For much of the 21st century, Li Feiyun (name changed) has earned a living in two ways. By day an antiques roadsman, he recorded what remains of old Beijing as street by street, bulldozer by bulldozer, the tiles and courtyards of ages vanish in the name of urban planning. By night, Li Feiyun researched poorly written exposés containing the “explosive material” (爆料 bàoliào) of party officials. For years, these flimsy paperbacks were published without a word of protest on every hop to Hong Kong - until in 2018 he was detained going through Beijing capital airport and subject to impolite questioning. When I met him in a café near Jianguomen the following year, he checked whether or not any suspicious men were lurking - at the door, after sitting down and before ordering drinks. We chatted for some time until I asked him about his problem with authority. ‘Last few years…’ he replied, trailing off to end with a slicing motion across his throat.
Li Feiyun is but one victim of a society-wide push for greater restrictions on free speech as an ascendant Xi Jinping completes his “anti-corruption” (掃黑除惡 sǎo hēi chú è) political purge. University professors, journalists and other acquaintances mourn the long-past breathing room of 1996-2015 and all it offered the intellectually minded. As though balanced on a goldsmith’s scales, academic freedom has lost ground just as the premier’s power has gained it. Late last year the leadership threw a taunting red ribbon before all the bulls of international opinion, deleting ‘freedom of thought’ from the Fudan University charter to make way for ‘following the party’. For all their pawing at the ground and steaming from the snout, not a single observer could make a sliver of difference. In Xi’s China, universities are yet another chamber in the engine that is driving power consolidation.
Yet Chinese nationals are not the only victims who need fear the squeeze of this post-communist iron fist. As I have written previously, the Confucius Institute (CI) programme has sustained continuous charges of political perversion and academic tampering across most countries in which they operate, including the UK. The US government officially categorised the CI as an organisation for foreign propaganda this August and a Conservative Human Rights report last year found grave evidence of malicious attempts by the institute to impact curricula across British universities.
Yet with all this focus on the Confucius Institute programme, we might have been throwing our barbs at a strawman designed to soak them up - much like the famous tale of Zhu-ge liang and his arrow-collecting boats. While certainly threatening, the indirect influence of the CI is manageable because its weight is limited by its stakes - either being there or not, the worst thing it can threaten any university is voluntary closure. With the universal prevalence of Chinese foreign students at colleges and universities throughout Europe and North America, though, the CCP have an inbuilt buy-in at every academic table in the West: their own citizens. From the kingdom of Qin during the Warring States to the Deng Xiaoping administration after Tiananmen, Chinese strategists have long relied on a gradual cultivation of surplus in power and resources - a soft fifth column - to strangle victory from apparent thin air. In the middle of 2019, Beijing announced that tourists from the mainland would no longer be allowed ‘free’ travel to Taiwan, bringing a sudden end to ten years of a touristic relationship that the island nation had come to rely on. An untold volume of concrete poured into hotels and restaurants built with mainland travellers in mind were suddenly gravestones for misplaced capital as investments lay empty, unused and unproductive across Taiwan. Hoteliers and restaurant owners took to the streets in enormous staged protests, insisting that mainlanders be allowed to return. Neither Taipei nor Beijing moved to rectify the situation. The tourism boom PRC citizens had created was snuffed out with a single policy directive by the central party commission. Without sustaining a single blow, they had ‘employed’ the power of the populace under their control to first make use of foreign resources (tourism to Taiwan) and second remove access to that now transitioned resource. The lesson here is twofold: Beijing will wait and then Beijing will bite
Of 458,490 international students in the UK for 2017-18, 106,530 of those were from the PRC - and the BBC believe that those numbers have ‘not yet peaked’. With Chinese citizens who pay two or three times domestic fees now an irreplaceable link in the chain of obscene funding for UK universities, what is to stop a hungry CCP from leaving the high stakes table with every card in hand? While they are unlikely to introduce any measure so drastic as with Taiwan, their position at the table is just as strong. We must remain vigilant lest they pledge to remain in the game only n return for a pen flick here or scissor snip there.
Last year, Human Rights Watch published a 12 point code of conduct for higher learning institutes to implement in the face of CCP encroachment both real and predicted. Continued threats such as campus surveillance and diplomatic pressure are in the here and now, impacting the 7405 Chinese students enrolled at UCL and beyond. As the CCP emerge from our catastrophic year with a stranglehold on power even Jiang Qing could hardly have wrought, we must learn from the past and look to the future if the Party are to be kept at their table and from our seats of learning.