BEIJING’S ANNUS HORRIBILIS

First published in the Los Angeles Times and Aftenposten, Oslo. 

The last year has not been kind to the men in Beijing. After long seeing power drain to the East, the West is striking back.

At the fore is pressure on China to modify its practice of protectionist trade policy and industrial espionage. The Trump administration has given notice to the Xi administration to change its ways or pay a heavy cost. Trade negotiations are progressing towards new rules.

Security services in Western countries have issued warnings against the IT giant Huawei on grounds of national security, in particular in respect to the building of the fifth generation of wireless technology, G5. This includes the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Britain and others – even the Czech Republic where otherwise President Milos Zeman has made himself China’s lapdog in Europe. Huawei’s chief finance officer is under detention in Canada on US charges, awaiting extradition. In January, a Huawei employee was arrested in Warsaw on charges of espionage. At issue is the duty in China’s state-led capitalism on companies like Huawei to collaborate with government authorities, including to share data.

Respected research organisations have issued reports detailing China’s “influence policy” aimed at political and educational organisations, media and civil society in democratic countries: the Mercator Institute in Berlin, the Asia Society in New York , and recently the Royal United Services Institute in London.

American lawmakers have spearheaded a fightback against China’s use of financial clout to chip away at the foundations of academic freedom. Western Universities have become reluctant to welcome the Trojan Horse of Confucian Institutes, and established Institutes are being shut down. The tone of voice in media commentary has changed. Apologists are silent and the dominant melody is one of warning.

A year ago, Xi Jinping made his first serious mistake since becoming supreme leader in 2012. He had the constitutional two-term time limit on the Presidency lifted. That pulled back the curtain for the world to see the regime as it is. He speaks the language of rule of law but will change the constitution at the flick of a finger if it suits him.

Internally, during Xi’s tenure, Party control has been tightened in draconian ways. A heroic community of human rights lawyers has been decimated. Social control is being perfected in a big-data “social credit system” whereby daily life rewards and punishments are distributed according to people’s score on a scale from good to bad citizenship behaviour. The Western province of Xinjiang, where the Chinese Muslim population is concentrated, has been turned into a totalitarian police state, complete with mass detentions and a network of concentration camps.

Externally, under the ideological inspiration of Xi’s “China Dream” of national greatness, Beijing is pursuing a policy of global domination. The main instrument is the “Belt and Road Initiative” in which China lends participating countries capital for infrastructural investments. The loans and projects are irresistible but have the effect of tying receiving nations into dependency on Beijing.

When loans taken on by Shri Lanka became unserviceable, China took over the port in question and 15 000 acres of land around it on a 99 years lease, establishing a Hong Kong style concession in a weaker country. Others caught in China’s “debt trap” include Zambia, which in late 2018 lost control of its main international airport, and Kenya, which is in danger of having to hand over its main Mombasa port for inability to service its Chinese loan to fund a China-built, but unprofitable, Mombasa to Nairobi railway.

The West has been desperate to see China as a collaborative force, but Beijing has, by the mismanagement of power, made it impossible to hold on to that illusion. To make matters worse for themselves, when meeting resistance Xi & Co revert to bullying. After New Zealand joined other Western countries in a stand against Huawei, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been unable to schedule a long planned visit to China, and the launch of a much-promoted tourism initiative was abruptly cancelled. When the British Secretary of Defence made some critical remarks about the South China Sea, the Chancellor of the Exchequer found a planned visit called off. Little Norway has been forced to sign a treaty of friendship in which its government, otherwise a consistent voice in defence of human rights, commits itself to silence on China’s abuses. In New Zealand, in a much noticed case, Professor Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, after publishing a critical paper about China’s influence in the country, has found herself and her family on the receiving end of a campaign of intimidation, thought the be orchestrated by Chinese authorities.

The realignment of power – not too strong a term – is starting to narrow China’s space of action. An immediate beneficiary is Taiwan, which sits on the contemporary fault-line of totalitarianism and democracy. The danger that China will trample liberty underfoot there is less today than it was a year ago.

Winston Churchill in the early years after World War II said of Stalin he said he did not believe he wanted war, he just wanted the spoils of war. The same can be said of Xi Jinping today. But now, the West is finding its voice against Chinese abuses of power. The men in Beijing are desperate for respect. It turns out that speaking clear language to the giant it works.

 

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