How refreshing it is, that in this age of constant calls to ‘decolonise’ everything from the curriculum to yoga, a few of us are beginning to appreciate just how much the lives of those living in Hong Kong have changed since Britain gave up that imperial outpost.
For the island, becoming a ‘special administrative region’ of China in July 1997 was not so much a hop from oppressive frying pan to autocratic fire, but from moth-eaten British rule to Communist Party despotism.
The most recent developments in the Beijing-Hong Kong relationship make plain that any pretence of the ‘one country, two systems’ doctrine has been totally abandoned. On the 11th of March, the National People’s Congress of the CCP passed the ‘Patriots Governing Hong Kong Resolution’. 2,895 of the 2,896 delegates seated in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square voted in favour of the new law. One abstained. Perhaps they pressed the wrong button by mistake.
The effect of the newly approved legislation is to ensure that any candidate standing for election in Hong Kong’s regional assembly is vetted by a pro-Beijing panel. It is the CCP’s attempt to cut-off democratic dissent at source. 2019 saw pro-democracy lawmakers win a decisive victory in local elections on the island. Beijing is making sure that this momentary glitch in its hegemony is not allowed to repeat itself.
As usual, the reporting of the BBC China team led by John Sudworth was superb. His addition to Thursday evening’s 10 o’clock bulletin included a frightening interview with a pro-Beijing Hong Kong legislator. She told him that: ‘We have tried democracy, but it did not produce good results…we are trying something different now’.
Britain’s former colony has now been fully colonised. But there are more layers of irony. As the West tears itself apart with self-flagellating examinations of its colonial past, we are missing the chance to oppose an act of contemporary empire-building, by a state which suffers none of the moral insecurity that living in a democracy instils.
China continues to construct military bases in the international waters of the South China Sea and apply pressure upon one of the only healthy democracies in the region, Taiwan. It is exterminating the culture of the Uyghur ethnic group in its Western province of Xinjiang. Regular cyberattacks, like that aimed against Microsoft last week, are designed to steal intellectual property and weaken the West’s corporate behemoths. The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is placing dozens of states in the debt of Beijing, as a billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure investment come with the implicit condition of support for the regime. Chinese representatives have repeatedly stonewalled attempts by the UN Security Council to condemn the military coup in Myanmar (a state in which Belt and Road infrastructure construction has been extensive). The toll of civilian dead in the wake of that coup has now exceeded 120.
The pro-Beijing lobby is able to extend its reach into seemingly trivial matters beyond China’s borders. Last week, a German children’s book called A Corona Rainbow for Anna and Moritz (Ein Corona-Regenbogen für Anna und Moritz), was pulped prior to distribution, because Chinese officials, angry at the book’s suggestion that the Coronavirus originated in China, convinced its cowardly publisher to recall it. Think on that. German parents are now unable to read their children this harmless (and truthful) bedtime story, because the Chinese government says so. Is that right?
And then there’s the topic of climate change and carbon emissions. This is often touted as a core issue for young people. Why then, is anger over climate change rarely directed at the Chinese government? China is on course to triple its 1990 carbon emission levels by 2030. It continues to construct coal fired power stations, and is now the biggest state emitter of CO2 in the world by far. In 2019, while the rest of the world actually managed to reduce its carbon emissions by 0.02 Gigatons of CO2, China increased its output by 0.26 GtCO2. As a result, net global emissions emission increased by 0.24 GtCO2. All of our bike lanes and quaint vegetarian trends will mean literally nothing if China continues on its current path. And yet China seems rarely mentioned by student climate activists. Why is this?
Perhaps it is because some are squeamish about falling victim to the favorite rebuke of the pro-Beijing lobby: that anyone who criticizes the regime must be a sinophobe. It’s a cheap shot from those who have no real defense for the behavior of their government, but it underlines why it is so crucial to aim our ire at the Communist party, not the Chinese people. Of course, anti-asian racism is an appalling reality, and has been fuelled in the wake of the pandemic. Last year, the issues of racism, coronavirus and the behaviour of the Chinese government were all conflated by opportunistic leaders like Trump, who went farting on about ‘kung flu’. But this only underlines why separating racism and critiques of the Chinese state is so essential. The former is never acceptable. The latter is more than justified. If countries like the UK are unable to hold the Communist Party to account internationally, then everyone loses, not least the Chinese people, who would continue to inhabit a regime which regards them as the party faithful at best, and as the property of the state at worst. Not to mention the citizens of countries like Taiwan, who deserve our unwavering support as they live in the shadow of a Chinese government which publicly acclaims its intention to make their home its 23rd province.
Some may genuinely feel that Western Democratic Liberalism has lost the moral high ground. To those people I would only point to the values the CCP espouses: Social order, nationalism, and above all, absolute loyalty to the state. Whatever the weaknesses of our system, political pluralism and open debate are among its critical strengths. Only a fool would want to throw them away.
The behaviour of Beijing towards Hong Kong has demonstrated that the CCP is not shy of extending its values and absolutist mode of government, even if it breaches the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement reached at the 1997 handover. In the UK, we should feel confident about affirming our own values; those of democracy, freedom of expression, and tolerance. This could take many forms: encouraging MP’s to condemn in even stronger language the systemic racism of a state which attempts to incarcerate an entire minority would be a start. Encouraging this university to avoid offers of money from Chinese state organisations would also represent progress. And seeking to buy products manufactured by states threatened by China, like Taiwan, would be a way to vote with your cash.
The President of China, Xi Jinping, is attempting to appoint himself to the position of ‘Chairman’, a title not employed since the days of Mao Zedong. Crucially, the position is not equipped with term limits. Given the recent behavior of his country, perhaps Xi should reflect on the musings of the brutal dictator whose shoes he is attempting to fill. The sixth chapter of Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ is entitled: ‘Imperialism and All Reactionaries are Paper Tigers’. One line reads: ‘Imperialism will not last long because it always does evil things’.
But that was then. Xi’s China is embarking on a new age of empire. The question is, will we find the courage to resist it?
Image Credit – Wpcpey, Wikipedia Commons