China Unbound: A New World Disorder is a disturbing and clear-eyed account of China’s growing and malign influence around the globe: an account of organized repression of human rights, relentless suppression of criticism at home and abroad, and of a growing belligerency. This book shatters “the myth of a liberalizing China,” and exposes Beijing’s carefully crafted plan to disguise its ambitions to challenge liberal democracy in the West and to build a new world order.
With China Unbound, author Joanne Chiu has produced a solid work of crisp and informative writing, grounded in first-hand observations and substantial research, supported by dozens of interviews with leading economic and political authorities and government leaders. Her work also includes accounts from individuals who have been victims of security services and the censorship and surveillance apparatus in China. Chiu is a graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, a seasoned reporter with decades of experience, and an internationally recognized authority on China. Born in British Hong Kong of Chinese parents, Chiu and her family are Canadian emigrants and as a teen, she immersed herself in Chinese studies and learned Mandarin. Her knowledge of both China and the West—and years of experience reporting from Hong Kong and Beijing—give her the ability to write from a unique and deeply informed perspective.
Chiu’s goal in writing the book was to “provide necessary nuance and context, cross-country comparisons as well as important individual stories that can help ground public debate . . . on China,” and in this she succeeds. The book is organized in three distinct parts, but a solid narrative flow ties the whole of the work into a seamless discussion that indicts Beijing, and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping, for its authoritarianism, repression, verbal and physical assaults of its critics, and its naked quest for global power. But Chiu also castigates Western nations for their complicity in trading silence for economic gain and for failing to protect their citizens—and especially those of Chinese descent—from threats and intimidation by China’s security apparatus.
Rule by Law
The first part of the book provides a short but useful history of The Middle Kingdom and the emergence of Communist China and furnishes context for the balance of Chiu’s examination of repression in China. Chiu writes that modern China was founded in a revolution of the masses, today fears the power of those masses, and describes the lengths to which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will go to ensure it retains complete control of 1.4 billion of its citizens. To maintain control, the Chinese government has established a massive bureaucracy enabled by laws:
Laws and regulations govern virtually every aspect of a person’s life, controlling who you can marry, whether you can give birth, where you may live, whether you can relocate, whether you can post a satirical meme on the internet, and even your beliefs about the afterlife.
An extensive framework of legislation supports Beijing’s ability to censor, punish, or restrict all forms of expression, including on the internet, in print publishing, and many types of speech . . . China’s State Council made internet companies legally liable if they failed to ensure adequate compliance with censorship rules on their platforms.
In China, Chiu keenly observes, the rule of law has been replaced with the rule by law. China Unbound details the ways in which “a sophisticated censorship and surveillance apparatus” has been used to suppress dissent and, more chillingly, has been used to support the persecution, detention, or arrest of scholars, lawyers, activists, and minorities both inside and outside of China—Chinese citizens, people of Chinese descent among the Chinese diaspora, and citizens of other countries.
Chiu also describes how rule by law has eroded the meaningful autonomy of Hong Kong that was agreed to in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The declaration was negotiated when Great Britain ceded control of territorial Hong Kong to China in 1997 at the end of Britain’s 99-year lease—a lease negotiated at the mouth of a British cannon. Again, Chiu provides much-needed context with a short history of China’s “century of humiliation” by western powers that occupied China.
What Chiu recounts in her chapter on Hong Kong—a territory of nearly 8 million people, a global financial center, a major port, and container shipping hub—is a report of political upheaval, mass protests, and a brutal crackdown on a pro-democracy movement. This is solid reporting on the increasing restrictions on civil liberties and a Chinese campaign of influence, intimidation, and even outright assault on journalists, academics, lawyers, and activists. It is also a revealing discussion of China’s empty promise of “one country, two systems,” in Hong Kong, disdain for democracy and democratic institutions, and of the assertive diplomacy and outright aggression that is now integral to Beijing’s global relations strategy. Chiu contends that Beijing’s naked bid for control in Hong Kong is part of a bigger picture: “The same set of party and state agencies for influencing groups and political entities in Hong Kong has a similar mission all around the world.”
The Middle Kingdom and Middle Powers
Chiu illustrates the broad reach of those agencies in the second part of her book and describes China’s foreign influence operations and reach inside nations that rank among the world’s middle powers: Canada, Australia, Italy, and Greece. It is here that the author’s unique perspective is both welcome and insightful. While many American readers are accustomed to viewing relations with China through a unipolar lens, Chiu shifts the focus to areas where China has aggressively employed agents and actions to coerce civic and political leaders, silence critics, suppress dissidents, and intimidate not only Chinese citizens working and studying abroad, but foreign nationals of Chinese descent. A common tactic is to intimidate those abroad by threatening their families still in China. There are few if any legal barriers to prevent these activities.
The CCP’s United Front Work Department, a Leninist creation refined by Mao, is “focused on influencing civilians and civil societies around the world to try to shape these individuals’ and groups’ attitudes towards Beijing.” China Unbound describes how the United Front in Canada is active in recruiting and coercing Canadians of Chinese heritage to spy on other Canadians who are critical of Beijing. China’s New Social Classes Work Bureau targets professionals in private enterprises, NGOs, people on social media, and Chinese students returning for studies abroad. The book also describes how a series of political bribery scandals and explosive media investigations revealed the extent of United Front activities in Australia. The revelations resulted in sweeping new legislation in 2017 that overhauled Australia’s espionage, counter-intelligence, and political donation laws. Chiu believes this legislation was long overdue and that Canberra’s actions are steps other nations should consider, too.
Taken as case studies, Beijing’s actions in Canada and Australia are illuminating and expose the remarkable extent of well-funded United Front information operations and the intimidation of people in democratic countries. Several scholars and political leaders quoted in China Unbound also explain how these operations can facilitate both economic and criminal espionage and manipulate public opinion. Chiu’s reporting on Greece and Italy are, by contrast, case studies of the ways in which Beijing is using economic inducements to shape the actions of middle power nations, and especially those with faltering economies.
China’s New Silk Road, or Belt and Road initiative, is an ambitious attempt to build an expansive network of new or refurbished ports, roads, airports, pipelines, and infrastructure around the world. Massive funding and trade incentives that back the initiative to expand China’s global influence are likely to mute criticisms of Beijing’s internal policies and foreign ambitions. Chiu, for example, cites the diplomatic moves made by Athens after COSCO, China’s state-owned shipping company, invested $670 million to take majority ownership and restore the Grecian Port of Piraeus. That port is now positioned to be the Mediterranean hub of the Silk Road. Since then, Athens has used its vote in international organizations to repeatedly side with Beijing. In 2016, Greece stopped the European Union from issuing a statement condemning China’s aggression in the South China Sea. Then, in 2021, Athens vetoed EU criticism of human rights abuses in China—the first time such a statement was tabled.
In interviews with academic scholars and geopolitical experts, Chiu draws out the broader implications of China’s use of economic incentives. Massive Chinese infrastructure projects are often coupled with a demand for worker visas for Chinese nationals; oftentimes local labor is sidelined in these projects. Then too, these heavy-handed investment models often lack transparency, mask the true ownership (often by members of China’s ruling elites), and invite corruption. Institutionalization of Belt and Road investments could undermine the political and economic independence of developing nations and induce leaders to adopt increasingly authoritarian government practices.
Western Leadership Adrift
If this happens, new fault lines would open between western democracies and China and rising authoritarian states; the first fissures would appear along the geopolitical periphery of the East and the West. In the third part of China Unbound, Chiu examines the cracks opening in the world order and the slow drift of Western leadership, especially that of the United States, in addressing this threat.
Chiu describes how Turkey—a nation that straddles the East and West cultural, political, and economic divide—is now home to an estimated 50,000 Muslims from China, Uyghurs who fled persecution in Xinjiang. But Beijing is today pressing Ankara to ratify an extradition treaty, raising fears that activists among the Uyghurs in Turkey would be targeted for arrest. Turkish President Recep Erdogan signed the treaty in 2020 at the same time he was bluntly pressing Chinese leader Xi “to increase trade volume and reduce the trade deficit” while “pouring praise on the Belt and Road project,” which he called “the greatest development project of the twenty-first century.”
The author also suggests an increasingly autocratic Turkish state could easily be pulled into China’s orbit, with the same geopolitical attraction that has lately linked Moscow and Beijing. In China Unbound, Chiu pens an equivocating assessment of the status of the Sino-Russian relationship. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi have met, face-to-face, more than 30 times; bilateral trade is at an all-time high; China has become Russia’s largest trading partner, and Russia is the largest energy supplier to China. The two nations have participated in joint military exercises and both Putin and Xi are of one accord in their desire to undermine US world leadership. But trade between the two countries is grossly imbalanced in favor of Chinese exports, China is increasingly well-positioned to “encroach on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia,” and experts are divided on how Moscow would act if China were to rise above Russia and become a dominant military power. The current amity between Putin and Xi may well be little more than a thin veneer over historic animosities that have often put the two nations at odds; there is a deep and abiding potential for conflict between the two nations.
In the final pages of China Unbound, Chiu explains that while Western leaders are too quick to blame a growing world disorder on Russia and China, the real threat lies closer to home. The threat, she claims, arises from a failure of leadership to “bridge the gap between liberal principles and illiberal practices and take responsibility to end hypocritical state behaviors.” The only appropriate response is for Western nations to act in concert and rise above narrow self-interest to adhere to international norms of behavior. Chiu claims that “United Front activities have gone unchecked for so long as they have only because people in positions of power in the West are failing at their jobs,” and she offers this rebuke:
Instead of drawing on reliable primary evidence, too many officials promote hyperbole, disinformation or xenophobic rhetoric about China. This is unnecessary when the truth is compelling enough. Details about Beijing’s aims and activities are widely available on-line.
Those details are also available in the pages of China Unbound.