Watching China Watching
Steve Tsang is the Director of the China Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Prior to 2016, he was the Head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, and before that a Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford. He is also an Associate Fellow of Chatham House, and an Emeritus Fellow of St Antony’s College. He has published widely on Chinese politics, as well as on the history and politics of Hong Kong and on Taiwan. Professor Tsang is a frequent contributor to media discussions on contemporary Chinese affairs.
The following interview was published by Beijing to Britain on 24 August 2022. Beijing to Britain describes itself as:
‘the only weekly intelligence Briefing mapping UK-China relations, with a readership spanning Westminster to Wenzhou: MPs and Peers, Whitehall, foreign Governments, Fleet Street and FTSE100 constituents.’
We are grateful to Professor Tsang and to Steve Hogg, founder and editor of Beijing to Britain, for permission to reprint these insights into the dilemmas faced by those engaged with studying, understanding and reporting on the People’s Republic of China in Xi Jinping’s ‘new era’. Our thanks also to Reader #1 for bringing this material to our attention.
The interview reproduced here is Chapter XXXVII in Watching China Watching (January 2018, ongoing), a China Heritage series. Readers are also encouraged to consult Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium (January 2022, ongoing) and Charles Parton, China Watching — old skills honed for a ‘new era’ — Watching China Watching (XXXVI), China Heritage, 24 August 2022.
It is nearly thirty years since the historian Frederick W. Mote wrote ‘East Asian Studies at Princeton, View from the Beginnings’, an essay that was included as an addendum to Mote’s posthumous work, China and the Vocation of History in the Twentieth Century, A Personal Memoir, Princeton, NJ: East Asian Library Journal in association with Princeton University Press, 2010. In that essay one of the outstanding historians of China offered with brevity and elegance a list of desiderata for a successful program in Chinese Studies, as well as Japanese Studies. We reproduced it under the title ‘On a Chineses Studies Program’ in the March 2011 issue of China Heritage Quarterly for the reference of those interested in the subject and in the context of our work on New Sinology. Mote’s suggestions are as relevant as ever.
— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, The Asia Society
26 August 2022
China Strategy, How the Media Discusses Beijing and
The United Front
A Beijing to Britain Interview
Ahead of SOAS China Institute’s three day course on China and the media next month [September 2022], Beijing to Britain spoke with Professor Steve Tsang. Professor Tsang is the Director of the Institute, and a widely respected mind on UK-China relations and strategies.
In a wide-ranging conversation — edited lightly — he discussed the need for the next Prime Minister to have a China Strategy, the work of the United Front, and how the media impacts China policy.
— The Editor
Beijing to Britain
Beijing to Britain
Professor Tsang, thank you for speaking to us. You recently wrote in The Times that former chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, both in the race to become the next Conservative leader and therefore Prime Minister, need to create and speak to a coherent Chinese strategy, particularly about upscaling the UK’s capability to understand China. Let’s look at that on a slightly more granular level and focus on one specific example. If Confucius Institutes are to be shut, what steps would you like to see the British government take?
Well, I think the study of China is very important to this country. It is important because China is going to continue to remain a very important player in the world and in its relationship with this country. Whether China is playing that role in a way that is positive or whether it is negative, it is still important to us, in some ways even more important if China’s role turns out to be negative, rather than positive, either for the rest of the world or for the UK. Now if we’re looking at something that is of such great strategic importance to this country, why would we want the teaching of knowledge about this country to be managed by institutions that are ultimately answerable to the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China, which does not — to put it mildly — share any of our basic values?
Confucius Institutes are primarily about teaching Mandarin, even though some of them do engage in other kinds of academic activities. But even in the teaching of Mandarin, I think the reality is that it still affects how we understand the country of study. How we shape the teaching of a language does matter — because language is like the key to the door. It enables you to open the door to understanding the other side.
What we need is for the government to provide real support for the study of China and the Chinese language to universities in this country. We need to develop a generation or indeed generations of people who understand China — its history, culture and people — in a critical, perceptive way, rather than in the way that the Chinese would like us to understand.
Beijing to Britain
So that’s the education pillar, if you will, of a China strategy that could be put together by the British Government. We’ve spoken in the UK-China space for a long time now about the need for at least a semi-public China strategy for a number of reasons, including holding the Government accountable and setting a singular tone across departments and Parliament. One example of a clear strategic move was the creation of the National Security and Investment Act, which limits the ability of foreign entities to invest in areas deemed as sensitive. Do you think there are any areas right now we are not taking a strategic enough approach towards? For example, RUSI’s Charlie Parton and RAND’s Dr Alexi Drew have been writing a lot recently about the Internet of Things, flagging this as an area that is going to cause problems for the Government shortly. Is there anything in your view that you feel is not quite scrutinised properly yet at a Government or Parliament level?
The fundamental issue is this — what do we want in our relationship with China in the next ten, twenty, or fifty years? A strategy is by its very nature a long term outline of what we want to do, and how we want to achieve it, in a way that is realistic, possible, and constructive. There’s no point in having a strategy that is fundamentally not achievable. When we are looking at a strategy of this country toward another rising great power, we have to bear in mind the other party — in this case China — also has its own UK strategy. And they are not afraid to articulate what they want. And so instead of us seeing what the Chinese Government wants, we need to first and foremost ask, what do we want and why do we want it? Then we can construct the answer to how we set out to achieve that.
China under Xi Jinping, fundamentally wants to, if you like, make China great again, in a way that is going back into a mythical era of Chinese history by which Xi Jinping believes that China was the benevolent number one in the world. Now, Xi Jinping is not a good student of history, but he is somebody who understands that “He who controls the present controls the past and he who controls the past controls the future.” And we will therefore have to be aware that the mission for Xi is to redirect the world to be developed in a direction that will follow or parallel the image of China that Xi Jinping has. And what he does domestically is what he’s going to do internationally. Is that the prospect that we want? If it is not a prospect that we want, what do we want?
And surely, our strategy is about maintaining, improving and enhancing what we have — a direction of travel which ultimately is about people. I think the great thing about this country is that we put values in people: in the dignity of people, in the potential of people, to enable people to be able to think for themselves, do what they want — obviously, within the limits of the law — and maximise their individual potentials. That is something which is not likely to be realistic in the kind of world order that Xi Jinping has envisaged.
So I don’t think we should be thinking of a China strategy to be if you like, confronting China for the sake of confronting China. We should have a China strategy that takes into account where Xi Jinping wants to take China and his relationship with the rest of the world and how that is going to affect us, and how we therefore need to move forward in a way that we will be able to protect and enhance our core values. And it means sometimes we will compromise with the Chinese; sometimes we have to stand our ground.
Beijing to Britain
So if we tie the idea of the strategy back into the first point you raised about education, and then the overall theme of this upcoming course, do you think the media environment plays an oversized role in influencing the Government’s approach towards China? Or do you think that argument itself has been formulated by people who spend too long in Westminster and Fleet Street?
I tend to think that the media does matter a lot. The media matters because the media still shape peoples’ thinking. And as a democracy, our elected politicians pay attention to what public opinions are, and the direction of travel of people. So the media in that sense, has two inputs into the policymaking process.
One is the media cycle itself, triggering immediate responses from the politicians. The other is media guiding public opinions to go in a direction which generates the kind of more general climate of opinion that our elected politicians will take into account, that political parties do not want to go completely against.
Beijing to Britain
On those two particular points, do you think the media’s conversation around China is leading to better strategic outcomes around China at this current time?
I think the media’s role is one of immediate, rather than long term analysis. I think in some ways for longer term analysis we should be looking at think tanks and universities to provide that. It’s not entirely fair to expect the journalists, the drafters of the initial draft of any history, to be going into depth. Because that’s not what they really have to do in reporting the news.
But I think one of the problems with the media reporting on China, which the Chinese government knows and uses to its advantage, is the way we manage news, how news media engages with the general population. We use simple language and terms that people understand and can easily relate to in order to get a complex idea across effectively. Now, how does that work against the interests of the best reporting on China? It can come quite simply like this. How do we refer to Xi Jinping? Media outlets these days describe him as President Xi Jinping of China. In reality, there is no such office as President of the People’s Republic of China. That office does not exist. Xi Jinping is the leader of China without a doubt or question but he does so as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and his most senior State Office is the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China. So we could call him General Secretary Xi, or Chairman Xi, but not President Xi.
Why does it matter? Because when we read, as ordinary users of media, of President X or President Y, we associate it as somebody who holds office on the basis of some kind of electoral mandate, which Xi Jinping emphatically does not have. So when we are doing that sort of reporting on China using language that the Chinese government actually would like us to use, we are unwittingly making China’s propaganda go much further and it would not be good media practice.
Beijing to Britain
Let’s finish on the theme of language, and the importance of getting language right to create good policy and to create good understanding. One of the things that’s that are cropped up this year in British politics for the first time in a while is the United Front. And there’s obviously concern around the language, and therefore policy, being too severe, and at the same time, not severe enough. Do you have a view on how British elected officials should be managing that discussion?
When we are looking at the United Front, that the Chinese government engages in, in this country, I think there are two things we need to bear in mind. One is what the United Front means, and there are two different meanings here. And the second is that when we are dealing with United Front, we are dealing primarily, not exclusively, with the part of the British population that has Chinese ancestry. And I’m using that description very carefully. Because the Chinese under Xi Jinping have been very naughty about this. Under the Chinese nationality law, a Chinese citizen, or Chinese national, automatically loses Chinese citizenship and nationality the minute he or she acquires a foreign nationality. That’s what the law says. So, our Chinese British citizens are British as far as Chinese law is concerned because they lose Chinese nationality when they become British citizens and nationals. But Xi Jinping, unlike his two predecessors now says that if you got Chinese blood running through your veins, you are Chinese, whatever you may think you are, wherever you may happen to be. Blood is thicker than water.
You got a bit of a problem there. There is an almost party-generated reality that people of Chinese extractions, whether they’re recent immigrants from China or people who are second or third generation British born, are being put in a position that means the wider British populations and the political class can now question their loyalty. Because the Chinese government is basically saying that “you lot owe loyalties to me, not to the United Kingdom!”
Now if we act in a way which makes those people feel they are not one of us, we are going a long way to help the Chinese government to make those people feel they are being victimised by the British state or establishment or people, and therefore they should answer to the call of fatherland China and be loyal to the Chinese party state. That’s exactly the opposite of what we what. What we want is to make it very clear: wherever you come from, wherever you were born, if you have chosen to become a British citizen or you were born a British citizen, you are a British citizen, whatever you look like, wherever your ancestors come from. We can accept and embrace diversity in this country, and we celebrate that. So there’s no basis for you to assume or think or be taught into believing that you need to owe loyalty to China, which effectively is represented and governed by the Communist Party of China pushing its own agenda.
The United Front that the Communist Party talks about has two parts to it. One is the work of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party, which is the bit that we most often think about and talk about in terms of Chinese agents of influence in this country. The overwhelming majority of them appears to be of Chinese extractions, but some of them in fact, are not. Caucasians are also recruited as agents of state under the United Front of the Communist Party. Now that kind of infiltration we can address. We will follow the law, we have the security services and the police to deal with cases where people have broken the law or committed egregious acts.
But the part of the United Front which in many ways is much more sinister, that we have often overlooked, is the magic weapon side of the United Front idea. And here the United Front is a methodology. It is used by the Communist Party, both domestically and everywhere else, to identify enemies from friends.
This basically works in a very simple, kind of illustrative way. If the world were like a conference room, China sits at one end of the long table, with a whole lot of people in between, and then you have the other person sitting at opposite end of the room. The one at the opposite end is the principal contradiction of China, or the principal enemy of China. In between you have the intermediate zone, some closer to China, some closer to the principal contradiction. And then you have a whole bunch in the middle — the wavering middle. Under the United Front, China will focus on its attack and criticism of the principal contradiction at the other end and try to consolidate support from its natural allies, reach out to the wavering middle, engage with them, get them to be more supportive — or at least not supportive of the principal contradiction and its natural allies — until, through the work of the United Front, the principle contradictions or opponent is eliminated. And then from your secondary contradictions, those that are natural allies of the principle contradiction, you elevate one of them to become the principal contradiction, and you repeat the process until there’s no enemy left in that room.
That’s how the United Front as a methodology works. And this is where the sinister bit of it comes in. Because ultimately it means I dominate everywhere — through the most powerful and effective divide and rule method humankind has ever seen. Now this is something that we can only counter by promoting the understanding of what the Party State wants, and how the Party State operates. This is not something that the security services or the police can address. This must be through education. This is about how we explain how the system works, and how the methodology operates, so that people have that awareness.
- ‘Professor Steve Tsang on a China Strategy, how the media discusses Beijing, and the United Front’, Beijing to Britain, 24 August 2022