When journalist Joanna Chiu returned to her hometown of Vancouver in 2018 after seven years of reporting from Beijing and Hong Kong, she expected to leave the China story behind. Instead, she quickly discovered that it extends far beyond Beijing’s borders.

“I thought when I went back to Canada… the China story would be a chapter of my life [to] leave for the foreign correspondents and local journalists on the ground there to tell,” she told HKFP.

Photo: House of Anansi Press.

Three months after her return, Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested by Canadian authorities on suspicion of breaching US sanctions on Iran. In response, China detained two Canadians and charged them with espionage. The pair have remained in detention ever since and faced secret trials in late March, with verdicts to be announced later.

“Suddenly, I was writing about China everyday again, I was speaking Mandarin and Cantonese with sources everyday. I realised that the China story was not just in China, it was international,” she said.

As she covered Beijing’s influence campaign in the West, the journalist soon saw a gap in the literature on China’s rise. Growing up in the Chinese diaspora community in Vancouver, Chiu said, made her aware of how insidious the pressure from China can be on the lives of people outside its borders.

“In the 90’s, growing up as a young person in Vancouver… there were conversations around me about how there were already pressures from China indirectly on Chinese-Canadian media to self-censor,” she said.

“It was very individualised for me and I felt that was missing in the book market; how these big topics like China’s New Silk Road investments and the United Front… [were] like on the ground in different countries and what it means for people.”

So Chiu began to compile an account of how Chinese influence campaigns overseas affect people on the ground. “I wanted to use my journalistic reportage narrative non-fiction approach,” she said. “I wanted to include context and nuance and history… to write the book in a way that gives the full human context.”

Western complicity

The term “new world disorder,” Chiu told HKFP, refers not only to Beijing’s behaviour but also the West’s role in enabling an increasingly aggressive China. “I don’t want it to seem like China is single-handedly messing up the world and ruining international norms and laws.”

“The focus is actually more on the West and what they’re doing, what they got wrong. How they mishandled, misunderstood or simply ignored some of what was happening, often because they were single-handedly pursuing stronger economic ties with Beijing, often at the expense of caring about human rights issues,” she said.

Photo: Squiggle via Flickr.

“So ‘disorder’ is really talking about the complicity of the international community in contributing to this situation where we now have such high tensions,” she continued, referring to Beijing’s retaliatory detention of the Canadians.

“We got to this point, not just because of China, but also [because of ] what Western governments have been doing all along.”

Covering the international China story led Chiu to report from cities in the US, Australia, Greece, Italy and Turkey before the global Covid-19 pandemic struck in early 2020. Each chapter of her book focuses on a different country with separate “case studies” on the ways in which Beijing exerts its influence abroad.

Her last chapter, which focuses on Russia, is based on close collaboration with journalists who conducted interviews in Moscow, St Petersburg and Siberia after she was prevented from travelling due to the pandemic.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

As Chiu documented on-the-ground attitudes towards an increasingly powerful China, she often witnessed a willingness to curry favour with Beijing, which some European countries saw as a “saviour” for their struggling economies.

“The interviews are kind of shocking, in a way,” she told HKFP, referring to one encounter in Greece. “One of these guys said ‘I don’t care if they’re a penguin from Antarctica if they come to Greece and give us money’.”

While in Greece, she was struck by a lack of comprehensive expertise on China and of government policies designed to attract Chinese investment. “There were basically no China studies course in its universities. There’s really a small base of China knowledge and the people who were government advisers were obviously people with vested interests in doing business in China – like real estate firms or Greek shipowners.”

Chiu found similar attitudes elsewhere in Europe, including Italy. “At the time of my visit, the Italian economy was really struggling. So the government proposed really focusing on China relations… they championed China as a way to pay all of its debts,” she said, referring to newspaper headlines that suggested “The Chinese would take over the factories and save them.”

“It was very, in a way, optimistic and based on thin air,” she told HKFP. “In Europe, people have this very inflated idea of what China can do for them economically.”

Counteracting China’s abuses

The rise of an authoritarian China had direct implications for democratic values and human rights, the author said. “In Greece, it was really obvious.”

Chinese shipping company COSCO became a majority shareholder in the country’s main port in 2016. The following year, Greece vetoed a European Union statement at the United Nations criticising China’s human rights record.

Port of Port of Piraeus in Athens, Greece. Photo: John Riviello via Flickr.

“Talking to analysts, they don’t think that Beijing asked them to do that [veto],” Chiu said. “[They] say that the Greek government was so grateful for China’s help and they wanted so badly to be China’s friend, they willingly, proactively compromised any commitment to human rights or democracy.”

Tensions over Beijing’s growing belligerence or “wolf-warrior” diplomacy have only intensified as international concern over its human rights abuses has grown. Reports of mass detention, forced abortions and sterilisation of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region have prompted international human rights experts to classify China’s behaviour towards the ethnic minority group as “genocide.”

Beijing has denied any human rights abuses in the region, asserting that Uighurs are placed in “vocational training camps” to increase their employment prospects and that measures are necessary to prevent terrorism.

The European Union, the UK, Canada and the US in late March sanctioned Chinese officials over the reports of mass human rights abuses. Beijing imposed its own sanctions in retaliation.

“A big question and focus of the book is what to do with what’s happening in Xinjiang with the mass internment of Uighurs and minorities. That’s the most pressing question for the international community, what they can do.”

International companies have also been affected by the rising tensions. In late March, Chinese netizens vowed to boycott Swedish clothing brand H&M after it voiced concerns over reports of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities being forced to pick cotton in Xinjiang. Several Chinese and Hong Kong celebrities have cut sponsorship ties with brands which have refused to source Xinjiang cotton, including Nike and Adidas.

United Nations Human Rights Council. Photo: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré.

“In the last few years, the American administration undermining UN bodies has given an opening for China to gain influence at the UN – such as getting a seat in the UN Human Rights Council,” Chiu said, referring to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the council in June 2018.

“This is dangerous because as China gains more influence in international bodies, they can argue that what they’re doing – such as its persecution of its own people – is in line with international norms and rules. If they’re able to shape those norms, they’re able to say that they’re part of them, that what they’re doing is fine,” she said.

Chiu told HKFP her book could help Western powers learn from each other to combat China’s abuses. “Part of the reasons why I wanted to compare countries is there are similarities between different places, in attitudes, and I think countries can learn from each other about what works and what didn’t and what ended up being a ‘fairy tale ‘mistake.'”

Hong Kong ‘testing ground’

Another way to understand how China exerts foreign influence is to look at Hong Kong, said Chiu, who reported for The Economist, DPA and the AP during Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement which saw tens of thousands occupy some main roads for 79 days in a vain attempt to secure genuine universal suffrage.

In a new clampdown, Beijing passed a law in early March overhauling Hong Kong’s political system, reducing the number of directly-elected legislators and setting up a vetting committee to ensure that only people loyal to the Chinese Communist Party can run the city.

Police holding up warning flags warning people outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building that they might be violating the national security law and participating in an illegal assembly. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997. Beijing used Hong Kong as a testing ground, almost a foreign influence campaign, because at the time it was a foreign territory and at the time China badly wanted to have control in Hong Kong… ahead of the handover,” Chiu said.

“Post-handover, there was the One Country, Two Systems agreement where Hong Kong was supposed to have a high degree of autonomy but China basically built on its pre-1997 work, such as co-opting economic elites, to try to make Hong Kong basically bend to what Beijing wanted it to be.”

“And these kinds of strategies… are things that have been replicated all around the world.”

“Hong Kong was almost a warning for the world about what could happen,” Chiu added, saying that when subtle forms of influence like promises of prosperity and economic stability didn’t work to quell dissent, Beijing turned to more overt coercion. “There was the police force, the force of the national security law, using law as a weapon on Hong Kong,” she said.

The Beijing-imposed national security law passed last summer signals Beijing’s desire for extra-territorial authority, she said. “The national security law is not just on Hong Kong, but it’s claiming power over anyone in the world and saying it’s a crime and they can issue arrest warrants for anyone who basically criticises China. So Hong Kong’s a big part of the story.”

The China context

A former history student, Chiu also drew on Chinese history to understand its behaviour today. “I include a lot of context on Xi Jinping on how he’s a different type of Chinese leader, much more authoritarian. He’s quashed basically the liberal voices within the Chinese Communist Party,” she said.

“I wanted to include history because some of China’s behaviour and Xi Jinping’s behaviour can seem really extreme – very extremely paranoid, or touchy, or quick to anger.”

Some of the context, she said, lies in the “century of humiliation” when Britain and other western powers invaded and occupied parts of China including Hong Kong.

Xi Jinping. Photo: United Nations/Cia Pak.

“It’s very alive as an influence on China later, and it’s very important for the West… to understand why China’s been so obsessed with control and power and being strong, and it’s so against anything that makes them look weak,” Chiu added.

As a Canadian-Hongkonger, there is also a personal motivation for her work – to correct a discourse in the US that conflates members of the Chinese diaspora with the Chinese Communist Party.

She added that a nuanced understanding of China was lacking in the current climate of fraught international relations. “The US discourse [has] become so simplistic and China’s become more of a convenient scapegoat than an actual country… a lot of what Donald Trump said about China is very simplistic. I want the book to counteract this. It’s very critical about Beijing but it’s also trying to tell a fuller story.”

Chiu said she saw the potentially dangerous implications of a superficial understanding of China. “There’s a lot of lumping together of the Chinese people and the Chinese government. And we see a lot of xenophobia and racism against Chinese people… a blanket suspicion of Chinese students and scientists. So that’s very concerning for me,” she added.

“I want to have criticism and discussions about how to counteract China’s rising negative influence in a way that really captures the nuance and really separates the people from what Beijing’s doing… I want people to read the whole book and use all the information to form their own opinion.”


China Unbound: A New World Disorder will be published by the House of Anansi Press on September 28th and is currently available for pre-order on Book Depository. [Referral link]

Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.