China flexes its muscles

President Xi and his associates don’t wish to see the repeat of the huge street protests in 2003

Shahid Javed Burki May 31, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice president of the World Bank

Covid-19 is a respiratory disease that at the time of this writing has taken 367,229 lives and sickened over 6 million people worldwide. It first appeared in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people on the Yangtze River in China’s centre. That fact alone could have put the country on the defensive in the international arena. But that did not happen. Rather than being weakened, China came out stronger. It had demonstrated that it had the political system and an administrative structure based on it that allows it to take hard decisions. While the United States struggled mightily to deal with the pandemic caused by the virus, China was able to suppress it to the point that by the end of May there were just a handful of new cases of Covid-19. On May 27, 2020, the US had 1.6 million cases and more than 100,000 deaths.

Emboldened, the authorities in Beijing decided to move on several fronts. As one news analyst put it in a New York Times assessment on May 25, 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. China’s Coast Guard rammed and sank a fishing boat in disputed borders off Vietnam, and its ships swarmed an offshore oilrig 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 along their border in the Himalayas.” In April, Chinese troops clashed with Indian troops, prompting both sides to send in reinforcements. India accused China of blocking patrols on its side of Line of Actual Control, the unofficial border in the area where it has not been possible to agree on the exact boundary line. But the most aggressive move by Beijing was to plug in what it saw as weak spots in the system. One of them was Hong Kong.

On May 22, the Communist Party leadership submitted to the National Peoples’ Congress a draft law according to which Beijing can deploy “relevant national security organs” to Hong Kong, giving legal cover for the first time for the mainland security apparatus to exercise authority in the previously autonomous former British colony. Beijing’s move — imposing its will by decree, bypassing legislative procedures it promised Hong Kong under the terms of the 1997 British handover — prompted reaction from the activists in the financial centre. “If agents of China’s national security apparatus can operate in Hong Kong, they can use the same methods they use in China,” said Leung Kwok-hung, a political activist in Hong Kong. “That’s the end of us.” But that was not the end of them. On Sunday, May 24, there were scattered confrontations for seven hours between protesters and security forces. According to one account, “the demonstrations also made clear the challenges before the pro-democracy movement. Attendance was far lower than for the massive rallies last year against a bill that would have allowed extraditions to Mainland China. Some protesters have expressed hopelessness or a new fear of participating in public opposition. The police also showed that they planned to continue a new pattern of assertiveness toward the protesters, trying to stop mass gatherings before they occur.”

Business and financial communities that had turned Hong Kong into one of the more vibrant centres of business and finance in the world reacted negatively to the unexpected move by Beijing. The city’s stock market went into its sharpest decline in five years, tumbling 5.6% on March 22. Futures trading in the Hong Kong dollar that is pegged to the American dollar indicated that investors were expecting money to flow out of the city. Hong Kong had become the most vibrant centre of international finance and commerce largely on account of its status as a semi-autonomous Chinese city connected to the mainland but largely independent of it. That said, Beijing under the tightening grip of President Xi Jinping did not appreciate the quest for total autonomy on the part of the younger generation of Hong Kong’s citizens. A significant number of those who turned up in the streets of Hong Kong to protest against mainland China’s attempt to circumscribe the extent of the autonomy they believed was granted by the 1984 agreement between Beijing and London were born after its signing 36 years ago.

The series of assertive moves by Beijing to assert its authority in Asia and points beyond happened when Covid-19 took in its destructive grip the US and much of Europe. This bolstered China and the senior leaders of the Communist Party who pointed to the failures in the West as evidence of their system as a better model of governance. The US was ambivalent about its approach to the Chinese moves. Trump’s Washington intensified its actions against Beijing, imposing restrictions on trade and technology, praising Tsai’s inauguration as the president of Taiwan, and even marking the 25th anniversary of the disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama, the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism. But Beijing was not impressed. It saw these as pinpricks by a diminishing great power. “It’s time for the United States to give up its wishful thinking of changing China,” said Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister. Instead, he suggested the two countries should work together to promote global peace and stability.

President Xi and his associates don’t wish to see the repeat of the huge street protests in 2003 although Hong Kong under the Basic Law agreed to by London and Beijing “prohibited any act of treason, secession, sedition and subversion”. China then didn’t feel strong enough to enforce the Basic Law. China’s economy was then growing but hadn’t become the second largest in the world. The country’s leadership feels more confident now, especially after using administrative means to conquer Covid-19. In his address to the National People’s Congress Xi in late May said the country’s system was “the broadest, most genuine, and most effective democracy to safeguard the fundamental interests of the people”. The US took formal notice of China’s assertive behaviour but limited it to a statement by a relatively low-level official. “Chinese aggression is just rhetorical,” said Alice G Wells, an assistant secretary of state. “So whether it’s in the South China or whether it’s along the border with India, we continue to see provocations and disturbing behaviour by China that raises questions about how China seeks to use its growing power.” Wells having raised the question didn’t indicate how her country was planning to respond.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 1st, 2020.

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