The red inside the orange: A Chinese panopticon in the Netherlands Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

The red inside the orange: A Chinese panopticon in the Netherlands

Can prisoners of a panopticon ‘feel free’? A critique of Professor Pieke’s LAC 2023 Report

On 19 April, the Leiden Asian Centre (LAC) published a report ‘Invloed en inmenging van de Volksrepubliek China onder de Chinese bevolking in Nederland’ (Report or LAC 2023 Report). LAC also kindly provided an English translation (‘Influence and interference of China on Chinese Population in the Netherlands’) which I relied on for this blog. The LAC 2023 Report was authored by leading Dutch sinologist Professor Frank Pieke, building on LAC’s previous report in 2021, also authored by him, titled ‘Chinas invloed en de Chinese gemeenschap in Nederland’.

China’s influence in the Netherlands has been a growing concern for the Dutch authorities and society as a whole. A week before the LAC 2023 report was released, an article written by Marije Vlaskamp, a journalist for Dutch newspaper the Volkskrant, who is now living in the Netherlands and who became the most recent target of Chinese intimidation, sent shock waves throughout Dutch society. And in the same week, Dutch intelligence agency AIVD named China as ‘the greatest threat to Dutch economic security’. Looming in the background was the scandal that the now disgraced Cross Culture Human Rights Centre at the Vrije University of Amsterdam were actually relying on financial contributions from China and its staff were actively propagating China’s position on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. The LAC 2023 Report was commissioned by the Dutch authorities in this context, which Professor Pieke describes as an ‘assumption that there must be active and malign interference from China’ in the Netherlands.

In his report, Professor Pieke used the concept of a panopticon to depict the ‘soft threat’ posed by the Chinese authorities to the Chinese population in the Netherlands: ‘This self-censorship stems both from the fact that many Chinese people actually endorse Beijing’s view and disapprove of dissent, and as a precaution in case any dissent somehow reaches the authorities in China. With some exaggeration, we can say that this creates a panopticon for self-surveillance that in some ways is reminiscent of today’s China itself.’ (p. 73)

I agree that a panopticon is a good reference point to understand the situation that many Dutch Chinese are experiencing. I myself have taken a group of liberal-value-minded Chinese to visit the Panopticon turned cultural centre in Haarlem and spoke with a prison warden who kindly explained further details of prison life to us. It’s unfortunate to see that although we (people with a legacy from China) have managed to travel out of the grand Panopticon i.e. China, a chamber of that Panopticon has also travelled with us to here in the Netherlands.

This blog is as much a critique as a follow up to his recommendation in the report that the ‘most important thing is to build on our respondents’ general trust in Dutch sovereignty and freedom of expression’ (p.77).

Feeling free in the panopticon?

The single most shocking conclusion of this Report is when Professor Pieke suggested: ‘Chinese people in the Netherlands feel free and independent of the influence of the Chinese authorities and trust in Dutch sovereignty and freedom of expression.’ [emphasis added]. I have consulted the Dutch legal scholar and anthropologist of the original Dutch text. There does not appear to be a translation error or misrepresentation in this sweeping conclusion.

There are numerous news reports on how Beijing has penetrated Western democracy and weaved a web of influence and transnational repression in countries like the Netherlands. This is recognised in LAC’s previous report, where Professor Pieke concluded ‘[o]rganisations and groups that, according to the Chinese government, pursue subversive goals (such as Uighur or Tibetan activist refugees, supporters of the Hong Kong democracy movement, and also members of the Falun Gong that is banned in China) suffer the reach of the Chinese government in the form of intimidation or reprisals, or the fear thereof.’

This abrupt ‘feel free and independent of’ conclusion is also not supported by the experience of individuals who were interviewed for this Report. In section of 5.4 of the Report titled ‘Pressure by Chinese authorities’, Professor Pieke details various examples of the absolute contrary:

  • ‘Almost all first-generation migrants say that they and others they know or meet are cautious about expressing their opinions on the well-known sensitive topics’; p.61
  • ‘a few of our respondents’ (bearing in mind the total number is less than 60) ‘have experience with direct pressure or threats from Chinese authorities’; p.63
  • ‘what does come up again and again in the interviews is a degree of fear and caution in what people say about China’; p.63
  • ‘A recurring theme in almost all of the interviews is the uncertainty and fear about being completely free to express one’s own views or to enter into discussions on sensitive topics for China and other Chinese people in the Netherlands’; p.64

It is inconceivable that all these examples of fear, caution, pressure and threats could invite a concluding observation that this population would ‘feel free and independent of the influence’.

One stretched explanation to justify the contradiction of these actual experiences and the conclusion of this report is that Professor Pieke sees the Chinese authority as not having been directly involved and that it is self-censorship that actually did the job (except for those few who had experienced direct pressure). However, this is at odds with the very definition of freedom (in this case freedom of expression) which has been elaborated through human rights legislation and jurisprudence.

Dutch authorities’ duty in this transnational panopticon

Freedom of expression has been described as the touchstone of all rights and necessitates the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds. As the European Court of Human Rights noted even back in 1976, this freedom is not applicable only to information and ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population (Handyside v. UK, 1976, para. 76). Applying this definition, any individual has a basic human right to express themselves even if their views might upset the Chinese authorities and be labelled by Beijing and its cronies as ‘anti-China’ or ‘hurting Chinese people’s feelings’, a coded term from Beijing to describe dissenting and disagreeing opinions.

It is not enough for Dutch authorities to refrain from working with Chinese authorities to curb these expressions. The implementation of a state’s human rights obligations requires the duty bearers (in this case the Dutch authorities) to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights. While ‘to respect’ requires that a state does not violate human rights themselves, ‘to protect’ requires that it proactively ensures that the right holders do not suffer from human rights violations at the hands of third parties and ‘fulfil’ requires a state to take positive steps to lead to the greater enjoyment of rights.

While the above understanding of a state’s human rights duties is now decades old, applying these duties in the context of ‘transnational repression’ and ‘digital totalitarian’ or even ‘authoritarian practices in a global age’ is a rather new phenomena. Democracies around the world now face a common challenge that an outside authoritarian power might have more influence on fragments of its own population when borders becomes more and more invisible and irrelevant.

In this context, how to honour the duty to protect freedom of expression is a highly intricate matter. The recent case at Wageningen University where a pro-Beijing Party State student intimidated his fellow compatriots with completely fabricated information is a case in point. In this case and many others, it is unlikely the perpetrator will be prosecuted as the victim would wish, and complicity by those in power might be easier than one would assume. Worse, quite often it is unclear who the third party is that knowingly or unconsciously and self-prompted, co-opted or was forced to act for the interest of the extraterritorial authoritarian power.

Good news for the Netherlands is that some other countries have already experienced this ‘heat’ from Beijing and can offer some valuable lessons. In their experience, to empower civil societies who are often reduced as a prey to be protected is a wise strategy. In other words, prisoners of this panopticon might know best how to set themselves free.


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