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China targets 'hostile foreign forces' in crescendo of accusations

Official China has been taking a dramatically more strident tone in the past year, blaming an array of domestic challenges on foreign plots and subversive ideology.

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    Presidents Obama and Xi were all smiles when they met at the G20 summit in September 2013. But the Chinese leader's government has turned stridently critical of American meddling in the year since.
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Chinese President Xi Jinping is making the most of his role as host of the current Asian economic summit here, gladhanding heads of state from both sides of the Pacific, seeking to strengthen China’s trade ties with its neighbors and burnishing his personal image as an international statesman.

 But at home, President Xi’s ruling Communist party is showing increasingly little tolerance for foreign ideas or international influences. As pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong stretch into their second month, for example, the Chinese government has not tired of blaming them on “hostile foreign forces”, led by the United States.

 Nor does it end in Hong Kong. In recent months, China’s official media have fired off a crescendo of accusations, sometimes verging on xenophobia, that lay all manner of ills at the door of subversive Western conspirators.

 The ruling Communist party’s mouthpiece, the People's Daily, has run 42 articles so far this year blaming China’s domestic difficulties on hostile “Western”, “foreign” or “overseas” forces. That is nearly triple the output of similar pieces in the first 10 months of last year, and is mirrored in a range of other official papers, websites and TV channels.

The steady drumbeat of denunciation gives the impression that President Xi Jinping is turning his back on one of the principles that has guided post-Maoist China’s foreign policy – closer engagement with erstwhile adversaries like Britain and the US.

“We are seeing a reversal of 35 years of Chinese history,” says Zhang Jian, a politics professor at Peking University. “For the last three decades we tried to invite and embrace the outside world. Now the government is using a demonized west to buttress its legitimacy.” 

The trend is “quite disturbing,” says Susan Shirk, a senior China policymaker in the Clinton administration. “It seems that Xi Jinping is throwing China and the US into a new ideological cold war.”

 A broad range of charges

A broad range of problems are being blamed on ill-defined hostile foreign forces, starting with the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong that are demanding more democratic rights for citizens there than Beijing is ready to concede. Tibetan unrest, the spread of “universal values” – as opposed to Chinese socialist values – and rising terrorist violence in the predominantly Muslim province of Xinjiang are among other challenges attributed to outside enemies.

 Behind the complaints, says Prof. Shirk, who heads the 21st  Century China Program at the University of California, San Diego, is President Xi’s desire “to draw a clear and hostile contrast between the Chinese system … and Western political values. He is creating an ideological conflict between Communist party values and foreign values … to mobilize commitment to the party.”

Chinese media are short on specifics as to how “hostile foreign forces” are conspiring to undermine China’s rule. The People's Daily overseas edition earlier this month argued that “it is hardly likely that the US will admit to manipulating the ‘Occupy Central’ movement, just as it will not admit to manipulating other anti-China forces. It sees such activities as justified by ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘human rights,’ and other values.”

'Western encirclement'

In Hong Kong, suggests Andrew Kennedy, who teaches Chinese politics at Australian National University in Canberra, the Chinese government “is trying to delegitimize the protest movement by associating it with foreigners instead of letting the protesters paint themselves as patriotic Chinese.”

But long before the students took to the streets in late September a prominent Chinese military figure, Gen. Luo Yuan, was already warning that Occupy Central was intended as part of “an unprecedented direct and indirect Western encirclement” of China.

 Earlier in the year Losan Jamcan, the head of the Tibetan People's Congress – the official provincial parliament – said in a televised speech that, “the struggle between us and hostile Western forces … is a major political struggle, a matter of unity or division, democracy or autocracy.”

More broadly, officials have framed all foreign reporting from China as driven by the goal of regime change.  In March, the spokeswoman for China’s National People's Congress, Fu Ying, told foreign reporters before parliament’s annual session that she knew their purpose in reporting from China was “to overturn our system of government.” She would brook no argument.

More recently, an article produced by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and published in People's Daily accused “hostile Western forces” of exaggerating the number of people who died during the Great Leap Forward in order to “deny the legitimacy” of the Communist party. More than 30 million victims are believed to have died of starvation during Mao Zedong’s disastrous attempt to industrialize China at the end of the 1950s, though the Chinese authorities have never given an official account of the tragedy. 

 And at the end of last month, the former Vice President of CASS, Li Shenmin, warned in a People's Daily article that “a multi-party system and direct elections” are “precisely in line with the ‘roadmap’ set by domestic and foreign hostile forces for our country to make us integrate with Western capitalism.”

Perhaps the most definitive and authoritative account of the threat that hostile foreign forces are perceived to pose came from Han Qingxiang, deputy head of education at the Central Party School, the guardian shrine of Communist party orthodoxy. 

“Hostile Western forces’ struggle against us generally takes the form of cultural penetration and the spread of western social thought, using ‘freedom, democracy and human rights’ as target points,” Mr. Han wrote in a July 23 article.

 He warned that Western nongovernmental organizations and foreign academics carried this contagion, “using academic study, communication, and visits to mask their political intentions.”

Xi himself is reported to have used the phrase ‘hostile foreign forces’ on at least two occasions. And in a speech last month excoriating artists who do not serve socialist goals, the president warmly praised the “positive energy” shown by Zhou Xiaoping, a young blogger in the audience who is notorious for his anti-US and radically nationalist online rants.

In an article posted last year, Mr. Zhou called American democracy “a nightmare for the whole human race,” since “all America’s wealth comes from squeezing the rest of the world.”

A 1949 reflex

Casting blame on foreign or Western hostile forces is a reflex that dates back to the 1949 revolution that brought Mao to power in China. It has been in and out of fashion ever since, says Qian Gang, a scholar at Hong Kong University’s China Media Project, who has studied the trend.

Mr. Qian, who calls the phrase an example of “deep red” language, says its rate of use in official media is a telling clue about the prevailing political atmosphere. It peaked after the Tiananmen protests and political crackdown in 1989, for example.

“It is not a new trope, but it has become a more prevalent way of framing domestic problems,” says Shirk. “It is now much more in the foreground.” 

She says she finds that “puzzling” because it runs counter to Beijing’s oft-stated desire for better ties with the United States within the framework of a “new great power relationship.” 

The trend is also at odds with the reality of a modern nation infused with foreign capital, ideas, and culture. Chinese universities continue set up schools funded by foreign benefactors, and the government runs well-funded programs to attract foreign experts in science and other fields. China attracted $118 billion in direct foreign investment in 2013, a record amount, and that trend shows no sign of slowing, even as regulators crack down on Western firms such as Microsoft, GlaxoSmithKline, and Qualcomm.

Yet as the government adopts an increasingly strident tone on topics ranging from territorial disputes to the prospect of national rejuvenation as a world power, it is using nationalism to stir citizens’ hearts.

“For that, they need foreign enemies,” says Prof. Zhang. “Blaming foreigners is an old trick, but the way this administration has been using it suggests a general ideological change of mind and direction.”

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