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How the Chinese Communist Party uses "Chinese culture" as an excuse to justify its crimes

Shanghai, Nanjing Road (photo by Agnieszka Bojczuk via Wikimedia Commons)

Since its founding in 1921 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has mastered the art of propaganda and recruitment of individuals both inside and outside the country who are willing to cooperate with it and further its interests - a practice known as "united front work".

"United front work" refers to the CCP's strategy of cooptation of groups or individuals that are not members of the CCP but are willing to cooperate with it. Cooptation describes the process of bringing outsiders (usually the resource-poorer) inside (usually the resource-richer) (Saward, 1992).

An example of this strategy is the case of former Hong Kong's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Prior to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to the People's Republic of China (PRC), Tung Chee-hwa had close ties with the government of Taiwan. However, after his shipping company ran into financial trouble and was partly bailed out by the PRC, Tung became a staunch CCP supporter.

Hong Kong provides a clear example of how the CCP's propaganda and united front tactic works. In the former British colony, "Chinese Communist agents actively and selectively recruit and appoint supporters to political institutions and power positions, so that alternative views of its supporters can be put in line with those of the Chinese authorities" (Wai-man Lam and Kay Chi-yan Lam, "China's United Front Work in Civil Society: The Case of Hong Kong," International Journal of China Studies 4, no. 3 (2013)).

Alongside cooptation, the CCP also resorts to collaboration, which refers to a less official relationship with individuals who are willing to work with the CCP but do not want to be publicly perceived as being closely associated with it.

As far as outspoken opponents are concerned, the CCP pursues a strategy of containment. Containment consists in isolating and discrediting dissidents. On the one hand, the CCP uses cooptation and collaboration to create a pro-CCP camp that will isolate dissidents and treat them as outcasts. On the other hand, Chinese Communist authorities and their allies use denunciation to attack and discredit opponents. Denunciation "is characterized by public condemnation and accusation, outright rejection, verbal threats, and refusal to communicate. It aims to charge someone on their misdeeds, and halt their influence immediately and permanently, especially in situations when the authorities perceive that their sovereignty is at stake" (ibid.)

According to Christine Loh (Reflections of Leadership: Tung Chee Hwa and Donald Tsang, 1997-2007), the CCP has divided the Hong Kong population into three groups: a supportive majority to mobilize, a wavering middle to neutralize, and an enemy to defeat.

As the PRC developed its economy, its united front strategy expanded beyond China. The CCP cultivated ties with businesspeople from all over the world and pursued other policies, such as the establishment of a global network of around 550 Confucius Institutes, which have been criticized for being tools of indoctrination of foreign students. As Andreas Fulda recently wrote in Foreign Policy:

"Confucius Institutes have been critiqued for repeatedly straying from their publicly declared key task of providing Mandarin Chinese language training and for venturing into deep ideological territory. There is mounting evidence that the institutes’ learning materials distort contemporary Chinese history and omit party-induced humanitarian catastrophes such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) entirely. At Confucius Institute events, politically sensitive issues like Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen cannot be publicly discussed either."

The growth of China's economy has provided the CCP with enormous economic leverage to influence foreign businesspeople, professionals and scholars. As a result, some of them have turned into witting or unwitting apologists for the Chinese Communist regime. Among the most prominent are US billionaires Michael Bloomberg and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who have repeatedly sided with Beijing on the issue of unfair trade practices.

The way in which the PRC can use its economic power to enlist foreign entities as propaganda tools is shown by the case of McKinsey & Company, a prestigious American management consulting firm funded in 1926. The company, which has vast business interests in China, has become a global apologist for the CCP and is often cited in China's state-owned media outlets.

McKinsey has a track record of advising dictatorial regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Turkey and China. The New York Times reported that last year McKinsey even organized a lavish corporate retreat in Kashgar, about four miles from one of the concentration camps where the Chinese Communist authorities interned millions of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group.

"At a time when democracies and their basic values are increasingly under attack the iconic American company has helped raise the stature of authoritarian and corrupt governments across the globe, sometimes in ways that counter American interests," the Times wrote.

In a recent article published on the state-owned news outlet China Daily, Peter B. Walker, senior partner emeritus at McKinsey, once again proved how the company is willing to act as the CCP's apologist. In this case, Walker cited "cultural differences" as a reason why Americans are pursuing confrontational policies towards the PRC. He used the culturalist argument for a specific reason: to side with the CCP on the issue of the US-PRC trade dispute.

Culturalism is one of the rhetorical tools deployed by the CCP to frame its agenda as a reflection of China's inherent national characteristics. That allows the CCP to obfuscate the difference between the Party and the country, to foment nationalism, to accuse critics of "ignorance" of Chinese culture and history, and to draw on a narrative of "national humiliation" at the hands of foreign powers. 

In the article, China Daily describes Walker as a "longtime China-watcher" who "has made more than 80 trips to China in the past 15 years and who is 'never not in the middle of reading a book about China'".

The paper writes that Walker "interacted with everyday people, government employees and company executives — including those from state-owned enterprises — during his trips to China [and] he sees a different China from what he reads in some Western media."

"Chinese government officials whom Walker has met over the years are 'very highly educated, very committed to the well-being of the people, and [are] always learning,'" the article quoted Walker as saying.

Walker claimed in the interview that China and the US have different cultures and histories, suggesting that the US is ignorant of China and that the trade war is caused by lack of understanding on the US side. 

"My advice to the US really is, just be very clear where you are competing and where you are not competing [and] substitute facts and reality for impressions and fears that are not grounded in anything real," Walker said.

Walker wrote a book titled "Powerful, Different, Equal: Overcoming the Misconceptions and Differences Between China and the US," in which he explained "the difference between the China [he] saw and the China that was being described in the [foreign] press."

The culturalist argument needs to be dismissed as nothing more than propaganda.

First of all, the CCP is not China and its interpretation of Chinese history and culture itself is highly biased. The CCP simply erases all the aspects of Chinese history and culture that do not fit into its official narrative, such as China's democratic tradition, the student movement of the 1980s that culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Falun Gong, and practically every movement or individual, past or present, that challenges the CCP.  

Secondly, the CCP's unfair trade practices and violations of human rights are simple, well-documented facts and have nothing to do with cultural misunderstandings.

Therefore, the CCP's culturalist rhetoric should be unmasked for what it is: a simple propaganda strategy to cover up its crimes and tricks of political chicanery.


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