LIU XIA, the widow of China’s most renowned dissident of the 21st century, Liu Xiaobo, had been facing the grim prospect of commemorating the death a year ago of her husband while herself still suffering de facto house arrest in Beijing. But on the morning of July 10th, three days before the anniversary, the authorities allowed Ms Liu to board a Finnair flight to Helsinki for a connection to Berlin, where she has friends. Germany had taken the lead among the many Western countries that had been pressing for her release. China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, happened to be visiting Germany when news broke of Ms Liu’s long-awaited freedom.
Her confinement began in 2010, days after Ms Liu’s husband, then a year into an 11-year sentence for subversion, won the Nobel peace prize. Though never formally charged with any crime herself, she was prevented by security agents from leaving their apartment in Beijing and allowed only limited access to telephone or internet services. A rare exception was when she was allowed to be with her husband as he lay dying of liver cancer, under police guard, in a hospital in the north-eastern city of Shenyang. In December the authorities allowed the widow to visit her younger brother. In February they did so again, for the lunar new-year holiday, and on other occasions she was allowed to venture outside with a police escort to buy groceries. But in April, during the Qing Ming festival when Chinese people traditionally honour the dead, she had to mourn privately at home.
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Officials said Ms Liu, 57, was allowed to go abroad to seek medical treatment. This is often the reason they give for letting prisoners of conscience and other such detainees leave the country. Sometimes it is merely a face-saving excuse for freeing someone whose release could help China’s diplomatic efforts (in this case probably with Germany, which China wants as an ally in its battle with America over trade). But Hu Jia, another prominent dissident in Beijing, says Ms Liu’s medical needs are very real. He says she has been suffering badly from stress and depression. In April a Berlin-based friend of Ms Liu released a recording of his phone call with her in which she sobbed and spoke of wanting to die. She was, the friend wrote then, approaching “the brink of mental collapse”.
It was remarkable that the authorities devoted so much effort for so long to silencing Ms Liu—journalists who tried to visit her were routinely turned away. She was not an activist herself, but an artist, photographer and poet. It was her husband who had angered the government with his long history of criticising the Communist Party’s rule. He was first jailed after being labelled a “black hand” behind the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. A subsequent incarceration was for organising the distribution of Charter 08, a manifesto that called on the Communist Party to respect human rights and allow democratic elections. His death was the first in custody of a Nobel peace-prize winner since that of an anti-Nazi dissident in 1938.
Ms Liu’s release may remove an irritant in China’s relationship with Germany, but it will do nothing to convince it or other Western countries that China is easing up in its treatment of dissidents. Ms Liu’s release came a day after the anniversary of what is known in China as the “709” crackdown of 2015 during which hundreds of civil-rights lawyers and other activists were rounded up. Many remain in custody.
Among those who have been freed, more than a dozen say they have had their legal licences revoked on murky grounds. Others say family members, including children, have suffered police harassment.
Such suffering, merely for having family connections with a dissident, may continue to plague Liu’s family. His widow leaves behind two brothers in Beijing. The younger one, Liu Hui, has been repeatedly jailed on fraud charges in recent years. Activists believe the real reason for his punishment has been his ties with her. According to Hu Jia, the brother should not hold out hope of obtaining his own one-way air ticket. His lot, says Mr Hu, is to remain in China as a hostage, to ensure that Ms Liu minds her tongue in exile.
IN 1979 America’s then president, Jimmy Carter, met Deng Xiaoping in Washington for talks about how to restore normal diplomatic relations between their two countries, which had been frozen since the Communist takeover of China 30 years earlier. Dutifully, Carter raised a human-rights concern. He asked that China lift its virtual ban on people going abroad. “How many Chinese nationals do you want?” Deng is said to have quipped. “Ten million? Twenty million? Thirty million?”
Deng knew that he could play on American fears of a tidal wave of Chinese immigrants. He was ready to open China’s doors, but only gradually—the Communist Party was still afraid of letting its people see the West’s prosperity, and democracy’s success, for themselves. What a different world it is today, and what a different China. Last year the country recorded 130m exits by its citizens from the Chinese mainland. By the end of the decade the number is expected to exceed 200m. Around 600,000 Chinese are studying abroad, mostly at Western universities, more than four times as many as a decade ago.
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This huge movement of people has been a boon for the rest of the world (see our special report in this week’s issue). Producers of luxury goods would be lost without Chinese travellers: their total annual spend abroad is twice that of Americans. The giants of Silicon Valley would not be as successful without Chinese talent, often educated at Western universities. And as for those universities, where would many of them be without Chinese students’ fees? How would their scientific research fare without the Chinese PhD students who are so numerous in their laboratories?
In China, officials’ worries about letting people go abroad have largely faded (except when it comes to Tibetans and Uighurs, who, they fear, might link up with separatist or terrorist movements). Yet in the West the kind of anxieties that Deng pulled Carter’s leg about are widespread. Migrants are often blamed for stealing jobs and pushing up house prices. Students are often portrayed by the media and politicians as stooges of their government, bent on curbing academic freedom. The director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, recently shocked Chinese-Americans by referring to a “whole-of-society threat” posed by China to his country, requiring a “whole-of-society response”. Some of his concerns are justified. Such sweeping language is not.
The Chinese are coming
The world has seen this kind of racially tinged fear before in the face of a rising power. In the 1980s it was Japan that scared Americans. Japanese companies were buying up trophy assets from New York to Los Angeles. Japanese cars were everywhere (prompting Henry Ford, of the motor company of that name, to warn of an “economic Pearl Harbour”). In 1989 this newspaper decried what it called an “anti-Japanese wind” that was “howling through the corridors of power” in Washington. The American establishment, it said, was “itching to reinvent the yellow peril”. So too were members of the public. Asian-American groups complained of rising hostility targeted at ethnic Japanese (as well as others of East-Asian ethnicity, by mistake).
Some of the language of that period, before Japan’s economy slumped in the 1990s, is being revived today in descriptions of Asia’s new economic giant, China. This is not only happening in America. In recent months a new book in Australia has fuelled debate about the Chinese government’s covert efforts to wield influence there, partly by manipulating members of the large and growing Chinese diaspora. Its title conveys a febrile mood: “Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia”. In March some of Australia’s most noted scholars of China wrote an open letter in which they accused their government of overreacting to anxieties by introducing new legislation to counter foreign interference. Australia, they said, was “witnessing the creation of a racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy”.
At least in the 1980s it was easy to spot the problem. It was reasonable to criticise Japan for its mercantilism, but clearly wrong to portray a democracy and an American ally as a threat to America’s way of life. With China the picture is more complex. The Communist Party does act abroad in ways that violate democratic principles. It threatens critics and even sends agents to haul them back to China. And when Westerners protest about China’s thuggish efforts to exert influence abroad (and, yes, to persuade members of the diaspora to act as the party’s cheerleaders), it accuses them of racism. What better way of silencing liberals than to threaten them with that label?
But China may sometimes have a point. There is a real danger that careless rhetoric such as Mr Wray’s will ignite the same kind of bigotry that was once targeted at Japan and serve only to confuse a vital debate about China’s global behaviour. Anti-Chinese racism, after all, has a long history in the West. American laws dating back to the 19th century barred ethnic Chinese from gaining American citizenship and Chinese labourers from entering the country. Canada followed with its own restrictions on Chinese immigration (in 1923 it almost entirely banned Chinese from entering). When Australia became independent in 1901 it adopted a “White Australia” approach to immigration that limited entry by migrants of colour. The main point was to prevent an influx of Chinese. America and Canada did not scrap their Chinese exclusion laws until the 1940s. White Australia remained the policy until the 1970s.
Across the West ethnic Chinese suffer discrimination. A study in 2009 by academics from the universities of Hull and Leeds as well as Nottingham Trent University found that Chinese in Britain were exposed to “higher levels of racism” than many other minority groups. Also in 2009 voters in Prato, a city in northern Italy, elected a mayor who had campaigned on a platform of repelling a “Chinese invasion”. He was referring to the migrants (many of them illegal) working in Prato’s clothing factories. In 2016 thousands of Chinese took to the streets in Paris following a spate of violent attacks on their ethnic kin, which they accused the police of ignoring.
There is a problem with the behaviour of the Chinese state in the world, but not with the presence abroad of so many of its people. Western politicians and media must be careful to stress this. Most Chinese who go abroad sooner or later will return; graduates are doing so in record numbers. If their experience in the West was unpleasant, they are hardly likely to champion its liberal values back home.
ONE of the old rules of Chinese politics is that, when facing the world, the Communist Party is best kept out of sight. State-owned companies and universities have party cells but rarely mention them when talking to outsiders. Officials who spend time brushing up on ideology at party school are more likely to tell foreign interlocutors that they have been in executive training. Those with important roles in both the party and the government generally include only the latter on their business cards.
Under President Xi Jinping, plenty of old norms of Chinese politics have gone by the wayside, including the term limits on Mr Xi’s own post. That the party’s powers should be diligently obscured is among those rules that have been upended. The party is now far bolder about exposing itself. The recently concluded China Development Forum (CDF), an annual meeting in Beijing that brings together business leaders and academics from around the world, was a striking marker of this change.
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China uses the CDF, which it has hosted for nearly two decades, as an occasion to present its story, buffed to a fine sheen, for an influential foreign audience. Guests this year included Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, as co-chair of the forum; Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s biggest money-manager; and Pascal Lamy, a former head of the World Trade Organisation; along with another hundred or so prominent guests. In past editions of the CDF, China accentuated its professionalism. Ministers laid out their agendas and explained to visitors that reforms, mostly aimed at relaxing the government’s grip on the economy, were proceeding apace. The forum was itself a creation of the civil service, organised by the Development Research Centre, a respected think-tank under the State Council, or cabinet.
But at the latest CDF, which ended on March 26th, the party was visible as never before. Chinese ministers and academics still outlined their reform plans, impressing many of the attendees with their vision, their attention to detail and their cool-headed responses to Donald Trump’s threats of a trade war. Overlaying that, though, was their homage to the party. One simple measure was the number of times it was name-checked. Yi Gang, China’s new central banker, known as a technocrat, mentioned the party five times in his speech. By contrast, his predecessor, Zhou Xiaochuan, had avoided mentioning it entirely in his final two appearances at the CDF, in 2015 and 2016. The vice-minister of foreign affairs, Zheng Zeguang, cited the party four times in his address. Representatives of the foreign ministry had mentioned it only once in both 2016 and 2017, and not at all in 2015.
Even more notable was the way in which the party was discussed. When the party comes up in speeches, it is normally in the form of lengthy preambles. “Under the strong leadership of Comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Communist Party, we have done X, Y and Z” is the kind of line that rolls off the tongue of any well-trained official in Beijing. But Mr Zheng of the foreign ministry went well beyond that. “The Chinese Communist Party is a party that pursues happiness for the Chinese people. It is also a party that strives to advance the cause of humankind,” he said. If the party was once shy and retiring, it was now out and proud.
The sense of pride, verging in some instances on cockiness, extended to China’s model of development. An audience member asked Liu Kun, the finance minister, to respond to foreign criticism that China’s process of market reforms had, in recent years, gone backwards. Mr Liu scoffed, pointing to China’s remarkable growth over the past four decades. “There is no one who understands market economics as deeply as do Chinese people and Chinese cadres,” he said. Some in the crowd gasped. It is nothing new for Americans or Europeans to get an earful over their governments’ refusal to recognise China as a market economy. But it takes an extra level of brazenness to claim that China in fact gets Adam Smith better than the West does.
The most remarkable part of the forum was a panel discussion devoted entirely to the party. One person involved in the planning said it was the first time in 19 years of CDFs that such a panel had been convened. Titled “Communist Party of China and China’s Modernisation”, it brought together ideologues and academics. For many of the foreign executives and scholars in attendance, the discussion that followed was unlike any they had encountered before.
Chen Jin, vice-chairman of the Party Literature Research Office, began by explaining that the recent revision of the constitution—the one that eliminated presidential term limits—was a vital step towards modernising the governance system of China. Luo Zongyi, provost of the China Central Party School, tackled the puzzling question of what exactly “socialism with Chinese characteristics” means. The essential characteristic, he revealed, was leadership by the Chinese Communist Party. The great ship of the state needs a helmsman who can stand tall and see far, he said. And, lest there were any doubt, he exclaimed that Mr Xi is that helmsman. Zheng Yongnian, a professor at the National University of Singapore, addressed another seemingly thorny problem: the relationship between the party and the government. It was in fact quite simple, he argued. Mr Xi’s reforms had done away with the distinction by making clear that the party was an essential element of the government.
If politics were not their bag, foreign executives attending the panel were also offered some business lessons. Zhou Haijiang, both the CEO and party secretary of Hodo Group, a garment company, explained that modern corporate management, as practised in the West, was fine and dandy for running a company, but that it failed to take account of the interests of the state and society. For that, the solution was modern corporate management with Chinese characteristics. Finally, in wrapping up the discussion, Ye Zhenzhen, president of People’s Daily Online, an arm of the party’s main newspaper, illuminated the deeper forces at work. The Communist Party and one-party rule were, he said, the inevitable product of China’s nearly two-century pursuit of modernisation.
Foreigners in the audience cast bemused and occasionally bewildered glances at each other as the discussion proceeded. Afterwards, one noted wryly that the whole event felt like “Davos in reverse”. Perhaps it should not have been so surprising to see the party placed front and centre. As Mr Xi said last year at an important meeting, “government, the army, society and schools—north, south, east and west—the party leads them all.” One might even give the party credit for its honesty in presenting itself to the good and the great from around the world, much as it portrays itself to a domestic audience.
It was jarring all the same. The message to foreign dignitaries and executives passing through Beijing used to be that China was a deeply pragmatic, bureaucratic state, and that the party, a relic from its past, was quietly humming along in the background. Those at the forum this year ought to have come away with a very different conclusion. The party is still firmly in charge, and ideology still matters.
FOR 16 months, two seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council have sat empty. Four more have been vacant for eight. That the seats were empty in the first place was an affront to the city’s pro- democracy movement. The previous incumbents, elected only in 2016, had been disqualified for using their oathtaking speeches to criticise the governments of both Hong Kong and China. In the by-elections to fill four of the vacancies, on March 11th, the democrats suffered a further setback. Their candidates lost two of the four seats, one of them unexpectedly, depriving them of much of their legislative clout.
The Legislative Council, also known as Legco, is a body left over from British rule, part of which is democratically elected. It is riven between two ideological groups: the “pro-establishment” camp, which can be expected to support both Hong Kong’s government and, by extension, the Chinese one; and the “pan-democrats” who routinely oppose them. The establishment has a built-in advantage, in that only half the 70 seats are filled by universal suffrage. Another 30 are “functional constituencies”, selected by members of certain professions or civil-society groups with a pronounced pro-government bias. (The last five, nicknamed “super-seats”, are selected by voters who are not members of any functional constituencies.)
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Analysts had expected the democrats to lose the one vacant functional seat, but to win back the three of the “geographical” ones. Winning all three was important, as it would have given the democrats a majority of the “geographical seats”, enabling them to block some legislation despite the government’s legislative majority.
In the largest constituency, New Territories East, Gary Fan Kwok-wai of the Neo Democrats comfortably beat Bill Tang Ka-piu of the Federation of Trade Unions to regain the seat for the democrats. The democrats also won on Hong Kong Island, despite an administrative ruling that prevented their most popular candidate from running. Before campaigning started, a civil servant decided that Agnes Chow’s affiliation with a political party that advocates “self-determination” for Hong Kong meant that she could not uphold the territory’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, which defines Hong Kong as an “inalienable part of China”.
Instead that seat was contested by Au Nok-hin, a district councillor and activist. Although well known in political circles, Mr Au had worried before the vote about his low recognition among the general public. Nevertheless, with the help of some uber-heavyweight endorsements, including Martin Lee, a veteran democracy campaigner, and Anson Chan, a former chief secretary, he beat his pro-establishment rival by around 10,000 votes.
The surprise of the night came in Kowloon West, which was won by Vincent Cheng, a young district councillor who worked in Sham Shui Po, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the constituency, since 2007. He is also a member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the territory’s largest pro-government party. Mr Cheng’s democratic rival, Edward Yiu, was the only disqualified legislator to run again. But he had previously represented a functional constituency chosen by architects. His campaign focused on his ill-treatment by the government. Clearly, his dismissal had not energised voters as much as he had imagined.
The establishment is heralding the result in Kowloon West as a breakthrough. Although only 2,400 votes, or around 1% of the total, separated the two candidates, the loss of the seat is still worrying to the pro-democracy camp. For Ma Ngok of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the result shows that advocating greater political freedom is not enough to secure victory. Its supporters are losing faith in the power of their vote, and staying at home, whereas the richer pro-China parties are good at getting their supporters to the polling booths.
The last two vacant seats in Legco cannot be filled until their former occupants have exhausted their appeals. If those disqualifications are upheld, there will be two more by-elections. It is not clear whether the former incumbents would run, or how they would perform. But it does seem certain that in future the democrats will have to put up even more of a fight just to maintain the status quo.
IDEOLOGICAL flexibility has long been critical to success in China. The office of a state-owned company in Wuhan, a big central city, testifies to its enduring importance. On the bookshelf behind a senior manager’s desk are a few red-bound Communist Party tracts, including a collection of speeches from a recent meeting where “Xi Jinping Thought” was written into the constitution. Stacked alongside these is literature of a different breed: two analyses of blockchains, a primer on the “industrial revolution 4.0” and a recently published guide to life and business by Ray Dalio, an American hedge-fund billionaire.
The manager sees no contradiction. Like many of his peers, he is as fluent talking about the business models of semiconductor-makers as he is reciting Mr Xi’s contributions to socialism with Chinese characteristics. Yet the latter has, over the past few years, taken up more and more time. One staff member says they must regularly gather in study groups to pore over Mr Xi’s words and write essays of self-criticism, identifying their failings as party members and state employees. It is, she says, “quite a headache”, though she insists that their business has not suffered as a result.
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There has been a marked shift in Chinese politics under Mr Xi as he has placed more emphasis on the power of the Communist Party, and on his own power within the party. For the economy, as for the Wuhan state-owned company, there has been little downside so far; growth has remained strong. But the test may soon get stiffer. On March 11th the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp legislature, is due to vote on a proposed amendment to the constitution to abolish the two-term limit on a president’s tenure, paving the way for Mr Xi to stay in office indefinitely. This shift will carry implications for every aspect of policy-making, including the management of the economy.
The optimistic view is that the change might in fact help the Chinese economy, at least in the short run. “We have stability and clarity,” says Zhu Ning, an economist with Tsinghua University. Mr Xi has amassed enough clout to push through reforms that have hitherto proven tricky. He has presided, for example, over the closure of many loss-making coal mines and steel mills over the past two years, which has helped restore the remainder of those two industries to health, albeit at the cost of some 2m jobs.
The apparent certainty that Mr Xi will be the country’s leader for, at a minimum, another decade should also give officials and enterprises confidence to make longer-term plans. This, in turn, might improve the chances of success for two of his pet projects: the Belt and Road Initiative—a plan to invest vast sums in infrastructure across Asia—and Xiong’an, a new city being built near Beijing.
Others predict a much bleaker outcome. They worry that Mr Xi’s elevation will make the governance of China less, not more, efficient. Local officials might fall in line with national policy more readily than in the past, but an excess of zeal could be more damaging than a shortage, says Yanmei Xie, an analyst with Gavekal Dragonomics, a research firm. A case in point was the environmental campaign which left thousands of residents of Hebei, a northern province, without heating at the start of winter, after local officials choked off coal supplies to meet pollution targets. Over time the risks will become more severe. With Mr Xi unassailable, it will take a very brave bureaucrat to dissent from his script. And as the economy grows ever more complex, the inadequacies of the institutions that underpin it, especially the rule of law, will become more glaring.
The optimists and pessimists have been scrutinising the current session of the NPC, which began on March 5th, for clues about Mr Xi’s intentions. Alas, they have found little evidence for the idea that an empowered Mr Xi will clear the way for deep economic reform. The most important titbit so far has been the unveiling of this year’s target for economic growth. It was contained in the “work report” that Premier Li Keqiang presented to the NPC’s 2,970 members amid the cavernous pomp of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The government will aim for growth of “around 6.5%”, as it did last year. But Mr Li omitted last year’s pledge that it would strive for higher growth if possible. Some analysts argued that this constituted a slackening of the authorities’ push for growth at all costs. But it would have been much bolder to abandon a precise growth target altogether, as the International Monetary Fund had urged.
Still, there were plenty of positive messages. The government dropped its growth target for fixed-asset investment and lowered its projected fiscal deficit, a signal to officials to rein in excessive spending. Mr Li included a new target, for the surveyed urban unemployment rate, which he pledged to keep below 5.5%. That could help make for a sharper focus on the welfare of citizens. Mr Li also said that spending on social security, education and health care will rise, even as investment in infrastructure moderates.
Yet these various policies, welcome though they are, are tweaks to the existing economic landscape, not dramatic or difficult reforms. They are the kinds of initiatives that the Chinese civil service has proven itself more than capable of delivering in recent years, without the intervention of an overwhelmingly powerful president. It is possible that when Mr Xi’s team is fully in place, his agenda will become more ambitious. Liu He, Mr Xi’s most trusted economic adviser, is expected to be made vice premier, responsible for economic and financial affairs. He has promised that reforms will “exceed the international community’s expectations”. But the focus for now is on asserting party control. On March 17th the legislature will vote on a plan to shrink the number of state agencies and put them more firmly under party leadership, according to Bloomberg, a news agency. As part of that restructuring, the banking and insurance regulators are expected to be merged, as are the agency that oversees industrial companies and the product-quality watchdog, among others.
Mr Xi’s influence over the proceedings was felt in other, more disturbing ways. The work report mentioned his name 13 times, the most references to any living leader since Mao Zedong. When the constitutional amendment to scrap the presidential term limit was read aloud in Great Hall, the crowd greeted it with boisterous applause. The banner headline on the day of the work report on the website of Xinhua, China’s official news agency, was about Mr Xi’s meeting with delegates from Inner Mongolia, followed by four other stories about his recent speeches and his schedule. It was only the sixth article that covered the work report and the various targets for 2018. They are being overshadowed by the biggest target of all: enhancing Mr Xi’s power.