One of the most cherished freedoms accorded to the citizens of any nation is that of free speech. Stifling free speech and compromising the right of individuals to criticize the Government does not augur well for the socio-cultural progress of any nation. This notwithstanding the fact that economically such a nation might still be a force to reckon with. The Supreme Court of the United States in the case Brandenburg v Ohio declared in 1969 that even inflammatory speech, such as racist language by a Ku Klux Klan leader deserves protection unless such a speech has the potential to cause imminent violence. China, under the iron fisted leadership of Xi Jinping has exacerbated its authoritarian bent since the time the man assumed leadership of his country. Mercilessly cracking down on dissenters, blocking social media websites and subjecting millions of Uighur Muslims to surveillance and forced detention camps, euphemistically termed “reeducation centres”, China has made an absolute mockery of human rights.
However as acclaimed journalist and China expert, Joanna Chiu blisteringly reveals in her book, “China Unbound”, the autocratic machinery of China employs its economic muscle and political clout to not just keep its own citizens under check, but also to continually monitor, influence and at times even, threaten, people of Chinese descent who happen to be living in countries away from China. While there exists a plethora of books dealing with various political, cultural, economic and social aspects characterizing China, there are very few books that provide a unique perspective on the peculiarly difficult situations that stare non-Chinese citizens of Chinese descent in the face. Based in Vancouver, Joanna Chiu is a Vancouver-based covers both Canada-China relations and current affairs on the West Coast for the Star. A former correspondent in Hong Kong and Beijing, and a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism, also an expert commentator on broadcast networks and chairs the not-for-profit NüVoices network to support women and minorities in China-related fields.
The United Front exists in relative obscurity within the bowels of the powerful Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But there is nothing that is either reticent or reluctant when it comes to the remit of the United Front. Recruiting non-CCP members to promote China’s interests, the United Front offers luring baits such as payments and political donations to influence. Joanna Chiu provides as an illustration the leaked screenshots published in the Washington Post in 2019 which depicted Chinese embassy officials in Ottawa instructing students of Chinese descent to find out information about a talk at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, on rights of Uyghur minorities in China, and to collect data on whether Chinese nationals were involved in organizing the Canadian event. Even celebrities such as Jackie Chan know-tow to the philosophy of the United Front by mouthing platitudes and singing the glories of the CPC, literally. Chan, in fact appears on state sponsored Chinese television singing patriotic songs and ballads such as “Amazing China”.
In 2017, Australian Labour senator Sam Dastyari, made a disgraceful exit from his position after it was revealed that he was more or less functioning as a quasi-mouthpiece in for the CCP in Australia. Exceeding his yearly travel budget by A$1,670 in 2016, he got a Chinese-government-linked Top Education Institute to fork up the differential. The private school was run by Chinese businessman Zhu Minshen, who in 2014 was a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the CCP’s prestigious advisory body and highest-level United Front organ. Earlier, Dastyari had allegedly demanded a company owned by his party’s major political donor, Huang Xiangmo, to help him pay a A$44,000 settlement for an undisclosed “outstanding legal matter.” He even accepted a fifteen-day free trip to China from the Australian Fellowship of China Guangdong Associations.
The Belt and Road Initiative has also provided China an alluring platform to push through its tyrannical philosophies. Countries attracted by the prospect of an economic revival, courtesy, expedient funding of gargantuan proportions by the Chinese financial institutions, realise that being beneficiaries of a Chinese largesse comes with its own burdens and conditions. These nations invariably end up endorsing, if not committing to controversial positions taken by China at various multilateral organisations such as the United Nations. Thus the diametrically tangential position taken by Greece on supporting China against allegations of human rights abuse, in absolute contradiction to that espoused by the European Union ended up antagonizing the EU.
Joanna Chiu concentrates on the countries of Australia, Canada, Italy, Greece, Hong Kong, Russia, United States and Turkey in demonstrating how a steadfast relationship with China, by no stretch of imagination, means a cozy bed of roses. Canada learnt this the hard way. Despite a burgeoning trade and a prosperous economic relationship, the Sino-Canadian relationship reached a boiling point on the 1st of December 2018, when Canadian police arrested Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver International Airport. The arrest was a consequence of an extradition request from the U.S. Department of Justice. The business tycoon was of lying to HSBC Bank about her Huawei’s relationship with an Iran-based affiliate, putting the bank at risk of violating American sanctions. The Chinese retaliation was swift and ruthless. A mere nine days after Meng’s arrest, Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat living in Beijing, was apprehended by the Chinese authorities without charge. Soon this was followed by the arrest of another Michael, the journalist Michael Spavor. The two Michaels were kept in custody for 3 years and were hardly given access to either legal or consular assistance. Finally they were released in October 2021.
Italy was one of the very first countries to offer wholehearted endorsement of the Belt and Road Initiative. When the European Union was still assessing the impact of the BRI, Italy rushed full steam ahead by signing a slew of agreements. However as Chiu writes, not every deal was straightforward or simple. The intrepid and fearless Italian journalist Guilia Pompili, under an incendiary heading “Who put China in Government”, wrote a scathing piece on former Under Secretary of State, Michele Geraci, who was credited with bringing Chinese investments into Italy. Casting aspersions on the “methods” employed by Geraci to in attracting Chinese investments, Pompili lambasted him and accused him as being one, “ready to do anything to please the Chinese.” Raising questions not just on the expenses incurred by Geraci frequent trips to China, Pompili also questioned his qualifications to teach finance at Nottingham University’s business school in Ningbo, China, when his training and most of his work experience was as an engineer. Obviously, this piece did not go down well in Beijing. Chinese embassy spokesman, Yang Han, confronted Pompili in front of a group of other Italian journalists before the press conference outside the Quirinal Palace where President Xi and Italian President Sergio Mattarella were about to formally announce Italy’s participation in the New Silk Road. He demanded that she stop writing critical articles about China. When she told Yang, whom she had never met before, that it was her job to write critically, he told her, “Anyway, I know who you are.”
In the year 2017, then Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, discussed in the Parliament the explosive contents of a classified report that was painstakingly put together by John Garnaut — Turnbull’s security adviser and a former China-based foreign correspondent. This report constituted a study of Chinese influence on Australian politics. The conclusions were also shared with foreign governments, and with the press. As Turnbull put it while unveiling the counter-interference strategy in December 2017, “Our diaspora communities are part of the solution, not the problem.” Even large ethnic Chinese communities supported the foreign interference legislation. In late September 2021, Australian Foreign Minister cancelled a memorandum entered into by the Victorian State Government to participate in the BRI. An enraged China in a show of immature and apparent anger, indefinitely suspended all activities with Australia under a framework called the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue. China’s foreign ministry also warned Australia “not to walk further on the wrong path”. China also instructed its traders to stop importing products such as coal, barley, copper ore and concentrate, sugar, timber, wine and lobster.
In a brazen and blatant testimony to the tightening influence of mainland China on Hong Kong, a law called the national security law was promulgated in Hong Kong on June 30, 2020. Singularly, and alarmingly draconian in nature, the law bans all activities which Beijing deems a danger to its national security. Incredibly and ludicrously the application of law was proclaimed as encompassing within its remit not just the actions of everyone in Hong Kong but to the actions of anyone outside the region as well. On August 26, 2020, the Hong Kong police audaciously issued an arrest warrant for Samuel Chu, an American citizen living in Los Angeles, who had supported Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement from afar on social media. Alvin Cheung, former Hong Kong barrister and current non-resident affiliated scholar of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University, “pointed out that people should avoid boarding flights operated by Cathay Pacific and other vessels registered in Hong Kong, since the security law also states that it applies “aboard ships or aircraft registered in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”
China at the time of this review, is also making incursion into Taiwanese airspace with impudence and impetuosity in addition to effecting ‘beach landings’ adjacent to the coast of Taiwan. This is more a statement than a signal. A statement that seems to convey the ominous fact that the territory of Taiwan is ripe for the picking. This in spite of the United States using its aircraft carriers and naval fleet to conduct Freedom Of Navigation Operations (FONOP) traversing the South China Sea. The newly formed “Quad” alliance consisting of India, Japan, Australia and the United States as a balancing mechanism to keep an over ambitious China under check also seems to be having a bare minimum impact on China, which continues to plough ahead relentlessly in its intentions, robustly aided in its efforts by a wolf warrior diplomacy.
In a geopolitical scenario reminiscent of the Cold War era where two economic and military superpowers locked horns, the world waits with bated breath in anticipation of a move of indiscretion that has the capacity to trigger a calamitous dominos effect and bring the entire globe to a boil. Joanna Chiu’s erudite and meticulously researched book illustrates in frightening detail some of the potent and potential trigger factors that may hasten unintended consequences.