Thursday, November 10, 2005

Mission: Beheading Action

As if the London police didn't have enough to worry about, this week Chinese president Hu Jintao decided to complicate their lives by making a state visit. Last time a PRC leader stopped by (Jiang Zemin in 1999), the Bobbies lost face by manhandling the mandatory Free Tibet crowd. This time round, they hit on the simple expedient of keeping the prostesters on the north side of the Mall while seating Hu on the royal carriage's left, i.e. with a window facing south if you're heading towards Buckingham palace. Needless to say, Hu was far too polite to peer over the Queen's shoulder, saving both governments the embarassment of him having to see the prostesters' political message.

Hu gets a one-sided view of The Mall

It's unlikely that Hu heard it, either, as the Mall's south side was reserved for the President's homecrowd. The chanted slogans of the Free Tibet and Falungong army were cancelled out out by a roughly equal number of flag-waving PRC expats, some of whom travelled to London for the occasion. It might have been Whitehall's way of introducing Hu to the great British institution of the soccer riot. After all, they went to the trouble of illuminating London landmarks with red floodlights for Hu's visit, the first such show put on for China's benefit since British troops burned the Summer Palace in 1860.

In a strange coincidence, a similar pro-Beijing crowd packed the hall for a speech by rogue diplomat Chen Yonglin at Melbourne University a few months back. A large and apparently coordinated group of Chinese students - about half the 400 people in the audience - contrived to stop Chen even finishing sentences, through unbroken heckling, swearing and chanted paeans to the Motherland. As the media spin - and some personal conversations of mine - would have it, the individuals concerned took their marching orders from the local PRC consulate. These political contacts are allegedly institutionalised in an unnamed "Chinese students' association" at Melb Uni (which could mean any one of ten clubs). The idea is admittedly a small extension from Chen's claims, substantiated by other well-informed sources, that Beijing uses its private citizens abroad for intelligence-gathering and more mundane political activities, whether harassing CCP defectors or cheering visiting PRC grandees.

Chen speaks at Melbourne University on August 5. The lady on his left is Antonia
Finnane, the event coordinator and the history department's resident sinologist.

A local (Chinese) patriot takes Chen to task

I missed Chen on campus, but did go to see him speak that evening at Designs Australia in Carlton. I was hoping to spot placemen in the audience, but came out disappointed; there was no heckling to speak of, though Chen was grilled once or twice during question time, being called a traitor to his face by a local refugee advocate. By the end the heat was being turned on the event coordinator, who was accused of cherry-picking audience questions; at that point she decided to end proceedings in order to make the dinner booking at The Peking Duck on Lt. Burke Street. On the sidewalk outside, a heated argument between audience members offered a better chance to pick out consulate stooges, but I was distracted by a close look at Chen as he was hustled away. Maybe it's the boyish face, but my strong impression was of a young man out of his depth, being kicked around like a political football by various interest groups.

Chen certainly hasn't settled in quietly, with claims that he's now the target of a PRC hit squad, based on tipoffs from a friend inside the Chinese foreign ministry. Operation "Beheading Action"was allegedly authorised to make Chen an example that will plug the stream of Party desertions to western countries. Or maybe it's just designed to shut Chen up, based on his experience to date of indiscreet surveillance at dinner outings and close encounters with cab drivers. After the publicity surrounding his case, for Chen to now have an unfortunate accident would probably be a net political loss for Beijing. Chen certainly hasn't helped things blow over, with his post-defection speaking tour of Australia and a trip to Washington for a hearing before US Senators. As the Chinese proverb goes, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down...


Sam said...

Loyal CCP expats are a strange phenomenon. I ran into a bunch living in Canada. On one occasion I started talking to to a guy in an International Relations lecture from Zhuhai, near where I had stayed when I was there. The topic of that evening's lecture happened to be Taiwan. When the lecturer asked the class about the situation (yes, 2nd year jock class on IR, you're lucky if people know which direction the US is), he stood up and aggressively stated there was no situation, and outlined the party line. The silence was deafening!

John Lee said...

yeah I've had experiences like that, though the line between a party-state's pecualiarities and garden-variety jingoism can be pretty grey. A lot of the stuff that American (and Aussie) rightwingers peddle is fresh off the Bush press, or the Murdoch one.

2nd year jock class on IR? does Canada have US-style undergrad cross-training? i.e. everyone has to do arts subjects in their first 2 years, whatever degree

Sam said...

Yep.... Canada and US are one and the same, 4 year liberal arts to start off. You start to focus in 3rd year.

Agree with you on the party-line thing, it's not so much that the press is willing to peddle party-line, but for private citizens to is a little disconcerting. (China -private citizen??... sometimes I make myself laugh)