Analysis: Why China’s move to rein in Hong Kong is just the start

Steven Lee Myers, The New York Times

Posted at May 25 2020 09:20 PM

Protesters gather against new security laws in Hong Kong, May 24, 2020. With the world distracted by the pandemic’s devastating toll, China has taken a series of aggressive actions in recent weeks to flex its economic, diplomatic and military muscle across the region. Lam Yik Fei, The New York Times

China’s move to strip away another layer of Hong Kong’s autonomy was not a rash impulse. It was a deliberate act, months in the making. It took into account the risks of international umbrage and reached the reasonable assumption that there would not be a significant geopolitical price to pay.

As a provocative move, it is just the latest.

With the world distracted by the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating toll, China has taken a series of aggressive actions in recent weeks to flex its economic, diplomatic and military muscle across the region.

China’s coast guard rammed and sank a fishing boat in disputed waters off Vietnam, and its ships swarmed an offshore oil rig operated by Malaysia. Beijing denounced the second inauguration of Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, and pointedly dropped the word “peaceful” from its annual call for unification with the island democracy.

Chinese troops squared off again last week with India’s along their contentious border in the Himalayas.

All are long-standing tensions, but the decision to impose new national security laws on Hong Kong, bypassing the semi-autonomous territory’s own legislative process, shows what can happen with an unbridled China, no longer restrained by the fear of international rebuke.

“There was this idea before about China being cautious and trying to cultivate its soft power around the world,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and author of “China Tomorrow: Democracy or Dictatorship?” “Those times are gone with Xi Jinping.”

Xi, who in seven years in power has pursued a “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese state, has emerged from the pandemic newly emboldened, seizing on nationalistic themes to deflect from the government’s early failures in stopping the coronavirus’s spread.

But he still faces enormous economic and diplomatic challenges. New protests erupted in Hong Kong on Sunday, and resistance to greater control by Beijing could threaten the territory’s role as a financial center.

Officials and state media outlets have lashed out at the United States and other countries, accusing them of supporting “separatists” and “terrorists” in an effort to weaken the power of the Communist Party.

On the defensive over their handling of the virus, President Donald Trump and his aides have sought to blame China for the pandemic’s toll in the United States. The criticism, by all appearances, has done little to moderate Xi’s actions. It may even have emboldened them, as Chinese officials point to the failures in the United States and other countries as evidence of the Communist Party’s better model of governance.

The Trump administration has, in turn, intensified its actions against China, imposing restrictions on trade and technology, praising Tsai’s inauguration and even marking the 25th anniversary of the disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama, the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism.

“The United States, in fact, is pouring oil on the fire, barrel by barrel,” Tian Feilong, a professor of law at Beihang University in Beijing, said in a telephone interview. “The central government is therefore actually just safeguarding its own most basic national security interests.”

China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, said Sunday that the two countries could still work together to promote global peace and stability, but he denounced those in the United States who seek American hegemony.

“It’s time for the United States to give up its wishful thinking of changing China,” Wang said, accusing American officials of having a Cold War mentality.

Xi’s move against Hong Kong has nonviolent echoes of President Vladimir Putin’s forceful seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, which was a violation of international law and of Russia’s previous diplomatic commitments. The annexation made Putin an international pariah for a while, but Russia still remains firmly in control of Crimea.

While Xi is using legislation rather than military force in a territory already under Chinese rule, it is nonetheless a brash move by an autocratic leader willing to risk international condemnation to resist what he views as foreign encroachment on his country’s security.

“The Communist Party doesn’t care anymore about the reactions because it’s about survival, the stability of the one-party system, avoiding the fate of the Soviet Union,” Cabestan said. “Hong Kong is being perceived more and more as a base of surveillance, as a factor in the destabilization of the Chinese state.”

The challenges facing Xi come at a time when China’s major rivals, the United States above all, are in disarray, giving Xi more room to maneuver.

Britain, which is a signatory to the 1984 treaty that promised Hong Kong — its former colony — basic freedoms until 2047, issued a statement with Australia and Canada saying that they were “deeply concerned.” Senior Trump administration officials also denounced Xi’s gambit, warning that they could reconsider the territory’s special trade privileges or impose other sanctions. Trump, whose few comments about Hong Kong have been inconsistent, said little.

For those who support Hong Kong’s unique status as Asia’s commercial and cultural crossroads, warnings no longer suffice in the face of determined pressure from Beijing.

Victoria Hui, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and author of a book on the 2014 Hong Kong protests known as the Umbrella Movement, said the international community had often spoken out against China’s steady accretion of power over the territory but had exacted no real punishment.

That has been the case for the most egregious violations of basic rights in Hong Kong in recent years, including extrajudicial kidnappings, excessive use of force by the police last year and the arrests of leading democratic leaders a week ago.

“The international pushback has been so weak,” Hui said. “Beijing is daring foreign governments to continue to issue words but take no actions.”

China’s tactics under Xi today contrast those of his immediate predecessors, who prioritized China’s reforms and opening over confrontation with its neighbors or the broader world. “Hide our strength, bide our time” was Deng Xiaoping’s adage a generation ago.

When Taiwan was moving to hold its first presidential elections in 1996, China conducted intimidating missile tests in the Taiwan Strait. It was forced to back down when President Bill Clinton ordered U.S. aircraft carriers to the waters in a show of military support for the island’s defense.

Xi has steadily built up China’s air and naval power, making a similar move by the United States today much riskier. Chinese forces routinely menace the island, as its first operational aircraft carrier did last month, forcing Taiwan’s military to scramble jets and ships. The seventh similar incident this year, it signaled China’s determination to block Taiwan from formally establishing its independence.

For Beijing’s leaders, China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong is as emotionally charged.

Under the Basic Law, the miniconstitution that governs the territory, Hong Kong is obliged to adopt rules “to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition and subversion” against the Chinese government. When the city’s legislature tried to do so in 2003, Beijing retreated in the face of huge street protests.

“China was in a very different place globally,” said Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Center. “China’s economy was growing in 2003, but it wasn’t the second-biggest economy in the world and quite the economic behemoth it is today.”

There is also a more subtle difference that the pandemic has accentuated. Beijing spent years deflecting criticism of its system by saying that China was not yet ready for more democratic freedoms, effectively leaving open the possibility for greater liberalization of the political system, as many inside and outside the country hoped.

China, Mitter said, is now a “state which no longer apologizes for being authoritarian.”

On Friday, Xi told delegates at the annual session of the legislature, the National People’s Congress, that the country’s system was the “the broadest, most genuine and most effective democracy to safeguard the fundamental interests of the people.”

Such confidence has allowed Xi to brush aside international concerns about China’s behavior at home and abroad: the absence of government transparency and accountability, the countless arrests of those who express dissent, the mass detention of more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang.

It has also emboldened China in ways that create the possibility of armed conflict.

On the remote border with India, Chinese forces have twice in the last month clashed with Indian troops, prompting both sides to send in reinforcements. India has accused China of blocking patrols on its side of the Line of Control, the unofficial border.

China has also stepped up its efforts to dominate the South China Sea despite the territorial claims of countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In April, it created two new administrative districts to govern the islands it controls in the Paracel and Spratly chains. China’s navy also said that it had succeeded in growing cabbage and other vegetables in the sand of Woody Island, helping to feed the growing number of troops stationed there.

“Chinese aggression is not always just rhetorical,” Alice Wells, an assistant U.S. secretary of state, said in a telephone briefing in Washington last week.

“So whether it’s in the South China Sea or whether it’s along the border with India,” she said, “we continue to see provocations and disturbing behavior by China that raises questions about how China seeks to use its growing power.”

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