(Photo Credit: 天堂映像, Fair Use)
Since taking the helm in 2012, China’s President Xi Jinping has personally endeavored to carry on Deng Xiaoping’s mission to “reform and open” China. Without reform and opening it will be difficult to maintain the economic growth necessary for China to achieve the longstanding goal of becoming a “moderately prosperous society” (小康社会) by the year 2020. Economic growth and social development also fit into Xi Jinping’s long term vision known as the “Chinese Dream,” or the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The new administration is making notable progress in economic reform, from taxation and budget reform, to restructuring of inefficient state-owned enterprises. While the reform efforts are laudable, little progress is being made on the ‘opening’ aspect. On the contrary, China is turning inward and becoming increasingly protectionist and suspicious of foreign influence. Anytime one opens web browser or launches an application on your phone in China you will see the extent of China’s unease, as many familiar apps and websites will function very slowly or fail to load at all. The world should be on notice as the implications of ‘reforming without opening’ are wide ranging for China and the international community as a whole.
In May of 2014, a new order from Beijing took many expat parents by surprise. Their sons and daughters studying at state schools could no longer do so under their parent’s visas and needed to return to their home country to obtain a specialized student visa. Previously, minors were included under the visa of one of their parents. The new rule might have only disrupted family vacations, but it is indicative of a broader movement to keep a closer watch on foreigners in China. Beijing’s order comes on the back of a tightened entry-exit law that came into effect in the summer of 2013. The new law triples visa processing times, doubles penalties for violations, and requires significantly more paperwork including criminal background checks. The new law also provides for deportation of foreigners who commit severe violations “that do not constitute a crime,” a very vague provision that gives the immigration authorities more control over foreigners living within their jurisdictions. Local business and expats alike dislike the new rules. What then, could be the reason that authorities are taking a harder line? The reason could be growing angst with the outside world, angst that is driven by a leadership that is increasingly mistrustful of foreign companies, foreign media, and the influence they engender.
The result is a China that is turning inward, as China’s latest education reforms clearly illustrate. As part of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening strategy, English education was pushed as vital to China’s modernization and integration with the outside world. Even primary school students began receiving English courses, English became a major component of China’s university entrance exam or “Gaokao,” and functional English a requirement for graduation. Now, as part of sweeping education reforms, the Chinese government is downplaying English and doubling down on Mandarin. Propaganda encouraging Mandarin proficiency now hang alongside advertisements for English training prep schools. English has been pulled from the university entrance exam and many jurisdictions are postponing English courses from the first to third grade. The changes came after some deputies at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference singled out English learning as “destructive” to China’s education system. The feeling is popular. An widely circulated article posted on Xinhua New’s public forum, cheered the decision to scale back English learning, arguing that “as long as English is still a part of Gaokao, the Chinese Dream is merely a daydream.” The zero-sum connection being made between foreign language learning and the Chinese Dream is notable.
Foreign languages are being de-emphasized, but foreign media is also being curtailed as part of a renewed censorship initiative that is directed at limiting foreign cultural influence. In February of 2012 the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television announced that overseas-produced shows could no longer be broadcast during the prime-time hours of 7-10pm and could account for no more than 25% of the total programming time each day. According to China Daily, the move was to “improve the quality of imported TV programs.” However, the regulations came just one month after former President Hu Jintao told fellow Communist Party members to maintain vigilance against “hostile” foreign forces that sought to divide China via cultural influence. The quelling of foreign media has only intensified under Xi Jinping. In October of 2013, the General Administration for Press and Publication issued new orders to satellite TV providers, limiting them to a maximum of just one foreign TV program each year. Now the crackdown is being expanded to internet streaming websites and apps. By the end of this year all video streaming websites must seek government approval for any hosted foreign content and the percentage of foreign content will be limited to less than 30% of the total. These arbitrary restrictions levied against foreign media prevent any true competition in the industry and run counter to the government’s pledge of reform and opening.
China is also increasingly suspicious of foreign businesses operating in the country. Apple came under fire in July when China Central Television called the iPhone’s “frequent locations” feature a “national security concern.” In response, Apple began storing user data on servers based in China, a first for the company, in August. Despite this, according to the Global Times news portal, Apple’s iPhone 6 China debut was delayed out of security fears. Some government departments in China are forbidding the purchase of foreign-branded phones altogether, though reports have been conflicting as to the extent of the ban. State run newspaper China Daily said that industry leaders are even looking “into the possibility of a government-led ban on global [mobile phone] brands in the name of national security.” One can argue back and forth if the moves are protectionist or motivated by genuine security anxiety, but the message is clear that domestic priorities are outweighing any effort to open China to outside competition.
China’s preference for domestic companies extends well beyond the IT sector. In a survey conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, some 60% of foreign business say they feel less welcome in China, an increase of nearly 20% from the year before. The sentiment has emerged as Chinese authorities launched numerous anti-trust investigations that some feel unfairly target foreign multinationals. In a report by the U.S.-China Business Council (USCBC) released in September, it was noted that during these investigations, some foreign companies have been pressured to admit guilt without having a chance to view or respond to the evidence against them. American companies are not alone. The European Chamber of Commerce in China also issued a statement noting “numerous alarming anecdotal accounts from a number of sectors that administrative intimidation tactics are being used to impel companies to accept punishments and remedies without full hearings.”
The evidence may be anecdotal and the diagnosis premature, but Xi’s China shows little appetite for true opening. On the contrary, from the pressure placed on foreign multinationals to arbitrary restrictions on overseas-produced media, Xi’s China is appearing increasingly suspicious of the outside world. The “Chinese Dream” is the hope that China can return to greatness after a “century of humiliation.” The strategy China is pursuing to achieve it, however, is fundamentally flawed. The leadership believes that it can lead China into the developed world without fully opening itself to that world. China needs confidence in itself. China must believe in its own culture and must trust that its own businesses can survive and adapt without the protective hand of the state. The development of a society arises through a dialectical process of competing ideas, just as economic development arises through market competition between goods and services. Economic and cultural development must advance hand-in-hand, building and reinforcing each other. China has only begun to realize the fruits of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening policy. Closing the door now will not enable China to reach its great rejuvenation, it will only prevent it.by