Tea Leaf Nation

2013, According to the Chinese Communist Party

State media on U.S. "dysfunction," Japan's "dangerous direction," and the "gradual rise" of Africa's middle class. 

What did the year in foreign policy look like in Chinese official circles? Divining the thoughts and motives of China's leadership is a famously abstruse exercise even for Chinese citizens, who are often left to parse bland quotes or keep their ears peeled for rumor. But one reliable, albeit indirect indication of the Zeitgeist of Chinese officialdom comes by way of a 2013 foreign affairs retrospective published on the website of the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's paper of record. On Dec. 21, in a slight nod to quasi-democratic crowd-sourcing, the site opened online voting for the "top 10 world news" for 2013, asking readers to select the 10 best from a meager list of 13 People's Daily stories published over the past year (the results are here).

Together, the stories form a clear narrative about the Chinese Communist Party's view of the world -- self-congratulations for continuing economic reforms coming out of Beijing, a good measure of Schadenfreude about troubles in the United States' backyard, and continued efforts to befriend Africa.

The compilers cannot be accused of provincialism. Of the dozen-plus choices offered, five focus on Asia, four on the Middle East, two on the United States, and two on Africa. Only two stories are explicitly China-centered, although they reflect a predictably rose-tinted view of the party. The first, voted the top story of 2013, describes how the third plenum meeting, a high-level political conclave held in November, "confirmed a comprehensive blueprint to deepen reforms." The other reminds readers that the "Chinese Dream," a still-vague phrase popularized by President Xi Jinping to sketch the country's new direction, involves "everybody winning" by "integrating China's renaissance with the world's progress." 

By contrast, the People's Daily selections focusing on the United States present China's greatest geopolitical rival as a paranoid nation in decline. The second-most significant story of 2013, according to voting results, covered former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's bombshell revelation about widespread NSA wiretaps, which Chinese media frequently call "PRISM-gate" in reference to one NSA project's code name. PRISM-gate garnered a nomination because it had a "serious effect" on the "public trust in the U.S. government." The U.S. federal government shutdown, lasting from Oct. 1 to Oct. 16 -- which People's Daily opined was an expression of "worsening political polarization," not to mention the "intensification of structural conflicts in U.S. society" -- also featured. 

Japan, China's other rival -- and wartime enemy -- got a single nomination: "Japanese Government Continues to Move 'Right.'" The People's Daily complains that under new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in Dec. 2012, the Japanese government has engaged in "frequent backsliding on the historical question of the Diaoyu Islands," a disputed pile of rocks that Japan administers and calls the Senkaku. This "rightward move" has prompted "international society to increase its vigilance." The paper doesn't explain what that means, but it may refer to China's surprise announcement in late November of an "air defense identification zone" that included those very same islands.

It's common to see Chinese press play fast and loose in the service of brow-beating Japan, but factual elisions particularly bedevil another selection: "Philippines Hit by Typhoon; China Rushes to Assist." That article notes that after the devastating Nov. 11 Typhoon Haiyan ended over 5,500 Filipino lives and left millions homeless, China not only "sent international relief teams" from its own Red Cross to assist, but mobilized the PLA Navy's "Peace Ark" ship. Both statements are true, but misleading. China initially donated a paltry $100,000 to Haiyan relief, upping the total and dispatching Red Cross personnel a week later -- after international observers and even some Chinese state media complained about the inaction. Even that revised sum is less than the aid package offered by Swedish furniture giant Ikea. 

In contrast to its prevailing pessimism and bombast, the People's Daily list did evince some refreshing bullishness on Africa, a continent to which China has pledged $20 billion worth of infrastructure and agriculture loans. On one hand, the paper nominated the Sept. 21 terrorist attack on Nairobi's Westgate mall as a top story, calling it a signal that "behind the 'rise of Africa' there is social inequality, corruption, high unemployment," and other ills that catalyze terrorism, a problem the continent "needs to solve." But that rise is still real: The paper listed as another top story the fact that in May, African Development Bank President Donald Kaberuka announced that average per capita GDP for the continent had exceeded $1,000. This "symbolic event" showcased the "development potential" of Africa, rooted, the paper says, in "the discovery of rich oil reserves, natural gas, and other resources." China's economic ties with Africa, the article concludes, has become "an important factor" driving the continent's growth. 

And what of the world in 2014? Here, the People's Daily is a bit stingy with forecasts. That's also true of Chinese state media generally, which mostly sticks to predicting domestic matters like the direction of economic development, employment figures, and real estate prices. If the Communist Party has a bet on where its frayed relations with the United States will go, or how China's territorial dispute with Japan will play out in the East China Sea, it's not inclined to share.

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Tea Leaf Nation

A 'Narrowing Path' for China's Scholars

A respected professor's open resignation has academics asking where Chinese government meddling will end.

It started with an ending. "Perhaps it's a bad choice, but it's one I made after much deliberation, a price I have to pay for a free and dignified life," Chen Hongguo wrote of his decision to quit. On Dec. 23, Chen -- formerly an assistant professor at the Northwest University of Political Science and Law in Xi'an, a large city in central China -- posted a public letter explaining his departure to his 57,000 followers on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter. In the process, he re-ignited grassroots complaints about the lack of academic freedom in China.

In the letter -- which was shared more than 17,000 times within 12 hours before censors removed it -- Chen expressed frustration over what he called the "narrowing path" of academic inquiry. A vocal advocate for strengthening the rule of law and civic responsibility, Chen accused his employer of working with the Xi'an government to obstruct his attempts to give speeches on legal reform, run book clubs featuring the works of prominent liberal philosophers John Stuart Mills and Max Weber, and attend academic conferences in Hong Kong, traditionally a freer place to discuss Chinese politics than the mainland. 

Chen wrote in his public letter that upon his return from Hong Kong, he faced disciplinary action for "having classes taught by substitute teachers." Chen acknowledged violating university strictures, but wrote that he had merely "invited practicing lawyers and noted legal scholars" to teach "several classes a semester." The university issued a statement on Dec. 26, saying that it had accepted Chen's resignation and emphasizing that "everything was handled according to school rules." In response, Chen posted on his Weibo account later that day that his resignation was "a personal choice," adding, "I fully understand and thank the university for its decision."

The resignation letter went viral -- and met a swift end -- likely because it stirred concerns over further assaults on academic freedom. He Weifang, a preeminent law professor at Peking University and Chen's mentor, urged Chen's former university to "protect his basic rights" but also advised Chen not to resign, arguing that "justice needs compromise." (He should know; in March 2009 he was effectively exiled from Peking University, sent to a two-year stint at a school in the western region of Xinjiang in likely punishment for having signed Charter 08, a 2008 petition urging deep democratic reforms in China.) Chen's missive also had appeal among the grassroots. "I read the letter with tears," read one of the most "upvoted" comments to the letter. "Whose fault is it that such a talented, dignified, and ambitious law professor left the teaching podium he loved? Is this a tragedy of the law? A tragedy of the system?"

It may have little to do with the law, and more to do with the Chinese Communist Party's unwritten rules. Chinese academia has increasingly had to bend to the will of the party, which on Dec. 23 publicly announced a new wave of Marxist campaigns in schools and colleges which will incorporate "socialist core values" in the curriculum. In 2013 alone, several prominent Chinese professors have resigned or been fired for bucking the party line. In October, the prestigious Peking University in Beijing dismissed economics professor Xia Yeliang, a noted advocate for multiparty elections, because of what it insisted was poor performance, leading Chinese netizens to question whether Peking University's motto -- "Follow the principle of freedom of thought with an all-embracing attitude" -- still held true. Zhang Xuezhong, an outspoken legal scholar who championed free speech and constitutionalism, was fired in early December by East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, one of China's leading law schools. That ouster led netizens to ask how many more scholars the Chinese academy would lose if universities continued to cave to political pressure.

For Chen's part, he claimed in his letter to have attended an academic conference at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in November despite repeated warnings from officials at his own school. Shortly after he returned, Chen wrote, he discovered that his Hong Kong visa had been revoked and that his university would not sponsor his reapplication. (Citizens of mainland China must apply for a visa to visit Hong Kong.) Chen claimed that he repeatedly sat down with university officials to ask why they had refused to sponsor his papers, but received no substantive response. In his letter, Chen asked angrily why all the parts of government work together efficiently when their objective is to "strip someone's rights," while the opposite proved true when Chen sought to regain his right to travel to Hong Kong.

Perhaps in an effort to rouse sympathy among young readers, Chen also insisted upon a more important reason for his resignation: that he could no longer face his students. "How can a law professor who can't even fight for such a common right" as a visa, Chen asked, "be qualified to teach his students about the value of procedure?"

The move appears to have worked; self-identified pupils of Chen took to Weibo to express support for their former professor. "I went to some of your lectures before and admire your ideas and the way you conduct yourself," one student wrote. Another commented that the university had "imprisoned" Chen, and his departure may be a blessing in disguise that gives the scholar "more room and flexibility." On the university's online forum, students posted Chen's teaching schedule for the remainder of the week. Unverified photographs circulating on Zhihu, another Chinese social media site, show heavy turnout for Chen's final class on Dec. 25, with students leaving messages of support on the blackboard.

Those messages will not bring Chen back to his professorship, but they may send a signal that the party has gone too far in politicizing higher education. Chen himself wrote that some government meddling was inevitable: "I don't ask for a perfect university, and I acknowledge that it's the party's and the government's university," he argued in his public letter. But Chen insisted a line had to be drawn somewhere: "At the end of the day, it's still a university."

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