20 January 2021

Roles of neighbourhood committee in the surveillance network on Uighurs in China

20 January 2021 0

On 15 January 2021, Tahir Hamut Izgil, a Uyghur poet who has lived in exile in the US since September 2017, published an article about his experience being interrogated by a low-level cadre in a neighbourhood committee in Urumqi in June 2017. This article provides insight into the roles played by neighbourhood committees in conducting surveillance among Uighurs and identifies what it considers as extremists in need of forced reeducation. 

What is the 'Neighbourhood Committee'?

One of the means of surveillance and control of the Uighur population in Xinjiang, identified by Tahir Hamut Izgil, is through the Neighbourhood Committee (居委会, pronounced jū wěi huì, also called 社区居委会). The neighbourhood committee is the bedrock of socio-political organisation of China today. The China Daily, in an article published in 16 October 2012, describes that the juweihui "arose as autonomous urban grassroots civil organisations in the 1950s", though it is very much integrated into the Party structure. According to Chinese directory Bendibao, there appears to be 184 neighbourhood committees in the Urumqi prefecture city, 46% of which are in the Tianshan district. Despite it being the "lowest level of government in charge of civil affairs", its influence over the daily lives of ordinary people can be extensive. The China Daily, for instance, describes it as having responsibilities for enforcing polices such as "family planning, mobile population management, crime prevention and census administration". It also has responsibilities over the distribution of social security benefits. Thus, the juweihui is, even before Xi's rise to power in March 2013, a very important tool for the Party in exercising social control over its population. 

Roles of juweihui in the surveillance of Uighurs

At a benign level, it can be argued that the juweihui can serve as a conduit for government services and facilitate effective response in times of major crisis. For instance, the juweihui appeared to show its effectiveness during the outbreak of Covid-19 in China, when it was charged with responsibilities of enforcing public health policies at neighbourhood level. An article in Global Times on 31 March 2020 described the juweihui as the "vanguard of virus control". At a darker level, the juweihui has become a key method of surveillance and control of a Uighur population seen as restive by the government. Izgil pointed out before Xi juweihui typically consisted of 3 to 4 people but by 2017 it had increased to up to 40 people, bolstered by the inclusion of police liaison officers in the committee.  The neighbourhood committee would monitor any signs of possible extremist thoughts and behaviours within the district, and would encourage people to identify those people to the committee or the local police. According to Izgil, the first step of someone being sent to reeducation camps (职业技能教育培训中心) usually involves being called to the juweihui or the local police stations for questioning. 

What might be considered 'religious extremism' by the neighbourhood committee?

The low-level cadre who interrogated Izgil on 28 June 2017 would have been guided by a regulation passed by the Standing Committee of Xinjiang's People's Congress (新疆自治区人大常委会) in March 2017, called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Anti-Extremism Regulation (新疆维吾尔自治区去极端化条例). The legal definition of 'religious extremism' is wide-ranging. For example, the wearing of hijab and growing an "abnormal beard" can be considered as signs of extremism. Not abiding by family planning rules can lead to suspicion of extremism. Unofficial religious marriage and divorce is also regarded as extremism. According to clause 9.6, any individual who promotes Islamic teaching that goes beyond eating halal food can be suspected of being an extremist. Finally, there is a catch-all and ill-defined clause 9.15 that covers "any extremist speech and behaviour". This explains why the low-level cadre who interrogated Izgil could consider having travelled to the UAE and Turkey and praying at home five times a day as possible signs of extremism. That also explains why Izgil felt it was prudent to claim to be an atheist to the juweihui cadre.

Incentives for juweihui cadres to be "vigilant"

Izgil made an astute observation that the cadre who interrogated him and his wife had institutional incentives to identify as many potential extremists as possible:
The salary is low and the work difficult, but if she stuck with it, worked hard, and managed to pass the civil service exam, she would be hired as permanent staff, thus securing her livelihood.
Getting into juweihui is competitive, as aspiring candidates need to have a bachelor degree and pass written exams on Party ideology as well as physical exams. Yet working at juweihui is often seen as just the first step to a secured place in the civil bureaucracy. So there are strong institutional incentives for these low-level cadres to cast a wider net in the search of possible extremists. This is further reinforced by a regulation passed in 2016 that offers monetary reward of up to 5 million renminbi and non-monetary rewards of possible identification of "extremists". These non-monetary rewards could include job promotion, favourable consideration for scholarship applications etc. This could encourage neighbours to inform on others. It also means that juweihui cadres would be working an environment where such expectation is normalised. Furthermore, the 2017 regulation clause 47 sets out repercussion for cadres who fail in their duties to be vigilant against extremism, including self-criticism. 

Final thoughts

What Izgil went through gives us a glimpse into how the low-level government committee has been empowered and coopted, through institutional and legal incentives, into the current systemic oppression of Uighurs in China.

16 June 2020

Plus61J: Israel caught between an eagle and a dragon as it courts China

16 June 2020 0

My recent article on the effects of US-China tension, which is in danger of becoming a zero-sum Thucydidean trap, on Israel, has been published in Plus61J. So I am going to post the link to this article here.

22 April 2020

A reflection on China-Israel relationships in the midst of Covid-19

22 April 2020 0

On 8 April 2020, Zev Chafets, a journalist and a former aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, wrote an opinion piece for Bloomberg about China sending 20 tonnes of medical supplies to Israel in the midst of Covid-19 pandemic. From this, he extrapolates that China has been gain soft power within Israel, and increased the tension between Washington and Jerusalem over Israel's growing relationship with China. Most of his points are well-known to those who have been observing the Sino-Israeli relations. I thought I would use his opinion piece as a springboard into further reflection on this relation between two nations with divergent geopolitical interests but converging economic interests.

1. Has China been gaining influence in Israel?

According to a Pew Research report published in 5 December 2019, around 66% of Israel's population have a positive view of China. That is quite high, but as Carice Witte pointed out,  that is actually a drop from 90% in nationwide survey conducted by SIGNAL (an Israeli based think tank that focuses on China-Israel relationship) back in 2017. Witte suggests that the reasons for this drop in positive view of China among Israelis might have to do with negative news surrounding default loans for BRI projects (e.g. Sri Lanka and the Maldives). That might be true, but a more probable reason might have to do Israeli sensitivity to America's strategic views and suspicions about China's strategic intention with regards to its investment in Israel. This can be seen in the formation of an advisory committee within Israel's security cabinet to vet foreign investment proposals on the basis of national security interests. (Reuters, October 2019). This suspicion is clearly seen in the recent decision in April 2020 by the CEO of Clalit health fund, an Israeli health maintenance organisation (or HMO) to back off from a deal worth US 29 million dollars to cooperate with BGI Group, a Shenzhen based genomics firm, on research into antibodies tests for Covid-19, due to privacy concerns about the DNA data of Clalit's 4.9 million customers.  This is despite previous attempts by Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, to try to resolve any issues of concerns with regards to the deal. So, while Chafets is probably right that many Israelis admire China's successful efforts in containing the Covid-19 virus (despite its earlier missteps) as well China's generous donation of medical supplies, China's soft power has actually been dropping in Israel.

2. Oh, that port of Haifa deal ...

Chafets alluded to Israel's strategic role in China's BRI project, with the port of Haifa connecting the Mediterranean Sea and Eilat facing the Red Sea. In 2018, Israel agreed to lease the operation of the port of Haifa to a Chinese company, angering Washington. This earned a stern visit by Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to Jerusalem, warning Netanyahu that the deal could lead to cessation of cooperation in the sharing of intelligence and visits by US navy to the port of Haifa. It is worth noting, however, that the deal to own the operation of the port of Haifa was previously offered to US companies, but none showed interests. Israel then turned to a Chinese state owned company, the Shanghai International Port Group, who secured the deal to operate the port from 2021. This leads to three obvious points.

a) Israel as a start-up nation is hungry for investment capital.
b) They would have preferred to turn to US or other western sources for finance, perhaps due to cultural and institutional affinities. This happens a lot, but not always.
c) Where that is not forthcoming, Chinese SOEs and private companies have been willing and able to provide the capital that Israel needs to continue its start-up economic model.

3. Looking into a post-Covid-19 future
China is going through an economic downturn in the midst of Covid-19 epidemic. So funds for Belt and Road related projects will lessen. But this has already been happening in the lead up to the Covid-19 crisis, due to experience with loan defaults from several countries (e.g. Sri Lanka, The Maldives). Interestingly, funding for projects in the Middle East has increased in the same time. The coming months will see a Chinese government being more astute about how it spends its money on any overseas projects that loosely come under the banner of 'Belt and Road'. Israel might probably seen as a safer bet for Chinese investment in a post-Covid-19 world.

16 February 2020

Chinese academics' open letter to the Chinese National People's Congress calling for freedom of speech, 8 February 2020

16 February 2020 0
言論自由權從今天開始 — 致全國人民代表大會及其常務委員會的公開信, 2020-2-8

What follows is the translation of a statement by a few high level Chinese academics to the Chinese National People's Congress (NPC) on 8 February 2020 calling for freedom of speech policies, two days after the death of the whistleblower, Dr Li Wenliang. The original text was published in The Stands News in Hong Kong. This is why it is in traditional scripts.
It is worth noting that respect for freedom of speech is a part of the Chinese constitution, though that right is interpreted through the lenses of one-party rule and the need for national harmony and stability.
This call for academic freedom is timely but far from unprecedented, but one should not expect this to be a nail in the coffin for one party rule in China. As recent as December 2019, numerous Chinese academics have raised alarms about the increased restriction on academic freedom and "demand for loyalty" under Xi. ('Demand for Absolute Loyalty to Beijing at Chinese Universities Triggers Dissent', Wall Street Journal. 18 December 2019) The CCP has always been concerned about the role of intellectuals within the country, but under Xi, this has taken up a notch. This is exemplified by he introduced reforms in 2017 that forced reputedly liberal universities like Shantou University to toe the party line by ordering the party committee at Shantou University to take a lead role in overseeing the running of seminars and academic forums on campus. ('Chinese Communist Party targets university known for global outlook', South China Morning Post. 28 March 2017) As Professor Linda Jakobson from an Australian think tank, China Matters once said, the primary objective of the CCP is to preserve the one party state, above all else.
Nonetheless, the timing of this petition is poignant in the light of the current uproar in Chinese social media over Li Wenliang. Furthermore, it underlines the relative impotence of the Chinese social credit system in the face of this public health crisis.

人大校友 魯難,吳小軍,秦渭,田仲勳
北京大學教授 張千帆
清華大學教授 許章潤
獨立學者 笑蜀, 郭飛雄
地質大學校友 王西川

[English translation]
On 6 February 2020, whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang died from the coronavirus in Wuhan, thus became a martyr for the cause of freedom of expression. This is a heartbreaking tragedy that echoes through heaven and earth.
Due to suppression of freedom of expression, coronavirus was able to inflict fear and suffering amongst the people in a time supposedly meant for the celebration of the festive new year. It is as if the entire people have been placed under house arrest. All economic and social interactions were forced to come to a halt. To this date, there have been 637 deaths, and millions of people in Wuhan and other parts of Hubei province suffers in the cold helplessly, facing discrimination, dislocation and isolation.
The origin of this tragedy started with the police unjust reprimands of Dr Li and his eight medical colleagues who raised alarm about the epidemics. This amounts to a vagrant abuse of police powers. For doctors who have their freedom of speech violated simply for doing their duties amounts to an attack on their dignity. For thirty years, the Chinese people have traded their liberty for the sake of
safety, only to find them in an even more unsafe public health safety crisis. We are close to the edge of a humanitarian disaster. Fearing the spread of the virus, the world has isolated China.
This is the price for sacrificing liberty, the cost of repressing free speech, the foams of Chinese style socialism. Till now, the overall government message focuses on disease prevention. However, courts and law enforcement agencies have often used unconstitutional means to implement unannounced state of emergency, and used disease prevention as an excuse to rob people's constitutional rights, including the right to free speech, right to freedom of movement and right to own private properties.
This all must cease. There is no safety if there is no freedom of speech. In the name of the people, we hereby issue five demands (to the Chinese National People's Congress).
1. We demand that 6 February shall be declared Freedom of Expression Day, or Li Wenliang Day.
2. We demand that the government properly implement every parts of section 35 of the PRC constitution with regards to freedom of expression.
3. We request that from this day forth, no Chinese citizen should be threatened by state authorities and law enforcement agencies purely for voicing their opinions, exercising their right to freedom of assembly and communication. Government authorities should cease the monitoring and censoring of postings on social media.
4. We request that the people in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province should be treated equally in comparison to people from other cities in China. Their civil rights should be respected. All sufferers of coronavirus should receive timely and effective treatment.
5. We call on all delegates to the (upcoming) National People's Congress to begin emergency sessions, in order to avoid the possibility of the planned NPC session from being cancelled due to political reasons. We further call on NPC delegates to discuss how to implement legal measures that would safeguard people's rights to freedom of speech. We call on delegates to implement what is promised to the Chinese people by the constitution with regards to the right to free speech.
We welcome all signatories to this petition. This petition will remain open.
Several academic colleagues from Renmin University, Beijing (unnamed)
Lu Nan, Wu Xiaojun, Qin Wei, Tian Zhongdong, Academic colleagues from Renmin Univesity, Beijing
Professor Zhang Qianfan, Peking University
Professor Xu Zhangrun, Qinghua University
Xiao Shu, Guo Feixiong, independent scholars
Wang Xichuan, Chinese University of Geosciences, Wuhan

09 February 2020

Dr Li Wengliang's wife' posting on social media regarding her husband's death

09 February 2020 0
This was posted on Chinese social media by Fu Xuejie, the wife of the late Dr Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who first sounded alarm about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and was soon reprimanded by the police for "spreading rumours", and have died from nCov-2019 on 7 February 2020. First the original Chinese, then my English translation.



7 February 2020:
My name is Fu Xuejie, from the prefecture of Xiangyang, wife of Dr Li Wenliang. I hereby state that we are not seeking any donation or assistance. Any news or postings on social media suggesting that we are seeking assistance are fake news.
Furthermore, I hereby post my late husband's completed essay before his death,
"I now leave"
Before I return to the dust, I quietly reminisce about my old home town. I think back to my youth, when winds would dance, and clouds were perfectly white.
Living is good, but I am about to die. I will no longer be able to caress the cheeks of my wife, no longer be able to take my child to see spring dawn at Donghu, no longer be able to accompany my parents to see the cherry blossoms at Wuda, no longer be able to fly kites in the sky.
I wistfully dreamt about my not yet born child. He (She) would be crying, seeking me from amongst the crowd. I am sorry my child. I know you wanted an ordinary father. Alas, I can only be a hero of the people.
Sun is about to shine. I am about to go, carrying nothing but my identification card. This will be my only belonging going to the grave.
My gratitude to all those who have pitied, sympathised and supported me. I know you have all waited till dawn hoping that I would be over the worst. Unfortunately, I am simply too tired, too exhausted.
Throughout my life, I have not wanted to sound sombre and trifling. My heart's only wish is that once the snow melts, we would continue to love our world, believe in our motherland.
When the spring comes, if people want to remember me, please just make a small epitaph. Nothing grand. Just to show that I once came and lived in this world. I had a name. I had lived my life without fear.
I only want one line on my epitaph. "I have spoken for the common people."
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