China and the Difficulties of Dissent (University of Queensland)

Lessons and implications for Canada, particularly universities and academics:

…The University Takes Sides

Following a successful social media campaign, these confrontations caught the attention of local and internationalmedia, and the pro-Hong Kong camp decided to protest again. Amid Facebook and Twitter wars freely available to the reader (particularly UQ Stalkerspace), it became clear that Chinese nationalists were making threats of violence against pro-Hong Kong protestors. Even the Chinese consulate in Brisbane got involved, sending a message of support to “patriotic” Chinese protestors, a clear indication of how Beijing likes to deploy its “soft” power.

Quite rightly, the University of Queensland decided to act. Unfortunately, UQ shares a great deal of commercialised intellectual property with fascist China. It has even promoted a Chinese diplomatic representative to the post of adjunct professor without advertising the fact. It was therefore not entirely surprising that, when the university did finally act, it was against free speech.

First, they attempted to shut down future protests by threatening the enrolment of the protest’s student leaders. The pro-Hong Kong students would be “held responsible” for any violence in a future protest and potentially expelled. In effect, Chinese nationalists were handed a “heckler’s veto”—they were free to cause disruption, secure in the knowledge that the university would silence the speakers, not those disrupting them. The university said it was acting in the interests of safety. Fortunately, the protestors refused to be intimidated, and plans went forward for the protest.

In a final gambit, the University of Queensland decided it would allow the protest but wanted it moved, away from everyone else and away from the plaque commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which is where it was due to be staged. Again, the protestors refused to back down and the protest went ahead. By now, the issue had become wider than Hong Kong.

The Fragility of Collective Action

The media attention generated by the first two groups of students and their allies caused other dissidents to emerge from the shadows. Free speech advocates, Taiwanese, Uighurs, Falun Dafa practitioners, and Tibetans came out in support of the Hong Kongers and their protest, and soon formed a tiny but determined coalition. Their enemy, however, had changed.

Originally, the enemy had been the Confucius Institute on campus and the extradition bill in Hong Kong; now, it was now the University of Queensland, the Confucius Institute and its propaganda, the lack of transparency regarding Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence, Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj, and the Chinese nationalists on campus. By the time the protestors gathered a second time, they had various speakers arranged from China’s persecuted minorities, Australia’s own left-wing political parties, and a woman from Hong Kong. As if that wasn’t broad enough, the Taiwanese (ROC) flag was hung above a nearby building, emphasising the common struggle of those threatened by the CCP.

Chants were directed against the oppression of the Uighurs, Tibetans, Hong Kong, and Falun Dafa. Former Greens senator Andrew Bartlett said in his speech that these events should be understood in the broader context of Chinese influence, UQ and freedom of speech, digital surveillance, and colonialism. There were land acknowledgements to the Aboriginal people of Australia, who were neither present nor lending any support to the protest. There were party policies on free speech read aloud to little fanfare or resonance. And there was a speech on the executions and organ harvesting of Falun Dafa practitioners which (if I read the mood correctly) was treated with incredulity and disbelief.

China’s government teaches its people that all dissent against its policies is ultimately directed towards the breakup of the country, and the protest served that narrative perfectly. Protestors really did shift from “close the Confucius Institute” and “withdraw the Hong Kong extradition bill” to “free Hong Kong, free Xinjiang, free Tibet, free Taiwan, free Falun Dafa” in a single move. I agree with all of those aims, but that is exactly why the Chinese nationalists on campus are hypersensitive to any protest movement, to any sense of dissent, to anyone who dares delegitimise the CCP, to anyone who opposes the dictatorship.

In such circumstances, even more moderate Chinese nationalists, who may not be enamoured by many of China’s internal policies, will line up to defend the regime. The status quo seems much more attractive to the average Chinese person than the anarchy they (falsely) think is demanded by liberalisation protest movements. Collective action is fragile and vulnerable to fragmentation, and leftwing protestors who had initially shown solidarity with Hong Kong broke away. UQ’s Socialist Alternative student group refused to back the protest, fearing that somehow it would be hijacked by racists, a fear which proved unfounded.

The Protestors Lose Control of the Narrative

As protestors gathered for the second protest, I saw two curious and unrelated things which I suspected would become related and consequential. First, I watched a man with a deliberately insulting, profane, homophobic sign directed at China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, being led away by police. Second, I watched a Caucasian reporter conduct interviews which appeared to be aimed at creating a pro-China angle.

The interviewer was a left-wing, pro-communist journalist eager to conflate protests against China’s government with racism, and to ignore the depredations of Chinese fascism. The protest, he reported, was “ugly,” and the presence of a former Greens senator was a “cynical effort to put on a more favourable face” on Australian racism. When the protestor with the profane sign was arrested, no one from the protest movement followed him, supported him, or attempted to interfere with his arrest. Indeed, when someone pointed out the arrest taking place, two of the protest organisers urged people to “ignore him” and reiterated “he’s not with us.” However, because the arrest was the only piece of action that day, a media scrum ensued and the headlines followed.

The pro-China Left had a field day, and used that protestor to tarnish everyone else as racists and homophobes, and, naturally, fascists. The Tibetans and Greens in attendance had been duped and used, the argument went. This was all dismayingly predictable. No matter how often the speakers reiterated their commitment to universal human rights and their opposition to the CCP not the Chinese people, their reassurances only succeeded in making them sound defensive. The pro-Hong Kong protestors had been drawn into a bitter squabble with the leftists who ought to have been their allies against Chinese fascism. Their battle has been lost.

A similar argument now prevails in academia, where scholars cannot shake the reputation of being “anti-Chinese” or racist simply for criticising China’s rather open attempts to influence Australian politics. Their battle is probably also lost.

The Danger is Real

Interestingly, and contrary to expectations, the pro-Beijing counter-protestors and most of the Hong Kongers decided to stay away from the second protest. This was not providence—at least, not in every case. Several Hong Kongers were told by family or friends not to attend. Several people reported visitations by the local branch of China’s party representatives. These representatives are either Australian residents or Chinese students who act as informants and messengers for the regime. The message from the Chinese government seemed to be that it was best to stay away entirely, rather than create more publicity in defence of the regime. The absence of the counter-protestors was, in its own way, a fascinating look into Beijing’s ability to discipline its own people in other countries.

Of course, this isn’t new or surprising. Chinese students have been known to report anti-Beijing activists directly to their embassy, and there have been concerns about China’s leverage of its students here for a long time. China’s diplomats in Australia have even been recorded explaining to a Chinese-Australian audience in great detail how “they are at war” and their job as soldiers for China is to influence the Australian political system. The danger is real. Given that China is a country that arrests you if you want to vote, unionise, or criticise the Party, it would be rather surprising if there were no risk involved in allowing China unfettered access to our politicians, academics, infrastructure, and markets.

Source: China and the Difficulties of Dissent

Open letter from Chinese-Canadian groups boosts Hong Kong government, blasts protesters

Expect we will see more of these debates emerge, some legitimate, some bots, some home-grown, some planted:

As protesters in Hong Kong continue to rally against Beijing’s tightening grip on the city, dozens of Chinese-Canadian groups have delivered a different message, voicing support for the enclave’s China-backed government and singling out violent “extremists” among the demonstrators.

The open letter published recently in Vancouver and Toronto Chinese-language newspapers is raising questions about who was behind the statement, with some fingers pointing at the Chinese government and its influence machine.

The authors of the message deny any outside involvement.

The advertisement, signed by over 200 organizations across the country, complained about radicals causing violence, defended China’s “inalienable” right to control Hong Kong, and appealed to Chinese Canadians’ ethnic identity.

“We support the rule of law and stability in Hong Kong, oppose the violent acts of a small number of extremists, oppose any Hong Kong independence movement … and support the Hong Kong government maintaining law and order,” the letter in Ming Pao newspaper said. “Hong Kong is China’s inalienable sovereign territory; Hong Kong’s affairs are China’s internal affairs; and we oppose any foreign interference.”

The ad marks a contrast to what happened on the streets of Hong Kong itself, where hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against a law that would have allowed extradition of alleged criminals to mainland China. Critics feared the legislation could be used to dispatch enemies of Beijing to a legal system controlled by the Communist Party. Some observers view the mass protests also as a general pushback against China’s growing control of the city since the U.K. gave up control of it in 1997.

The movement shows little sign of ending soon. Even as Carry Lam, the Beijing-backed chief executive of the Hong Kong government, announced Tuesday the extradition law is now is dead and work on it was a “total failure,” critics expressed skepticism about the government’s intentions.

Why would groups purporting to represent the Chinese diaspora in democratic Canada take sides against such demonstrators?

Many of those signatories are shell groups beholden to Beijing, and the message was likely dictated by China’s representatives here, charges Cheuk Kwan of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China.

“These are basically fake organizations … They are what I call the mouthpieces of the Chinese consulate,” he said. “This is a very clearly United Front effort by the Chinese government … If it’s not instituted directly, then indirectly.”

Kwan was referring to the United Front Work Department, the Chinese Communist Party offshoot that works to influence ethnic Chinese and political and economic elites in other countries. Its role has expanded greatly under current Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Still, he admitted that Chinese Canadians are divided on the Hong Kong protests, with some supporting the demonstrators, and others wishing for a return to civil order.

Fenella Sung, spokesman for Vancouver’s Friends of Hong Kong, agreed that the “linguistic craftiness” of the letter seems typical of the United Front. She pointed especially to its appeal to ethnic nationalism, with statements that Chinese Canadians are “all sons of China and members of the Chinese people,” and “blood is thicker than water.”

There is “not a word about being Canadians, as if they have nothing to do with Canada,” said Sung. “The text of the ad could be used anywhere in the world.”

She also said it blatantly distorted the facts, suggesting protesters caused scores of injuries one day early in the event, when independent human rights groups blamed police action.

Yu Zhuowen of the Chinese Freemasons group in Toronto and one of the organizers of the statement, denied any government was involved, calling the letter a heartfelt appeal to restore peace in Hong Kong, his own hometown.

Yu said protesters misunderstand the extradition legislation — which he argued would protect the city from mainland-based criminals — and faced the same kind of police response they would have in Canada.

“We don’t want to see Hong Kong like this. I have my family in Hong Kong, too, I don’t want them to get hurt,” he said about the demonstrations. “In Canada or America, when the protesters come out, the police get them away right away, they use a lot of violence, too.”