China Unbound: A New World Disorder
By Joanna Chiu.
House of Anansi Press, 2021.
Paperback, 304 pages, $20.
Reviewed by Jason Morgan
For most of the Donald Trump presidency, the news in the United States about the People’s Republic of China was edged with great-power rivalry. Even before the Wuhan virus pandemic, and even before Trump took office in early 2017, Americans knew that, when it came to China, there were problems with trade deficits, intellectual property theft, the PRC’s militarization of the South China Sea, infiltration of American college campuses by United Front-backed Confucius Institutes, and much more. Washington Post reporter and China watcher Josh Rogin’s 2021 book Chaos under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century, summed up the Zeitgeist in its catchy title (the part before the colon was cribbed from the chaos-loving Mao Zedong). If you are even a casual reader of the news in the United States you know that there are two giants in geopolitics, Washington and Beijing, and that they are squaring off for a monumental showdown.
Joanna Chiu’s China Unbound is a very different kind of book than Rogin’s, and tells a very different kind of story. Chiu is a Canadian journalist, now with the Toronto Star, who spent seven years in China (and before that worked out of Hong Kong) filing stories for Agence France Presse, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, the Economist, and the South China Morning Post, among many other outlets. Unlike Rogin, whose focus in Chaos under Heaven is on the biggest names in the most consequential rooms battling through the highest-pressure situations, and also unlike her fellow Canadian Jonathan Manthorpe, whose Claws of the Panda is a must-read introduction to the entangled political history of Ottawa and Beijing, Chiu is drawn to people who do not make the headlines. China Unbound is about a juggernaut Communist dictatorship, yes. But it is mostly about how that unbound dictatorship affects little people.
In that sense, China Unbound is reminiscent of To Build a Castle, Vladimir Bukovsky’s classic true story of the Soviet Union’s manic oppression of one lone dissident. And, although Chiu’s prose is hardly literary, there are echoes, at times, of Solzhenitsyn, too, of the millions and millions swallowed up by the moves of massive states. China is in the ring with the United States government, it is true. But the ones getting bloodied and beaten down are not American government officials, but the nameless many who must try somehow to survive in a world increasingly under the sway of the Chinese Communist Party.
In China Unbound, then, Chiu brings us a wealth of stories that do not involve high-power politicians and bureaucrats shouting at one another in committee meetings. Chiu’s eye is for the shopkeeper, the researcher, the student, “the grieving mothers of Tiananmen Square massacre victims,” the fellow journalist, the underground church member, the entrepreneur. She seeks the human element in the world that the rise of China is upending, and to a large extent she finds it. Chiu has written an occasionally uneven, but on the whole fresh and engaging, story foregrounding the “‘middle power’ countries—Canada, Australia, Italy, and Greece—that have faced economic and political pressure and coercion from Beijing,” as well as stories from Turkey, Russia, East Turkestan, Hong Kong, and, yes, the United States. In this foregrounding of “middle powers,” and in giving a voice to some of the powerless who populate them, Chiu delivers a welcome, engaging contextualization to the story long dominated by superpower confrontation.
To say that Chiu has her eyes on the masses is not to say that she misses the monuments of political change. Much of the framework of Chiu’s narrative will be familiar to anyone who has read rise-of-China type books before. In the pages of China Unbound we meet, for example, Deng Xiaoping, the “‘trickle-down’” economic reformer who gave the Chinese people, Chiu says, a glimmer of hope for a more materially prosperous future, the “Chinese equivalent” of the American Dream. We also work our way past other well-worn milestones: the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962), the Red Guard terror of the 1960s, China’s 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization, the handover of Hong Kong (where Chiu’s parents were raised), and the later Umbrella Movement there.
We also meet, of course, the One Belt, One Road (New Silk Road/Belt and Road Initiative) program, the massive expansionary drive that current Chinese dictator Xi Jinping is pushing to extend China’s economic gains in time, and its economic, cultural, and military reach in space. All of this expansion comes at the cost of tremendous disruptions in Asian, European, African, and many other regions of the world economy, which is largely where Chiu’s stories unfold. It is here, really, in the quiet moments of unnoticed lives lived in the midst of these massive, China-centered geopolitical changes, that the real terror of Beijing’s dictatorship comes into view. If you thought Western politicians were getting targeted by China, wait until you see what the Chinese Communist Party is doing to the average person.
For example, Chiu introduces us to a man she calls, for his safety, simply “F.” F. was the principal at a Catholic high school in Hong Kong until one day, while running in “a weekend marathon in Hong Kong,” he had taken a gag race bib which some “pro-democracy activists were handing out” along the marathon route. The race bibs were imprinted with a spirited insult, in humorous code, directed at “Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying,” Chiu writes. “F. had taken one without really thinking about it. An amused student shared a photo of [F.] on Facebook.”
In a free society, this is where the story would end. Making light of the foibles of politicians is a time-honored tradition nearly everywhere—or, was, until the internet brought virtual omniscience and omnipresence within the reach of would-be authoritarians. Almost immediately after the unassuming Hong Kong high school principal had his picture taken during a fun weekend outing, he began receiving harassing, even threatening calls at his office. The intimidation campaign quickly escalated. Soon the Hong Kong Education Bureau was getting “letters claiming to be from a group of parents concerned about the principal’s ‘lewd’ and ‘inappropriate’ behaviour toward students.” Anonymous accusers also took to social media to spread similar rumors about F.’s alleged “lewd” and “inappropriate” conduct toward his charges. F. was so distressed by the episode that he fled to Canada. His wife later joined him.
“‘It’s like a kind of white terror’,” F. told Chiu during an interview, “referring to the anonymous acts of aggression, often from loyalist organized crime groups, against critics of Taiwan’s government during four decades of martial law there from the 1950s to the 1980s. ‘For some famous activists, they might get arrested, but for people like us, who are not famous but still have positions of some influence, they use strategies like this to silence us.’” Chiu sums up: “All to try to convince one man to leave his job in Hong Kong.” Many other people in Chiu’s book share similar, and often much worse, stories of harassment campaigns. None of the people are remotely well-known. And yet, Beijing expends seemingly inexhaustible resources and manpower in going after even the lowliest and most seemingly insignificant of targets.
In another section of China Unbound, Chiu tells the reader of encounters with an undergraduate student in Australia, “H.” While studying languages in Australia and Italy, H. became interested in his own native language of Shanghainese. One summer, while home on a visit, H., Chiu writes, “stood on the Bund boardwalk facing the futuristic Pudong skyline, pointed his camera at the tourist-heavy crowd, and spoke softly about why Beijing should consider allowing Shanghai to form a separate state, then shared the video to Facebook once he returned to Australia.” Later, on another visit home, he “spray-painted some Shanghai independence slogans on two streets near his parents’ apartment.” That night, the police showed up and arrested him. The authorities had been tracking his movements online and apparently discovered his amateur video about Shanghai independence. H. was detained and interrogated for ten days.
Not everyone is so lucky. For example, Chiu tells us about “Gulkbahar, a Kazakh citizen of Uyghur heritage,” who “was detained on May 22, 2017, during one of her routine trips to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang [the Chinese name for East Turkestan], where she’d come to buy women’s clothing and accessories in bulk from Uyghur wholesalers.” Gulkbahar spent “fifteen months” after that
in several identical rooms that each housed about forty other women. […] There was no access to outdoor recreation areas. […] A squat toilet was located near the front of each crowded room, and a television was affixed to the wall above it. Some of her cellmates were feeble and in their eighties; some were only in their early twenties. Shackles were kept on the prisoners the entire time. […] At one point, during the basement interrogation sessions [to which Gulkbahar and the other prisoners were routinely subjected], a guard threatened to shove his penis in her mouth if she refused to sign a piece of paper printed in Chinese that she could not read. She fainted several times and had to be taken repeatedly to the camp hospital.
Some of the nurses and other non-inmates in the camp were cautiously kind to Gulkbahar, Chiu notes. The system itself terrorizes everyone, guard and prisoner alike. Only the faintest acts of compassion are hazarded by the bravest and warmest of heart, but these flashes of humanity could do little to prevent the camp from dehumanizing those caught up in it.
There are more than a million people in East Turkestan in camps like the one where Gulkbahar was imprisoned and abused. Thanks to Chiu, we know Gulkbahar’s name. What are the names of the million and more others?
To be sure, some who find themselves behind bars as part of the PRC’s standoff with the United States are far from unknown. Chiu relates the story of Meng Wanzhou, the infamous Huawei executive detained in late 2018 by Canadian authorities at the request of the US Department of Justice. Beijing promptly arrested Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in retaliation. But Meng is hardly the only Chinese person in Canada to be detained, and the “two Michaels,” who were released immediately after Meng was freed, are hardly the only two Canadians to be harassed by the PRC.
Take, for instance, “Dan,” a recent graduate from a university in Quebec who ran into trouble with authorities from his home country of China. What was Dan’s crime? While in Canada, he had retweeted three posts: “the news that Nobel laureate and Chinese democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo had died, a short satirical video about President Xi Jinping, and a chart on levels of Chinese government corruption.” Dan, Chiu notes, had just two Twitter followers. One day, Dan’s “father called him out of the blue, clearly disturbed. ‘Son, did you say something about the Chinese government on the internet? The public security bureau called us twice.’”
“In 2016,” Chiu explains, “the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] had added a new bureau to the United Front Work Department to ensure that certain professionals and returning overseas Chinese students acted in accordance with CCP objectives.” This seems to have been the political dragnet by which Dan—the tiniest of tiny fish—got hauled in. Chinese authorities, not content with just harassing Dan’s family, also contacted Dan directly, threatening him if he did not remove his three tweets. Dan had been studying law in Canada and tried using his training to stymie the censorship and oppression. He alerted the Canadian authorities, but they did virtually nothing to help him. The entire experience led Dan “to wonder how Chinese authorities were able to track him overseas, why they would care about his influence on an audience of two—and how a democratic country like Canada could do so little to protect him.”
Not everyone gets crushed by Beijing as Dan, Gulkbahar, F., and H. did. Many living in foreign countries—albeit most of them, it seems, not Chinese—welcome the way that China is rearranging the global order and distributing largesse. Far from pushing back against Chinese expansionism and censorship, many see in the rise of China a way to make money.
On this opposite side of the ledger, Chiu tells us about Nicolas Vernicos, “a fourth-generation ship owner as well as the president of the Greek chapter of the International Chamber of Commerce. He sits on the boards of the Hellenic Chamber of Shipping, the Piraeus Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Athens-based Public Power Corporation.” He is also “the vice-chairman of the Silk Road Chamber of International Commerce, a trade group headquartered in China and chaired by Lu Jianzhong, a member of the Chinese government’s highest political consultative body, the CPPCC [Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference], linked with the United Front Work Department.” Vernicos is very happy about China’s rise.
“‘You can say Greece is one of the countries that are taking advantage of the materialization of the Chinese president’s dream: to become the Marco Polo of the twenty-first century’,” Vernicos tells Chiu, referring to Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” shorthand for Xi’s ambitions to make the People’s Republic of China into a global great power. Speaking of the financial fallout from the Greek debt crisis and the ensuing negotiations with European and other creditors, Vernicos adds, “In a period when Greece was under financial strain difficulties and needing investment, this [i.e. Greece’s good fortune in being “the gateway between Asia and Europe in the New Silk Road”] was like a gift from God!”
In Russia, too, Chiu meets those who welcome Chinese investment in once-flagging locales. Among those who express enthusiasm about China’s economic and political growth are jewelry shop owners in the Lake Baikal area. Pre-pandemic, Lake Baikal jewelers did a brisk business in Chinese tourism and were able to sell their wares “at exorbitant prices” to visitors flush with renminbi.
Other Russians, however, are against the Chinese influx. The hidden costs of the easy money, some Russians say, are too steep, and there are too many unknowns. Take, for example, Sonya Buntovskaya, a Listvyanka resident who is “a prominent figure in the fight against ‘Chinese expansion’ in the region.” Even in bigger cities the same suspicion can be strong. St. Petersburg businessman “Igor,” who is profoundly skeptical about the Chinese influx there, is a case in point. “Almost all of the businesses here in St. Petersburg that cater to Chinese tourists or Chinese citizens who work here are illegal. All the money goes back to China,” Igor says.
Not everyone in Chiu’s book is a local, of course. Chiu speaks of Steve Bannon and Guo Wengui, for instance, the American politico-Chinese billionaire duo who took the political world by storm during the early days of the Trump presidency. We also meet Bob Hawke, the Australian prime minister who “gave a raw, emotional speech” during “a memorial service at Parliament House in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre,” the influential Italian China-hand Michele Geraci, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. But in the stories about these and other headliners in the “chaos under Heaven” prevailing during China’s rise, we can see, at a remove and yet in some ways even more clearly, the havoc wreaked in tiny lives caught in the maelstrom. Big names can make their own luck to an extent. Small business owners in Kazakhstan are at the mercy of Beijing, and whoever in Kazakhstan decides either to toady to the Communists or to defy them. Either way, the nameless bear the brunt of the consequences.
Chiu’s stories are compelling, but not all of China Unbound can be taken at face value. There are a few missteps along the way. For example, Chiu writes that, “In 1950, one of the first acts of the Red Army after its civil war victory [over the Guomindang] was to invade and annex Tibet, which for centuries had alternated between independence and rule by the Mongolians and Chinese dynasties.” This is historically inaccurate. It is not true that Tibet was ever ruled by a “Chinese” dynasty, even in the loose interpretation of that term. In their 2020 book Tibet Brief 20/20, Michael van Walt van Praag and Miek Boltjes dismantle the myth, which has been generated by the PRC to legitimate its mid-century invasion and subsequent anti-Tibetan genocide, that Tibet was ever ruled by the PRC, the Republic of China, the Qing Dynasty, the Ming, or the Yuan. Also, it plays into the current Communist regime’s ethno-fascist rhetoric to call non-Han dynasties (such as the Qing (Manchurian) and the Yuan (Mongol)) “Chinese.” There are still some stories in Asia which must be told, the Tibetans’ chief among them.
And, when listening to untold stories, it would be helpful if Chiu spent some time studying the little people in the United States as closely as she has listened to the nameless in Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, and beyond. “Despite his status as a billionaire,” Chiu says about Donald Trump on the campaign trail, launching into the familiar hectoring mode of the North American journalistic elite, “Trump tapped into frustration among white working-class voters who felt they had lost jobs to foreign competition in an unfairly globalized world. Entrenched anti-Communist sentiment and rampant xenophobia helped make his audience receptive.”
This is Jim Acosta-level analysis. Plastering over nuance when it comes to Trump voters—who, after all, are just as much put-upon by the “unbound” PRC as are working people in Europe or Asia—detracts from Chiu’s otherwise well-turned-out volume. It is also self-contradictory. If someone has lost his job to unfair globalization, how is it “anti-Communist” and “xenophobi[c]” to pay attention when a politician says he will help bring work back to a community again? If only Chiu had been as sympathetic to the little people in Indiana as she was to those in Siberia, Italy, and Istanbul.
China Unbound is not a perfect book, then. But it is a good one. Readers who already know that China and the United States are locked in conflict—and even those who do not—will want to pick up Joanna Chiu’s readable volume and learn what the world now looks like, in the shadows of the grappling giants, from the perspective of people scurrying around underfoot.
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.