This article was first published in China Change website on September 16, 2018
Unsettling news from China has been emerging in a constant stream for some time now, in news, on social media and from our own sources in the country. Not every new development is suited to a fully fleshed-out analysis, and as with so much to do with China, many reports and developments cannot be immediately confirmed or properly evaluated. Nevertheless, while each individual brush stroke may not be decisive, upon stepping back a fuller picture begins to emerge. China Change today inaugurates a new, regular series titled ‘Signs of China,’ where we catalog and contextualize what might otherwise have been forgotten as ephemera. What are these signs pointing to? Our discerning readers will know. — The Editors
Urgent Call to Watch ‘Operation Thunder 2018’
According to a variety of sources brought to social media by netizens, Chinese authorities sent out an urgent notice on September 14 to work units, companies, government departments, universities and more, across the country, demanding people to watch the September 15 nightly Network News Broadcast (《新闻联播》) on CCTV, as well as CCTV’s September 15 and 16 “Focus Talk” (《焦点访谈》) programs, and also the detailed reports due to be published on September 16 on Global Times online, as well as its the September 17 print edition. This hurried propaganda scramble is called ‘Operation Thunder 2018’ (2018-雷霆行动), and is an anti-espionage operation focused on ‘exposing Taiwanese spies.’ As state media reports, it’s about “increasing the anti-traitor and spy-prevention consciousness of the entire population, preventing online phishing and other harms to national interests and security,” as well as “firming up… the national security People’s Line of Defense.” At the same time, a similar Weibo announcement by Yibin Cable Television in Sichuan Province was censored. (More links on the operation are available here.)
Those familiar with the workings of Chinese Communist Party propaganda will recognize that yet another mass terror campaign is likely in the offing.
Is the Private Sector Still Safe?
Recently, a certain Wu Xiaoping, self-identified as a “senior finance figure,” published a mere five paragraph article that has attracted significant attention. In it, Wu writes that “private companies would be ill-advised to continue blindly expanding; a completely new state of public-private mixed economic control — more centralized, more united, at a larger scale — will become an increasingly important part of the economy in the future,” and also that “the private sector in China has already completed its task of assisting state sector economic development, and it should now gradually diminish in importance.” His article argues that “in a battle between superpowers, China must concentrate its financial, material, and human resources, and must follow a planned development strategy.”
As might be expected, the article caused an uproar. Some observers suspected that it represented a trial balloon by Party Central; others thought the author was a nobody attempting to guess at what the higher-ups in the regime would like to hear, and curry favor by making the suggestion; while still others thought he was communicating the coded message that private enterprise should try to save themselves while they still had the chance. The independent historian Zhang Lifan (章立凡), based in Beijing, posed the question on Twitter as to whether the authorities were going to “kill the donkey once it’s finished pulling the stone mill.” The original essay was subsequently refuted by the People’s Daily and appears to have been purged from domestic Chinese websites.
Whatever the case, the CCP’s plans of asserting control over private companies are already well underway. According to economist He Qinglian’s (何清涟) analysis of a key set of ‘Guiding Opinions’ about state-owned enterprise reform promulgated in 2015, private enterprises in China are going to be the main target for SOE reform. She wrote that the Chinese authorities hope to roll out a ‘mixed ownership system,’ in which “private companies can make cash purchases of shares in SOEs and become shareholders. But since the equity allocation ratio is based on the state-owned capital being the controlling party, private companies can only remain in a subordinate role, without any decision-making power or right to a say in matters.”
On September 16, the Chairman of the National Laboratory for Finance & Development (中国国家金融与发展实验室) Li Yang (李扬), speaking at an academic forum commemorating the beginning of reform and opening up in China, pointed out that as the economy declines, private companies will come under enormous pressure. Their “way to save themselves is to find a state-owned company as an ‘umbrella,’ and if they don’t do that they can’t get financing, and they can’t lower their costs. If they do that, the enterprise will survive, profits will be there, and employment will be maintained. It’s an outcome that should leave everyone satisfied.” Li Yang thinks that such a scenario would be an opportunity for state companies to buy out their private enterprise counterparts.
Over the past few years, the CCP has already been hard at work establishing Party cells in private companies in order to exert control. If anything, the outsize reaction this short article received is a telling indication of how anxious and insecure the Chinese public feels about this trend intensifying.
Xinjiang University Professors Sent to Concentration Camps
News continues to emerge of Uighur academics in Xinjiang being sent to the re-education camps. Twitter user @Uyghurspeaker tweeted in both English and Chinese from a Radio Free Asia report that “Personnel from Xinjiang University’s Overall Management Command have verified that the dean of the humanities department, Professor Arslan Abdulla (the former director of the consultative office of the government of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) as well as Professor Abdukerim Rahman have been sent to re-education camps ‘for the same reason’ that Rahile Dawut (a folklore scholar) was. Rumors say that at least 56 professors and teachers at the university have been taken away.”
Professor Duwat, the scholar of Uighur folklore at Xinjiang University, disappeared last December and has not been heard from since. No one knows why.
Apple Hurts the Feelings of the 1.4 Billion Chinese People
Apple held its new product launch in California on Wednesday (September 12), with Phil Schiller, senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, unveiling the new model of iPhones as well as when and where they’d first be sold. The background screen prepared for the event showed the individual flags of Hong Kong and Taiwan and used the flag of the Republic of China for the latter.
Predictably, the China Youth League and Global Times immediately began expressing their displeasure, accusing Apple of having a double standard: “Apple, what are you trying to say here in your press event?” and “Given that you can put ‘United States’ before ‘Virgin Islands’ in order to differentiate it from the British Virgin Islands, why don’t you put ‘China’ before ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘Taiwan’?” Some Chinese netizens have called for a boycott of Apple phones and other products.
Following the public displays of contrition from Marriott and Mercedes Benz for similar grave insults, will Apple also apologize for hurting the feelings of the 1.4 billion Chinese people?
Uneasy Disappearance of a Popular Website
Letscorp.net, going by the Chinese name 墙外楼, which translates literally as ‘Over the Wall,’ is a popular Chinese news aggregation website, primarily focused on maintaining an archive of the news, posts, and commentaries that are censored inside China. The website uses RSS and mail subscriptions to propagate its content. Its Twitter handle, @letscorp, has been around for nearly eight years, and it boasts over 70,000 followers. Most of the time the Twitter handle has simply pushed out new content from the letScorp website automatically, but over the last year or so, the actual person behind the account has also become opinionated. He or she appears to be an astute observer of Chinese politics and society. Because of the website’s name (‘Over the Wall’), most everyone (including China Change editors) took it for granted that whoever runs the site lives outside of China.
Beginning on September 5, however, Chinese Twitter users noticed that the @letscorp account had stopped tweeting, that the website was down, and newsletters were no longer going out, and concerned users now feared that the website operator, likely based in China, had been identified by the authorities. “In the future, it will be more and more difficult to get valuable Chinese-language content even outside of China,” one Twitter user lamented.
We at China Change can’t help imagining the scene of that person being taken away, probably from his or her home, though we may never know, in the end, what has happened. Many Chinese Twitter accounts have similarly disappeared over the past few years. We recently subtitled and re-published a video of six police in Shenzhen forcing their way into the home of a young woman in the middle of the night simply for what she’d posted on social media.
Activist Barred From Traveling by Train
Ms. He Peirong, from Nanjing, is a Chinese activist who became very well-known during the Free Chen Guangcheng movement in 2012. Over the last few years she has been working on various public interest projects. On September 13 she tweeted out: “My liberty has been severely restricted; I can’t go out to buy train tickets, I can’t travel where I want in China. No department has officially notified me as to why I’ve been restricted and who is punishing me. I was preparing to travel to Shanghai yesterday, but only at the train station did I find out that I couldn’t purchase a ticket. I want to know which level of government made this decision. What is the legal basis for it?”
The ‘legal basis,’ it turned out, is likely China Railway’s May 1, 2018 policy of restricting the travel rights of individuals who have ‘seriously breached trust”. It seems that Ms. He is now also marked as such an individual.
This and other incidents of the like are yet another indication of how the Chinese authorities appear to be planning to impose sweeping limitations on personal liberty as they deploy the national ‘social credit system.’
Cellphone Inspections in Hangzhou
We made a mention of this elsewhere before but would like to draw your attention to it again: a Twitter user witnessed police in a Hangzhou subway station checking citizens’ cellphones. Similar incidents were reported in Beijing too. It looks like the Chinese government is conducting a trial of this practice in cities. The amended Police Law expected to pass during the Two Sessions in March 2019 will make such searches legal and therefore a common practice.
Date and time: August 23, 2018, 3:55 p.m.;
Location: Safety check at the entrance of the No. 1 Line subway at the Fengqi Road station, Hangzhou (杭州地铁1号线凤起路站); [the police were] checking the phone of every passenger waiting in line to enter the station;
Apparatus: They were using handheld scanning equipment;
The number of police: 6 to 7.
Crackdown on Christians
In Henan, the government has been conducting an intense crackdown on Christians, burning/removing crosses and dispersing congregations, forcing believers to sign pledges to quit the church, or closing down churches altogether (here, here, here, here). On September 9, the largest house church in Beijing, Beijing Zion Church, was shut down by the authorities who said it was not registered and “disrupted the order of civil organization management.”
Zion Church’s pastor, Jin Mingri (金明日), told Voice of America that religious repression has intensified since the 19th Party Congress. After the Congress (held in October 2017), the government has gone about strengthening both ideological and managerial control in all sectors of society. Then again after the ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing in March of this year, there were further changes, in particular in religious policy.
Overall, the new policies indicate a shift from tolerating some non-official denominations of Christianity to heavily restricting them, as a greater number of religious populations are seen as ideological competitors to the Party, or even hostile forces.
Xu Zhiyong, in response to a video of burning cross, wrote on Twitter addressing the Party: “What wrong has Christianity done to you? You’ll suffer retribution for this! In this life, in this world, it will come to pass. On many occasions making a curse is the only weapon of the weak. If the curses are sufficient in number and people lose heart, the retribution will then arrive.”
10th National Assembly of Representatives of Overseas Chinese and Relatives is Held
A major convocation of overseas Chinese, overseas Chinese returnees and their families, was held in Beijing from August 29 to September 1. It must have been a significant event for all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee to attend the opening ceremony. State media highlighted the fact that nearly 1,300 returnees from over 110 countries, as well as 700 (still) overseas Chinese, attended. Zhao Leji (赵乐际, China’s anti-corruption chief) made remarks that included this memorable exhortation for overseas Chinese: “Always remember [how] the Party and the People have entrusted you; spread good news about China; assist the development of the fatherland; safeguard the virtue of the Chinese people; promulgate Chinese culture; make new contributions to the realization of the China Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese people and promote the construction of a Community of Shared Human Destiny.”
Observers should not think of statements like this as mere empty rhetoric — the Chinese government’s ability and readiness to organize, mobilize, and use overseas Chinese has reached an impressive level of scale and sophistication. For instance, following the CCP’s 19th Party Congress, the Chinese Embassy-controlled Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA) at Harvard University, as well as a number of Hometown Associations on both coasts, organized discussion forums. In 2016, when the ethnically-Chinese police officer Peter Liang was being sentenced in New York City, the mass protest of Chinese and Chinese-Americans was suspected of having been at least in part mobilized by Communist Party agents, according to WeChat communications. And the Party’s Federation of Overseas Chinese, which operates on all levels of the government, regularly award membership in its “Overseas Chinese Committee” (海外委员会) to overseas Chinese who are in important positions in Western society, including many American university professors and scientists. China Change previously reported on the case of the Wellesley professor Charles Bu serving on one such commission.
Professor Xu Zhangrun, Author of Famous Lament, Forced to Return to China Early
The author of the widely celebrated, lengthy reflection on the parlous state of affairs in contemporary Chinese political life published in July, Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun (许章润), was recently called back to China early from his visiting professorship in Japan. Rong Jian (荣剑), another Chinese scholar, saw Xu in Japan on September 7 and reported that Xu told him that “he was forced to go back on the 14th of the month.”
Xu’s essay, ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,’ a portion of which was translated by China Change, and translated in its entirety by Geremie Barmé, was the subject of widespread public discussion in China and abroad, and was featured in a New York Times article for capturing the essence of concerns about China’s current political direction.