Chinese communist party

Battling the official narrative — China’s ‘underground historians’

35 min listen

Controlling history is key to the Chinese Communist Party’s control of the country. Whether it’s playing up the ‘century of humiliation’, or whitewashing past mistakes like the Great Leap Forward or the Tiananmen Protests, the Party expends huge effort and resources on controlling the narrative. That’s why it’s so important and interesting to look at those Chinese people who are documenting the bits of history that the Party doesn’t want you to know about. They interview survivors from Communist labour camps, or keep their own memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, and try to keep the memory of past horrors alive through film, magazines and paintings. A new book called Sparks documents their

Gag order: China’s stand-up comedy crackdown

‘The Chinese Communist party is probably the funniest thing that exists,’ the dissident artist Ai Weiwei once told me, ‘but it doesn’t have a sense of humour.’ The brave band of comics in China’s fledgling stand-up comedy scene are discovering that poking fun at the grim-faced old men who run the country with an ever-tighter grip is a dangerous pursuit. Last month, at a comedy club in Beijing’s Dongcheng district, 31-year-old Li Haoshi mocked a military slogan coined by President Xi Jinping. Li said that ‘Forge exemplary conduct! Fight to win!’ reminded him of his two dogs chasing a squirrel. A clip of the show spread rapidly online. The Beijing

Covid’s legacy: how will China remember the pandemic?

48 min listen

Three years ago, as people across China welcomed the Year of the Rat, a new virus was taking hold in Wuhan. In London, the conversation at my family’s New Year dinner was dominated by the latest updates, how many masks and hand sanitisers we’d ordered.  Mercifully, Covid didn’t come up at all as we welcomed the Year of the Rabbit this weekend, though my family in China are still recovering from their recent infections. The zero Covid phase of the pandemic is well and truly over. So what better time to reflect on the rollercoaster of the last three years? In exchange for controlling the virus, China’s borders were shut

An outcast in Xinjiang: The Backstreets, by Perhat Tursun, reviewed

Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Perhat Tursun’s unnamed protagonist is an outcast. A young Uighur in an increasingly Han city (Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang), he is alone, angry, unstable and homeless. The events of The Backstreets take place over one long night, as he looks for somewhere to stay (‘I just wanted a small space – the space a person would need in a graveyard’) or, more accurately, somewhere to belong. In this poignant and disturbing short novel, the influence of Dostoevsky and Camus, among others, is clear. It’s not meant to be comfortable reading. Identity permeates the book in the same way that a fog forever buries Urumchi. Almost

I’d be the perfect communist shill

Could I be the model communist shill? Consider these facts: I was born and raised in China. I speak and read Chinese. Some question my English accent, almost suspiciously posh given that I didn’t speak a word of the language until the age of ten. Before the pandemic, I visited China regularly. My podcast, Chinese Whispers, often explains the Chinese government’s way of looking at things. I studied at Oxford and now work at the heart of the British establishment. Am I not ideally placed to advance Beijing’s agenda? When I started my career, this was all a joke. Now it’s less of one. The atmosphere in Britain towards China

Baby bust: China’s looming demographic disaster

This week, the world is gripped by the risk of conflict between the US and China. The People’s Liberation Army has fired live missiles into the Taiwan Strait in retaliation for US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei and those who fear that China vs America is the next world war see Taiwan as a flashpoint. Some analysts imagine a repeat of the Cold War: two countries, two rival political systems, vying for world economic supremacy. China’s dominance is inexorably linked to the size of its population. It has long been the world’s most populous country. A technologically advanced society, with a great army of young workers and soldiers,

The China threat our politicians don’t seem to have noticed

The Chinese Communist party can congratulate itself on another sign of its rise: for the first time it has become a factor in deciding the fate of British politics. During Monday’s televised leadership debates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak tried to appeal to Tory members by outdoing each other on their commitment to protect our national security, economic prosperity, data privacy and values from the CCP. They both referred to Chinese theft of our science and technology, but the problem is much, much wider than that. What is more serious is our blithe willingness to import Chinese control into the most sensitive areas of our economy and society. Neither aspiring

Are China’s censors losing control of Shanghai?

For weeks, Shanghai’s 25 million residents were assured that they would not be locked down. Then when the order came, the lockdown was supposed to last only seven days. It is now almost into its fourth week, and the government is struggling to suppress the chaos. Last week, 82-year-old Yu Wenming called his neighbourhood committee to say he had run out of medicine and food. Rather than reassure him, the local official despaired. ‘I am really helpless,’ he admitted. ‘I’m more sad than you are, because you are just one person. I see countless families…’ The elderly Mr Yu ended up comforting the worker. When a recording of their conversation

Is an anti-Xi resistance emerging?

From the 1980s to 2017, at least every five years, China’s National Party Congress would be a moment of intriguing flux in the usually staid public politics of the Chinese Communist party. Rising stars are promoted, the old retired and, every other Congress, a new Secretary General would be appointed. Beforehand, a flurry of papers and opinion editorials would be published as various factions jostled for influence. This year’s Congress wasn’t meant to be exciting. Having abolished term limits, this is the moment when Xi Jinping is meant to be affirmed in his third term. There are few viable successors on the horizon. Nevertheless, an opening salvo in the pre-Congress war of

The day I was tapped up by Chinese intelligence

Nigel Inkster, a former director of MI6, has described China as an ‘intelligence state’. This was true even before the Chinese Communist party (CCP) passed laws that all individuals and organisations must help the security forces when asked. Chinese officials, party members and citizens have long been active across a broad front in advancing the interests of the CCP, seeking out political, military, scientific, technological and commercial information. Britain has to be wary of more than just the Ministry of State Security (MSS) — China’s secret police agency — or the military intelligence department. The revelation last month that the Labour MP and former shadow minister Barry Gardiner had accepted

The CCP training programme at the heart of Cambridge

‘Use the past to serve the present,’ declares the website of the China Centre of Jesus College, Cambridge. It seems a sensible motto, until you know that it’s the first half of a maxim of Chairman Mao’s, and that the second half is ‘make the foreign serve China’. The China Centre is directed by Professor Peter Nolan, a fellow of Jesus and an expert on China’s economy. In the 1980s, he studied China’s collective farms and edited a volume that referred to itself as ‘a preliminary attempt to construct a new socialist political-economic strategy for Britain’. Nolan helped to advise Wen Jiabao, China’s former prime minister, on entry into the

The grim reality of being a ‘model Uighur’

I left China a decade ago when life there as a Uighur simply became too difficult. People know about the ongoing genocide of the Uighurs, but it didn’t come out of nowhere: it followed years of smaller scale persecution, which I experienced daily. I first grew aware of how bad things were in 2009, when I got a job in an inland city that required me to travel — a role that became impossible because hotels would refuse to let me stay. Receptionists would see my identity card, which bore my ethnicity, and curtly reply that there were no rooms available. Once, one smiled kindly and told me to wait

How to counter China

When another country does something to upset the Chinese Communist party, it gets accused of ‘a Cold War mentality’. This is psychological projection, in Freudian terms, a defence mechanism which projects onto others the negative aspects of one’s own self. But the CCP is right in a way: we should have more of a ‘Cold War mentality’ or at least a ‘values and systems war’ mentality. China is not the Soviet Union. We never co-operated with the USSR on trade and investment or science and technology. We do with China. Indeed the CCP sees itself as fighting a ‘values and systems war’. Xi Jinping, in his first speech to the

Wuhan clan: the price I paid for my lab leak exposé

On 12 March last year, I texted a trusted source connected to Australia’s foreign intelligence agency. ‘What do you think about the theory that the virus came from a virology lab in China? Does that have credibility? I know it’s officially a conspiracy theory but China is not exactly a picture of transparency so I thought it’s possible.’ He replied to say he knew someone ‘very involved in the observation of that lab and its activities’ and it was a definite possibility the virus leaked from the facility. It was a surprising response because, at the time, this view contradicted every utterance by scientists and world leaders, who insisted the

Is anywhere in the world still safe for China’s Uighurs?

Amannisa Abdullah was in the last weeks of her pregnancy when her husband, Ahmad Talip, was arrested in Dubai. ‘He was on his way to buy a dress for our unborn girl,’ she says. Ahmad, who had lived and worked in Dubai for nearlyten years, never arrived at the shop and his family have not seen him since. He was held at a local police station for several days and then was deported to China in 2018, where he is reportedly in prison. ‘He just disappeared. We don’t know where he is or what he is accused of,’ says Amannisa, who fled to Istanbul. Ahmad is a Uighur Muslim. His

Britain must take China to task for its brutal Uyghur abuse

‘Horror’ conjures up several images; a fanged Dracula or a night at the cinema perhaps. But there’s a deeper kind of horror; the slow, white-hot kind that grips you in its claws.  In hearing, over and over, testimonies to some of the most obscene violations of human rights imaginable. To look, as I have done, at China’s actions in Xinjiang, is to feel that horror in your guts, and to realise that Britain must take firmer diplomatic, economic, and political action against China. Recently, the Uyghur Tribunal heard evidence of rape, murder, mass imprisonment, torture, slave labour, by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang. It’s happening in plain sight – the Uyghur

My fight to stop the Chinese censors sanitising Dante

My book on Dante Alighieri was due to come out in Chinese translation later this year, but first I had to consent to sizeable cuts. Even by the standards of other authoritarian states the Beijing censors struck me as overzealous. It seems odd that the medieval Italian poet could cause such unease among modern-day totalitarians. A sanitised Chinese communist version of my book did not sit well with the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death in 1321, and in the end I withheld permission. The cuts were the work of Beijing’s blandly named Institute for World Religions. The institute undertakes ‘book cleansing’ operations on behalf of the state. No book can

Will Samuel Pepys be cancelled next?

A seemingly obscure battle in an ecclesiastical court could threaten the security of every historic monument in the care of the Church of England. As reported in this column last year, Jesus College, Cambridge, is trying to extirpate the memorials (while keeping the money) of its greatest historic benefactor, Tobias Rustat. Rustat was a loyal servant of King Charles II who helped him escape from the battle of Worcester, looked after him in exile, and became his Yeoman of the Robes after the Restoration. He also gave huge sums to Jesus (as to St John’s, Oxford, the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, St Paul’s Cathedral and the University of Cambridge). His sin

What the West can do about China’s Uyghur labour camps

Coca-Cola’s most controversial bottling plant is a huge factory located in an industrial zone just outside the city of Urumqi in western China. Logistically, the factory is well situated: the international airport is a short drive away, as is the high-speed train station close to the fashionable Wyndham hotel. But the problem for Coca-Cola — and other western companies such as Volkswagen and BASF, which operate plants in the same region — is the existence of hundreds of facilities not mentioned on any official map. The Cofco Coca-Cola plant, a joint venture with a Chinese state company, is surrounded by prisons and re-education camps in which China suppresses local ethnic

How should Britain respond to the takeover of Hong Kong?

The veteran British diplomat the late Sir Percy Cradock said that Chinese leaders may be ‘thuggish dictators’ but ‘they were men of their word and could be trusted to do what they promised’. Well, the past year has put an end to the latter half of that statement. From coronavirus to the brutal treatment of Hong Kong, the behaviour of the Chinese Communist party has made it clear that the approach of liberal democracies to China must change. Last week, when the West’s media was distracted by the chaos in the US Capitol, police in Hong Kong arrested 55 pro-democracy activists on the charge of subversion. It is the latest