It is quite the irony when former British prime minister Boris Johnson — a buffoon who for far too long was taken seriously — is branded a buffoon for saying something deadly serious.
Following Johnson’s withering criticism of China at a business forum in Singapore on Wednesday last week, the event’s organizer, Michael Bloomberg, apologized to attendees, saying that Johnson was “trying to be amusing rather than informative and serious.”
However, Johnson’s characterization of China as a “coercive autocracy” that had showed “a candid disregard for the rule of international law” was spot-on.
His comments evoked the wisdom of the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper — the favorite thinker of one of Johnson’s predecessors, Margaret Thatcher.
In a recent social media meme, Popper’s solution to the paradox runs thus: As intolerant ideologies undermine tolerance in unrestrictedly tolerant societies, they cannot be tolerated. Popper is more cautious than this. He limits potential suppression to ideologies that forbid their adherents to engage in rational debate.
This encapsulates Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平). By exploiting tolerance in Western democracies, the CCP exports its brand of intolerance to them.
Forbidding tolerance domestically as a threat to stability, the party manipulates the idea to destabilize the societies of its opponents. Moreover, CCP dogma brooks neither dissent nor recourse to reason.
Feeble responses to China’s transnational encroachment have encouraged ever-more brazen conduct. Last month, Chinese diplomats assaulted protestors at the Chinese Consulate-General in Manchester. The British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) called for the expulsion of the offenders. Nothing has been done.
An investigation by a Spain-based non-governmental organization exposed dozens of Chinese “police stations” operating across 33 countries — mainly in Europe. Again, the FAC demanded action on shutting down the UK locations. Again, hot air was the extent of the reaction.
Universities are hubs for Chinese meddling. Coordinated by the CCP-funded Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), threats against “troublemakers” have become commonplace. In recent weeks, Chinese students at the University of Southampton obstructed a presentation about Taiwan by a Japanese classmate who had the temerity to describe the country as, well, a country.
This was the latest in a long line of intimidating and violent acts by Chinese students abroad. The nadir was 2019, when supporters of the Hong Kong protests were targeted at universities across the UK. Lennon Walls featuring pro-Hong Kong and anti-CCP messages were vandalized; demonstrators were snooped-on, threatened, and physically assaulted on and off campuses; and CCP-sponsored groups pressured students to report “unpatriotic” acts.
A 2019 FAC inquiry called the CSSA “an instrument of this interference.”
Nominally a non-political organization, the CSSA works with Chinese embassies to keep tabs on miscreants, making sure they suffer the consequences back in China or Hong Kong.
A favored tactic for pressuring recalcitrants is to invite their family for “tea” at a local police station. Soon after, family members contact the errant relative warning them to abandon their “misguided” or “traitorous” ways.
These are invariably stilted performances of the type delivered by foreign transgressors forced to apologize for “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” in front of state media. No one is duped, but the point has been made.
Because of the open prison that Xinjiang has become under Xi, ethnic Uighurs are especially susceptible. Berlin-based researcher Didi Kirsten Tatlow highlights the commodification of education as a problem, a view supported by China-watcher Catherine Owen at the University of Exeter.
Owen notes the conflict between academic freedoms and the UK’s desire for Chinese investment and partnerships. The UK is particularly vulnerable. Last year, there were more than 143,000 Chinese students in the UK, representing 32 percent of international enrollments.
A report by The Economist in March showed Chinese students contribute about ￡2.5 billion (US$3.02 billion) in tuition fees of a ￡7.5 billion total for foreign students.
Chinese investment has also impacted academia. Citing cancellations of speakers and events under Chinese duress, the FAC accuses the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of complacency.
Since publishing a 2017 paper on Chinese interference in her native New Zealand, the pre-eminent China scholar Anne-Marie Brady has suffered relentless intimidation, including office break-ins, a house burglary and phone calls indicating she is being watched. A lack of government support has undermined her faith in New Zealand’s “moral authority.”
To understand China’s extraterritorial ambitions, one must understand its territorial insecurities. The concept of the “century of humiliation” is crucial. Originating in the 1910s with the New Culture Movement, the term encompasses indignities such as the Opium Wars and the resulting “unequal treaties” that forced extraterritorial concessions upon China in the 19th century.
In one of those ironies that pervade the fabric of modern Chinese history, the New Culture nationalists were calling for China to abandon outmoded Confucian values and learn from Western democracy.
The great Chinese writer Zhou Shuren (周樹人) — pen name Lu Xun (魯迅) — whose novel The True Story of Ah Q was the movement’s defining work, would surely be appalled. His despicable protagonist exemplifies the bullying qi shan pa e (shame the good, bully the evil) philosophy that currently guides CCP foreign policy.
A further irony is that the “politics of shame,” as author Grace C. Huang calls it, was co-opted by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), whose Nationalist government was displaced by Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) communists in 1949. Reviled for decades as a capitalist reactionary, Chiang has undergone rehabilitation under Xi. This is unsurprising. Chiang’s New Life Movement of the 1930s meshes with “Xi Jinping Thought” — officially incorporated into China’s constitution in 2017.
Both emphasize a patriotic duty to safeguard China’s honor. Under Xi, schoolchildren are weaned on slogans reflecting this.
“Those who offend China, no matter how far away they are, must be eliminated” runs one such mantra.
China’s rulers lead by example. Following the visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) warned: “Those who offend China will be punished.”
As the fracas in Manchester shows, Chinese officials are confident to act with impunity. Chinese Consul-General Zheng Xiyuan (鄭曦原), who led the assault on the protestor, called his actions a “duty.”
With such representatives guiding them, how can China’s overseas students be expected to behave?
In correspondence to British Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs James Cleverly, who demanded the expulsion of Zheng and his accomplices and the closure of the UK “police stations,” FAC Chair Alicia Kearns urged the government to make it clear “that authoritarianism has no place on UK soil.”
There are signs the West is waking up. Australia is currently testing anti-interference legislation enacted in 2018 against a former Liberal Party candidate accused of representing the CCP’s United Front Work Department. This nebulous body, which answers to the CCP’s powerful Central Committee, is an umbrella for the party’s myriad front organizations abroad. The Netherlands has ordered the immediate closure of Chinese police stations.
These actions should herald the start of a zero-tolerance stance on Chinese intolerance. Popper’s conditions have been fulfilled. The message must be unequivocal: The CCP’s attempts to subvert Western democracy in its own backyard are over.
James Baron is a freelance journalist and writer based in Taiwan.
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