Last month China’s ruling Communist Party launched a mass campaign to “deepen patriotism” in university faculties.
One academic that the Party need not doubt in this regard: Hu Angang, head of the Institute for Contemporary China Studies at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. The author of China in 2020: A New Type of Superpower, Hu is well known for his bullish assessments of his motherland’s achievements. Last year in a series of speeches and reports he claimed “China has overtaken the US in all respects”. It had surpassed America in economic clout, technological prowess, and overall competitiveness, he said, in the years 2013, 2015 and 2012 respectively.
While Party propagandists were seemingly calling for more such research, counter-currents seem to be at work in a long summer of political intrigue that may have questioned President Xi Jinping’s authority.
Hu is said to have Xi’s ear. Indeed some have suggested that his work in part forms the basis of China’s more assertive stance on topics including the Belt and Road Initiative and the ongoing trade war with the US.
But here is the rub. Many academics think his work is flawed, that his numbers don’t add up and that he is simply flattering those at the top.
In an open letter this month to Qiu Yong, president of Tsinghua, over a thousand alumni called for Hu to be fired on account of his “irresponsible” claims last year.
“They are misleading to national policymaking and confusing to ordinary people… we should insist on the truth and not be unnecessarily arrogant or proud of our achievements,” they said, adding that Hu’s Institute, which opened in 2011, had wasted taxpayers’ money and ruined their alma mater’s reputation with its lack of scientific rigour.
The letter may or may not have been timed to coincide with the run-up to a senior Party cadres’ annual retreat in Beidaihe (see page 1), but it did so.
As did another public missive titled “Imminent fears, Immediate hopes” from Tsinghua law professor Xu Zhangrun who accused Xi of veering towards totalitarianism.
“An emergency brake must be applied to the unfolding Personality Cult [of Xi]” he wrote before accusing some academic researchers of “outdoing themselves with their sickeningly slavish behaviour”.
Censors moved quickly to remove Xu’s essay (reportedly written from Tokyo) but interestingly state media initially published news of the open letter that called for Hu’s dismissal by alumni.
And for a short while anger at Hu was given free rein online where he was widely mocked for being a sycophant and a “fake” academic.
Yet even when the censors stepped in to remove that news there was a sense that something had changed. The People’s Daily ran a series of three opinion pieces calling for an end to articles which lead society into an “erroneous zone of arrogance”.
“Boastful writing will distort the national mentality,” it warned, adding that headlines claiming dizzying national achievements “deserve reflection”.
This seems to dovetail with a growing sense that China may have overreached with some of its ambitions and provoked other governments unnecessarily. The escalation of the trade war with Washington and the moves to freeze out Chinese investment both in the US and Europe (see page 15) indicate that fears of Beijing’s rising clout are growing.
Indeed, alongside the public rebuke of Hu there was a parallel incident that may well be connected. That was the decision to order state media to stop referencing the ‘Made in China 2025’ industrial plan, which the leadership has belatedly concluded to be a PR mistake. Initially viewed within Beijing as a blueprint for promoting innovation – and not much different in nature to Germany’s Industry 4.0 plan – the interpretation is markedly different overseas. Senators in Washington instead see it as a direct challenge to America’s tech supremacy, and a consequent threat to the US economy and to national security.
The decision to suppress references to this state-directed investment agenda may indicate a new consensus emerging as Chinese politicians return to Zhongnanhai from Beidaihe. A more modest tone may now characterise China’s approach to international relations – at least for the time being.
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