Mehdi Hasan: Over the last four decades, China’s economic boom has lifted millions out of poverty and set the country on a path to become the world’s largest economy
Christine Lagarde, International Monetary Fund Managing Director (archive): We observe an incredible rebalancing of the Chinese economy … at a faster pace than anyone else.
Mehdi Hasan: But since president Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, critics say China has become even more autocratic.
Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China (archive): We must uphold the party’s absolute leadership.
Mehdi Hasan: He has tried to curb corruption, but has also cracked down on his rivals, and invested billions in a bigger, stronger military, reflecting a more aggressive foreign policy
Wu Qian, China’s Ministry of National Defence spokesman (archive): We will safeguard our sovereignty and security interests at whatever cost.
Mehdi Hasan: At home, up to a million Muslim Uighurs are believed to have been interned by the Chinese authorities in so-called “re-education” centres.
Adrian Zenz, Chinese minority policy specialist (archive): This appears to be the most intensive social re-engineering effort of the Chinese state since the Cultural Revolution.
Mehdi Hasan: But my guest tonight disputes all this, and believes China is a force for good in the world.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m Mehdi Hasan, and I’ve come to the Oxford Union to go head to head with Charles Liu, a Chinese financier, senior fellow at the Peking University and an adviser to the Chinese government. I’ll challenge him on China’s human rights record and ask him is China’s economic miracle sustainable, and what on earth is going on with the Uighurs.
Tonight, I’ll also be joined by three experts:
Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London,
Andreas Fulda, a China expert at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute,
and Victor Gao, Vice president of the Centre for China and Globalisation in Beijing, and a former interpreter for the late President Deng Xiaoping.
Mehdi Hasan: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Charles Liu.
Mehdi Hasan: Liu is the founder and chairman of investment company Hao capital, and a regular TV commentator on Chinese issues.
Mehdi Hasan: Charles Liu, thanks for joining me on Head to Head. Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose government you’ve advised, said last year, “China is ready for a bloody battle against our enemies,” and kicked off 2019 by ordering the People’s Liberation Army to, quote, “Prepare for a comprehensive military struggle”. With who, Charles?
Charles Liu: There’s only one country that is sending warships into Chinese territory, that is threatening China with all kinds of things.
Mehdi Hasan: The United States?
Charles Liu: The United States.
Mehdi Hasan: But whenever I heard President Trump speak, he says how much he loves President Xi and how they’re great pals.
Charles Liu: But everything that he’s doing, all the executive orders, the military budget, all of this is focused on challenging China’s position in the world. China has one military outpost. The US has 800.
Mehdi Hasan: It’s interesting, because you say the US is a threat, and threatening China, and China’s reacting. It’s funny, ’cause the US commander on the ground in the Asia Pacific, Admiral Phil Davidson, in February, told the US Senate the exact opposite.
He says, “Through fear and economic pressure, Beijing is working to expand its form of ideology in order to bend, break and replace the existing rules-based international order.”
Charles Liu: Who’s replacing rules of international order? Who’s cracking down on WTO? Who’s left the Paris Climate Agreement? Who’s challenging [the] agreement that’s reached with the Iranians? Who? It’s not China.
Mehdi Hasan: I mean, you could make it all about America, but, and I’m not here to defend Trump’s America, but the reality is that Chinese hawks, independently of the US, are on the ascendant in your country. On 20th of December, Chinese Rear Admiral Luo Yuan, said, “The Chinese Navy should consider sinking two US aircraft carriers, and killing 10,000 US service personnel. What the United States fears the most is taking casualties. We’ll see how frightened America is.”
Charles Liu: Oh! I don’t take these type of comments seriously.
The chance of a war between the two sides is minimal.
Mehdi Hasan: Last year, the Chinese government announced its biggest increase in military spending for three years. Even though you already have a defence budget which is bigger than the UK, France, South Korea and Russia combined. And yet, you announced the biggest increase for three years. This is not just about words.
Charles Liu: Oh! When the US still continues to challenge, as they do, for entering Chinese territorial waters, however you look at it, the total amount, it is still insignificant compared to US spending.
Mehdi Hasan: Insignificant, but you spend than –
Charles Liu: Compared to –
Mehdi Hasan: – the UK, France and Russia combined, three nuclear powers.
Charles Liu: The three nuclear powers in terms of population adds up to how many?
Mehdi Hasan: What’s population got to do with your military spending? You have a big population, we know that. What’s that got to do with your military budget?
Charles Liu: So, per capita spending is …
Mehdi Hasan: Oh, India has a huge population, they don’t, they spend a quarter of what you spend.
Charles Liu: They wish they had the money to spend more.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. Let’s talk about something where it doesn’t directly involve the United States, the South China Sea arbitration. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in 2016 that Chinese claims to the South China Sea have no legal basis. And yet, the Chinese continue to disregard that ruling. China’s claiming more and more land, more and more resources, building more and more of these artificial islands, I think seven, so far. Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, they’ve all been upset with Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea, with China taking these reefs,
Charles Liu: All the discussion about South China Sea has been so-called “freedom of navigation”. When was it last time you’ve seen a blockage of freedom of navigation? And when was the last time you heard the countries you have named, including Vietnam, raise an issue on China and South China Sea? It’s only your friends, Americans, and Australians who are jumping up and down all, all over this.
Mehdi Hasan: It’s interesting you should say that because in 2018 a bunch of Asian countries, mainly your neighbours, were asked, would it be better to have, for the world to have, the US or China as the leading global power? Seventy-three percent of Asian respondents including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, favoured the US versus 12 percent for China. Even with Trump as president, 77 percent of Filipinos say they prefer US leading the world to Beijing. That’s pretty damning. To pick Trump over China, that’s pretty damning I would argue.
Charles Liu: That is! But, in practical terms, I don’t see these countries, in terms of their foreign policy and their governments, addressing the Chinese as a Pew poll would seem to indicate.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s bring in our panel here to see what they think about this so far. Andreas Fulda is a German academic and China expert at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute. Andreas, should China’s neighbours and the wider world, be worried about this Chinese military build-up, this increase in spending?
Andreas Fulda: Yeah, I think they should, and the truth of the matter is if, when Xi Jinping talks about China’s national rejuvenation, it is worrisome because the underlying tenets are a radical revisionist and expansionist foreign policy as evident from the artificial reefs in the South China Sea, but also his threat of annexing Taiwan, which is a liberal democracy, a very vibrant society, just opposite the coast of mainland China. And what I think his game plan is to project his power abroad to shore up his support at home.
Mehdi Hasan: Charles, just deal with Andreas’ specific point about Taiwan. You were born in Taiwan, of course. If you still lived in Taipei today, the Taiwanese capital, wouldn’t you be worried at some of the rhetoric coming out of Beijing about annexation?
Charles Liu: I wouldn’t be at all, ’cause I actually went –
Mehdi Hasan: What does it take to worry you Charles?
Charles Liu: No, I went to Taipei for the midterm elections. What I see in Taipei or in Taiwan today is the people in Taiwan have gotten fed up with so-called “independence politics”. They are looking for a better life, why is it 170,000 engineers have left Taiwan and have gone to Shenzhen? Why is it all the, 90 percent of the start-ups in Taiwan are aimed at the Chinese market, and not the Taiwanese market? I think the fact that the economies have become so integrated between Taiwan and China, it leads to let’s say the possibility of addressing the issue.
Andreas Fulda: But my impression is that the young Taiwanese are actually quite worried, that they may actually lose out in this process and also lose their de facto sovereignty as a liberal democratic island-state.
Charles Liu: But that is no longer considered a primary issue, even for the younger people.
Mehdi Hasan: OK, let me bring in Steve Tsang, who’s a British political scientist, born in Hong Kong, currently the director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Steve, is this a new form of aggressive foreign policy on China’s part, or is that just an exaggeration on the part of China’s enemies? What is China trying to do with its foreign policy? Is it trying to change the region, change the world?
Steve Tsang: After Xi Jinping become leader of China, what we are seeing is an assertive foreign policy that essentially amounts to China now requests and requires the rest of the world to pay China due respect. And what amounts to due respect is something to be judged by the Communist Party of China or in effect by the leader of China, General-Secretary of the Communist Party Xi Jinping.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. We’ve also got Victor Gao with us, one of China’s best known international politics experts, vice president of the Centre for China and Globalisation in Beijing, former interpreter for the late President Deng Xiaoping. You can’t deny that the current Chinese president is taking different steps to his predecessors. Is demanding respect on the regional and international stage.
Victor Gao: China doesn’t want to challenge the international order today, but China wants to have a better say, a larger say in the international order today, and I hope the rest of the world will respect China’s request because this is legitimate. This is legal, this is not revolutionary means to overthrow the international order –
Mehdi Hasan: Well, in the South China Sea, there’s a debate about legality. Steven, you’re smiling there when Victor said they don’t want to –
Steve Tsang: Well, China is not out there to change the international system as we know it, at the moment, but it is transforming it. When the UN agency for human rights was being changed, and then China play a leading role in the transformation, the creation of the human rights council and as it does so, it basically changes the discussions at the UN about human rights. Now, China is not at the, much of the receiving end of criticism on human rights.
Mehdi Hasan: Interesting. Charles, let me ask you this. One of the reasons so many people abroad are worried about Chinese foreign and defence policies right now is because you have a president who at home appears to be bent on increasing his own power and reach. Chinese presidents since Mao, as you know, tended to serve five or 10 years in office. But President Xi has cracked down on his rivals, refused to designate a successor, and last year, got rid of term limit. He’s gearing up to be president for life, isn’t he? Dictator–in–chief?
Charles Liu: OK, two things. Number one, it’s a one-party system.
Mehdi Hasan: We noticed.
Charles Liu: And, thank God! The key issue for the Chinese government is that they tried very hard over the years to maintain stability. You’re claiming this president-for-life thing. It’s precisely you don’t understand how the system works.
Mehdi Hasan: OK, explain it.
Charles Liu: Now, take Hu Jintao, for example, during his second term, was seen as lame, lame duck for the entire second term. And he couldn’t implement or execute a lot of things that he wanted to execute. It doesn’t mean that he’s actually going to continue for another term, but that prospect will take out the possibility of being regarded as [a] lame duck.
Mehdi Hasan: But it does give him the option to serve for life legally within your system.
Charles Liu: If it goes in that direction –
Mehdi Hasan: He does seem to be going in that direction.
Charles Liu: Not necessarily.
Mehdi Hasan: OK, quick question though, on the vote last year in March, that was the vote in the National People’s Congress to get rid of term limits, the delegates voted 2,964 of them voted, two of them voted against. 2,959 voted in favour. Was that a free and fair election? I’m just wondering, too, I mean 2,900 people voted the way he wanted. Coincidence?
Charles Liu: No, it was –
Mehdi Hasan: Is that how Chinese politics works?
Charles Liu: Apparently, that’s how it works.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. Good to hear such an endorsement of the system.
Charles Liu: I think you should not be addressing the Chinese entire system of how it works in comparison to what you have in the West. You have to remember that 50 years ago, 90 percent of the population were illiterate, only 10 percent was literate, or sophisticated, educated. The whole process of transforming that into a modern society, it’s taken a long time
Mehdi Hasan: By the way, lots of Chinese people weren’t happy with the two-term limit and they took to Weibo and other online forums and they were not allowed to. In fact, the Chinese government disallowed the words “personality cult”, “my emperor”, “two-term limit”, “Emperor Xi”, they were all not allowed to use those words online to avoid people’s dissatisfaction with this move.
Charles Liu: You read Weibo?
Mehdi Hasan: I don’t read Weibo but [there are] others who read it for me.
Charles Liu: OK. Now, there are comments, their views and comments describing their views and comments on, on this issue.
Mehdi Hasan: They got shut down.
Charles Liu: It’s not true it got shut down, because I wrote something on this, as well.
Mehdi Hasan: What, you wrote something critical of President Xi on Weibo?
Charles Liu: Absolutely.
Mehdi Hasan: Oh wow, what did you write?
Charles Liu: I said this would not be regarded well by the Western press.
Mehdi Hasan: That’s your definition of a criticism of the Chinese president? Nicely done, Charles. We’ve gotta move on, time is short. We wanna talk about the economy in part two. Before we do, there’s another big domestic issue that’s grabbed a lot of headlines in recent months. Your country, the government you support and have advised, according to a UN rapporteur, according to the US State Department, according to Amnesty International, according to Human Rights Watch, according to plenty of journalists, and many others, are believed to have detained maybe a million people or more, mainly from the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority in re-education camps. A million people, Charles. A million.
Charles Liu: OK. OK. It’s certainly not grabbing headlines in China.
Mehdi Hasan: Isn’t that because you don’t have a free press in China, so you can’t have headlines about the Uighurs?
Charles Liu: No, it’s because there are 55 national minorities in China, and Uighurs population is in total –
Mehdi Hasan: Between nine and 10 million, I believe, in Xinjiang.
Charles Liu: Yes, 0.7 percent of the population.
Mehdi Hasan: OK, but the world doesn’t work on percentages. If you lock up a million people in camps –
Charles Liu: The world doesn’t –
Mehdi Hasan: – the world pays attention.
Charles Liu: One-point-four billion people need to be fed, need to be clothed, need to be educated
Mehdi Hasan: What’s that got to do with locking up a million people in Xinjiang? That must concern you to hear that a million people of your fellow Chinese countrymen and women have been locked up by your government.
Charles Liu: If it’s true, sure.
Mehdi Hasan: How do we establish if it’s true or not? Why don’t you let people into check and count? Then we’ll know for sure.
Charles Liu: I think people have visited.
Mehdi Hasan: No, they’ve been on kind of supervised trips with Chinese monitors to select camps where they haven’t been able to see everything. In fact, Reuters went on a trip last year, they were taken around. They were allowed to meet some people and the people sang, If You’re Happy and You Know It – Clap Your Hands. And Chinese government monitors stood in the room the whole time and no one was allowed to speak to anyone independently.
Charles Liu: Ok, well –
Mehdi Hasan: You know, Charles, that there are people who’ve been in those camps who have come out of those camps, are now refugees in the US and Kazakhstan, and they have testified to hooding, shackling, torture, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, starvation. This is what’s coming out from people who’ve been in those camps in Xinjiang.
Charles Liu: If it’s true, then it’s certainly very bad.
This is not my area of expertise and I’m not involved in the politics. And I’ve never been to Xinjiang. I’m more concerned about the economic side.
Mehdi Hasan: But let me bring in Victor Gao who is a very well-known Chinese political commentator. Even Chinese government officials have admitted that there are these camps, there are people locked up for “re-education” but in the most horrific conditions and we’re talking up to a million people, Victor. How can you justify that?
Victor Gao: The Uighur people are our brothers and sisters. I have many friends among the Uighur people. Among the Muslim people in China, they are a minority, most of them are great Chinese nationals, that’s for sure. However, Among the Uighur Muslims there are extremists, there are terrorists, and there are separatists, which want to, who want to split Xinjiang away from China. In China, under the Chinese law, anyone attempting to separate any part of Chinese territory outside of China is committing a crime. We need to be fully aware of this legal issue. We cannot tolerate anyone to do that.
Mehdi Hasan: I don’t think anyone’s denying that some Uighurs have been caught up in international terrorism, no one’s denying that. I’m wondering why not lock them up? Why lock up a million people?
Victor Gao: First of all, all together in Xinjiang, there is less than 10 million Uighur people. If you are really serious in believing that there is a one million people among the Uighurs who are locked up in so-called “camps”, this is completely fabricated.
Mehdi Hasan: How many people are locked up?
Charles Liu: I do not know.
Mehdi Hasan: Well, you can’t say it’s not a million if you don’t have an alternative number.
Victor Gao: There are several views. One is the definition of one million or less than one million, that’s the one thing. The other one is locked up.
Mehdi Hasan: Well, they’re not there out of their own volition, are they?
Victor Gao: No, there are people in Xinjiang who are going through training or retraining for education purposes. There are people in Xinjiang –
Mehdi Hasan: Education purposes? Kairat Samarkan, who was one of the people who managed to get out of a camp, he says, “we were forced to sing political songs and study speeches of the Chinese Communist Party. We were forced to chant, ‘Long live, Xi Jinping’ before we were given our meals. Many of us who tried to attempt suicide.”
Victor Gao: Allow me to say one thing for sure. No one in China is saying “Long live, Xi Jinping.” So whatever report you are quoting is false, to start with.
Mehdi Hasan: Here’s what I don’t get, Victor. The UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the US State Department, various China experts, human rights activists, have come up with this number of a million based on satellite photography, based on people who have come out and talked about it. You’re saying it’s not a million. I’m asking very simply, how many is it?
Victor Gao: I think we need to just differentiate the realities on the ground versus the falsified claims.
Mehdi Hasan: So refugees, Uighur refugees have talked about being tortured in camps, they’re just making it up according to you?
Victor Gao: I think lots of these claims are falsified.
Mehdi Hasan: Wow, and, and you’re a friend of the Uighur people, OK. Andreas Fulda. What do you make of Victor’s response and Charles’ responses so far?
Andreas Fulda: I think it’s, you know, both what Charles and Victor said is indefensible, and let me explain, for a lot of people who support the Chinese Communist Party, cultural difference has to be dealt with by homogenisation and assimilation. But let me give a human face to these people. There is a pop singer, he’s famous for a song where he’s encouraging young people to study hard to do physical exercise and to be courteous. He is not a terrorist, Victor. Or a second example, there is another gentleman he was a very promising footballer. Because he travelled abroad, he was deemed a potential terrorist. He’s in a camp. He’s not a terrorist, and the last, but not least, and it’s really important, the peace activist llham Tohti very widely respected individual, he has always advocated that the predominantly Han Chinese should get along with the Uighurs and vice versa. He was locked up for life for this kind of moderate advocacy on behalf of his own people. So, I would say these three individuals need to be released immediately. The one million Uighurs and Kazakhs need to be released immediately. There is no justification to bring so much harm to them and their families. They should be able to live in peace and free from fear.
Mehdi Hasan: Victor, what’s your response to that? And Charles, you wanted to come in.
Victor Gao: Do you know how many Uighur fighters are fighting in –
Mehdi Hasan: It’s definitely not a million.
Victor Gao: – Syria? 5,000 people. And each –
Mehdi Hasan: So, why not lock up those 5,000 people?
Victor Gao: – each Uighur fighter fighting in Syria has about three or four persons in their family, fighting together.
Charles Liu: How does 5,000 fighters go over to Syria?
Mehdi Hasan: Come on, Charles, every country has had problems with fighters going out to Syria. France has endured far more terrorist attacks than China has.
Charles Liu: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.
Mehdi Hasan: And the French have not locked up a million Muslims in France.
Charles Liu: Five thousand and how did they get there? There’s a support group –
Mehdi Hasan: Same in France, Charles. And the French have not locked up a million people. They have a problem, the French claim they have a problem with radicalisation. They’ve brought in a state of emergency, but they haven’t detained a million people.
Mehdi Hasan: Even the French haven’t said you can’t name your son “Mohammed”, you can’t have children entering mosques. Government employees can’t fast during Ramadan. You can’t grow “abnormally long beards.” That’s what Beijing has banned Uighur people from doing.
Charles Liu: That’s false.
Mehdi Hasan: How about children not being allowed to go into mosques?
Charles Liu: That’s totally false.
Mehdi Hasan: Why is it false? How do you know it’s false?
Charles Liu: Because –
Mehdi Hasan: I’ve seen the photos of the signs. There are photos of the signs.
Charles Liu: I have a neighbour, next, immediate nextdoor neighbour who is Muslim and who goes to mosque with his children.
Mehdi Hasan: In Beijing.
Charles Liu: Yeah.
Mehdi Hasan: He’s not in Xinjiang, I don’t, You, on the one hand you say, don’t ask me I don’t know anything about this, but then you jump in to say everything’s fake.
Steven, let me ask you this. You’re listening to Charles and Victor saying, this is propaganda. What do we know? What does the evidence suggest to you that you’ve seen? That can be corroborated about what’s happening in the ground on a place like Xinjiang?
Steve Tsang: What we do note of the political system is that the Communist Party of China has a monopoly of the truth and the monopoly of history in China. Therefore, what they say must be true. It’s by definition. And what anybody else has to say that does not coincide with what the party says are false news. That is what we’re dealing with. When we are talking about one-tenth of an identifiable minority in the home country, being identified and put in camps, how would our friends here feel if one-tenth of the native population of Shanghai or Beijing are living in camps?
Mehdi Hasan: Charles, do you wanna answer that?
Charles Liu: I’ve never thought about that question.
Mehdi Hasan: OK, but he’s just posed it.
Charles Liu: I just don’t see it. I don’t see it happening. I don’t see it possible physically.
To spend this inordinate amount, amount of time on something which many, myself included, don’t feel to be truthful is, I think, negative propaganda on your part, Mehdi.
Mehdi Hasan: Here’s what I don’t get. On the one hand, you say I don’t know anything about this. On the other hand, you say I believe it’s untruthful. You can’t have it both ways, Charles. If you don’t know anything about it, maybe you shouldn’t accuse other people of making stuff up? And you and Victor say it’s all fake news!
Charles Liu: Maybe there’s, maybe there is some fake news there.
Mehdi Hasan: OK, well on that note, we’re gonna leave the discussion. We’re gonna take a break. We’re gonna come back in part two of Head to Head, with Charles Liu, with our panel of experts, we’re gonna hear from our patient audience here in the Oxford Union, we’re gonna talk about the Chinese economic miracle, and about much more.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back to Head to Head on Al Jazeera. My guest today is Charles Liu, the financier, entrepreneur, informal adviser to the Chinese government.
Undoubtedly, the Chinese economy has been a success story in many ways, record growth, millions of people lifted out of poverty. I don’t think anybody questions that. But there are, of course, as you know, serious concerns about the sustainability of the Chinese economic miracle; how long it’s gonna last.The jobs market’s got a lot tougher. Exports and imports have slowed down, the Chinese stock indexes, I believe, lost almost a quarter of their value last year. Even the trade war with the US seems to be taking its toll. Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the Chinese economic miracle?
Charles Liu: I remember a book from 1998 by a top economist called The Oncoming Collapse of the Chinese Economy and that’s 1998, 2019? It’s 20 some years ago. There’s been plenty of discussion about the oncoming collapse of the Chinese economy and oncoming collapse of the Chinese financial system, oncoming collapse of Chinese productivity. I’m afraid, so far, it’s proven that it’s not –
Mehdi Hasan: More durable than people think.
Charles Liu: The Chinese economy is transforming. It is moving from cheap labour, manufacturing, for Fortune 500 companies, to a significantly meaningful domestic market and domestic consumption. Now, 6.5 percent, OK, I would say to my co-investors, even four percent is quite good because the base is so much bigger now.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. One thing that’s been a consistent trend in China that’s just been getting worse and worse over the last few decades is inequality that seems to be spiralling out of control in your country. There were 89 new Chinese billionaires in 2018 alone. That’s almost two new billionaires a week, while tens of millions of people still live in poverty. Why is a self-styled communist society producing so many billionaires and so much income inequality?
Charles Liu: Well, I think it’s the value creation in society as a whole. Deng Xiaoping said let some people get rich first in terms of development.
Mehdi Hasan: I think Milton Freedman said something similar, as well.
Charles Liu: Absolutely.
Mehdi Hasan: I think capitalists say the same thing too to be honest.
Charles Liu: Exactly.
Mehdi Hasan: What? Trickle-down economics is now the Chinese way?
Charles Liu: It’s the Chinese socialist way.
Mehdi Hasan: OK.
Charles Liu: Is it trickle-down, or is it something much more significant?
Mehdi Hasan: According to a recent study by the European think-tank Bruegel, quote, “The large and persistent income gap is partly the fault of China’s tax and transfer system”, and quote, “very generous personal income tax allowance and exemptions that favour high-income individuals.” You’re a high-income individual, aren’t you, Charles? You’ve benefited from this tax system, haven’t you? While other Chinese haven’t.
Charles Liu: There are two aspects to this. New tax laws have just been implemented which is supposed to be much more fair. Second is, it’s very, very difficult to have a transforming society that is changing so rapidly and to have a taxing system that fits in every stage of development. If you look at China in the 1980s, early 1990s, it was basically cheap manufacturing, and then they moved into something else.
Mehdi Hasan: And yet today, the Article One of the Chinese Constitution still says that the People’s Republic of China is a socialist state, led by the working class. That’s just a completely false description of China today. You’re not led by the working class, and you’re not really a socialist state.
Charles Liu: Yeah, we’re certainly not as socialist as Norway and, and Finland and Sweden. We prefer to look at what happens to the economy and whether or not people’s livelihoods have been improved.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. Well, let’s talk about some of the rich Chinese and what they’re up to. The Hurun Group, very well-respected research company, did a survey of high-net-worth individuals in China, rich millionaires. And so, and they found that almost half the number of rich Chinese are planning to move away from China to protect their fortunes and to get better educations for their kids. A lot of Chinese billionaires, millionaires, as you know – I mean, you keep going on about the West, the West, a lot of the rich people in your country are obsessed with the West. They buy houses in the West, they send their kids to school in the West, they buy Western art at ridiculous prices. How come?
Charles Liu: It’s part of investment. I buy things in the West, as well. You start thinking –
Mehdi Hasan: One-in-six said they wanted to move because of the political environment in China. One-in-five said they want to protect their assets. Three-quarters said they want their children to have a better education. Not a great vote of confidence in China from its richest people.
Charles Liu: OK, I have investments all over the world, as well, it doesn’t mean that I’m moving out of China. The number you should look at is the number of students returning to China after getting an education in the West.
Of course, with China vilification by the US, a lot of Chinese students have been pushed out of US schools.
Mehdi Hasan: I get how billionaire businessmen can send their kids abroad to study. How do you explain the president of China, on a $22,000 a year official salary, paying for his only daughter to go to Harvard? How do you explain all these top Politburo officials who are on $22,000, $23,000 a year sending their kids to some of the most expensive private schools and universities? How do they pay for that?
Charles Liu: If you went purely by SAT scores, that 80 percent of the population of the UC system will be Asian? They happen to be better students and they get scholarships.
Mehdi Hasan: So did Xi Jinping’s daughter get a scholarship to go to Harvard?
Charles Liu: I don’t know. I assume he could, she could have.
Mehdi Hasan: Because you know that his family, according to a Bloomberg study, are found to be billionaires. His brother-in-law’s name appeared in the Panama Papers. The Chinese political elite is riddled with corruption, as you well know.
Charles Liu: And that’s something that’s been in the process of being addressed the last four years.
Mehdi Hasan: What does that say about your model that the Chinese government has rounded up two million people, communist party officials have been disciplined for corruption in recent years?
Charles Liu: Thank God, that they’ve been rounded up
Mehdi Hasan: What about the president and the Politburo? He seems to only arrest people who are not in his inner circle, the people he likes never seem to get arrested.
Charles Liu: Not true.
Mehdi Hasan: Really? Can you name an ally of the president who he’s landed out recently?
Charles Liu: Who is an ally? Who is not? There are Politburo members who have been brought to charges.
Mehdi Hasan: Well, let’s ask our panel. Andreas Fulda is here, China expert at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute in the UK. You’ve advised German and European authorities on engagement with China. You’re shaking your head when Charles talks about corruption. How bad a problem is it in China and is it being dealt with?
Andreas Fulda: Well, first of all, of course, it’s very opaque and, it’s a dangerous topic to talk about. However, we know from the Wikileaks and one of the cables from the US State Department that the Politburo Standing Committee is basically a cabal of business empires and these individual members control whole industries, so what was alleged is that, for example, the now-imprisoned security czar, Zhou Yongkang, that he basically controlled the oil industry. And, for example, the case of the former Premier Wen Jiabao, his wife, she apparently liked diamonds a lot, so she would control the precious gems sector. Now, if you think about carving up the economic pie like this, then thinking that this founder of Amazon is the richest man in the world I think becomes a rather fanciful idea, because these members in the Politburo Standing Committee probably, and their families, are far richer than any individual outside China.
Mehdi Hasan: Victor Gao is with us, Chinese international politics expert, vice president of the Centre for China and Globalisation in Beijing, former interpreter to the late President Deng Xiaoping. How do you explain as someone who’s been around some of these people, you’ve been in their presence, where do they get all their money from if they’re on 22-grand a year?
Victor Gao: First of all, for the record, corruption in China is deeply entrenched. Secondly, as an institution and then as a policy, the Chinese government, Chinese party and the Chinese people cannot tolerate corruption. So, whatever that’s necessary to weed out corruption, to round up the corrupt officials we will do. And this is exactly, as Charles mentioned, the Chinese system is doing over the past five or six years in particular to be relentless in chasing after these corrupt cases.
Mehdi Hasan: But it doesn’t seem to be working –
Victor Gao: That’s, that’s number one.
Mehdi Hasan: – because Chinese overseas wealth has doubled between 2012 and 2018.
Victor Gao: Yeah.
Mehdi Hasan: They seem to be getting away with offshoring all their assets.
Victor Gao: Let me add another point. However, over the past 20 or 30 years, property price in China, in almost all the cities, has gone up significantly. So, most of the urban citizens in China, to say the least about the government officials, can actually afford their kids, send their kids to the best schools in the West, especially of the Chinese system of family relatives pooling up funds together to support the outstanding member – in China, many families actually do that.
Mehdi Hasan: Deal with Andreas’ point that you have former prime minister’s wife controlling the diamond industry. You have different Politburo members controlling different sectors of the economy. How is that – that’s socialism with a Chinese characteristic?
Charles Liu: That’s exactly what we were talking about before. Politburo members were held to task for these things.
Andreas Fulda: I mean, the thing is there was a report by the People’s Bank of China in 2011 and they found out that, since the 1990s, 18,000 party officials, managers of SOE, like big state-owned enterprises etc. had fled the country and they took with them a whopping $120bn. If you think about that kind of theft of and looting of state assets, if that had been invested let’s say in the Chinese education system or in Chinese health system, that would have alleviated a lot more poverty.
Mehdi Hasan: Let me bring in Steve Tsang, who’s been waiting patiently. British political scientist, born in Hong Kong, currently the director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. How bad is the inequality problem in China right now?
Steve Tsang: Could either of our very distinguished guest from China tell us what the Gini coefficient is in China.
Mehdi Hasan: This is the measure of inequality?
Steve Tsang: That is the measure of inequality. I studied China my entire career. I confess that I cannot tell you, because, that, no such figure is available.
Mehdi Hasan: Why? Because the Chinese government don’t want it to be available?
Steve Tsang: Maybe the party has collect them. But if the party has that information, it’s top secret, it’s completely classified. We are not allowed to know what it is.
Mehdi Hasan: Victor.
Victor Gao: In China, many people are not very happy about comparing their wealth to their neighbours. However, one thing is true among the majority of the Chinese people that is, if that person compares his own situation with his situation 10 years ago, 20 years ago or 40 years ago, everyone is better off. That’s the megatrend. We need to keep focused on the great changes that’s happening to everyone among the Chinese people. And that means every Chinese –
Mehdi Hasan: But inequality is a major issue, you can’t just dismiss it.
Victor Gao: Of course.
Mehdi Hasan: And I just wanna finish – Steve, deal with this point about, where this wealth comes from and how they use it to spend abroad.
Steve Tsang: This problem of corruption, it’s basically systemic. And the Chinese government under Xi Jinping has done a lot to deal with corruption. You quoted the two million figure overall. There is also a different set of figures, the so-called “tiger” figure. Tigers are basically vice minister and above rank senior leaders in the Chinese government. By the Western academic calculations, we calculate about just below 200 tigers has been brought down. The Chinese state media give the figures of closer to about 700. Amongst the 200 or 700 figures, name three who are people who had previously worked with President Xi and why is it so difficult to name even one single one of them.
Mehdi Hasan: Charles, do you wanna name someone?
Charles Liu: You don’t know who is –
Steve Tsang: We know who the 200 and the 700 hundreds are.
Charles Liu: But, you know, you can know who they are, but how do you identify who is in what camp?
Steve Tsang: We can look at their career. The party’s very good with their career structures. Who had worked with President Xi when he was in Fujian Province.
Mehdi Hasan: Your position is that people around Chinese President Xi have not been locked up for corruption. That’s Steve’s position. Can you dispute that? Do you have a, do you have a person that can –
Charles Liu: I don’t have a view on that.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. Let’s take –
Charles Liu: No, I wanna go back to something you said.
Mehdi Hasan: OK, yeah.
Charles Liu: When you said that the amount of wealth that left China in the last 10 years or something.
Mehdi Hasan: Yeah, between 2012 and 2018 has doubled, I believe.
Charles Liu: The GDP has doubled, as well.
Mehdi Hasan: There are a lot of Chinese billionaires taking advantage of tax havens. I’m wondering how that’s OK in a socialist country, supposedly.
Charles Liu: Well, you’re defining socialist in a, maybe –
Mehdi Hasan: How do you define socialism?
Charles Liu: I think socialist is just a slogan.
Mehdi Hasan: OK.
Charles Liu: In reality, it’s the Chinese way of doing things.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m glad we agree it’s just a slogan for the Chinese.
Mehdi Hasan: OK, let’s go to the audience, who have been waiting very patiently. Raise your hands. Wait for a microphone to come to you. Let’s go to the lady here.
Audience participant 1: Thank you very much. I am Uighur. I have been cut off from speaking to my family since beginning of 2017, just like many thousands of Uighurs living overseas. And my question to you, Mr Liu: Does it really bother or concern you that the country that you made home after renouncing your Taiwanese citizenship is criminalising the entire Uighur people and implementing policies that major Western news organisations, lawmakers and legal scholars have described as crimes against humanity? Thank you.
Charles Liu: First of all, I have Uighur friends. If it’s valid that there are things which are not properly done, of course it’s not good, of course, it’s not good.
Mehdi Hasan: Earlier you said that it was propaganda from me. When you hear these stories, do you realise it’s probably not best just to dismiss everything as propaganda?
Charles Liu: I used propaganda, because your abrasive, aggressive way of addressing it.
Mehdi Hasan: OK.
Charles Liu: Sorry.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. So, it wasn’t about the substance, you just don’t like my style. OK, that’s fine. I can live with that. The substance of it is –
Charles Liu: No, that’s not –
Mehdi Hasan: She’s telling you what’s going on. She can’t speak to her family. Is that propaganda? I’m just asking. This lady said she can’t even –
Charles Liu: I don’t know.
Mehdi Hasan: OK.
Charles Liu: I don’t know.
Mehdi Hasan: Victor wants to jump in. Go on, Victor.
Victor Gao: No, for this outstanding lady, I would say if she, you are a Uighur, I will treat you as a brother or sister, the same as I will treat the majority of people among the Uighur people. Secondly, if I can give you one piece of advice, I would say several things. If any of your Uighur brothers and sisters and relatives are Communist Party members in China, then by party discipline they are not allowed to go to a mosque. If they want to go to a mosque, fine, resign from the Communist Party of China. So the government in China has a discipline. If you are a Communist Party member of China, don’t go to a mosque, [don‘t] go to the Buddhist temple, go to, don’t go to a Catholic church.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. Before I go back to the audience, I need to ask you a follow-up on this. There are now reports, which haven’t been really denied by the Chinese government, that the Communist Party that you talk about is sending Han Chinese people to live in Uighur houses to watch them 24/7 as they eat, drink, pray. Is that fake news,as well?
Victor Gao: There is no problem in believing in Islam. I have many Islamic friends in China.
Mehdi Hasan: OK, you have Uighur friends, you have Muslim friends, I get it.
Victor Gao: No, however –
Mehdi Hasan: Do you have people living in your house against your will, because a lot of Uighurs do right now.
Victor Gao: No. However, if anyone in China misuses Islam as a pretext to split Xinjiang away from China, that’s a crime. So, don’t commit a crime.
Mehdi Hasan: Are there people living in Uighur homes in Xinjiang right now on behalf of the Communist Party?
Victor Gao: That, I’m not aware of. I have never been inside the family of a Uighur friend.
Mehdi Hasan: Unfortunately, a lot of Chinese Communist Party members have. Let’s go back to the audience. Let’s take the lady there in the green scarf at the back.
Audience participant 2: You said 5,000 people went to Syria and fight and my question to you is how did you not let them to go Syria to fight with such a strict barrier every 100 metres there are one checkpoints and even though people can’t go another, one town to another town and such a strict surveillance, how did you let them to go to the Syria?
Mehdi Hasan: Victor, do you wanna take that question?
Victor Gao: Most of these Uighur fighters now in Syria and previously and currently in Afghanistan have smuggled themselves out of China. So, in that action itself, is a violation of Chinese law again. There are smuggling activities bringing Uighurs out of China through Myanmar to Malaysia, for example. So this is a problem, not only to China, but to China’s neighbouring countries.
Mehdi Hasan: Andreas Fulda, you’re here a China expert, I just wanna get your take on this. This argument about terrorism, is that a credible argument in your view?
Andreas Fulda: Well, you yourself made the point that every country has to deal with extremism. The question is how you do that. I think this idea that you need to create this monoracial nation where ethic difference is not tolerated, where cultural difference is not tolerated and where religious activity is not tolerated. I think, this is, for the lack of a better word, a rabbit hole that the Chinese Communist Party has gone in where I’m not quite sure how they can get out, where the, the off-ramp really is. Because do you want to keep like a million Uighurs in these camps forever? Or the next five years? Or – when do you release them?
Mehdi Hasan: I need to go back to the audience. But very briefly, Victor, how long, how long do these camps stay open?
Victor Gao: First of all, I do not agree with the premise of your question. There are more mosques being built as we speak than probably any other religious establishment in China.
Mehdi Hasan: Fine. Let’s go back to the audience. This lady here in the black shirt in the second row.
Audience participant 3: China still has a poor social security net and working labour rights and working conditions of the poor workers are still a problem in China. I want to ask how can these conditions be improved?
Mehdi Hasan: Charles.
Charles Liu: There is a shortfall in the social security pool, there’s no question. One of the ways that that has been addressed has been the allocation of 10 percent of the shareholding of state-owned enterprises, many of which are listed companies, either in New York or Hong Kong or in China. And to allocate that into the social security pool –
Mehdi Hasan: But isn’t the problem that – again, coming back to this idea of socialism, slogan or not, in the beginning of the show you were telling me, “Oh, India wishes they could spend what we spend on defence.” But is that really something to brag about when you spend I think five percent of your GDP on health and two percent on education, which is lower than what Sudan spends on health and education as a proportion of money. That’s pretty embarrassing for a country your size, your wealth, calling itself socialist.
Charles Liu: Absolutely, I think –
Mehdi Hasan: Abandoning the poor people when it comes to health and education.
Charles Liu: I think that health and education spending should be more. In terms of –
Mehdi Hasan: Why hasn’t it been?
Charles Liu: It’s been increasing significantly.
Mehdi Hasan: But why is it so low in a country that claims to care about the working class.
Charles Liu: It could be spending more, sure.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s take some more questions from the audience. Lady in the red shirt.
Audience participant 4: My question is do you think that the rise in populism and the economic slowdown in the West is possibly a threat to China?
Charles Liu: The rise of populism ultimately in a political sense is a threat to the whole world, because what we have in terms of the US, for example, and even Europe is a challenge to the rise of Asia overall, it’s not China. Because if you look at the 280 components for your iPhone, 270-something are made in Asia. It’s assembled in China. And its efficiency is enhanced because of the market size. So this rise of populism in trying to move the supply chain from Asia back to the United States, it is a threat. It’s a threat to the whole world, not just to China, because this supply chain in this market has been very beneficial for the whole world. This is how the West, including the US and Europe, has been able to get lower cost of living, lower and cheaper goods.
Mehdi Hasan: OK, let’s go, Gentleman here was waiting with the hat.
Audience Participant 5: I lost contact with my whole family since early 2017 and I recently found out my siblings, and they are in that so-called “concentration camps”, and I don’t know, are they still alive or not. And secondly, I don’t know my mother’s, she is well and why I not allowed to talk, communicate with them and also, why they not allowed my mother or my relatives to contact with me and why mum must suffer from not seeing and hearing from their sons?
Mehdi Hasan: OK.
Audience participant 5: That’s my question.
Charles Liu: That’s a statement. I have no idea about his mother
Mehdi Hasan: OK. Well, let me turn it into a question. When you hear such stories, aren’t you concerned as a citizen of China as to what’s might be going on in country?
Charles Liu: Yes, I am.
Mehdi Hasan: And when you got back to China, are you gonna do anything about it?
Charles Liu: I’ll find out more about the subject.
Mehdi Hasan: OK, let’s go back to the audience. I said at the back.
Audience participant 6: Personally, do you believe that China’s notion of human rights is fundamentally different? And, if so, how would you define China’s human rights policy?
Mehdi Hasan: OK, good question.
Charles Liu: I think cultural differences are there, in terms of human rights. For example, cultural differences and actually concrete circumstances. There was a lot of complaints about the violation of human rights to force one family per child, but if that policy was not implemented China would be over two billion people now. Who will feed them? Who will educate them? So there are concrete circumstances and very pragmatic issues that have to be addressed.
Mehdi Hasan: OK. Gentleman with the beard I said. Yeah, if you wanna stand up and get the mic.
Audience participant 7: Do you think it is good practice for the Chinese government to have full control over the information its citizens view online?
Mehdi Hasan: Do you take a sneaky peek at the rest of the internet when you’re in the UK?
Charles Liu: No, I don’t have, I don’t have any problems because I don’t take sneaky peeks of things that I’m not interested in.
Mehdi Hasan: OK.
Charles Liu: So, as –
Mehdi Hasan: But, in terms of his question, should the Chinese government control the flow of information to citizens?
Charles Liu: I think there should be some measure of control, including in the United States.
Mehdi Hasan: But total control in China?
Charles Liu: That should be lessened. That should be reduced.
Mehdi Hasan: You’d like to see it reduced in China?
Charles Liu: Yeah.
Mehdi Hasan: Do you think it will be?
Charles Liu: In some cases, it has been.
Mehdi Hasan: Let me ask you, ’cause we’re out of time, but I do wanna ask you this. You were born in Taiwan, a capitalist society. You moved to the US as a child. You studied at NYU and Princeton. You worked at the UN, but in 1975, I believe, you gave up your Taiwanese passport and your US green card to become a citizen of the People’s Republic. What made you give up all those liberties and freedoms and move to China?
Charles Liu: I felt quite oppressed in the US.
Mehdi Hasan: OK.
Charles Liu: I participated with Martin Luther King in the civil rights march in 1968.
Mehdi Hasan: Wow.
Charles Liu: And against the war in Vietnam, and I had one of my fellow students at Princeton beaten to death by rednecks just because he was Chinese.
Mehdi Hasan: Horrible stuff. And you thought China was the place to go to get more [freedom]?
Charles Liu: No, I just thought if they don’t want the Chinese, I’ll just be Chinese.
Mehdi Hasan: And you participated in MLK’s protests, civil rights protests?
Charles Liu: 1968, yes.
Mehdi Hasan: Do you think those protests could ever happen in China?
Charles Liu: I was actually shocked at how it took 200 years for the US to be addressing the issue of blacks sitting on the back of buses.
Mehdi Hasan: So China’s behind in the timeline. You might get those protests, but not right now.
Charles Liu: Well, I hope China doesn’t have to have protest for these things to be addressed.
Mehdi Hasan: Protests aren’t allowed at the moment, is the point I’m making. You can’t protest in China in that way.
Charles Liu: No, there –
Mehdi Hasan: That’s what you’re avoiding. That’s –
Charles Liu: No, no, there’s plenty of protests in terms of – even when the stock market crashed, you know, people were protesting
Mehdi Hasan: Charles Liu, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining me on the show. Thanks to our audience here in the Oxford Union. Thanks to our panel. Thanks for watching. Thank you, Charles Liu.
Charles Liu: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Source: Al Jazeera