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Hong Kong: Xi’s Choice

The crowds of protesters in the streets of Hong Kong continue to grow, and they have spread beyond Central (the business district) to Kowloon and Causeway Bay. The police are already using tear gas and pepper spray, and rubber bullets will be next.

It’s not exactly Armageddon, but it’s the most serious organized protest that China has seen since the pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square was drowned in blood 25 years ago.

Hong Kong isn’t exactly China, of course, in the sense that it doesn’t live under the same arbitrary dictatorship as the rest of the country.

While it has been under the ultimate control of the Communist regime in Beijing since Britain handed the territory back to China in 1997, the deal London made before the hand-over guaranteed Hong Kong’s existing social system, including freedom of speech and the rule of law, for another 50 years.

Indeed, the “one country, two systems” deal even stipulated that the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” would get more democratic as time went on. There was already an elected Legislative Council when the British left, but by 2017, Beijing promised, there would also be a democratically elected Chief Executive.

(The holder of that office is now chosen by a 1,200-person “Election Committee” that is packed with pro-Beijing members).

But free elections for the Chief Executive turned out to be more democracy than the Beijing regime could swallow, mainly because it’s terrified of the example spreading to the rest of China.

So it broke its promise: late last month the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing declared that it will allow only three candidates to run for Chief Executive, and that all of them must be approved by a nominating committee chosen by the regime.

That’s what triggered the current wave of demonstrations. As Martin Lee, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said at a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong: “What’s the difference between a rotten orange, a rotten apple, and a rotten banana? We want genuine universal suffrage, not democracy with Chinese characteristics.”

Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the NPC standing committee that wrote the new rule, said that opening up nominations would cause a “chaotic society”, and that the Chief Executive must “love the country and love the Party.”

It’s the classic Communist mind-set, and it left Hong Kong democrats with no options other than surrender or popular protest. Now thousands of people are out in the streets. Where does it go from here?

This confrontation comes at a particularly unfortunate time for Hong Kong’s pro-democratic movement, because the relatively new supreme leader in Beijing, President Xi Jinping, cannot afford to make any concessions.

Since he came to power two years ago, Xi has launched a massive anti-corruption purge that has made him a lot of enemies. At least 30 senior officials and hundreds of their family members and associates have been put under investigation or taken into custody. Thousands of other officials might also face arrest (and rightly so) if the purge spreads. About 70 officials have actually committed suicide in the past year and a half.

The campaign against corruption is necessary and long overdue, but it is widely resented by those who fear that they and their families might also be caught in the net (including the family and associates of former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin).

The resentment is all the deeper because Xi Jinping’s own family and associates are magically untouched by the purge.

Many powerful people in the Communist hierarchy would therefore be greatly relieved if Xi lost power, or at least was forced to end the anti-corruption campaign. If he were to surrender to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, he would be giving those people an excuse to unite against him in defence of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power, and not just of their own personal interests.

Using excessive force to quell the protests, up to and including massacres, would also leave Xi open to criticism, of course, but mainly to criticism from abroad. As we saw in the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, in the end Communist Party cadres will usually support the use of violence in defence of their power and privileges.

As for the general public in China, the events in Hong Kong are already represented in the state-controlled media (to the extent that they are reported at all) as the anti-patriotic actions of people who are being manipulated by hostile foreign powers.

Many ordinary Chinese people won’t believe that, but they probably won’t risk much to support of the people of Hong Kong. (If the protests spread to the mainland, of course, it’s a whole different game.)

Xi Jinping would doubtless prefer to win his confrontation with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement peacefully, but he will use as much violence as necessary to suppress it.

Massacres would do great damage to China’s relations with the rest of the world, but he knows where his priorities lie.

“China’s Chechnya”: Terrorism in Xijiang

It’s not really “China’s Chechnya” yet, but the insurgency in Xinjiang is growing fast. Incidents of anti-Chinese violence are getting bigger and much more frequent. Since March, 176 people have been killed in six separate attacks on Chinese police and government officials, local collaborators and ordinary Chinese residents of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwestern China, and the authorities don’t seem to have a clue what to do about it.

The Uighur attackers have mostly used knives or explosives in their attacks (guns are hard to get in China), but nobody has suggested that they are so technologically backward that their bombs come with long, trailing fuses that have to be lit by hand. Yet Chinese police in Xinjiang last month seized tens of thousands of boxes of matches.

“The confiscation has enabled us to strengthen controls over important elements of public security and thus eliminate potential security threats,” said the Kashgar police. The police website in Changji declared that they had acted “to ensure matches would not be used by terrorist groups and extremist individuals to conduct criminal activities.” No disrespect intended (well, maybe a little), but these are not serious people.

The rebels, on the other hand, are very serious people. Like most independence movements of the colonial era, they believe that you have to take the war to the homeland of the “oppressor” if you can. One of those recent attacks was not in Xinkiang but in Kunming in southwestern China, where a band of eight knife-wielding Uighurs killed 29 ordinary Chinese citizens and wounded 143 in the main railway station.

Another standard tactic in this sort of war is the use of violence to deter one’s own people from collaborating with the colonial power. On 30 July Jume Tahir, the imam of China’s largest mosque, in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang, was stabbed to death just after leading early morning prayers. His crime? Praising Communist Party policies and blaming the rising tide of violence on  Uighur separatists and extremists.

The Uighurs are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, and the official Chinese line blames the separatist violence on foreign Islamists who are stirring up the local people. The separatists themselves say that it is a legitimate response to Chinese oppression, and in particular to the Chinese government’s policy of flooding Xinjiang with Han Chinese immigrants in an attempt to change the territory’s demographic balance. The truth, as usual, is more complicated.

Xinjiang (literally “New Territory) was conquered by Chinese troops in the 1750s, but the population mix did not change. In the early 19th century a census reported the population as 30 percent Han Chinese (almost all living north of the Tian Shan mountains) and 60 percent Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslim farmers who accounted for almost the entire population south of the mountains. The rest were Kazakhs, Huis, Mongols and others.

The Uighurs had grown to 75 percent of the total population by the 1953 census, with many by then living north of the mountains. The Han Chinese had fallen to only 6 percent. But now, thanks to large-scale immigration, the Chinese are back up to fully 40 percent of Xinkiang’s population, while the 10 million Uighurs are down to 45 percent.

In other words, the numbers will support almost any argument you want to make, if you choose your census dates carefully. But it is certainly not true that Han Chinese people are newcomers to Xinjiang, and it is probably not true that the Chinese government has a policy of encouraging Han immigration to reduce the Uighurs to a marginal minority.

Chinese officials themselves say that they are trying to develop the Xinjiang economy and raise local living standards, with the (unstated) goal of making people so prosperous and content that they will not even think of “betraying the motherland” by seeking independence. It’s just that a developed economy requires job skills that are not plentiful among the Uighurs, so large numbers of Han Chinese are drawn in to do those jobs.

Beijing’s officials make the same argument about Tibet, and they are probably being sincere about their intentions there too. They just have a huge cultural blind spot that makes it almost impossible for them to imagine how all this feels to the average Uighur who sees more and more Chinese coming in and getting all the good jobs

Add in all the resentment about the brutal assaults on the Uighurs’ culture and religion that happened during the Cultural Revolution – and continue in a minor key even today, thanks mainly to ignorant government officials who have never before lived outside an exclusively Chinese cultural context. And now there is also a radical Islamist ideology available, for those who are thinking about rebellion.

So now it’s getting really serious in Xinkiang: the last big incident, on 28 July, saw hundreds of Uighurs storm a police station and government offices armed with knives and axes. 59 of the attackers were killed and 215 arrested, while 37 (presumably Chinese) civilians were murdered. When you have organised groups doing violence on this scale, you are already in a low-level war.

It will probably never be as bad as Chechnya, and it is very unlikely that Xinkiang will ever be independent, but it may be a long and ugly counter-insurgency war, with many deaths. At least they’ve got the matches under control.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 11. (“The confiscation…people”; “Another…extremists”; and “Beijing’s…jobs”)

Hong Kong Referendum

“The oppositions in Hong Kong should understand and accept that Hong Kong is not an independent country. They should not think that they have the ability to turn Hong Kong into Ukraine or Thailand,” warned the Global Times, the most aggressively nationalistic of China’s state-run newspapers. Clearly, some important people in the Communist regime are very unhappy about the “civil referendum” on democracy that has just ended in Hong Kong.

In Ukraine, a democratic revolution was followed by foreign annexation of part of the country (Crimea), a mini-civil war in the east, and the threat of a Russian invasion. In Thailand, the voters’ persistence in voting for the “wrong” party led to a military coup. It’s ridiculous to suggest that Hong Kong’s referendum might lead to anything like that, but they are very frightened of democracy in Beijing.

The referendum, which has no official standing, was organised by pro-democracy activists in response to a “white paper” published by the Chinese government in mid-June that made it clear there could be no full democracy in Hong Kong. News about the referendum was completely censored in China, but almost 800,000 people in Hong Kong voted in it. They all said “yes” to democracy.

The referendum was really a tactical move by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp in a long-running tug-of-war with Beijing over how the “Special Administrative Region” should be governed. The voters were asked to choose between three different options for choosing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive – and all of those methods involved popular participation. That is to say, democracy.

That’s not how the Chief Executive is chosen now. He is “elected” by a 1,200-person “Election Committee”, most of whose members are directly or indirectly chosen by the Chinese Communist authorities in Beijing and their local representatives. That’s hardly democratic, but it is written into the “Basic Law” that was negotiated between London and Beijing before Britain handed the colony back in 1997.

The whole negotiation was a series of compromises between the British view that Hong Kong’s inhabitants should enjoy democratic rights, and the Chinese regime’s determination to have ultimate control of the city. One of those compromises was a promise that by 2017, twenty years after the hand-over, the Chief Executive would be chosen by direct elections.

So democracy was raising its ugly head again, and Beijing sought to head off the danger by publishing its recent white paper. There would indeed by direct elections in 2017, it said, but all the candidates would be selected by a “nominating committee” whose members would still be chosen, directly or indirectly, by Beijing – and all the candidates would have to be “patriotic”. In China, as in most dictatorships, “patriotic” means “loyal to the regime.”

The instant response in Hong Kong was the “civil referendum”, in which about 800,000 of Hong Kong’s 3.5 million registered voters have cast a vote in polling stations, online, or on a phone app.

Every one of those voters was voting for full democracy, since the referendum asked them to choose between three proposed methods for nominating candidates for Chief Executive, ALL of which involved direct public participation. And while 800,000 people is only a quarter of the adult population, it is almost half the number of people (1.8 million) who actually voted in the last elections for Hong Kong’s legislature.

The Global Times has denounced the referendum as an “illegal farce” and “a joke”. Hong Kong’s current chief Executive, Leung Chun-Ying, has loyally echoed Beijing’s view that “Nobody should place Hong Kong people in confrontation with mainland Chinese citizens.” After all, “mainland Chinese citizens” have no democratic rights at all, and the Communist regime wants to keep it that way.

But it doesn’t have to be a confrontation. As part of the “one country, two systems” deal that was negotiated with Britain 20 years ago, Beijing has already accepted that Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” for the next 50 years. That includes the rule of law and civil rights like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, free media and so on.

Mainland Chinese citizens do not have those rights, and the example of Hong Kong has not so far incited them to demand them. So why should a democratically elected Chief Executive in Hong Kong drive those 1.3 billion mainland Chinese citizens to demand democracy either?

Maybe the Chinese people will demand democracy eventually, but that is far likelier to come about as a result of a severe recession that destroys the Communist regime’s reputation for fostering high-speed economic growth, which is its sole remaining claim on their loyalty. It won’t come from some desire to emulate Hong Kong. So there is room for a deal between Beijing and Hong Kong that gives the latter more freedom, if everybody stays calm.

There are probably even people inside the Communist regime in Beijing who would welcome a demonstration in Hong Kong that a little more democracy for Chinese people does not necessarily lead to chaos, civil war and secession. (Which is, of course, what their hard-line rivals constantly predict would be the inevitable result of diluting the dictatorship.)
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 10. (“In Ukraine…Beijing”; and “The Global…way”)

Trouble in the South China Sea

If you were running China, and you wanted to distract your own population from economic woes at home by pushing one of your many territorial disputes with your neighbours into open conflict, which one would you choose?

Not Japan, even though most Chinese people really dislike and distrust Japan: it’s allied to the United States, and China is not yet ready for a military confrontation with the US Navy. Not the Philippines, either, for the same reason. But Vietnam, a Communist state, is all alone with no allies. It’s perfect for the role, and it will play its part well.

Early this month, China moved its Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil-drilling rig into a part of the South China Sea where Vietnam also claims the seabed rights. Vietnam sent ships to protest the move, China sent more ships to protect the rig – Hanoi accuses accused China of massing 80 vessels in the area, including warships – and the fun and games began: rammings, battles with water cannon, and a great deal of self-righteous indignation on both sides.

The Vietnamese regime has never been afraid to defy China: it even fought a border war with its giant neighbour to the north in 1979. This year, for the first time, Hanoi publicly commemorated a 1974 clash in which Chinese forces seized the Paracel Islands and killed forty sailors of the old South Vietnamese navy. By last week, there were anti-Chinese demonstrations in Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

Those were undoubtedly authorised by the Vietnamese regime, which keeps a tight hold on its population. What happened in Binh Duong province in southern Vietnam on Tuesday was probably not. Official reports speak of three factories housing Chinese-owned businesses being set on fire on an industrial estate, but local reports talk of 19,000 workers rampaging through the estate and burning fifteen factories.

Hanoi doesn’t want this sort of thing to happen, of course – it scares off much-needed foreign investment – but when you press on the nationalist button, you can never be sure what will come out. Beijing should also be wary of this, if indeed it is really using its border disputes to stoke nationalist fervour in China. Nationalism is not a precision tool.

We can’t be sure that this is Beijing’s main motive, of course. Maybe it’s just a premature outburst of great-power arrogance that is driving China to push so hard on all its territorial disputes this year. But it’s certainly doing it.

Since January China has declared an “Air Defence Identification Zone” over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands which are also claimed by Japan. It has outraged the Philippines by starting to build an airstrip and/or naval base on Johnson Reef (ownership also in dispute) in the Spratly Islands. It has even provoked Indonesia into openly challenging Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea for the first time.

It is talking about establishing a similar Air Defence Identification Zone over almost all of the South China Sea, a maritime thoroughfare for more than half of the world’s merchant trade. Since the beginning of this year it has been requiring that foreign fishing vessels ask permission to enter the area it claims as its exclusive economic zone – again, almost all of the South China Sea – although it has not yet tried to enforce this rule very vigorously.

The area China claims, on the basis of its alleged sovereignty over the many uninhabited islands, islets, shoals and reefs scattered across the South China Sea, extends more than 750 km from its south coast. According to the “nine-dash line” drawn on Chinese maps which is the only graphic (but very imprecise) guide to Beijing’s claim, its control extends to around 50-75 km of the coasts of all the other littoral states.

This huge U-shaped claim, taking in more than 90 percent of the whole South China Sea, is as unsustainable in fact as it is hard to defend in international law. Nor does China seek to prove it by legal means. Last month, when the Philippines submitted a 4,000-page “memorial” to the judicial  body that arbitrates maritime disputes under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, China refused to file a counter-claim or respond in any way.

China’s position would appear to be that you don’t need to prove your claim in the courts if you can enforce it on the ground (or rather, on the water). And indeed, the sheer number and range of unilateral Chinese initiatives in recent months suggest  that the policy of the new ruling team in Beijing (which will be in power for the next ten years) is driven by full-spectrum bloody-mindedness.

However, the desirability of a foreign confrontation to distract the Chinese population from the recession that will probably soon hit the country’s economy cannot be far from the minds of the regime either. In either case, if there is shooting, it will probably start off the Vietnamese coast, simply because Vietnam has no defence treaty with the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“It…vigorously”; and “This huge…way”)