Beijing’s Achilles’ heels

Two territories closely linked to China may serve as test cases for how the Asian giant’s global expansion evolves. Humphrey Hawksley reports from Taipei

When the Chinese leadership maps out its long-term regional and global policies, the territories of Hong Kong and Taiwan take special position.

While the United States, Europe, the Belt and Road Initiative through Asia and Africa are all vital to China’s continued growth, these two cosmopolitan wealthy, educated societies represent its emotional side. Beijing regards Hong Kong and Taiwan as sovereign territory, whereas their people do not see eye to eye with the Chinese Communist Party and, unlike on the mainland, have the freedom to say so.

How events unfold in these two places may determine how China’s own expansion unfolds, whether it will continue with its pragmatic drive of the past two decades or whether its heart will rule its head and allow Hong Kong and Taiwan’s independent-mindedness to trip it up and cause it to lash out.

If Beijing cannot coax these two culturally-affiliated Chinese societies into its arc of influence, what hope does it have in its efforts across the region and the wider world as it tries to replace American values and power with Chinese or Asian ones?

Hong Kong and Taiwan sit as centrepieces within China’s historical legend of its Century of Humiliation which runs from its invasion by Britain in 1839 to the Communist Party’s coming to power in 1949.  The lesson drummed into every school child is that their government will recover lost territories, and China must never again become so weak that its people are enslaved by foreigners.

Britain took Hong Kong island in 1842 as part of its First Opium War victory and, in 1898, agreed a 99-year lease on the New Territories which comprise 86 per cent of Hong Kong’s area and are now home to half its 7 million-strong population.

Taiwan was lost in 1895 as Japan was in the first throes of its sweep through Asia. It was briefly regained in 1945 after Japan’s defeat, then lost again when Mao Tse-tung’s victorious armies failed to capture Taiwan and several islands in 1949.

Hong Kong and Taiwan represent China’s emotional side

It has been an unhealed sore ever since and, more than once, a real flashpoint for war. In 1958, during a Chinese artillery onslaught against the outlying island of Kinmen, the United States even drew up plans for a nuclear strike.

Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in July 1997 was well-planned and smoothly executed.  But, by law, this did not give Beijing control.  The people of Hong Kong were meant to be mostly self-governing, permitted to enjoy the same freedoms as under the British for another 50 years.

China had hoped that this formula known as ‘one country, two systems’ could also be used for the reunification of Taiwan.

Now, with Hong Kong in a constant state of dissent and Taiwan governed by the China-averse Democratic Progressive Party, that hope has been dashed.

Examined more closely, just about every strategy step China has taken in the past three or four years is a text-book lesson on how not to do global expansion, particularly if the aim is to achieve it without a shot being fired in anger.

In January 2017, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the Davos World Economic Forum that captured imaginations about joining hands and ‘marching arm in arm towards a bright future’.

Three years later, the atmosphere is very different. China’s soft power charm offensive laced with money has shown its hard edge.

Chinese and Indian troops have been facing each other down in the Himalayas while Chinese and Japanese ships have skirted round each other in the East China Sea. The Chinese and American military have challenged each other in the South China Sea, and the European Union has declared China to be a systemic rival advocating alternative forms of government. The United States has initiated its devastating trade war, prompting an exodus of multi-nationals from the country.

And, in two specific areas, China has chosen to confront the West head on. It has built military bases in international waters in the South China Sea and imprisoned a million or more Uighur Muslims in camps. This mass violation of human rights openly pits China’s authoritarian values against the democratic ones of the West.

During this period, there has been a strengthening of a loose regional alliance initiated by the United States and led by Japan and India, drawing in governments as diverse as Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Vietnam and, from Europe, Britain and France. China has no such alliance.

At the same time, rather than use Hong Kong and Taiwan as examples of how an expanding China will act towards others, Beijing continues to harass and threaten.

In Hong Kong, it has interfered with the school curriculum, the judiciary and the election of the chief executive. It has allowed the kidnap of citizens and tried to force through the controversial extradition law which sparked ongoing protests. It has warned of military intervention.

China’s soft power charm offensive has shown its hard edge

In Taiwan, after the 2016 election of DPP President Tsai Ing-wen, it targeted the economy, staged military exercises, restricted tourism and unrelentingly continued prising away the few governments that still recognised Taipei. Only fifteen now remain after the Solomon Islands and Kiribati recognised Beijing in September.

But rather than bring these wayward communities back to the Chinese fold, this iron fist approach is driving them further away.

Hong Kong protesters have large support and are prepared to risk their city’s status as a global trading hub rather than forfeit the freedom they were told they would have.

As for Taiwan, it has implemented policies to lessen its trade reliance on China and is bolstering its military with $10 billion of American warplanes, tanks and other weapons to defend itself from Chinese threats.

DETAINED: China has imprisoned a million or more Uighur Muslims in camps
DETAINED: China has imprisoned a million or more Uighur Muslims in camps

Even if the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) wins the presidential elections in January, there is unlikely to be substantive change. The KMT, which campaigns on closer relationship with Beijing, was shaken when in government in 2014. Like Hong Kong, it tried to introduce a law that brought it closer to China, leading to two months of demonstrations during which protesters broke into the legislature and government offices.

‘Communists have been our enemies in the past and will be in the future,’ a highly- placed KMT official told Asian Affairs. ‘We know their nature. We do what we do to maintain a stable relationship, not because we love it, but because we want to survive.’

Hong Kong and Taiwan are both test cases of how China might try to get its way as its influence grows around the world. As symbolic Chinese territory, they are also the most important to get right.

So far, China has got it wrong.


Humphrey Hawksley, a former BBC Hong Kong correspondent, was in Taipei as part of a delegation of think-tanks from Britain

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