Joanna Chiu is the author of “China Unbound” and a senior reporter at the Toronto Star. Previously she was a foreign correspondent in Hong Kong and Beijing, where she covered Chinese politics for international media including The Economist and Agence France-Presse (AFP). The following is a conversation about her new book “China Unbound,” which traces China’s international influence, censorship, and intimidation tactics as well as the harmful complicity of Western nations.
Young China Watchers (YCW): To what degree does the Communist Party’s repression at home and, increasingly, abroad represent its strengths and weaknesses, its capacities and insecurities?
Joanna Chiu (JC): In the book, I tried to provide context about China’s domestic situation, including reasons why, in its excessive crackdowns, the CCP might be overreacting on the verge of paranoia. The extent to which it can crack down at home and overseas shows both strength and weakness. The weakness is in part because the Chinese economy is not as strong as a lot of people might assume looking at it from the outside.
China isn’t the cheapest place to make things anymore. Lower-cost factories are in Southeast Asia or India, so China’s losing manufacturing and trying to make a transition into a more consumer-driven economy, which is tough for a country of its size. The government is concerned that mass layoffs and loss of prosperity for the middle class will lead to instability and questioning from the public about whether the Party should be in charge. Losing the mandate to rule is a fear. In the book I talked about this unspoken social contract, where in exchange for not complaining about human rights and freedom of speech, the party would promote economic prosperity. This informs the party’s intolerance for dissent and obsession with control.
At the same time, it is true that they can pull off these crackdowns, threatening social media companies domestically, taking things off the internet and having agents harass people in Canada and the United States. In a small suburb of Metro Vancouver, the mayor told me dozens of his constituents actually received physical visits from Chinese government representatives telling them not to speak out, especially on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in 2019. No one should underestimate the resources Beijing has to suppress people. They use, for example, people having family back in China as leverage to control the speech of people living all over the world — and this is because they worry that outside criticism could harm its credibility. The CCP’s strengths and weaknesses are closely tied.
YCW: You quote Yangyang Cheng’s article in The Guardian, where she writes that the CCP “makes self-Orientalising gestures, mirroring the worst of the China watchers, by defending its policies as suited to China’s ‘unique national condition:’ disputed borderlands are described as ‘part of China since prehistoric times,’ and authoritarianism is welcomed by a people with ‘Confucian values.’”
To what extent are China’s historical conditions “unique” compared to the development processes of other big powers? To what extent does any possible uniqueness play a valid role in the CCP’s contemporary foreign policy posture?
JC: The CCP makes these “self-Orientalizing gestures” to promote the myth that it is the foundation of Chinese culture, society and the Han Chinese race, and no matter where you are or how many generations you are removed from having family in China, you are still Chinese and the CCP is your de facto leader. China’s interactions with the West in recent centuries have been characterized by Western imperialism and colonialism, as well as by China’s claims to the international Chinese diaspora.
I was born in Hong Kong when it was a British colony; I was a colonial subject. This is really recent history and it’s a reason why a lot of China’s leaders are behaving in ways that seem connected to the humiliation of Western imperialism. The book gives a snapshot of what happened during the so-called “century of humiliation,” where major Western powers bombarded China’s shores and carved out trade posts and concessions for themselves. It gives context for the great defensiveness and touchiness of Chinese leaders and the unique context of China being one of the last standing powerful Communist countries.
I included some key quotes from Xi Jinping’s most memorable speeches. In one, he talked after he came into power about how China shouldn’t follow the footsteps of the Soviet Union and waver from ideology, or else, China could face disintegration like the USSR. That history is ever-present; it’s routinely referenced by Chinese leaders. To understand the historical context of what the Party is doing is not to excuse its actions, but important to understand where they’re coming from and to make the remaining avenues of communication with Beijing fruitful.
YCW: How should Western governments and civilians understand the CCP’s vast United Front Work apparatus? How can they better protect themselves and others from its reaches?
JC: Western interest in how the CCP asserts foreign influence via the United Front Work Department has increased so fast, so there’s a lot of buzz but not so much scholarly research. Journalists can play a role here by gathering testimonies of people who have been targeted by the department. When I moved to Canada, I came across so many examples of sophisticated and long-running Chinese government offshoots and activities organized by CCP supporters. My colleagues and I reported on networks of “friendship societies,” and as part of that we translated the constitutions from their websites. Some are really open about what they do, including sending delegations to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on a regular basis. It’s their mandate to promote Beijing’s goals in Canada. These are completely legal activities, but the danger is people don’t really understand the impact they’re having. For example, a group in Canada offered payment for people to travel to vote, while suggesting a list of candidates. Politicians around the world are surprised when these things happen; I’ve spoken to many mayors and people on the provincial and municipal level who felt for a very long time that they were exempt from needing to know about this because they thought the targets were high-level. But really, the United Front Work Department wants to influence everyday people, not just important individuals.
When it comes to political influence around the world, there’s a lack of basic knowledge in many countries about what to look out for. For a long time, the overall mission of many Western nations was to expand trade and economic ties with China as much as possible. Politicians on a non-national level felt this responsibility without knowing about the sophisticated, complicated, foreign influence and interference strategies involved. A lot of this is happening on college campuses. In one instance, a Uighur-Canadian was doing a talk at an Ontario university and the Chinese embassy instructed Chinese students to film it and report back. This incident shows the blatant involvement of the Chinese embassy in students’ lives but also shows that not all Chinese international students are complicit. We only know what happened because one of the students leaked screenshots from the WeChat group. These actions are meant to intimidate those who speak out critically on China, to gather information on them and to try to suppress their free speech all around the world.
YCW: You relay an anecdote from a high-level meeting among Canadian officials right after Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were initially detained and the government was scrambling to figure out how to react. One “frustrated senior official” poses a highly salient question to the room: “Where the fuck are the China people?”.
You also described the state of U.S.-China relations and the paradox of lacking China experts that can develop well-informed analyses on the basis that they may be “pro-China.” What role do you think journalists, academics and civil society can play in encouraging governments to value expertise over assumptions of disloyalty? Why is the zero-sum approach so tempting?
JC: People have commented that the way I wrote the book is unique because I’m someone of Chinese descent, born in Hong Kong. I know well that there has been an increase in racist hate crimes and verbal abuse against many people of Chinese descent. A lot of people who are really concerned about the crackdowns in China are conflicted because they’re worried that their fact-based criticism of China could be used as ammunition for further anti-Asian xenophobia. This reflects the deliberate exclusion of Chinese immigrants from Western societies. Any time there’s been conflict with an Asian country, such as during World War II or the Cold War, people of Asian descent are treated poorly.
Unfortunately, anti-Communist Party sentiment from Western societies dovetails with what the CCP wants. It wants people of Chinese descent to be treated with suspicion because it can then leverage that to earn their loyalty. It is a way to try to stoke loyalty and nationalism among the overseas population, by saying that the Party is strong and could protect them from such attacks. Unfortunately, the hate crimes and racism that happen make it all the easier for the party to recruit supporters all over the world.
“Unfortunately, the hate crimes and racism that happen make it all the easier for the Party to recruit supporters all over the world.”
YCW: You describe attitudes toward China in countries like Italy and Greece as relatively “freshly formed.” What kind of flexibility do newly formed perspectives on China allow?
JC: When we think of “Western” approaches to China, we usually just think about the more confrontational stances we see coming from the U.S. and Australia. But in many other places, the chief concern is still expanding trade and economic ties, which of course remains a concern for the U.S., which is enmeshed with the Chinese economy. But in the U.S. and Canada, the public is also putting pressure on governments to care more about the CCP’s human rights infringements. This public pressure is not present in most other Western countries. In Europe, I talked to government advisers and key businesspeople who are advocating for better ties with China, and some admitted to me that they weren’t even following developments in Xinjiang or Hong Kong. We forget that that’s actually the status quo.
In Greece, even though they claim that’s where democracy was started, surveys have shown there is very little public understanding of China’s political system. When I was in Italy, I spoke with some generally well-informed people, but China was a brand-new topic for many of them. There’s very little opportunity to study China or Chinese history in school or in universities across Europe. Meanwhile, the economic opportunities China offers are often exaggerated, which was a common complaint I heard from people in Europe who were knowledgeable — they constantly come across the attitude that all it takes to get rich is to sell a product to the huge Chinese market, without knowing the complexity of entering that market. Sometimes for domestic political reasons, officials blatantly portray Chinese investment as a way their country can be saved from its debt. For example, the previous Italian leadership basically spoke of working with China as a way to fulfill all its economic promises to the Italian people. That is just not realistic. Yet it was often uncritically repeated by the media. After Italy signed up for the New Silk Road project and Xi Jinping visited the country, there were all these unfounded reports about China investing in huge ports and ventures around the country. I went to Sicily, where reportedly a port was going to be taken over by China, but the mayor of Palermo said he had heard nothing about that. This is important when experts talk about how countries should work together to put pressure on the CCP to alter its behavior. There should be as much of a global consensus as possible to pose effective pressure on China to rectify its human rights abuses.
YCW: You draw on your experiences as a foreign correspondent based in China, which effectively add narrative, color, and legitimacy to the book. What advice would you have for writers in the China space who cannot get positions like the ones you had a few years ago because of the ousting of so many papers from the country as well as the overall suppression of journalism, even for foreign outlets, in China today?
JC: Most of the reporting for the book took place outside China, including the chapter on Uighurs, which was based entirely on my trip to Istanbul, where a lot of Uighurs have fled. I open the chapter with the harrowing story of someone who was detained for fifteen months. All journalists should understand that it would be unethical to try to conduct such an interview with a Uighur who’s still in Xinjiang. At this point, a lot of the work that’s important for the historical record has to be done outside of China. There is a lot that can be reported on, especially if you speak different languages and have networks.
I do think it is quite a crisis that China has kicked out so many foreign correspondents. A BBC correspondent basically fled China because he was receiving death threats; Two Australian journalists for ABC were holed up in the Australian embassy for days worrying about persecution from the Chinese authorities. I left in 2018 and it was already bad then, but in the last few years it’s reached a new level. If someone came to me right now and said they wanted to be a foreign correspondent in China, especially if they were someone of Chinese heritage with family in China, I’m not sure I would encourage them to pursue the few opportunities that still exist. They come with a lot of risk. And that’s such a loss to the world because the most nuanced and reliable dispatches from China still require being on the ground and talking to people and getting a holistic view of what’s happening.
Unfortunately, it’s just not a very safe place to report from freely. I’m just so in awe of the journalists there who are pulling no punches; they’re going to Xinjiang and reporting what they can and being really careful to protect their sources. When I was there, the culture was to keep reporting freely for as long as possible because self-censorship is a slippery slope. I’m confident that the correspondents who are in China are producing reliable work, but we’re just losing those opportunities month after month.
My advice to anyone who wants to go to China despite the challenges would be to study the language. I regretted not having my Mandarin up to snuff when I first moved there; it took me time to get it to a level where I could report independently. Using translators often puts Chinese nationals in danger. This closed-border time during the pandemic might be a good opportunity to hunker down and study Mandarin. It will keep your sources, your potential Chinese colleagues, and you safer. If you’re reporting from within such a tense political situation, it’s better to know what people are saying around you.
— Interview by Johanna M. Costigan