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China’s Information War Against The Uyghurs

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From Russia’s meddling in the U.S. 2016 presidential election to China’s “influence operations” in Australia and the United States, it is clear that the manipulation of information in pursuit of political and strategic objectives has become a major dynamic of contemporary international security.

Understood broadly under the label of “information warfare” (IW), such operations have been designed “to influence regulative processes, social norms and collective perceptions” and “to influence, disrupt, corrupt and usurp the decision-making process of an opponent.”

Most discussion of contemporary IW operations assumes they are primarily externally-oriented in nature and application. In China’s case, there has been substantial analysis of its deployment of its IW concept of the “three warfares” (san zhong zhanfa) – public opinion, psychological, and legal warfare – with regard to long-standing international conflicts such as Taiwan, the South China Sea, and territorial disputes with India.

However, China has also deployed elements of this strategy to counter a primarily domestic security challenge: the perceived threat of Uyghur militancy, radicalization, and terrorism in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Although Beijing’s approach to combating Uyghur opposition has always rested on the capabilities of the security forces, this has been augmented by policies that are consistent with a core objective of China’s IW strategies: to not only deter but ultimately degrade the will and capability of the adversary to initiate or sustain political-military struggle contra the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Domestically, this has been manifest in the implementation of measures to ensure the “comprehensive supervision” of “stability” in the region. China’s strategy here is increasingly reliant on the CCP’s implementation of the concept of “social management” as a means of preserving its hold on power, which as Samantha Hoffman notes embodies an effort to optimize “interactions vertically (within the Party), horizontally (between agencies), and holistically, between the Party and society” via the harnessing of innovative technologies in order “to improve governance capacity to shape, manage, and respond to social demands.”

This dynamic is perhaps best reflected in the roll out of China’s “social credit” system, which relies on collecting and analyzing meta-data to shape and “score” individual citizens’ economic and social behavior. The effect fuels both passive participation through the state’s access to personal data linked to everyday conveniences (such as electronic payment systems) and active participation by coercing people into allowing the state to monitor and punish individuals for noncompliance.

Human Rights Watch asserts that this is emblematic of a system of “predictive policing,” whereby monitoring an individual’s social interactions, use of social media, and physical movement enables the state to make real-time assessments of their perceived “threat” to it at any time.

Since 2014 the Xinjiang regional government has systematically implemented this dystopian vision of digitally-powered totalitarianism in the service of “stability” including: installation of China’s “Skynet” electronic surveillance system in major urban areas; putting GPS trackers in motor vehicles; facial recognition scanners at checkpoints; and installation of apps that wipe smartphones of so-called “subversive” material .

Such tech-heavy endeavors have also been paralleled by an intensification of more manpower-centric measures of surveillance and policing including: implementation of “convenience police stations” in urban areas; deployment of thousands of CCP cadres into the countryside to “educate” the Uyghur population on government policies; and coordinated mass anti-terrorism “oath-taking rallies” by thousands of security personnel in major cities such as Urumqi, Kashgar, and Khotan.

Though these actions are consistent with the CCP’s move toward tech-driven “social management” more broadly, it’s obvious that the implementation of this system in Xinjiang is defined by a racialized conception of threat whereby the Uyghur population is conceived of as a “virtual biological threat to the body of society.”

Here, promulgation of new legal restrictions on religious practice and use of “political education centers” to coerce Uyghurs displaying “deviant” behaviours have become the norm. From government officials describing Uyghur “extremism and terrorism” as a “tumor” to equating religious observance as an “illness” to be cured, the CCP’s discourse frames key elements of Uyghur identity as pathologies to be eradicated.

Reporting by international media and human rights NGOs shows that the CCP’s idea of “curing” these supposed pathologies is a program of mass internment with at least 1 million Uyghurs interned in “re-education” centers based, in part, on data harvested through this architecture of surveillance.

These facilities are not only of significant size but many are prison-like compounds characterized by their “comprehensive security features” such as “reinforced security doors and windows, surveillance systems, secure access systems, watchtowers, and guard rooms or facilities for armed police.”

As China has intensified this repression in Xinjiang so too has it intensified its externally-oriented IW strategy with respect to Xinjiang and Uyghur terrorism.

It has, for example, embedded “counterterrorism” as a central agenda of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the years since the 9/11 attacks, with the organization focused to a great extent on regular joint counterterrorism exercises, judicial cooperation on the extradition of suspected “terrorists,” and information sharing.

Beijing has also engaged in public opinion warfare through consistent publication in state media such as China Daily, Xinhua, and Global Times of op-eds and reporting that explicitly attack Western media coverage of violence in Xinjiang. After the March 2014 Kunming terrorist attack, for instance, China Daily published an trenchant op-ed decrying the West’s “double standards” on terrorism.

As information about China’s mass “re-education camps” has reached international audiences, Beijing has also begun to deploy a number of different narratives on these media platforms to combat what it views as “disinformation” about the situation in Xinjiang.

After the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing on “Surveillance, Suppression, and Mass Detention: Xinjiang’s Human Rights Crisis” on July 26,  2018, a Global Times editorial on August 12 asserted that the Party’s “re-education” policies were in fact justified as they had “turned around” Xinjiang’s security situation and prevented it from becoming “China’s Syria or Libya.” Moreover the article concluded by noting that “maintaining peace and stability in the region is the core interest of people of both Xinjiang and all of China.”

A subsequent editorial in China Daily on August 14, in contrast, emphasized that “foreign media” had “misinterpreted or even exaggerated the security measures” China had implemented in Xinjiang. Such “exaggeration,” the article continued, was the result of ignorance and the “false stories” spread by those in the Uyghur diaspora bent on “splitting the region from China and turning it into an independent country.” The editorial concluded by first denying the existence of mass internment camps, labelling the claim “far-fetched,” and second, asserting that “It is true that China shows no leniency in cracking down on terrorists and extremists.”

The pervasive internal surveillance apparatus within Xinjiang and the externally-oriented IW strategies engaged in by Beijing are not simply concerned with physically controlling space and individual citizens. Rather, they are also designed, as Deputy Xinjiang CCP Secretary Zhu Halian remarked on February 17, 2017, to ensure that “Uyghur terrorists” will be “like a cornered beast” bereft of either practical or moral support.

Here, China’s “re-education” camps emerge as a depressingly logical extension of this process. In the camps inmates are forced to sing patriotic songs, take part in self-criticism sessions, and sit through lectures on “Xi Jinping Thought,” Chinese language, Chinese law, and the dangers of Islam.

As James Leibold reminds us, while this clearly harks back to the extrajudicial institutions of “thought reform” established under Mao Zedong in the 1950s, the quest for “ideological totalism” has deep roots in Chinese political culture. The focus on ideologically remolding individuals, he suggests, “reveal a familiar logic that has long defined the Chinese state’s relationship with its public: a paternalistic approach that pathologizes deviant thought and behavior, and then tries to forcefully transform them.”

The objective is to forcibly move Uyghurs away from their own ethnic identity in order, in Xi’s words, to “enhance their sense of identity with the motherland, the Chinese nation, Chinese culture, the CCP, and socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

The application of elements of China’s IW strategy in Xinjiang have thus served a preventive function through the targeting of religious and cultural manifestations of Uyghur distinctiveness that the CCP views as obstacles to “social stability.” This demonstrates that, for Beijing at least, IW is as usefully deployed in the service of domestic security as it is in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. Indeed, as Peter Mattis has noted, this is reflective of a broader issue vis-à-vis the CCP’s perception of security: that many of the threats to it “occur in the realm of ideas” that “cannot be defeated by kinetic means”.

Dr. Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College, Australian National University. He is the editor of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in China: Domestic and Foreign Policy Dimensions (Oxford University Press/Hurst Publishers, 2018). THEDIPLOMAT


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China Launches Military Drills Amid Visit by U.S. Official

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China launched a fresh round of military drills in the Taiwan Strait, as a top U.S. diplomat demonstrated increasing American support for the democratically ruled island with a visit to Taipei.

The Eastern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army will conduct “scenario-based exercises” in the Taiwan Strait starting Friday, Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang told a news conference in Beijing. Ren, who was speaking at a briefing on the Chinese military’s international peacekeeping efforts, didn’t elaborate on the nature of the drills or how close they would come to the sensitive median line of the strait.

“It is a legitimate action of the Chinese army in promoting our security and sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Ren said. “The U.S. and Taiwan authorities have been in close contact recently, frequently stirring up trouble. In fact, it will only be a day dream for Taiwan to promote independence by colluding with foreign countries.”

China has stepped up military activities in the waterway, as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen courts greater military and diplomatic support from the U.S. and its allies. Beijing regards the island as part of its territory, and reserves the right to take it by force, even though the two sides have been ruled separately for more than 70 years and have deep social and economic ties.

The latest announcement came after Undersecretary of State Keith Krach began a visit to Taiwan, ostensibly to attend the Saturday funeral of former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. It’s the second such visit in as many months, after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar became most senior American official to travel to the island since Washington switched diplomatic ties to Beijing from Taipei in 1979.

The PLA has conducted more than 30 maritime drills in all four of its major sea regions since late July, the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper reported Monday, citing unidentified experts. The U.S. and Taiwan have also increased military drills in the area.

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Follow Party’s lead, Beijing tells private firms

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A new directive issued by the Communist Party’s top leadership on stepping up the “United Front” work for the nation’s wide swath of private businesses has again ignited fears. Some entrepreneurs wonder if Beijing aims to sit on the board of each and every private company and poke its nose into business operations.

In related guidelines issued on Wednesday, Beijing has laid out plans to strengthen “guidance and supervision” of entrepreneurs and foreign businesspeople running joint-ventures or wholly-owned companies in the country.

“Owners and the management of private and foreign-invested firms, as well as stakeholders in these businesses, should learn and keep themselves up to speed the party’s overarching tenets, in particular, Xi Jinping’s thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics that is enshrined in the party’s constitution,” read a circular from Xinhua.

The document drafted by the party’s United Front Work Department, the first of its kind in decades regarding the party’s networking and broad coalition affairs in the private sector, also added that all businesses, irrespective of their ownership structure, should “heed the party’s call and follow the party’s lead.”

There is a special chapter dedicated to ideological training and aggrandizing the party’s supervision in the day-to-day running of private companies.

Also, another internal memo, issued separately to all party cadres of the rank of deputy mayoral level and viewed by Asia Times, stated that Beijing’s new United Front drive had everything to do with the challenges arising from the growing heft of the private sector as well as the “manifold political and ideological demands from high-profile entrepreneurs.”

The guidelines come on the heels of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s latest ukase about the United Front work for non-state-owned enterprises. In a nutshell, Xi has highlighted the need to rally the entire private sector behind the party and make the sector more yoked to the party and the state-owned economy.

Wang Yang, a standing member of the Politburo, the party’s top decision-making caucus, and chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top political advisory body, was quoted by Xinhua as saying at a recent meeting that successful entrepreneurs must realize that “they owe their fame and fortune to the party.” Wang also heads the party’s working group on United Front affairs.

Cadres from well-off provinces like Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong, where the private sector contributes the lion’s share of local economic output, also attended the meeting on implementing Xi’s instructions.

Beijing has already mandated that party branches must be established in sizable private companies whose revenues or market capitalization reach a specific level.

Chinese corporate leviathans like Huawei, Tencent and Alibaba that claim they are owned by employees and shareholders already have party branches, with party representatives getting involved in their business activities at various levels.

Such party-building in China’s private sector has been expedited since Xi took power in 2012, raising concerns that the party’s tentacles are reaching into every nook and cranny of people’s lives.

Critics say the latest move is yet another step towards the party’s “takeover” of the entire Chinese economy and the muzzling of calls for political reforms from the private sector.

A file photo shows Alibaba founder Jack Ma briefing President Xi Jinping on the e-commerce giant’s business performance. Photo: Weibo

“Beijing may be getting wary of the influence of [Alibaba founder] Jack Ma, Pony Ma and the like, whose growing sway over the economy and people could make the party feel uneasy and insecure,” said Taiwan-based current affairs commentator Lin Heli, who fled the mainland during Mao Zedong’s anti-landlords movement in the 1950s that saw the forced sequestration of private properties.

But Jack Ma has repeatedly shrugged off rumors about Beijing’s plan to take over his e-commerce empire, stressing that the party’s leadership was a requisite for his success and that of the entire private sector.

An official with the Shanghai branch of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, a state-backed nationwide alliance pooling leading private business leaders, told Asia Times that United Front work was meant to strengthen the party’s leadership but that may also entail greater responsibility.

“The party may get more involved in the running of private firms but that also means more responsibility to address their problems and difficulties to further nature growth. And such arrangement also helps party cadres to better feel and grasp business sentiments and make their policies more pertinent,” said the official, who refused to be named.

“Also, all businesses seek to maintain sound relationships with the government and align themselves with new policy initiatives… China’s private sector has never been too ‘private’ or independent from the party, and the party’s overarching role, like it or not, is part and parcel the political reality that all entrepreneurs must live by and adapt to… Still, over the past 20 years we have cultivated an impressive line-up of world-class companies. Why would Beijing want to take over these private firms when it can get decent tax revenues from them and convince the world that private firms can also thrive in a Communist country.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese State Council has also launched a pilot scheme to dispatch officials to private firms, SMEs and startups to gauge sentiments and seek views to improve government services. Premier Li Keqiang has reportedly requested that all provinces and municipalities make public the views collected from these businesses, which must be followed up. Feedback from entrepreneurs will be part of Li’s annual appraisal of local officials.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world’s first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

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China Passed ‘Extraordinary’ Covid-19 Test, Says Bullish Xi

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President Xi Jinping. REUTERS

China has passed “an extraordinary and historic test” with its handling of the coronavirus, President Xi Jinping said on Tuesday (Sep 8) at a triumphant awards ceremony for medical professionals decorated with bugle calls and applause.

The nation’s propaganda machine has churned out praise for China’s COVID-19 response, reframing the public health crisis as an example of the agility and organisation of the Communist leadership.

Xi doled out gold medals to four “heroes” from the medical field in front of hundreds of applauding delegates on Tuesday, all wearing face masks and strikingly large red flower pins.

“We have passed an extraordinary and historic test,” Xi said, praising the country for a “heroic struggle” against the disease.

“We quickly achieved initial success in the people’s war against the coronavirus. We are leading the world in economic recovery and in the fight against COVID-19.”

China has come under intense global scrutiny over its response to the virus, with the United States and Australia leading accusations against Beijing that it covered up the origins and severity of the virus.

Defying charges from the United States and elsewhere that early failures enabled the coronavirus pandemic to spread more quickly, Xi said that China acted in an open and transparent manner throughout, and took decisive actions that saved lives.

“China has helped save the lives of tens of millions of people around the world with its practical actions, showing China’s sincere desire to build a common future and community for humanity,” Xi said.

Tuesday’s lavish ceremony in the Great Hall of the People began with a minute’s silence for those who lost their lives during the outbreak.

The four awardees included 83-year-old Zhong Nanshan – the country’s most famous medical expert who emerged as the face of China’s fight against the contagion.

He was awarded China’s top national medal by Xi, who placed it around Zhong’s neck.

“We will join hands with the … world’s medical workers to continue the fight in tracing the origins of the virus,” said Zhong.

Beijing has insisted the source of the virus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, is still unknown.

Three others were given the honorary title of “The People’s Hero” – biochemical expert Chen Wei, the head of a hospital in Wuhan, and a 72-year-old expert in traditional Chinese medicine.

Some delegates were in tears during a series of speeches.

There was no mention however of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, who was among the first to be silenced for raising the alarm about the outbreak and later died from the disease.

Local authorities in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus was first identified, were accused of a cover-up that delayed the country’s emergency response by at least two weeks.

But as infections spread throughout the world while slowing domestically, Beijing grew more assertive, resisting global investigations into the origins of the outbreak and saying its swift actions helped buy time for other countries to prepare.

Before the ceremony, state broadcaster CCTV showed a video montage of Wuhan at the peak of the outbreak set to rousing music, including images of medical staff in hazmat suits and crowded hospitals.

According to official numbers there have been 4,634 deaths in China from COVID-19. The government has largely contained the outbreak through a serious of strict lockdowns and travel restrictions.

State media has stressed Xi’s role in China’s containment of the coronavirus.

The official Xinhua news agency said in a long special report on Tuesday that Xi has worked tirelessly since January and even suffered sleepless nights as he “shouldered the extremely difficult mission of fighting the epidemic”.

Beijing has sought to focus on China’s success at overcoming the virus, rather than its origins.

During a government-arranged tour of Wuhan last week, reporters were shown schools and tourist sites reopening, but were not allowed to report from the Huanan seafood market where the outbreak was first believed to have originated.

“The shifting narrative is aided by the government’s success in containing the spread and it has been quite successful at home, though internationally it isn’t as successful as it would hope,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think-tank. t

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