Voices in Beijing are crying foul amid Western criticism of Chinese influence, yet pushing back against Western influence has been one of Xi Jinping's top priorities. Photo: Reuters / Fred Dufour
Voices in Beijing are crying foul amid Western criticism of Chinese influence, yet pushing back against Western influence has been one of Xi Jinping's top priorities. Photo: Reuters / Fred Dufour

The past week has been a busy one for China critics in Western capitals. A United States congressional hearing on Wednesday looking into the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) overseas influence came after officials in Australia, New Zealand and Germany all levied various accusations of political interference in domestic affairs.

State-run media in China has been quick to respond, characterizing the accusations as both “absurd” and “racist,” as well as evidence that the West has recognized China’s achievements.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Chinese state news outlet Global Times wrote on Tuesday that “China has come under massive pressure from Western values and ideology since it introduced reform nearly 40 years ago, but it has never warned of guarding against foreigners in China as potential spies.”

The first part of that statement is abundantly clear, given a generous concession that democracy, free press and an independent judiciary (unlike socialism?) must be conflated with the West.

Both main political parties in the US, for instance, publicly advocate political reform in China, and, in fact, have even linked promotion of democratic reforms in China to the decision to grant the world’s second largest economy permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status.

The granting of PNTR to China, which happened in 2000, was inevitable, as it gave US businesses better access to the Chinese market under World Trade Organization rules.

But it was nonetheless politically controversial. As part of a compromise to pass the legislation to grant China PNTR status, the same congressional commission that held the hearing this week was created.

CECC hearing
Congressional hearing on T”he Long Arm of China: Exporting Authoritarianism With Chinese Characteristics.” Source: Congressional-Executive Commission on China YouTube screen grab

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) was established to “monitor human rights and the development of the rule of law in China,” and tasked with producing an annual report on its findings.

The commission regularly meets with groups advocating political change inside China and reflects a view widely held within the US government that China’s current model of government is not compatible with international human rights obligations.

Though the fact that “China has come under massive pressure” from democratic values – as the Global Times protested – is supported by evidence, it is also abundantly clear that the next line is patently false. China “has never warned of guarding against foreigners in China as potential spies,” should read: “under Xi Jinping, China has been aggressively stepping up its warnings of guarding against foreigners in China as potential spies.”

We can begin with the release last week by China’s State Council outlining broad new applications of the country’s counter-espionage law. The expanded interpretation of the law clarifies that “collusion” involves any form of contact or assistance with groups that harm China’s national security. This includes using religion to harm national security or obtaining information about the government by spying. “Hostile groups,” include any groups that challenge China’s “socialist system.”

Beijing’s recent campaigns to “warn of guarding against foreigners in China as potential spies,” have garnered much attention in the press. A cartoon entitled “Dangerous Love,” published last year to coincide with the first annual National Security Education Day warned civil servants against developing relationships with foreign Chinese-language learners and talking to them about government policy. In 2015, China created a hotline for the public to report suspected spies.

“My name is David and I’m a visiting scholar researching issues about China. I’m really interested in chatting with all of you,” reads the caption in a government-published comic book warning of guarding against foreign spies.

Beyond efforts specifically aimed at guarding against a broadly-defined definition of espionage, policies targeting foreign influence also notably include the foreign NGO law put into effect early this year. The “Law on Management of Domestic Activities of Overseas Non-governmental Organizations,” places restrictions on funding for NGOs in China from foreign groups, regardless of whether they are associated with a government, and requires greater cooperation with China’s ruling party.

The list goes on. The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission notably issued (link in Chinese) a policy document last year to crack down on private schools that use overseas curriculum.

The Global Times editorial said Western countries are exhibiting “all the symptoms of McCarthyism.” If so, they are following China’s lead.

In contrast to China’s aggressive efforts to curb foreign influence inside of China, actions taken in the West to combat China’s growing influence around the world have been minimal. In fact, a policy response has yet to take shape in any meaningful way. Thus far, Western governments have simply become more aware of China’s increased clout overseas.

One illuminating question from the Global Times editorial posed the question: “English is taught in many kindergartens in the country: Is China training spies from childhood?”

In none of the recent events, including the congressional hearing on Wednesday, did Westerners insinuate that Chinese English-language learning was preparation for espionage. In contrast, when I first studied Chinese in the United States in the mid-2000’s, I was struck when my teacher warned that I shouldn’t get too good at speaking Chinese, especially when it comes to authentic colloquialisms. “People will think you are a spy,” she cautioned. Her sentiment is echoed by many anecdotes Western Chinese-language learners recount from their time in China.

The Global Times critique of Western anxiety, it seems, reflects more of China’s own anxieties than it does of the West.

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