A recent Indian news report pointed to the presence of Communist Party of China (CPC) members serving in several institutions that operated in India or had a connection with India. In one instance, at least one former employee of the Indian Consulate in Shanghai was clearly identified as a CPC member. A report in September this year had referred to a Chinese technology firm collecting open-source information about prominent Indians from all walks of life.Both reports are the result of a multi-country investigation by an international consortium of journalists.
Neither report should be the subject of such surprise or alarm as has been the case in India.
For one, membership of the CPC is a ladder to success in any kind of activity in China. Naturally, CPC members will be found in every institution in China, and in every Chinese organisation abroad. Further, the presence of politically-affiliated individuals is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. Americans are often organized politically abroad and not shy either about revealing such affiliations. The Chinese might not be open about it but they do gather at their local embassy functions for Party activities. For another, the open-source collection of information or intelligence on prominent individuals of note is what any self-respecting intelligence agency, market risk analysis agency or academic specialising in a country or region would do.
However, there is something about the nature of the CPC and its objectives and operations that is worth examining in greater detail and which marks it as being different from political parties elsewhere.
The CPC is something of an exclusive club with a high barrier to entry. As in other polities, people join the CPC in order to either work for the public good or to achieve personal interests but sending an sms or giving a missed phone call to join a political party as happens in India would be out of the question. In the latter, political parties compete for adherents while in China, the CPC’s monopoly on power means that the best and the brightest compete to join it. CPC membership requires a university degree at a minimum and the process is drawn out over long years of vetting and probation.
And once a CPC member, there are huge incentives for the individual to follow and advance the Party line. Thus, CPC members are in many ways complicit in such activities ranging from the officially-sanctioned ethnic discrimination against Tibetan, Uyghur and other minorities in China to the sharing of private data collected by Chinese companies abroad with their government. It is for this reason that there is good cause for monitoring and imposing reasonable restrictions on the activities of CPC members outside China – as the US has done recently.
The response by the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi to the September revelations that “China has not asked and will not ask companies or individuals to collect or provide data, information and intelligence stored within other countries’ territories for the Chinese government by installing ‘backdoors’ or by violating local laws” or say, Huawei’s or TikTok’s claims that they do not share information with Chinese government are, to put it politely, misleading.
China’s very vaguely-worded State Security Law adopted in 2017 suggests that its companies have to share information with the government as and when required. And its current record – militarization of the South China Sea, wolf-warrior diplomacy, claims that the novel coronavirus originated in other countries – will show that Beijing is not too bothered about respecting foreign sensitivities or jurisdictions.
Again, it is important to note that China is not the only government that engages in such practices. As the Snowden revelations show, the US should be no less of a concern in India.
It is also important not to go overboard about the capabilities of the Chinese party-state. The 2017 State Security Law ultimately is geared towards ensuring absolute control internally and currently puts at greater risk the individual rights of China’s own citizens more than it does anyone else’s. Despite its great resources and the country’s rising status, the CPC under Xi Jinping has become a party that is more concerned about apparent internal threats and weaknesses than external threats.
This is important to keep in mind when talking about the presence of CPC members in other countries. The vast majority are just getting on with regular jobs and essentially supervising each other.
Nevertheless, the privilege of membership in the CPC also demands being tuned into the Party’s/national interests globally. Thus, Chinese companies will invest in Xi Jinping’s pet Belt and Road Initiative, direct investments to critical technologies and the media in foreign countries to support China’s own technology acquisition plans and propaganda efforts, make corporate or CSR donations to the constituencies of local politicians at the bidding of the local Chinese embassy, support China’s Covid diplomacy abroad and so on.
Meanwhile, the statement by the Chinese embassy in India about “Indian media hyping ‘CPC members infiltrating some Indian agencies’” reveals worries about what such investigations into goings-on inside China as well as its activities abroad might throw up. It also indicates deep concerns about the potential challenge to Chinese authoritarianism globally from India and its democratic institutions.
This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Chinese communists in India: Why it is a cause of concern’, India Today, 25 December 2020.