A less than happy birthday

The spectacular show of strength to mark China’s 70th anniversary celebrations cannot mask the grave challenges facing Beijing, writes Humphrey Hawksley   

China’s October commemoration of the Communist Party’s 70 years in power was extravagant, artistic and disciplined. It ushered in the next decade with verve reminiscent of that displayed at the 60th anniversary ten years earlier, but with one significant difference.

Back then, Beijing had just hosted the lavish 2008 Olympic Games with panache and style, portraying the country in a way that had won it global admiration.

At the time, Western democracies were reeling from the financial crisis, and their attempts to export democratic values to alien cultures lay smouldering in the deserts of Iraq. Beijing commanded the stage as the go-to capital for trade without too many questions being asked.

As China waved its chequebook, an understanding emerged that this wealthy and welcome investor should be treated as a player among equals, with its ways of doing things accepted without challenge. China was set on the path of rapid global expansion.

But, ten years later, it is coming to terms with a reality that this is far less easy than imagined.  As a rising power looking to occupy new ground, it is inevitably facing resistance by those already holding that ground.

Beijing appears to have been caught by surprise, dazzled like a rabbit in headlights, and there may need to be a re-thinking of pace and approach. Many obstacles are being laid down to jeopardise China’s advance. Outflanked on many fronts, it needs to choose its battles carefully. So far, it has not.

The drive has come from the Trump administration’s trade war, which has given momentum to the unleashing of anti-China sentiment,stretching from the tiny island nationNauru in the Pacific to Brussels in the vast European Union.

It began with accusations of colonial-style bullying, the trapping of poor countries in debt, currency manipulation, technology theft, and political interference against democracies. All these are issues thathad a chance forquiet diplomatic resolution.

China may have moved too fast and too clumsily

Yet instead of tensions calming, they have been inflamed to a level that makes it difficult to see how business could ever return to normal.

One of the rawest wake-up calls comes from the real on-the-ground threat in Pakistan’s province of Baluchistan, where insurgents have attacked the Chinese consulate and installations connected to the massive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, exposing a dark underbelly to the much-heralded Belt and Road Initiative.  The lives of Chinese workers are now at risk.

Simultaneously, Beijing has turned a spotlight onto another underbelly that to the West is like a red rag to a bull: the organised mass violation of human rights.

A million or more Muslim Uyghurs are being incarcerated in prison camps in Xinjiang in an attempt to ‘re-educate’ them away from Islam and towards a mindset that complies with Chinese values. The latest reports from there allege routine rape, torture and medical experiments on prisoners.

At the same time, Beijing has flouted an international court ruling and deployed missiles and warplanes to its illegal military bases in the South China Sea, effectively putting a vital global shipping route under its control.

This direct confrontation against the West now coincides with unrest in Hong Kong which, with its educated and usually disciplined population, shows up flaws in the Chinese leadership on many levels.

The seas of the Asia-Pacific have become theatres of military exercises

The most basic is that it rips apart the Communist Party belief that it can retain control if it continues to deliver economic growth and raise standards of living.  The thesis espoused by the late Deng Xiao-ping that ‘to get rich is glorious’ might have worked well when poverty was acute and Hong Kong was ruled by a benevolent far-off colonial power. But in today’s climate wealth is not everything. As petrol bombs flare up against Hong Kong police lines, protesters are showing they are willing, if need be, to sacrifice the city’s riches to achieve an undefined goal of political independence.

Memorial site of the Battle of Guningtou on the Taiwanese island of Kinmen
Memorial site of the Battle of Guningtou on the Taiwanese island of Kinmen

Also ripped apart is Beijing’s argument that Chinese societies have less yearning for freedoms enjoyed by the West, ignoring the very painful uprisings experienced over the centuries in Europe and North America as people demanded more of a say on how they were governed.

Hong Kong has proved Beijing wrong, underlining that the will of the human spirit can supersede the level of the bank account, which is why this is now a very dangerous place for Beijing to handle.

So far, the crisis has shown up the Communist Party for its lack of imagination and flexibility, indeed its lack of confidence.

President Xi Jinping’s warning that attempts to split China would lead to ‘crushed bodies and shattered bones’ reflects more the rhetoric of a dictator pushed into a corner than the captivating vision a president aiming to take the reins of global leadership.

It also carries a whiff of desperation, given that another larger territory that China would like under its wing has been split for the same span of 70 years commemorated last month.

Indeed, if Xi were looking for shattered bones he could visit the memorial site of the Battle of Guningtouon the Taiwanese island of Kinmen. In October 1949, nationalist troops defeated an invasion from the mainland, running so low on ammunition that they crushed their enemies under tank treads on the beach.

Taiwan in now a fully developed democracy and economy. Watching the unfolding situation in Hong Kong, it is convinced it wants nothing to do with being ruled from Beijing at any time in the foreseeable future.

China wants a bigger part on the global stage with a lead role in rewriting the current world order. But it is not yet ready. It may have moved too fast and too clumsily, such that those governments that once welcomed the new kid on the block have seen more of its methods and are choosing to keep their distance.

America’s trade war is prompting companies to relocate to other countries in Asia. The European Union has declared China a systemic rival and the seas of the Asia-Pacific have become theatres of military exercises among governments intent on balancing Chinese expansion.

The alliances are loose and, with a diverse mix of cultures, religions and political systems, the participants are described as ‘like-minded’, a euphemism meaning that, for the time being, they prefer an American-led world order to a Chinese-led one.

The United States remains by a long stretch the world’s most powerful nation. It has experience in gathering allies, going to war, forging peace and building institutions. It also controls the banking system.These structures have taken decades to put in place and America has led in two stages, the first after the Second World War and again after the Cold War.

China might be wise to take stock, learn from setbacks and bide its time. In war, peace and trade, China has none of America’s experience.


Humphrey Hawksley’s latest book is Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion

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