuhan” would “become in practice an organ of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”.

People’s Daily, Dec 18, 1949 via Renmin wang

After Stalin’s ‘third stage’ finally succeeded in 1949, the united front (统一战线 tǒngyī zhànxiàn or 统战 tǒngzhàn for short) took on other forms. Brady mentions the use of ‘foreign friends’ for informal diplomacy and what would become a central aspect of the PRC’s united front work, the control over ethnic Chinese communities abroad. Though culturally and politically diverse, and in the past often hostile to the CCP, by and large diaspora communities have become dominated by PRC-friendly organisations after decades of united front work. Such control over media, business and cultural organisations, as well as over elected representatives in local democratic institutions, creates a strong pressure to acquiesce to PRC policies and views. Once the diaspora is ‘tamed’, its organisations can be repurposed to advance China’s broader policy agenda on the next level, that of mainstream politics, business and media abroad.

In the PRC, the united front isn’t just the name of a political concept. It’s a Party organ of ‘full-ministry rank’ (正部级), the United Front Work Department (shortened name: 统战部 Tǒngzhàn bù) directly under the Central Committee, with offices at the Party committees of lower levels of administration. It speaks volumes about the level of knowledge of the politics of a world power in the Western press that the name of the organisation and policy are is put in (scare?) quotes. An example is this NZ Herald story about Brady’s report. Another is a hilarious incident in which Chau Chak Wing 周则荣, an Australian-Chinese businessman whose political donations were discussed in an ABC-Fairfax investigation, threatened litigation in a letter stating he “has no knowledge of an entity referred to […] as the United Front Work Department”. Australian journalist Alex Joske promptly provided pictures and an official account of a meeting Chau had with district-level United Front officials, not a year before his ‘lack of knowledge’ of such an entity. This is like referring to the ‘Culture Ministry’, or an alleged US ‘State Department’, or the so-called ‘Republican Party’. Like Mike Flynn denying the knowledge of ‘such an entity as a Russian embassy’. There’s nothing secret about the UFWD, and learning about it demands no Sinological prowess. Writing about it is widely available in English (Groot, Angliviel de la Beaumelle…). Those of a more investigative disposition might even try visiting the UFWD’s website. Media powerhouses equipped with so-called ‘telephones’ could even try calling +86-10-58335141 during Beijing office hours (international rates might apply).

United front work has intensified under Xi. Besides its usefulness for international policy purposes, as discussed by Brady, domestic UF organisations, such as the ancillary parties, can be used to handle ‘new social strata‘. This term mostly refers to private businesspeople, which the Party wants to control and reward but not massively incorporate into its ranks. Another example is the clergy of the institutional religions, whose management, training, ‘Sinification’ and instrumentalisationare key united front tasks; monks and priests are supposed to be subservient to the Party, but can’t be admitted into it.

This is another key aspect of united front work. From Lenin onwards, its purpose has not been to proselytise, or form a majority under an ideological consensus, as might be the goal of other political or belief-based organisations. As the history of the united front shows, ideology is simply a tool; state Communism has sought alliances with the Western centre-left, later only with orthodox Communists, then with a broad ‘bourgeois’ arc reaching past the centre, and then directly with Nazism; or, in the Chinese case, with the entire Kuomintang, then only its left wing, later foreign leftists, assorted brands of non-Soviet Communism, and finally a variety of foreign politicians willing to collaborate with its initiatives. Whatever ‘Communist’ might mean to those identifying as such in other countries, the Chinese Party of that name is not primarily an ideological organisation. The country it controls has been through various economic policies which might not be to Marx’s liking. Once, links were sought with Western Communists; nowadays the foreign Far Left is mostly irrelevant to the CCP’s interests, and mainstream ‘bourgeois’ parties are actively cultivated, as exemplified below. Religion, the ‘opium of the people’, its another set of belief systems it commodifies. It does not wish to build an ideological majority, the way a democratic political party would; it simply strives to maintain and extend the power of a stable, centralised, hierarchical organisation, over time, territory and resources. It chooses who can join it; other useful entities and individuals it doesn’t wish to formally phagocytose are controlled (mainly) through the united front organisations.

So that’s the United Front in a nutshell. An official Party organisation, with buildings, phone numbers, publications, that instrumentalises non-Party entities for advancing the goals of the Party-state, within China, in territories China fancies but doesn’t administer, and abroad. The ‘abroad’ part is what Brady’s work is about, and New Zealand is but one case.

Brady’s report covers several areas of United Front influence building in New Zealand, including media (something I’m reserving for some later writing), politics, business and their intersections. In this post, I’d like to mention a few details about the politics part. One reason is that this aspect hasn’t received a lot of attention globally (UF-linked political donations in Australia being an exception). Another one is that there’s a general election in New Zealand in a few days, and the way revelations about certain candidates have been received is revealing in itself. For the record, I have no horse in that race, and will discuss candidates from both major parties.

All roads lead to Xi Dada

New Zealand provides an example of successful United Front domination of a diaspora community. As of this election, the top ethnic Chinese candidates are linked to CCP organisations and support PRC policies. In New Zealand, the Chinese community can only realistically aspire to political representation by its own members through individuals approved by Beijing. This situation, enabled by the leaders of the top parties, effectively allows the extraterritorial implementation of PRC policy.

The most visible ethnic Chinese politician in New Zealand is Yang Jian 杨健 of the National Party. Yang is currently an MP and will almost certainly continue to be after Saturday’s election. With Yang, the Nationals (currently in government) consistently command a majority among the ethnic Chinese electorate some 50% above their overall polling.

Last week, an investigation by the Financial Times and local media Newsroom revealed Yang’s background in military intelligence. He studied and then taught English at the PLA Air Force Engineering Academy (空军工程学院, since renamed University 空军工程大学), and later again studied and worked at the Luoyang Foreign Languages Institute (洛阳外国语学院), a PLA intelligence school. Yang denied ever being a spy, although he admitted his students at Luoyang used the English he taught them to “collect information” about the communications of other countries; “if you define [it] that way, they were spies”.

Yang seems to have hidden his military background from public English-language sources until 2012, once he was already an MP. He said he didn’t mention his studies and career at those PLA institutions in his citizenship application, naming instead civilian partner universities which weren’t his actual place of work. By his own account, such less-than-factual statements were a requirement of the Chinese government if he was to leave China, although he had left that country years before. “It was required by the system,” he said in a Chinese-language interview. “There was nothing I could do.” Another reason not to make his background known was that “people might not understand“, because “the Chinese military system is complicated.” A desire to protect the public from exposure to complicated issues was also perhaps his admonition to a journalist not to write too much about his personal background, as he was recorded saying.

In the same Chinese-language interview quoted above, Yang says he used to be a Communist Party member, but he isn’t one any more. That presumably means ‘not an active member’; as Brady notes, you don’t just ‘leave’ the CCP. You are considered a member unless expelled. Considering Yang’s excellent relations with Chinese state entities and the praise state media award him, it would be ridiculous to assume he was expelled. In all likelihood, Yang is in fact a CCP member. Chen Yonglin 陈用林, a former PRC diplomat who defected to Australia in 2005, cast further doubt on Yang’s claims he was a PLA ‘civilian officer’. Based on his knowledge of military institutions before reforms in the late aughts, Chen estimates Yang was in fact a ‘soldier’ and probably reached the rank of  captain.

While a student in Australia, his first foreign destination before moving to New Zealand, Yang was active in the predecessor of the local Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), another organisation with strong state links. Alex Joske and Philip Wen have written about the Australian CSSA.

Media reports claim the New Zealand intelligence service has been looking into Yang’s background.

The case has also attracted the attention of the Chinese government. At the regular MFA press conference, a spokesperson managed to say they wouldn’t comment on the internal affairs of other countries, and then add that reports by the ‘relevant media’ are irresponsible. Pari ratione, Yang Gate is not purely an ‘internal affair’ of New Zealand, which actually makes sense.

Remarkably enough, the National Party defended Yang after these revelations, claiming they were actually aware of his background in military intelligence. Yang is a valued fundraiser for his party (I mean the Nationals, not the CCP). The Nationals claim Yang was properly vetted back in the day, but the company they say they hired to conduct the vetting deny that ever happened, then said they ‘interviewed’ him once. Cutting through the blather, the vagueness in all these statements make it hard to believe senior Nats understood what sort of work was done at the institutions where their main Chinese MP spent more than a decade.

Perhaps even more remarkably, despite what an external observer would see as devastating evidence compromising a candidate before a tight election, his direct political adversaries in the Labour party produced absolutely no criticism of Yang. I’m not terribly knowledgeable about NZ politics, so perhaps I’m being naive, but is it normal to have such a major security revelation on a senior political figure days before an election and hear nothing from his rivals?

The leader of New Zealand First, a minor right-wing party, is so far the only politician calling for an inquiry into Yang’s case.

Other commentators have criticised Yang: Rodney Jones called for his resignation. Michael Reddell talks of a ‘cone of silence’ about the presumably explosive revelations about Yang possibly related to the CCP influence throughout the NZ political establishment described in Brady’s paper.

Reddell also reports a rather shocking development. Chris Finlayson, NZ’s attorney general and the minister responsible for intelligence, was asked at a (rather congenial) candidate meeting about Yang’s case. His answer: “I’m not going to respond to any of the allegations that have been made about/against him. I think it is disgraceful that a whole class of people have been singled out for racial abuse. As for Professor Brady, I don’t think she likes any foreigners at all.” A former student of Brady’s happened to be at the event and forced Finlayson to apologise.

Here are some captioned images of Capt. (alleged) Yang in martial poses and having a good time with his comrades in arms at a PLA anniversary gala, courtesy of my Twitter account.


Dilectus centurionum

Bonum vinum laetificat cor hominis

Divide et impera

The Frontling omertà

In theory, Yang Jian’s direct adversary should be Raymond Huo (Huo Jianqiang 霍建强), a Labour Party MP. Yang and Huo compete for the Chinese-community electorate; Yang has been found to have a background in military intelligence, which he had declined to disclose in the past; Huo, whatever his sympathies, isn’t tainted by work for a foreign military. Recent polls have put Huo’s party a few points short of unseating the Nationals, or even able to lead a coalition. How can he not use this?

The only explanation that makes sense (and that is consistent with reactions from other senior politicians) is that he wouldn’t like to speak up against United Front interests.

Raymond Huo raised some eyebrows some time ago when he began using a Xi Jinping quote as the Chinese version of Labour’s campaign slogan “let’s do this!”:



The Chinese phrase, 撸起袖子加油干 lū qǐ xiùzǐ jiāyóu gàn, means “roll up [our] sleeves and work hard”. Its current popularity stems from its use by Xi Jinping at the latest new year address (8:44). Victor Mair discussed the phrase in extenso on a Language Log post, to which I contributed a few details.

A similar phrase wouldn’t be a bad translation of the Labour slogan, were it not for the obvious Partyspeak association. The specific choice of words (which is what makes it an unmistakable Xi quote) is slightly problematic, namely regarding the first character, 撸 . As Mair notes, this isn’t the most common way of saying ‘roll up your sleeves’ in the standard language (that would probably be 卷 juǎn). Xi chose to use a Northern colloquialism, rather dissonant with the style of official speeches, probably attempting to sound folksy. The choice isn’t very effective, and probably wasn’t really thought through, by Xi or his speechwriters. Besides ‘roll up’, 撸 means ‘rub’, and brings to mind a slang word for male masturbation, 撸管 lū guǎn ‘rub the pipe’. And not just in my dirty mind; it’s easy to find online attestations of puns on the phrase (挽/卷起袖子加油撸起 ‘roll up your sleeves and rub it’, 撸起管子加油干 ‘rub the pipe and get at it’…).

I refer you to Mair’s post for a case where punning on the phrase led to the dismissal of an official (‘Comrades, “hike up your skirts for a hard shag‘). In its modified form, 撸 ‘roll up; rub’ becomes 撩 liāo ‘lift’, and 袖子 xiùzi ‘sleeves’ becomes 裙子 qúnzi ‘skirt’. It should be clear that the slogan is just asking for salacious punning.

The fact that 撸 is a Northern regionalism is also telling. The verb is largely limited to Northern forms of Mandarin. Indeed, it’s one of a set of ‘physical action’ verbs whose pronunciation can’t be traced back to Middle Chinese (the common ancestor of Mandarin and most other modern Sinitic languages). Though widely understood, the word is likely to be felt as regional by many, possibly most, Chinese speakers in Huo’s constituency. There actually happen to be many ways of saying ‘roll up [sleeves]’ in Chinese; besides 卷 juǎn, there’s 翻 fān, 折 zhé, 挽 wǎn

Xi certainly didn’t coin the 撸 phrase, but since he uttered it has become associated with him. Just try googling it: recent results are overwhelmingly about the Party slogan. It has has been painted on walls, printed on banners. Articles, songs, enactments, dance performances have been devoted to it. All that in Party-state contexts; jokes and memes emerged in less official venues. Anyone who follows Chinese media will understand that the slogan is pure Partyspeak, an artifact of the cult of personality.



A performance with Xi’s slogan in the background. Source: 苏州市人力资源和社会保障信息中心.


After Brady’s report came out, mentioning the Xi-quote slogan, Huo defended the translation, calling it an “auspicious Chinese idiom that is known widely by Chinese constituents”; given how well it resonates, “it is no surprise that Xi Jinping also used this idiom in his New Year Greeting”. So, this is something lucky we say in New Year, its use by Xi is a mere coincidence, you don’t understand. Echoes of Yang’s ‘complicated system’ above the public’s intellectual abilities: everything Chinese is abstruse, exotic, inscrutable to the general public and better left alone. Needless to say, there’s nothing “auspicious” about the idiom; if anything, it has the same go-getting, gung-ho connotations as ‘roll up your sleeves’ in English. That has nothing to do with “auspiciousness”, and there’s nothing uniquely Chinese about it. The need to roll up your sleeves before doing physical work is familiar in many other sleeved cultures. But in the middle of this bizarre appeal at exoticness, Huo actually confirmed the Xi allusion is what it is: “[m]y team tested this translation among many in the New Zealand Chinese community and this quote stood out as the best one” (my emphasis). So it’s not just an ‘auspicious’ idiom, it’s an actual quote.

As for where Huo got the idea, or which ‘community members’ he tested it on, that’s a bit hard to establish, especially because its use was rather short-lived; Huo seems to have stopped using it after floating it on Twitter and being questioned on why he was quoting Xi. An early-August report by local outlet Skykiwi (天维网), reproduced by PRC state media, has Huo quoting the slogan. An earlier use of the idiom can be found in a Guangming Daily story from April, an interview in Beijing with John Hong (Hong Chengchen 洪承琛), a member of the New Zealand Belt-and-Road Promotion Council (新西兰“一带一路”促进委员) with government contacts in Fujian province (Brady, p. 39). In an opening typical of reporting on the government’s successes, the article quotes Hong as praising the prospects brought about by the signature of a Belt-and-Road agreement with New Zealand, thanks to which “we will also roll up our sleeves and work hard” (我们也要撸起袖子加油干). The key word is “also”: it’s understood that, after Xi’s new year injunction, “everyone” in the PRC is rolling up their sleeves; Hong means now New Zealand will join them. Huo is himself an ardent proponent of New Zealand’s participation in Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, as will be seen below.

In short, Huo chose a phrase that clearly alludes to the personality cult of an authoritarian leader as a campaign slogan for a major party in a democratic election, and dropped it when called out on it.

When I first learnt about the slogan, it took me some time to realise it wasn’t a joke. My first reaction was that the ‘Raymond Huo’ Twitter account it was promoted through was fake, and that the picture was an attempt to discredit him by associating him with the CCP. But not only Huo was indeed behind the translation; parroting Partyspeak is actually entirely consistent with his activities and advocacy.

Huo has established a New Zealand OBOR Think Tank and a New Zealand OBOR Foundation, devoted to “help promote the idea and educate New Zealanders on the One-Belt One-Road initiative”. It has “linked up with China’s National Development and Reform Commission, as well as Chinese construction companies and private equity firms to look at opportunities.” Huo’s Belt-and-Road advocacy was widely reported by Chinese government organs, such as the State Council Information Office and the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese (全国归国华侨联合会), a United Front organisation.

The establishment of Huo’s Belt-and-Road shop is seen as pretty significant by the Chinese government: its establishment was ‘witnessed’ by the general consul in Auckland and no less than two visiting provincial governors (of Henan and Hubei).
As is typical of united-front activities under Xi, this isn’t simply a Labour Party affair: the think tank is led by Huo together with Johanna Coughlan, sister-in-law of the current PM, Bill English (Brady, p. 40). This achieves a wonderful success for United Front efforts: support for the PRC’s policy goals is embedded in both major parties. Whoever wins in New Zealand elections, Xi’s geopolitical agenda can count on their support.

Huo is far from denying the existence of PRC influence in New Zealand. His views are clear: a Radio NZ story on Xi Jinping’s 2014 visit quoted him as asserting that the Chinese community is “excited about the prospect of China having more influence in New Zealand“, and that “many Chinese community members told him a powerful China meant a backer, either psychologically or in the real sense.”

And here’s Huo’s understanding of how the Chinese community is meant to be represented (from a speech delivered to the NZ China Society): “Advisors from Chinese communities will be duly appointed with close consultation with the Chinese diplomats and community leaders.”

Huo is from Anqing 安庆, Anhui, perhaps the basis for his contact with another Anqing native, Jiang Zuojun 蒋作君, a prominent figure in the Zhi Gong Party 致公党 (one of the ancillary parties to the CCP). Jiang has held many senior government posts, although always at a ‘vice’ level as befits someone from an ancillary party. He has been vice-minister of health, deputy secretary of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, vice-governor of Anhui. The Zhi Gong Party typically liaises with overseas communities for United Front Work purposes, as evidenced in this meeting between Jiang and Raymond Huo on this Think-Tank-cum-Fund. An official account of the meeting, originating from the Zhi Gong Party and published on the website of the Central United Front Work Department, quotes Huo as emphasising “the unique function overseas Chinese have in disseminating” the Belt-and-Road concept (海外华侨华人对于宣传“一带一路”的独特作用).



From the right: Zhi Gong Party Liaison Dept Head Xu Yi 许怡, Jiang Zuojun, Raymond Huo, Johanna Coughlan, NZ prime-ministerial sister-in-law. Source: Central United Front Work Department.

And here’s a final picture of Huo, taken during a visit to Anqing “at the invitation of the City’s Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese”:


Source: Anqing City United Front Work Department


It should be sufficiently clear that Huo is another United Frontling. There’s nothing surprising about his incorporation of Xi’s personality cult into electoral politics, or his silence on the revelations on Yang Jian’s background. Regardless of his views on non-China related issues (which do indeed differ from the National Party’s), Huo isn’t Yang’s opponent as far as the CCP agenda is concerned. For united-front purposes, Huo is simply an egg in another basket.

By focusing on two key individuals from both sides of New Zealand politics, I intended to show how successful united front tactics have been in ensuring permanent control of the Chinese community politics by hedging against democratic power shifts. This is only one of its successes. I refer you to Brady’s work for an overview of the extent of its penetration in politics beyond the Chinese diaspora, business and media. Its pervasive character helps explain why the reaction to the Yang case was so muted, suggesting a ‘code of silence’, with the most senior figures in the major parties essentially glossing over the problem.

The terms in which Brady’s work is being discussed by politicians and the media reflect little understanding of what’s going on. The Yang case made for great headlines that tried really hard to use the word ‘spy’, but he might successfully argue that he is not literally a spy. And even if he was, spying on each other is something countries do. Other UF-linked individuals mentioned in Brady’s report are even less likely than Yang to have been involved on literal espionage. The Brady report isn’t about finding spies. Reactions seem to be addressing a straw-man. Raymond Huo, the Xi-quoter, denied “insinuations against his character”, but it’s not clear that any have been made. If anything, Huo is consistent in his support for CCP policies and increased PRC influence. This is not a spy thriller, but a story about the institutions of a democratic country being coopted to serve the agenda of a much larger state ruled by an authoritarian regime. Most of the people involved might very well have acted legally at all times, and their support for certain policies isn’t necessarily an issue of moral ‘character’. The issue is whether the actions of many in the NZ elite are a risk for the country’s security, independence and democratic system. The latter has obviously been damaged. Restricting attention to the Chinese community, democratic politics has been vitiated to effectively allow extraterritorial control by the CCP and deny voters a true choice of political representation. The intersection of each of ‘National’ and ‘Labour’ with ‘Chinese’ is firmly under the aegis of the United Front. Perfunctory reactions from top politicians are a sign that UF successes aren’t limited to that community. Such control over an advanced democracy is something the united-front pioneers in the ’20s and ’30s could hardly have predicted.



0 The English translation Brady quotes (from a 1950 edition) says a ‘mass ally’; ‘mass’ is missing in the version of the Russian original published on, which is what I used for the translation above. Another Russian edition, available on, matches Brady’s English, ‘mass’ and all. I couldn’t immediately find which specific editions the texts come from, but at least the one on comes from a later edition, as the footnotes show; that’s why I chose to quote from the ‘mass’-less version. Its unclear if the interpolation is Lenin’s or someone else’s, but the difference is immaterial. The English translation (with a more idiomatic title than the one I quoted, used in the first English translation from 1920) is generally faithful to (its version of) the Russian. I’ll try to remember to update this note if I ever happen across a physical Russian edition of Infantile Sickness.

1 Международное положение и оборона СССР: Речь на объединенном пленуме ЦК и ЦКК ВКП(б) (The international situation and the defence of the USSR: Speech at the joint plenum of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks)), Aug 1, 1927. Both Stalin texts from the collected works edition reproduced on Mikhail Grachev‘s website, translations mine.

2 Вопросы китайской революции: Тезисы для пропагандистов, одобренные ЦК ВКП(б) (Issues of the Chinese revolutions: theses for propagandists, approved by the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks)), Pravda, Apr 21, 1927.