Written by Martin Thorley.

Image Credit: Red Chinese Flags by Peter Barwick/Flickr; Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Both the ongoing debate into Huawei’s position in the West and the recent exchange over the precise role of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) highlight a much wider issue in terms of engagement with Chinese Party-state. Whilst dismissing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) agency within such organisations is clearly a grave error, those who seek out CCP influence in every action will most probably draw erroneous conclusions. To be clear, in such groups the presence of the CCP is discernible, but it manifests itself most forcefully only at times, or relating to subjects, it considers critical. The terminology we use when discussing engagement with the Party-state would be enriched by the addition of the “latent network”.

As well as the direct linguistic considerations when translating from Chinese to another language, we are confronted with the more abstract problem of transferal when we apply familiar terms from the liberal democratic context into that of a Party-state. Flawed application can lead to erroneous conclusions or worse, the omission of important local conditions that shape actor agency. In the case of debate over Huawei, the CSSA and in fact any node of the Party-state’s latent network, various commentators make ostensibly reasonable and well-evidenced claims, yet end up with diametrically opposed conclusions. The terminology we employ is crucial if we are to untangle and understand the transmission of power in the Party-state, from the centre to the periphery, from the political to the societal.

The latent network is one of multiple forms of power transmission by the Party-state over the periphery. The firewall between the public and the private, typically a far more robust fixture in liberal democracies, must be more permeable in a system where a single institution rules without effective legal oversight. This has normally manifested itself in two ways in the case of the Chinese Party-state. The first is the increased prevalence of self-censorship amongst citizens and intermediaries – the type of which China scholar Perry Link described as an “anaconda in the chandelier”. Link suggested that the mere shadow of the great snake was enough to influence those sitting below, a pregnant ambiguity that imbues self-censorship among citizens and intermediaries who fear, not without good reason, the penalties of opposition. Indeed, in of rule-by-law polity, the rule-maker really is judge, jury and executioner.

Lesser discussed is the role of the latent network. The fact of the matter is that in modern day China, even the pervasive patron-client network, a natural reaction itself to the uncertain vicissitudes of one-party rule, always leads back to the heart of the Party-state. The result is that institutions within this network, though not necessarily controlled by the CCP directly in their day-to-day affairs, are dependent on CCP patronage and thus, subject to CCP direction. This is especially true at critical junctures. Typically, this means that organisations and companies like the CSSA and Huawei run much of their own ordinary affairs in familiar and banal ways but are commandeered as Party tools at critical periods or for longer term aims. The result is a latent network where power does not need to be constantly and forcefully exerted. Rather, such organisations can lead themselves, albeit within the perceived confines of party-state diktat, often with a degree of agency but steered in part or whole buy the CCP when the CCP deems it necessary.

In order to avoid seeing these organisations as unconditional avatars of Party-rule or worse, as harmless entities, the West must approach them appropriately. This means that to fully understand the reach of the CCP into such organisations, one must go beyond the unremarkable to consider behaviour in extremis. In the case of, for example, the CSSA, this means that whilst a particular branch may operate in a largely apolitical manner for the duration of its existence, the leash can be wrenched by the Party-state to coordinate either support for a visiting Chinese dignitary, or opposition to a university activity that doesn’t conform with the CCP’s conception of truth, both well documented occurrences. As my own experience establishing a business in Beijing with a former local official attested, the same is true of Huawei and indeed the full gamut of organisations within the CCP’s orbit. The capacity of this latent network must be judged by what is possible at the critical limit rather than during the typical day-to-day affairs. When we consider the forces those within the latent network are subject to, the notion of bringing in a node of this network to, for example, construct critical infrastructure for a second country, is desperately naïve.

This network is explained not by Confucianism nor by some warped racial thinking involving the long-view of history or cultural determinism that ignores the pragmatism with the capacity to transform a people from one generation to the next. Rather, scholars such as He Qinglian and Yang Chung-fang draw upon emic frameworks to provide convincing explanations of the construction and maintenance, respectively, of Chinese informal networks. The concept of the latent network will not be without opponents; indeed, many will point to ostensibly similar phenomena in the West, repeating the tired false equivalence argument. To be clear, this argument clumsily defending X in the East because of the presence of Y in the West is the ghoul that haunts the house of China studies. The institutional reach of the Party-state that utilises such patron-client networks is also dependent upon another far more familiar feature of authoritarian states, the concentration of power and avoidance of oversight. What we are left with in effect is the attempted weaponization of informal Chinese social networks by the Party-state. This development aligns neatly with other phenomena such as the increasing prominence of the United Front Work Department in the Chinese political landscape and the widening of the conflict interface popularised in this generation by works such as Chao Xian Zhan [Unrestricted Warfare].

Understanding this latent network brings to our attention the leash of Party-state power in China and its reach. It does not tell us about the understandably limited but gallant human attempts to circumnavigate this network. China is not a country of informers – the status quo tells us vastly more about the system than it does about the people. This point speaks to another – just as many in the West realise that though action is required, one must not simply ape Chinese trade barriers in combating unfair trading practices, so the West must not mimic the Party-state’s clumsy conflation of its own aims with those of its citizens. This tightrope between the pitfalls of negligence towards Party-state interference and the potential victimisation of Chinese citizens (and Chinese diaspora) defines the difficult path ahead.

The latent network poses a difficult challenge, particularly to those of us that have a strong affinity with Chinese languages and cultures, myself included. In order to navigate such challenges successfully, it is vital that we understand the nature of the phenomenon we are discussing. The latent network and widening pool of non-Chinese citizens and organisations that engage it to achieve their own objectives gives a sense of urgency to the task at hand and represents a far more serious issue then pyrotechnics of the Russian interference debate. Building upon this conceptual addition, we should also consider concrete steps whereby we survey the role of the nodes of the latent network that already operate abroad – are they operating in adherence with local laws and regulations (as well as in many cases the charters and agreements they are signatories to)? Getting the terminology right means that we at least have the best tools at our disposal for the task before us.

Martin Thorley is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham exploring international engagement with China, particularly Sino-British relations. He is also an editorial assistant for The Asia Dialogue. He tweets @METhorley.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

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