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Photo: Lotus pond at Qinghua (Tsinghua) University, by Jim Gourley

Lotus pond at Qinghua (Tsinghua) University

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“Tsinghua’s Pond Too Shallow for Real Fish”: Responses to Xu Zhangrun’s Suspension

At China Heritage, Geremie Barmé has translated a stream of responses to the recent suspension of Tsinghua law professor Xu Zhangrun from teaching and other duties. The move was an apparent punishment for Xu’s essays criticising moves toward “the comprehensive return of totalitarian politics” under Xi Jinping. Among the China Heritage posts is an open letter to Tsinghua president Qiu Yong, for which signatures will be collected until April 19:

Dear President Qiu,

Tsinghua University, one of the most highly ranked universities in the world, has suffered severe damage to its academic reputation as a consequence of the university’s punishment of Professor Xu Zhangrun.

As members of the international academic community, we urge the university to restore Professor Xu’s normal status in the university, including his teaching and research duties, and to refrain from any further sanctions against him. [Source]

An earlier petition to Qiu, now signed by more than 300 past or present Tsinghua staff or students and more than 500 others, was also translated at China Heritage. It reads, in part:

Your act is a blatant betrayal of Academic Independence, the spirit of which enlivens Tsinghua University’s scholastic traditions. Moreover, it is at odds with the university’s own motto of ‘Self-Discipline and Social Commitment’ 厚德載物, 自強不息. Your action has led a broad constituency of Tsinghua graduates, as well as the men and women of China’s intellectual and academic worlds, to resile in a mood of grievous concern and dejection. With this act you give us all just cause to be fearful for the academic and humanistic environment of China today. [Source]

Like numerous other pieces of sensitive content, this earlier letter is hosted on the U.S.-based codesharing site Github, whose economic value for now appears to offer some protection against censorship.

On Wednesday, Barmé posted a recording and transcript with translation of “There’s Just No Shutting You Up,” a Shaanbei folk-style protest song recorded for Xu by Peking University economist Zhang Weiying:

Flowers planted on flag stones can never strike root;
No matter your learning, who is even there to listen?

Tsinghua’s pond is far too shallow for real fish;
A most dread injustice, but who will hear the lament? [Source]

On Monday, Barmé posted a pair of essays by supporters, including Gu Wanming’s retort to a condemnation of Xu “published by some newspaper [Global Times] under the name ‘Shan Renping’ [Global Times editor Hu Xijin]”:

Tsinghua Professor Xu Zhangrun’s essay ‘Protect Reform and Openness’ published early last year [early 2018] was both extremely timely and relevant. It was a powerful rebuttal of the Extreme Leftist Thinking current at the time and a defense of Deng Xiaoping’s policies. I had a similar response upon reading Professor Xu’s subsequent essays and that’s why I couldn’t believe it when I heard the recent news that he had been suspended from teaching by Tsinghua University. How could such a thing happen to a senior professor who defended the policies of China’s Economic Reforms and Openness to the World? What’s happening: is Deng Xiaoping’s banner no longer to be held high?

[…] Professor Xu has had the courage to express views while others have been too cowed to speak out. Although what he talks about is protecting the policies of the last four decades, he is nonetheless being libeled and called ‘a radical anti-establishment figure’, one who has ‘purposefully used dangerous and extreme actions to damage the academic environment of Tsinghua University’. How is it that both Tsinghua and ‘Shan Renping’ have so easily forgotten that, at the Grand Ceremony held in the Great Hall of the People in late 2018, the Highest Leader himself revalidated the importance of raising high the banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory and the policies of Reform and Openness? [Source]

In another compilation of responses, Barmé included a concise three-point rebuttal of “Shan Renping’s” argument by “steely oppositionist” Zha Jianguo, whose activism was the focus of a recent New Yorker article by his sister Jianying Zha.

In his ‘Three Illiberal Principles’, Shan Renping declares that:

In China it is not permissible for critical works to contravene the Constitution or to direct negative comment at the basic political system of the People’s Republic.

China’s constitution is constantly evolving and this is reflected in the fact that major revisions were made to it in 1988, 1993, 1999 and 2018. In the 2018 revision alone, 28 changes were made to 20 articles while 5 entirely new articles were added to it. So let me ask you this, if all of these changes were made on the basis of there having been no critique or discussion of the original articles, how in heaven’s name were these revisions mooted and made? […] [Source]

Another post presented three poems by Tao Haisu with “a short introductory essay on protest and poetry in the People’s Republic”:

In short verse did Du Fu decry cruel officials,
While Letian’s ballad would chide an emperor.
If these, too, had been thus eradicated,
All down the ages would mourn the loss. [Source]

In another essay, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences diplomatic historian and translator Zi Zhongyun offered a lament for Tsinghua and its gradual transformation into “a place that ‘brings together the outstanding talents of the world only to ruin them.’”

It must have been two years ago that Professor Xu Zhangrun told me that one of the students in his lecture was behaving in such a peculiar manner that he decided to question them [the student’s gender is not specified. — trans]. Eventually, the student admitted that they were appointed to report on the content of Xu’s lectures. They also admitted that they were paid a monthly stipend for this ‘service’ and, on top of that, they were given an assurance that, if they continued to ‘contribute’ in this way for three years, they were assured of a place in a research program. The job even had a title: they call such lecture-hall snitches ‘Information Officers’. What amazed me in particular was the fact that this student didn’t think that their behaviour was shameful in any way; it was just a ‘work-while-you-study’ gig!

From then on I learned that this was far from being an isolated case: ‘normal course content’ at Tsinghua now seemed to include a requirement to report damning information about lecturers. […]

[…] Admittedly, many of the things that the present incumbents do is just about ‘carrying out orders’ from above so, in a sense, Tsinghua’s leaders are not solely responsible for what happens on the campus. But even such indulgent excuses as these are increasingly difficult for people to accept. Of course, it’s more often true than not that people wish to curry favour with their superiors or find ways to avoid taking responsibility for what is happening around them. Even in cases when passive resistance might work, they make no effort. Okay, you might ‘only be carrying out orders’, but surely you have a mind of your own, a sense of right and wrong; ultimately, you have the freedom to decide whether you could ‘aim your rifle one inch higher’. [A reference to a popular story circulating in China related to the trial of a soldier who was accused of murder following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The soldier said that he had shot people climbing the wall because he had been ordered to do so. The prosecuting lawyer asked: ‘Couldn’t you simply have aimed one inch higher?’, see also Guo Yuhua, ‘J’accuse, Tsinghua University’, China Heritage, 27 March 2019.] [Source]

Another translation comes from Central Party School researcher Wang Changjiang, “an important innovator involved in theoretical advances that have contributed to the Party’s claim that it has, can and should enjoy sustained political legitimacy in the People’s Republic.” Wang argues, in Barmé’s words, that “the mishandling of what could be termed ‘The Xu Zhangrun Incident’ […] does more than reflect badly on an international prestigious university like Tsinghua, it is symptomatic of a new wave of Party zealotry that threatens to undermine the hard-won political achievements of the one-party system over the past forty years.” (In his introduction, Barmé also highlights Xu’s own warning last July that “some university lecturers have been singled out and repeatedly punished for what they say. They now live in trepidation, ever fearful that Party ideological watchdogs or Student Spies will report them.”)

[… I]f, as it is being widely rumoured, things were indeed handled [in ‘The Xu Incident’] the way most people believe, the outcome is diametric opposed to what was hoped for. To wit: the Incident has undermined rather than enhanced the Party’s Leadership.

[…] Let me be brutally honest: if this situation does not change, I fear that sooner or later we really will fall into the ‘Tacitus Trap’ — the very thing that Party Central has declared to be one of the leading risk factors facing the Party and something to be avoided at all costs. [The ‘Tacitus Trap’ is a Chinese-manufactured tidbit of Western political wisdom summed up as follows: ‘Neither good nor bad policies can mollify the people if the government itself is unwelcome.’ […]]

I don’t want to be too critical of Tsinghua, after all it is also partly an alma mater of mine. But I do hope that, in dealing with this Incident, the leaders of Tsinghua University will show due regard for their university’s reputation, as well as for its future. They need to put far more thought into how they can meaningfully enhance the leadership of the Communist Party at Tsinghua.

So, I urge you: before taking any further action, just think about it, then pause and think some more and, when you believe that you have done enough thinking, Think Again! [Source]

In another translation, paired with an introductory essay on the dehumanizing Cultural Revolution epithet “Cow Demons and Snake Spirits,” Feng Ling argues for the total abolition of university teachers, given the failure of extensive technological, bureaucratic, and covert student surveillance to effectively rein them in.

Since today is the 1st of April, April Fool’s Day, some readers may be tempted to think the title of this essay is a joke. But, let me assure you: it’s not. Year in year out we are subjected to all kinds of humour — be it black, white, red or yellow — and every form of sarcasm, from the most biting to the casually sardonic, as well as the laid back and pseudo disinterested. But, today, we need to get serious and admit it’s high time that universities got rid of professors.

[…] It’s glaringly obvious from all of this that university professors are simply relatively low-quality people. As a group they are not deserving of our trust because [by employing all of the above methods of control and surveillance] we are tacitly admitting that they are simply incapable of doing their assigned jobs in an adequate and unsupervised manner. Furthermore, that’s exactly why, I believe, that it is wrong-headed to allow a group of people who under constant surveillance the privilege of educated the young men and women of China, the very future of our Fatherland! The present system has got everything back to front. [Source]

One essay in China Heritage’s series on Xu’s case has now been removed at its original author’s request, with its original introduction and a single now-anonymous paragraph left intact.

As several of Barmé’s translations and introductions note, Xu’s is far from an isolated case. South China Morning Post’s Echo Hui reported this week that CASS scholar Yu Jianrong has been suspended from Weibo for 90 days, despite having reportedly avoided political content for the past two years in favor of posting about art. At the end of March, Radio Free Asia reported that Chongqing Normal University’s Tang Yun had been “stripped of his rank and teaching credentials after he made ‘comments injurious to the country’s reputation'” during a class on the writer Lu Xun. Also last month, SupChina’s Eddie Park reported that Tsinghua associate professor Lü Jia was under investigation by university authorities following complaints about his intepretation of Marxism by “patriotic students,” who echoed the “cow demons and snake spirits” rhetoric noted above. In a ChinaFile Conversation on Xu’s suspension, Yale Law School’s Taisu Zhang emphasized the breadth of the ongoing “assault on academic autonomy,” which combines punitive “sticks” with the “carrots” of grants and other incentives. (Donald Clarke, David Yeliang Xia, Sarah Biddulph, Teng Biao, Jerome Cohen, Margaret Lewis, and Orville Schell also contributed to the discussion.)

While it might be tempting to interpret Xu Zhangrun’s suspension and potential firing as part of an anti-liberal crackdown, that assessment grossly understates the extent of the problem. Foreign media reports may tend to focus more attention on liberal-leaning scholars, but the recent escalation in political control of the academy spans the entire ideological spectrum and affects nearly all social scientists and humanities scholars working on the mainland. Over the past several months, a number of prominent leftist scholars (the Chinese “right” is liberal-leaning, whereas the “left” is often more conservative and pro-government), including Feng Xiang, Xu’s Tsinghua Law School colleague, have also had their writing banned due to politically sensitive content, ranging from specific hot-button issues like worker compensation to general theoretical debates on the nature of socialism or nationalism. The chill’s reach is universal.

[…] The stick draws most of the criticism, perhaps justifiably, but the long-term erosion caused by the carrot is at least as dangerous: negative restrictions can be imposed or lifted at relatively short notice, but if academics begin to lose their sense of positive autonomy and purpose—of what truly and genuinely interests them as scholars—then the current miasma may very well become permanent. [Source]

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As BRI Concerns Grow, a Checklist to Assess Risk

Xi Jinping’s massively ambitious infrastructure investment plan, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has long been controversial, raising concerns over for its potential to create debt traps, erode national sovereignty, exacerbate local security risks and human rights abuses, or otherwise unequally benefit Beijing. Last month, Italy became the first G7 nation to formally endorse the initiative, a move that prompted quick protest from the E.U. and the U.S. As controversy continues to mount around the plan and Beijing prepares to host its second Belt and Road Forum later this month, the Center for a New American Security has released a report including a checklist to use in assessing the associated risks of a BRI-related project. The report’s executive summary outlines the seven potential challenges that should be considered by a recipient state before signing on to a BRI project:

  1. Erosion of national sovereignty: Beijing has obtained control over select infrastructure projects through equity arrangements, long-term leases, or multi-decade operating contracts.

  2. Lack of transparency: Many projects feature opaque bidding processes for contracts and financial terms that are not subject to public scrutiny.

  3. Unsustainable financial burdens: Chinese lending to some countries has increased their risk of debt default or repayment difficulties, while certain completed projects have not generated sufficient revenue to justify the cost.

  4. Disengagement from local economic needs: Belt and Road projects often involve the use of Chinese firms and labor for construction, which does little to transfer skills to local workers, and sometimes involve inequitable profit-sharing arrangements.

  5. Geopolitical risks: Some infrastructure projects financed, built, or operated by China can compromise the recipient state’s telecommunications infrastructure or place the country at the center of strategic competition between Beijing and other great powers.

  6. Negative environmental impacts: Belt and Road projects in some instances have proceeded without adequate environmental assessments or have caused severe environmental damage.

  7. Significant potential for corruption: In countries that already have a high level of kleptocracy, Belt and Road projects have involved payoffs to politicians and bureaucrats. […] [Source]

Covering the CNAS report, Bloomberg News notes one particularly problematic case study it analyzed:

The analysts reviewed 10 Chinese infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative across Asia, Middle East, Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Pacific islands to generate the list of challenges and the respective challenges.

As an example, Kyaukpyu Port in Myanmar is presented as a nexus of all seven problems, with a contract locking in operating rights for the port to a Chinese firm for 50 years. The deal was sealed at the last minute without public debate and granted China direct access to the Indian Ocean, according to the report.

China is aware of such challenges and criticism. The government is drafting criteria for overseas investments to be considered part of President Xi Jinping’s signature program as it works to counter the international criticism, Bloomberg reported. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence warned Asia-Pacific countries in November against taking China’s money, adding that the U.S. wouldn’t “offer a constricting belt or a one-way road.” [Source]

See also a Bloomberg TV interview with report author Daniel Kliman on the criteria leaders should be examining before entering into a BRI contract.

The Hindustan Times reports on a new line of BRI criticism coming from the U.S., where Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson this week told members of the House Armed Services Committee that “China’s Belt and Road Initiative in particular is blending diplomatic, economic, military, and social elements of its national power in an attempt to create its own globally decisive naval force”:

“China’s modus operandi preys off nations’ financial vulnerabilities. They contract to build commercial ports, promise to upgrade domestic facilities, and invest in national infrastructure projects,” he said.

[…] “In the final analysis, these unfavourable deals strangle a nation’s sovereignty -like an Anaconda enwrapping its next meal. Scenes like this are expanding westward from China through Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Djibouti and now to our NATO treaty allies, Greece and Italy,” he told members of the House Armed Services Committee.

[…] China and Russia are determined to replace the current free and open world order with an insular system, Richardson asserted.

“They are attempting to impose unilateral rules, re-draw territorial boundaries, and redefine exclusive economic zones so they can regulate who comes and who goes, who sails through and who sails around. [Source]

At Foreign Policy, Andreea Brinza looks at China’s “16+1” mechanism in Central and Eastern Europe, noting the lingering frustration that resulted from Beijing’s poor communication, undelivered promises, and suspicions of a veiled bid for political influence. Brinza analyzes the 16+1 experience wondering if it could be used to predict the future of the BRI. In a :

[…S]even years in, as participants gather for the annual 16+1 summit in Croatia, those hopes are already faded. China failed to make its intentions clear, failed to deliver on many of its promises, and failed to offer the assurances its partners needed. In turn, the European Union—which includes 11 out of the 16 countries involved—has increasingly criticized China’s role on the continent. The failure of the 16+1 may offer a vision of the future of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s grand geopolitical plan.

The EU saw the 16+1 format as an attempt by China to divide the union by offering investments to less-developed EU members in exchange for political influence. The launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 and the subsequent wave of publicity, as the program came to dominate both Chinese media and global worries about Beijing’s rise, added to these tensions. The EU started to feel under siege.

China’s intentions may have been good, but Beijing failed to communicate them clearly, leading to EU opposition toward the 16+1. China’s choice was a manifestation of its penchant for regional diplomacy, typified by other forums such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation or the Forum of China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

But China failed to articulate a clear vision on the nature of the 16+1 (whether it was just a grouping or an attempt to create an organization with permanent institutions) or its investment strategy and objectives in Central and Eastern Europe. […] [Source]

At Nikkei Asian Review, Zach Coleman reports on a statement from a transportation executive familiar with the Asia Pacific region on how BRI projects are so far having only limited impact:

“I think the implementation has been slower than what had been expected in the beginning,” Gregory Enjalbert, vice-president of Bombardier Transportation’s Asia-Pacific rail control solutions, told the Nikkei Asian Review in a recent interview.

“In most places, [there] has not been much of an impact at this point,” said Bangkok-based Enjalbert. “I think there is still a lot to be done in terms of real project implementation.”


In Enjalbert’s view, the slow pace of progress with BRI projects is partly because of the complexity of such large-scale programs and the number of parties involved.

“Establishing new infrastructure projects is always a challenging undertaking that can be impacted by many different factors,” Enjalbert said. [Source]

At Reuters, Ben Blanchard and Robin Emmott report further on the ways that Beijing is attempting to ease mounting concerns over the BRI ahead of its second summit:

China has been on a push to show that the Belt and Road remains popular, despite cooling enthusiasm from governments including those of Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Maldives, where new administrations are wary of deals struck with China by their predecessors.

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, who ranks below Yang, last month touted the success of the $57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a major Belt and Road scheme.

[…] Wang told reporters at March’s annual meeting of parliament that the Belt and Road was about high quality, sustainable, green development.

“As President Xi has said, the Belt and Road initiative comes from China, but the achievements belong to the world,” Wang said. [Source]

The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong and Yantoultra Ngui report on a stalled BRI project in Malaysia that Beijing finally got signed by significantly slashing its price:

The two governments wrangled for months over the project, which critics had lambasted as overpriced. On Friday, Chinese and Malaysian executives in Beijing signed an agreement that cuts the cost of the East Coast Rail Link project to 44 billion ringgit ($10.7 billion) from 65.5 billion ringgit, according to a statement from the office of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Mr. Mahathir had suspended the project, along with other China-backed infrastructure deals, after winning election last spring on pledges to fight corruption and shore up Malaysia’s stretched finances. His gesture heaped pressure on Beijing as it sought to fend off mounting criticism of Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road initiative, which aims at expanding China’s trade links and strategic influence.

[…] Friday’s revised deal with Malaysia is timely for Mr. Xi as he prepares to host dozens of foreign leaders for a Beijing forum in late April to discuss Belt and Road cooperation. Chinese experts say it adds heft to Italy’s recent decision to formally support the initiative—the first such gesture from a major European power. [Source]

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Human Rights Off the Table at E.U.-China Summit

Ahead of the 21st E.U.-China Summit in Brussels this week, there appeared to be little consensus between E.U. member states regarding an approach to China, and European negotiators threatened to walk away from the discussions in frustration over China’s lack of solid promises and deliverables concerning long-promised market reforms. On the eve of the summit, international human rights groups called on the E.U. to press China on its human rights record during the meeting, and the the European Council on Foreign Relations called on member states to speak out against the network of internment camps holding an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The summit concluded on Tuesday, and while the two sides did list a mutual commitment to upholding “all three pillars of the UN system, namely peace and security, development and human rights” in their joint statement, little direct pressure appears to have been put on the Chinese side in the meeting. E.U. President Donald Tusk closed his personal post-summit statement by highlighting the supposed priority given to human rights at the meeting:

The summit was devoted to our bilateral relations, as well as to global economic governance. But during our talks, we did not forget about human rights. As I have stressed many times before, human rights are – from our, European point of view – as important as economic interests. This is why today, just like in our previous meetings, I underlined the need to maintain the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. I expressed again the EU’s serious concerns as regards human rights, and raised a number of individual cases. [Source]

At the South China Morning Post, Keegan Elmer relayed rights campaigners’ calls for a harder line against Beijing outside the summit on Tuesday, pressing Premier Li Keqiang on specific rights crises unfolding in China today:

In Brussels, demonstrators chanted slogans that chided Beijing, calling on it to “close the camps” – a reference to mass detention centres in the western province of Xinjiang – and for an “independent EU”, hoping Brussels would not be soft on human rights at the expense of economic interests.

[…] Melanie Blondelle, policy advocacy officer of the International Campaign for Tibet in Brussels, said EU leaders should raise the issue of Tibet and Xinjiang directly with the Chinese premier.

[…] Ryan Barry, policy coordinator at the World Uygur Congress based in Munich, Germany, said the many of those who turned out to demonstrate had family members who were in the camps in Xinjiang, which Beijing has described as “vocational training” facilities.

[…] Jo Leiden, president of the EU parliament delegation on relations with China, said human rights issues are an “open wound” between China and the EU.

“The suspicion is that economic interests will outweigh human rights values,” he said, adding that the EU and China had been “drifting apart” rather than moving together on issues such as human rights and governance. [Source]

At The New York Times, Steven Erlanger reports on the relative skepticism that the E.U. adopted in approaching China at this year’s summit, citing a lack of delivered promises after last year–one being the significant decline in China’s domestic human rights protection since a 2018 joint statement was signed, which similarly committed to upholding the U.N. charter’s third pillar of human rights:

In difficult negotiations, the Europeans had a hard time finding agreement on a joint statement with the Chinese that is serious about substance. They succeeded up to a point, but the commitments made by China are more about further talks than specific actions.

[…] The Europeans did succeed, by threatening not to sign a joint statement, in getting a promise to conclude a long-discussed bilateral investment deal by the end of 2020, which would improve market access, and a promise to limit forced technology transfers.

But a senior European official also pointed to a statement finally reached after the last summit, in Beijing in July, which was full of promises not delivered, especially on issues like investment ground rules and market reciprocity, which are sources of tension now.

[…] If anything, there has been backsliding and more vivid violations of human rights, like the detention of foreigners and the settlement camps for Uighurs. [Source]

At Deutsche Welle, Frank Sieren agrees that the joint statement is light on specific actions to be taken, noting that China appears to have won the round in framing the issues mentioned. Sieren cites agreements on human rights, forced transfer of technology, and the Belt and Road Initiative as examples from the joint statement:

[…T]here are constant glimpses of the Chinese viewpoint. Beijing does not recognize the Western perspective on human rights, but rather all “human rights,” which of course includes the Chinese perspective. There is to be no negotiation on this subject and further “exchanges” will be conducted only “on the basis of equality and mutual respect.” The West no longer decides what is universal when it comes to human rights.

Another passage, which Brussels is selling as a victory, is not worth much on closer inspection: “Both sides agree that there should not be forced transfer of technology.” This is easy for the Chinese government to sign onto because Beijing also believes that no one should be forced to invest in China. But Beijing takes it for granted that Europeans who want to invest in China should adhere to Chinese laws. This sentence will thus do nothing to stop EU states from having to transfer technology if they want to invest in China.

There was also no progress in cooperation on the One Belt One Road initiative, often referred to as China’s New Silk Road, or, as the EU puts it, the EU-China “Connectivity Platform.” The EU is insisting China be transparent and follow “international norms and standards,” whatever that may mean. Meanwhile, China is insisting “the law of the countries benefitting from the projects” being followed. Both perspectives stand side by side in the statement. [Source]

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