Monday 09 Dec 2019 | 19:34 | SYDNEY
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The East Asia Program conducts research on the politics and foreign policies of the countries of East Asia, with a focus on how domestic politics in these countries shape external behaviour. Researchers focus on China, Indonesia, and Myanmar, and commission work by other scholars on the broader region. The program also holds a robust series of dialogues and events on the politics of the region, independently and in partnership with other organisations.

Photo: Jung Yeon-Je-Pool/Getty Images

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Thailand’s triple threat

Thailand’s status as a relatively stable and predictable partner, in both business and geopolitical terms, is now imperilled (Photo: Getty Images/Borja Sanchez Trillo)

How China views the plight of refugees

With assistance from Zixin Wang, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program.

Following World Refugee Day on 20 June, Chinese netizens have been heatedly debating whether China should accept refugees.

'Debating' may be too strong a word – social media users are for the most part heatedly agreeing with each other that China is in no position to take refugees. While many in China feel that the country should (and does) have a role in global peace and security, the vast majority support the official view that the 'problem' of refugees, particularly from the Middle East, is not China's responsibility to solve. They feel that the best way to contribute to global humanitarian issues is to continue to build a prosperous and stable China.

Chinese official media has been reporting on China's positive role in international humanitarian issues for several months. For example, Xinhua covered World Refugee Week with evocative images of refugees in need of help, and CCTV New has provided consistent reporting of the situation of refugees since at least April. The People's Daily Chinese-language International Edition has reported on China's ongoing willingness to contribute to international humanitarian issues.

While this coverage represents both refugees as needing help and China as a responsible global actor on international humanitarian issues, there is no suggestion that China should accept more refugees. This sentiment appears to be broadly shared by Chinese netizens. Some surveys show that the vast majority of Chinese strongly oppose the idea of accepting Middle Eastern refugees and especially Muslim refugees.

Counter to this finding, a 2016 Amnesty International report found that Chinese people, at least theoretically, were some of the most welcoming to refugees in the world. As another report notes, these findings are very different from government policy. This does raise questions over the extent to which opinions expressed on Chinese social media are shaped by the government. However, it also raises questions about the wording of the survey.

In the recent online discussions in China, there are three main themes as to why China should not take in refugees.

Firstly, many Chinese netizens argue that accepting refugees will cause social tension in China. Comments included '难民随便去哪一个地方都是灾难不要圣母心啊' ('Wherever refugees go, there will be a disaster. Don't try to be a god now'); and '之前报道了跟几个欧洲国家收留难民,抢劫强奸的事层出不穷,虽然跟同情,但还是不希望他们来到中国' ('There are always reports related to refugees raping someone or refugees robbing someone. Even though I feel sorry for them, I don't want them in China.') Another netizen argues:'别来我们国家祸害。我们国家以前也是这样,谁同情过我们?是我们的先辈浴血奋战换来今天,不是某神赐予的!他们不为自己国家而战,难道是等他们的神去赈救他们?' ('Don't come to my country to mess around. My country is like this before, and who showed their sympathies to us? Our ancestors fought for today's China, not gods. They don't fight for their countries, but wait for their god to help them?')

These views mirror a recent article in the Global Times, which argued that 'an excessive influx of refugees will have a huge impact on social order' in China. In a society that places a very high value on stability, anything that could pose a threat to that stability is immediately seen as extremely undesirable.

The second theme is the notion that as China is not responsible for the problems that have caused refugees to leave their homes, it is not China's responsibility to accept them. For example, '冤有头,债有主,前面左拐美帝府。' ('No debts without creditors. Go find the US.') and '肆年-鹤顶红:难民交给欧洲人就好,千万别放到中国来。' ('Leave them with the Europeans. Don't come to China.') These views become particularly resonant when combined with the perceived risk refugees pose to social order. They also reflect broader notions of responsibility in China, and ideas of who is obliged to whom. As I have written elsewhere, cosmopolitan obligation is not a strong feature of current Chinese social patterns.

The third theme is that as China is still a developing country, it cannot be expected to take on the burden of helping others, particularly when combined with perceptions that the problem causing the refugee outflows was nothing to do with China, and that accepting refugees poses a risk to Chinese society. Celebrities who publicly welcomed refugees to China such as the actress Yao Chen were criticised for being out of touch with the situation of most Chinese people. One social media user put it very bluntly: '比你妈的嘴吧。 你站在道德制高点因为你有钱,中国还有那么多穷人呢,你咋不想着先帮帮他们,捐点你的钱呢?闭嘴吧您。' ('Shut the f*** up. You guys have money to stand on the moral high ground, but there are many Chinese people still live in poverty. What about donating your money to them first, otherwise just f*** off.') Netizens also attacked academics who argued that accepting refugees could improve China's global image as being unrealistic: '你觉得中国有这个能力去接受那么多难民吗?你是中国的学者,不是搞慈善的,好好想想吧' ('Do you think China has the capability to deal with refugees? You are scholars, not philanthropists. Try harder.') Despite some non-Chinese commentators arguing that accepting refugees would have a positive impact on China's economy, refugees are equated with an economic burden China cannot afford to shoulder. The notion that China is still a developing country and does not have the capacity to help others again reflects Chinese notions of obligation. It is a theme that also comes up in the sensitive issue of communicating Chinese foreign aid to its domestic population.

So where does China stand officially on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers? China is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. However, its Exit-Entry Law did not mention the right to apply for asylum until 2012. It now includes provisions for persons to apply for refugee status and remain in the country during the screening of their applications. As China does not have a refugee status determination procedure, the UNHCR currently manages all applications for refugee status. According to the UNHCR, the total population of refugees and asylum seekers in China is currently around 300,000. Of those, the majority came from neighbouring countries several decades ago. From 1978-1979, China settled 260,000 Indochinese refugees (mostly from Vietnam), and in the early 1980s, China accepted around 2500 refugees from camps in Thailand, mostly from Laos, as well as some Cambodians. Since then, the number of people seeking refugee status in China has dropped dramatically. In 2015, UNHCR reported the number at around 200. As of mid-2016, China had accepted fewer than 30 Syrian refugees.

The emphasis in China is that refugees can be helped just as well outside of China. As the Global Times explained it, '解决难民问题的根本之道是确保难民本国的发展和稳定,帮助他们回到自己的国家' ('The true way out to solve the refugee problem is to achieve stability and development in refugees' own countries and help them return to their own homes.') According to Xinhua, Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted in a recent visit to Lebanon that '难民不是移民,国际社会应该通过解决首要问题,为难民回归创造必要条件' ('Refugees are not migrants, and the international community should strive to create appropriate conditions, through seeking a swifter solution to hot-button issues, for the refugees to return to their homes.') President Xi Jinping announced at the UN Office at Geneva in January that China would allocate an additional 200 million yuan (US$29.26 million) in humanitarian aid to help refugees in the Syrian crisis – but this is not for supporting refugees in China. According to a report in the People's Daily, this money is for the World Food Program.

It may seem difficult to reconcile China's reluctance to accept refugees with China's view that it is a responsible global stakeholder and good global citizen. However, the Chinese position is that its most valuable contribution to the global humanitarian good is the development and stability of China itself, and the lifting of the Chinese population out of poverty. In other words, China is doing its share if it isn't adding to the world's problems.

How China’s media framed the Hong Kong handover anniversary

Last weekend marked the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from the UK to China, with Xi Jinping making his first trip to Hong Kong as President to hail the occasion. On Saturday night, Hong Kong's skyline was lit up with red and gold fireworks to mark the event. But not all were in a celebratory mood.

During Xi's visit, key leaders in the 2014 Umbrella Protests were periodically detained for protesting and scuffling with pro-Beijing counter-protesters. But it was Xi's speech that received plenty of media coverage throughout the world, describing any attempt to challenge the power of the central government as a 'red line'. Although unreported in mainland China, pro-independence demonstrators continued to protest Beijing's erosion of Hong Kong's rights and denial of full democratic rights on Saturday afternoon, following Xi's departure.

In China's English-language media, the message intended for international readers was that Hong Kong is inseparably part of China and that China's internal affairs are not up for debate on the international stage. In a Global Times article entitled 'China refutes UK, US remarks on Hong Kong affairs', the author quotes Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang emphasising that Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, making Hong Kong affairs China's internal affairs. The article goes on to dismiss any role the UK might have in the former colony, since under Chinese control, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was a 'historical document (which) no longer has any practical significance nor any binding force on the central government's administration of Hong Kong, SAR.'

Underpinning this article are two of China's foreign policy principles: non-interference and the supremacy of state sovereignty. These philosophies have underpinned China's foreign policy thinking since the 1950s, when Zhou Enlai signed up to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence with India's Jawaharlal Nehru, who would together go on to lead the Non-Aligned Movement.

Most of the English-language coverage (written to influence international debate) focused on the 'one country, two systems' principle. Established as part of the Joint Sino-British Declaration in 1984, the agreement promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and certain economic, social and legal rights (unavailable on the mainland) for at least 50 years. But the system has come under fire recently, as some in Hong Kong claim that the disappearance of five booksellers in the city in 2015 demonstrated China's failure to keep its word, and that Beijing is pressuring Hong Kong to abide by mainland norms.

Chinese-language state-overseen media was flooded with overwhelmingly positive coverage of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the 'motherland' – unsurprisingly ignoring the anti-Beijing protesters. Although Xi's praise for the Hong Kong government's control over 'independence forces' was widely reported in Hong Kong media, there was no mention of dissent in the mainland press.

Renmin Ribao, the domestic Chinese-language People's Daily, ran an analysis of Xi's speech entitled 'Xi Jinping's address serves as the trend for Hong Kong's future development'. It stressed that 'one country, two systems' was primarily useful to maintain the unity of China. While making no mention of anti-Beijing protests, the article stressed that Xi believed social stability and harmony should always be maintained in Hong Kong.

The author elaborated on this sentiment using an old Chinese saying, 'If all the family lives in harmony, all affairs will prosper' (家和万事兴), implying that if Hong Kong and China co-exist peacefully, both will thrive materially. Stability is a priority for the government, as it makes economic growth more attainable, which in turn helps it to honour the social contract it holds with all citizens: material wealth and wellbeing in exchange for acceptance of the political status quo.

Chinese-language state-overseen media also made an obvious effort to show off the optimistic opinion of Hong Kongers, and how it was displayed inside the city. One article in Renmin Ribao reviewed Hong Kong's Chinese-language press coverage of Xi's speech, which it analysed as supportive of Xi's emphasis on 'one country, two systems' and the push to better implement it.

A video posted on People's Daily asked young passers-by: when you think of Hong Kong, what do you think of? Among make-up, TV dramas, films, Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan, one young man answers, 'one country, two systems'. The government's message came in many different forms in the Chinese press, but the attempt to reaffirm commitment to the status quo and raise further support is clear. The video, showing young people's positivity towards Hong Kong today, could also be read as an attempt to counter the narrative of growing pessimism among Hong Kong youth about the city's state and its future.

Global Times stressed China's sovereignty over Hong Kong, endorsed the new Chief Executive Carrie Lam and warned that foreign observers, particularly the UK, should not try to influence Hong Kong's internal affairs. While Global Times emphasised first principles, Xinhua's English edition headlines cut straight to the chase. Xinhua led with a warning against challenges to national sovereignty and central government power, and in another article underlined Xi's commitment to 'one country, two systems'.

As these articles and their ideological underpinning show, Beijing is keen to rebut the kind of questions that were always going to come to the fore over Hong Kong's 20th handover anniversary, including over British responsibilities, a loss of belief in the 'one country, two systems', and the prospect of pessimistic youth. But it is also clear that Hong Kong is key to the Chinese Communist Party's quest to consolidate legitimacy and power. As such, Hong Kong remains a central component of how Beijing imagines the future of China. That vision does not include political pluralism nor any type of separatism, but instead strong Party governance, a continuing focus on wealth creation and sovereign independence on the international stage.

Who will abandon Taiwan next?

Earlier this month Panama established formal ties with the People's Republic of China (PRC) immediately after severing diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC), as Taiwan is officially known. The question that is now being insistently, even fastidiously, asked is which state will be the next to switch from Taiwan to China?

Some analysts have envisioned a possible diplomatic chain reaction, prompted by Panama's crossing of the Taiwan Strait. According to this domino-effect scenario, after Panama's departure a good number of the 20 allies the ROC is left with (mostly small or minuscule developing states) would be convinced of the inevitability of changing over to China. Thus, they would abandon ship en masse within months.

Such a 'great escape' scenario is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons, its plausibility notwithstanding. First of all, Panama is a case in its own right. The Panama Canal bestows on the Central American state an importance and geopolitical weight transcending its actual size. Beijing can thus be expected to give special attention to Panama, even after the fanfare marking the establishment of relations subsides. By contrast, the other countries recognising Taiwan are not graced with a similarly strategic global trade artery. Nonetheless, in Taipei they are treated like diplomatic aristocracy. For them, Taiwan is a generous aid provider and attentive development partner, which is presumably going to try even harder to keep them from leaving the fold. The fewer allies Taiwan has, the more aid it can allocate to each.

Chinese investment in Panama has also increased sharply in the recent years, and Beijing's ships are the second-most frequent users of the Canal. This represented a strong incentive for Panama, which was reportedly long-ready to take the jump. By contrast, the circumstances of several microstates siding with Taiwan are markedly dissimilar. Their geopolitical and economic marginality makes them relatively indifferent to China's power and sufficiently content with the assistance that Taipei provides in exchange for recognition. Furthermore, the risk of finding themselves third-tier partners and 'diplomatic plebeians' soon after changing recognition to Beijing is substantial. Finally, letting China in could have destabilising consequences, such as increased pressure for Chinese immigration, economic colonialism and resource predation. Tellingly, back in 2010, when asked why his country should stick with the small fish (Taiwan) instead of going for the big one (China), Palau's House Speaker Noah Idechong suggested the big fish 'could sink' Palau's boat.

In addition, while Beijing is confident it can swiftly lure any diplomatic ally away from Taiwan through the promise of aid, loans or trade deals, it might not be anxious to cause an exodus of ambassadors from the other side. China's primary intent is putting heavy pressure and inflicting serious political damage on Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen for her continuing refusal to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, a political formula postulating the existence of only one China, inclusive of the Mainland and Taiwan, with different interpretations. This purpose would be better served by plucking off Taiwan's allies one by one, and using the remaining ones as bargaining chips – a slow 'death by 20 cuts' and international asphyxiation, unless Tsai chooses her predecessor's path and accepts the Consensus.

In fact, there appears to be method and rhythm in China's punitiveness. After Panama's cross-Strait relocation, a pattern can be identified by which on the eve of each round of state visits by Tsai to diplomatic allies in a particular region, Beijing effects the defection of one of Taiwan's friends in another area, and immediately establishes ties with the breakaway country. It occurred in December 2016, when tiny São Tomé and Principe broke ranks and recognised China less than one month before Tsai Ing-wen's second tour of Latin America, and in the aftermath of the famous telephone conversation between Tsai and US President Donald Trump. It has happened again this month, with Panama bidding adiós a few weeks away from Tsai's announced visit to diplomatic allies in the South Pacific.

So, contrary to the opinion of Jorge Guajardo, the former Mexican ambassador to China, there will probably not be a 'cascade' of countries flowing from Taipei to Beijing any time soon. Nonetheless, the question remains on the table – who's next after Panama? In terms of likelihood, another Central American state such as Nicaragua, where China's economic leverage and influence are strong, or Caribbean countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which already have trade representative offices in Beijing and are keenly eyeing Chinese investments.

Guajardo also pointed out that 'the big catch for Beijing would be the Vatican'. For China, repairing relations with the Vatican would undoubtedly be a resounding success delivering a severe diplomatic blow to Taiwan.

The Holy See, the supreme government of the Catholic Church with territorial residence in the Vatican City State, is the only European sovereign entity with diplomatic ties to the ROC. Holy See-ROC relations have been ongoing since 1942. However, recent developments in Vatican Sinopolitik could be read as signs that, for the Seat of Peter, Beijing might be 'well worth a mass'. Even though the two sides have strong incentives for normalising relations, such a historic achievement remained elusive until 2014, when Pope Francis inaugurated an unprecedented charm offensive toward China with the aim of setting the relationship with the Asian giant on a rapprochement course. As noted by Wang Yu-yuan, a former ROC ambassador to the Vatican, relations between the Apostolic See and the China 'have never been better as now'. As a result, discussion of the issue is increasingly tempered with anxiety in Taiwan. Catholics all over the world are also closely watching. While the dialogue is said to be about the appointment of bishops, it might ultimately precipitate diplomatic change. Is the relocation of the Apostolic nunciature to China to Beijing imminent? Is Taiwan ineluctably bound to lose its key Roman ally in the near future?

Not really. The Holy See, and relations with it, are unlike those with other sovereign polities, which are often influenced by realpolitik, geostrategic or trade considerations. The Apostolic Palace is not interested in receiving foreign aid or signing trade agreements, but in securing religious freedom for the Catholic flock and upholding human rights. This can play in Taiwan's favour when it comes to preserving its formal relations with the Holy See. Beijing demands that the Vatican conforms to the One-China policy by severing its diplomatic ties with Taiwan as a precondition for normalising relations. Yet, as long as there is no actual religious freedom for the Catholic Church in China, the Holy See will remain very reluctant to change recognition to the Mainland. Therein lie Taipei's hopes for maintaining its important ally.

Ending diplomatic ties with Taiwan before having secured religious freedom for the Church in China would leave the Holy See in a substantially weaker position. In particular, the Vatican could not continue to offer the severing of relations with Taipei as a bartering tool for the improvement of the condition of Chinese Catholics. Moreover, in the interval between the denouement of diplomatic relations with Taiwan and the exchange of ambassadors with Beijing, the Apostolic See would remain without any nunciature on Chinese (China and Taiwan) soil. This is a scenario that the Holy See cannot even contemplate, especially because negotiations with China might drag on (with few results) for years.

Holy See diplomacy is historically characterised by prudence and patience. The Vatican has most likely given due consideration to the possibility that Beijing might be showing 'flexibility' for the purpose of ensnaring the Holy See into breaking diplomatic ties with the ROC. Once that's accomplished, there is no further Vatican leverage in the talks and no further incentive for said flexibility. The Chinese will pocket the winnings and walk away from the table. The fact that, in 2016, the Apostolic nunciature in Taipei moved to the new elegant quarters it had commissioned to build may speak volumes about Vatican unrivalled perspicacity and assuage the concerns of the Taiwanese. Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin's assessment that normalising relations between the Vatican and Beijing 'is not easy' and 'needs a lot of patience and perseverance' (given at the January 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos) should be of further reassurance to Taipei. The Holy See will not be the next to walk across the Taiwan Strait. Probably, it will be the last to go.

Why altruism is risky in China

Several days ago some very upsetting footage surfaced online of a woman being hit by car in the central Chinese province of Henan. She was ignored by passers-by as she lay injured on the road, and then hit again, this time fatally. The incident - not the first of its kind - has caused a resurgence in the heated debate about values among Chinese people.

The social media reaction has been for the most part angry and upset about the indifference shown to the accident victim by passers-by. Some netizens asked what was wrong with Chinese society. Others, however, raised the issue of ‘scammers’ who fake injury to get compensation.

This morality debate is not new. In 2011, for example, a video was released that showed a two-year old girl, Wang Yue (who came to be known as Little Yue), being hit by a van, and lying injured on the ground. The driver pauses, but does not get out. In a moment he drives on, the rear wheels of the van running over the child. He drives away. The video shows passers-by who first look at the child lying, crying, on the road, and then, giving her a wide berth, walk on. Finally, after seven minutes, a woman stops and takes Little Yue to hospital. The child died from her injuries. The incident, like the more recent event in Henan, triggered soul-searching, shame, and anger among many Chinese.

What these tragic events reflect about Chinese society is not as straightforward as an inhuman lack of empathy or compassion. Rather, they demonstrate a very unfortunate combination of a system of moral obligation in which loyalty is due only to the ‘in-group’ of those closest to you, and a fundamental lack of trust. The result is that altruism has become risky.

The lack of trust has a very real basis. Faking injury for compensation is rare but the existence of even a few cases has had considerable negative impacts on trust, compassion, and moral obligation, as Yan Yunxiang elaborates in his book. While the majority of Weibo users criticised the indifferent bystanders, there is also a small portion of netizens who expressed their worries about "碰瓷" (pèng cí). The phrase 'pèng cí' directly translates as 'touch porcelain' and comes from the antique industry. It originally referred to a practice of some shop-owners who deliberately put porcelain products in the middle of the passageway so that when customers passed, they might accidentally break the goods and the sellers could then claim compensation. In recent years, 'pèng cí' is now commonly used to refer to scammers who fake injury in traffic accidents to get compensation.  

Most Chinese people I have spoken to about the matter cite ‘the Nanjing ruling’ of 2006 in which a passer-by stopped to help an injured person, who then accused the passer-by of causing the accident. When taken to court in Nanjing, the judge is famously said to have ruled in favour of the plaintiff, saying that if the passer-by had not been guilty, he would not have stopped to help. The judge then ordered the plaintiff to pay all costs of the injury and the court case (although these costs were later reduced). In another incident in 2011, an elderly man slipped and died from an easily preventable cause, and when the event was first reported on the internet, 29,892 users of wrote comments in which almost all said they understood why the onlookers did not help the man, and many admitted that they would have done the same if they were there. Not long after the death of Wang Yue in 2011, pictures of a young girl holding an umbrella over a beggar in a rainstorm were released on the internet. Public discussion included accusations that the girl and the photographer deliberately staged the event for personal status.

Then there is the nature of moral obligation in Chinese society. Rather than being horizontal, where an individual’s obligation to all other members of society is (at least theoretically) equal, in China it follows a pattern of concentric circles, with the self in the centre. The idea that an individual’s moral obligation does not extend equally to all members of society is explored by Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong. In his classic text From the Soil, Fei argues that in the 'Chinese system of morality, there is no concept of "love" such as that exists in Christianity – universal love without distinctions', and therefore 'obligation is also differentiated. Fei observes that the path of obligation 'runs from the self to the family, from the family to the state'. Anybody external to an individual’s in-group is considered a stranger, and the behavioural norms and moral values that apply to the in-group are not relevant.

The combination of these two factors is disturbingly influential. After several years of living in Beijing, I found myself in a situation where my reaction shocked me. I was crossing a busy two-lane street, and on the other side an elderly man and woman were arm-in-arm, helping each other to take the step over the gutter and venture onto the street during a gap in the traffic. They made slow progress and, before too long, the woman fell onto the road. Her companion tried to help her up but was not strong enough. Cars were coming around the corner. My first reaction was to run over and help, but I paused, and without consciously realising what I was doing, checked to see if there were witnesses around in case I was accused of causing an accident. It was only a brief moment, but I was amazed at the extent to which I had unwittingly internalised the norms of differentiated obligation and lack of trust.

Morals and values, however, are not fixed. The moral landscape in China, as anywhere, is constantly in flux. What people believe to be acceptable moral behaviour depends on circumstances - what terrorism has done to our concepts of privacy may be one example of moral shift in Western countries. In China, there has been a recent increase in charitable donations and volunteerism, which even five years ago were rare. Where volunteerism did exist, it was often seen as a tool for improving one’s social credibility - it looked good on a CV. This seems to be changing.

Many educated urban Chinese people have said to me that they feel that Chinese society has lost its sense of moral direction. The Chinese Communist Party has tried to fill that void by extending what Fei Xiaotong noted in 1947 as the natural loyalty to the country to include the Party-state. It has, if unevenly and evidently without full consensus among elites, reinserted Confucianism (not considered a religion), after decades of it being anathema to the Party. The placement and then removal of a huge statue of Confucius in Tiananmen Square in 2011 illustrates this point. Many young people now talk about Confucianism being at the heart of Chinese values. Religion, however, remains very much frowned upon as a potential threat to the Party’s control over public narratives of morality and obligation.

It remains to be seen where the moral landscape in China might go from here. I certainly hope the direction it takes in the future involves far fewer of these kinds of incidents. Ideally none.

Thanks to Zixin Wang, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program, for research assistance with this post.

‘Maphilindo’ cooperation on the Marawi siege

On Monday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano announced that Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi is planning a trilateral conference with the Philippines and Malaysia to discuss the situation in Marawi City. Several Malaysian and Indonesian terrorists have been killed in the ongoing Marawi City siege. Philippine insurgent and terrorist groups in Mindanao have long provided safe haven to Malaysian and Indonesian terrorists on the lam.

This offer from Indonesia is just the latest example of cooperation between these three Celebes Sea neighbours in relation to the Moro Islamic insurgency in Mindanao. Indonesia was the third-party mediator for the peace talks that led to the 1996 agreement between the Moro National Liberation Front and the Government of the Philippines, while Malaysia was the third-party mediator for the peace talks that led to the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the same parties.

Next week, these three countries are to start regular joint patrols in the Sulu and Celebes Sea to counter a spate of kidnappings by Philippine terrorist groups of Malaysian and Indonesian vessels in the Sulu Sea and the largely unrestricted transit of terrorists between the three countries. The Philippine Department of National Defense estimates that up to 40 foreign terrorists have used the Sulu Sea as their pathway to join the Marawi City siege.

These joint patrols, first agreed to last April, could significantly reduce the maritime surveillance shortcomings of the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard in the Sulu Sea (especially if they include President Rodrigo Duterte's suggestion that the right of hot pursuit into territorial waters is incorporated into them). This should help counter piracy from Mindanao and the free flow of terrorists across the Sulu Sea to the benefit of all three countries. These joint patrols also signify a sage decision by Malaysia and the Philippines to not let their long-standing territorial dispute over Sabah preclude much-needed counter-terrorism and counter-piracy cooperation. Other East Asian countries with territorial and maritime rights disputes have shown much less strategic maturity.

Four Corners sees the Party-state in all the shadows

Last night ABC TV aired a Four Corners/Fairfax Media investigation into China’s power and influence in Australia that promised to uncover 'how China's Communist Party is secretly infiltrating Australia'. The program traced the stories of various individuals and their ties to China and concluded we must all be more careful of 'covert Chinese actions taking place on Australian soil'. However the investigation did not convincingly demonstrate that the Chinese Party-state is orchestrating a coherent, strategic effort to infiltrate and influence Australian policy.
To recap, the program examined a number of cases. For example, we heard the story of Tony Chang, a Chinese student in Brisbane whose parents back in China had been ‘taken to tea’ and warned that Tony should end his public pro-democracy activities in Australia. We met Lu Lipin, President of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of Canberra, who said the Chinese embassy provided supplies (and legal advice in case of conflicts with the police) for rallies such as when Premier Li Keqiang visited Australia. Ms Lu said that she would feel a responsibility to report any Chinese students organising, for example, a human rights demonstration, 'to keep all the students safe, and for China as well'. We were told the stories of billionaires Dr Chau Chak-wing and Mr Huang Xiangmo, the large sums they had donated to Australian political parties and other organisations, and their high-level Party connections. We heard Mr Huang say it was important for overseas Chinese to support policies that were favourable to China. Mr Huang also asked Labor Senator Sam Dastyari for help with his Australian citizenship application. We heard that Sheri Yan was jailed for corruption - bribing a UN official - and her husband Roger Uren is under investigation for allegedly stealing classified government documents.
These stories, the investigation concluded, demonstrate that China is trying to silence opposition and dissent in Australia, that China is interfering in Australian sovereignty, and that China is trying to change the Australian policy discourse.
What the program perhaps did not have the time or scope to explore was the important fact that the Chinese Party-state is not a single, monolithic, coherent puppet-master. Further, Chinese people - even those with Party connections - are not simply tools of this putative communist behemoth. It is beyond the scope of this post to counter every claim in the Four Corners program, but I would like to sketch out some of the oversights and misperceptions to illustrate the broader point.
It is certainly true that the Chinese government does not like its citizens overseas speaking out against it. Many Chinese individuals, including some with no formal Party connections, also disapprove of such public dissent. This is founded on the combination of two factors: firstly, the implicit social contract in China, which holds that the Chinese public agrees to avoid involvement in politics in exchange for an improved standard of living, and a restoration of their sense of national pride. The second aspect is the broadly shared understanding that once one is Chinese, one is always Chinese. One cannot ever become un-Chinese. Likewise, no non-Chinese can ever really become Chinese. Chinese-ness is viewed as innate, essential, and eternal. And being Chinese means loving China like one would love one’s own father, and not, especially not in public, engaging in criticism despite being very aware of flaws and imperfections. Therefore, the rules that govern acceptable behaviour at home, namely, 'Don’t get involved in political criticism or agitation', apply equally - if not more so - abroad.

It's important to examine Lu Lipin’s views through this prism. Her actions reflect the genuine beliefs of someone who has grown up in the patriotic education campaign of post-1989 China. These beliefs may seem unpalatable to those of us who have grown up in an environment where political engagement is seen as a fundamental right, and one’s freedom to critique and agitate is considered a cornerstone of a free society. However, to most Chinese, this is not how things work, and most Chinese accept that. One could argue that when Chinese are studying and living in this country, they should be aware of and respect our society's tolerance and support political engagement. But even if one accepts that position, it's still a big leap to point to the actions of some Chinese students who are acting as if they were still in China and present this as proof of a concerted and co-ordinated effort by the Party-state to secretly inflitrate Australia.
It is also true that Chinese billionaires like to throw money around, including at Australian politicians. And chances are, many of these billionaires are Party members. In China, that’s how you get ahead. Does this mean these individuals are Communist Party stooges? Perhaps, but not necessarily. As former Ambassador Geoff Raby pointed out in the program, it is fairly standard practice for wealthy Chinese people to use their money for building connections and prestige. In China, the enormously complicated system of networks, obligations and reciprocity is known as guanxi. See this excellent book by Mayfair Yang for an explanation of how guanxi works. Here in Australia, a lot of what goes on as part of guanxi would be considered corruption. Indeed, in President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown, a lot of what has been going on as guanxi is now being (selectively) relabeled as corruption. When I was teaching at a Chinese university at Beijing, I was offered gifts and money in red envelopes by students’ parents at exam time to help me in my grading efforts (and no, I didn’t).
Gift giving with an expectation of some kind of reciprocation is, or at least has been, more or less standard practice in China. It does not automatically follow that the reciprocation expected when political donations are made in Australia is a change in the direction of Australia’s foreign policy. Mr Huang did indeed rescind his offer to donate $400,000 to the ALP after Stephen Conroy said Labor would take a tougher stand on the South China Sea. Did he do that because the Party told him to? Or could it also be because Huang’s own beliefs are in line with the official Chinese position, and he decided not to give his money to an organisation that opposed his beliefs? In general, given the way networks and contacts work in China, Party connections are not necessarily a cause for alarm. However Mr Huang’s high-level connection with the Australian Council for the Peaceful Reunification of China, and his remarks about Chinese politicians in Australia supporting Chinese policy, are worth further exploration.
The observation made in the program that it is unclear where these billionaires got their money, and the implication that they are state-sponsored, also demonstrates a lack of understanding of how China works. Mr Huang was noted to be a rural real estate developer. He is now very rich. The rest is murky. Chances are his wealth is not because of Party sponsorship.
The program was right to alert us to the potential risks of international political donations being tied to expectations of influence. But it did not make any clear links between the actions of the Chinese featured in the program and policy change or influence in Australia. It is the responsibility of the defence and intelligence community to be aware of potential overseas influence in Australia’s politics. It is the responsibility of Australian politicians to be ethical and transparent, and not naive about where their money comes from and what is expected in return. But it is the responsibility of us all to be well-informed, and realistic and moderate about the conclusions we reach.