Following the recent abduction of five Hong Kong publishers, alleged to have edited books disclosing “inconvenient truths” about the Chinese government, thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest and fight for their right to have Freedom of Expression, which had already been enshrined in the Fundamental Law of Hong Kong.
The post 80 generation wants to defend civil liberties and young people are concerned by the fact that the Chinese grip on the media could be the potential starting point for the end of the “1 country, 2 system” policy, agreed on between China and Great Britain for the transfer of sovereignty over this territory. Is it reasonable to believe that this territory could become a simple reproduction of China, as feared by the younger generation?
On the first of July, 1997, China resumed control of Hong Kong after 156 years of British colonial rule. The two countries had already agreed on the terms for the transfer of power back in 1984. Britain acquired Hong Kong Island in 1842, following the” Opium Wars” of the 19th century. It took possession of Kowloon Peninsula in 1886 and obtained a lease on The New Territories for a period of 99 years beginning in 1898. Lawmakers, appointed by Beijing, took over power in 1997, but promised to honor China’s pledge to maintain the Hong Kong way of life for at least another fifty years.
However, today idealism is being replaced very quickly by pragmatism in Hong Kong where official statistics show that this special administrative region is becoming more and more politically and economically dependent on China. The Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) set up in 2003 aims at facilitating commercial exchanges between the partners, thus forcing Hong Kong to become more politically integrated into China. Beijing has managed to achieve its goal, because the volume of trade between Hong Kong and mainland China has multiplied by three over the last ten years. In addition, in order to influence the elite of Hong Kong, China has invested extensively there, particularly in finance and real estate. Kai Dai of the United Front of the University of San Yat, of Canton stated that “the CEPA could enable China to use its economy as an axe to reinforce political communication on the two sides and to reconquer the population of Hong Kong”. Beijing relies on Hong Kong’s economic dependence on China to tighten its control over the territory, indicating that the “one country, two systems” principle is more theoretical than real.
Back in 2012, in his luminary and farsighted policy paper ‘What China Wants for Asia?’ professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic accurately diagnoses: “To sustain itself as a single socio-political and formidably performing economic entity, the People’s Republic requires more energy and less external dependency. Domestically, the demographic-migratory pressures are huge, regional demands are high, and expectations are brewing… In effect, the forthcoming Chinese military buildup will only strengthen the existing, and open up new, bilateral security deals of neighboring countries, primarily with the US – as nowadays in Asia, no one wants to be a passive downloader. Ultimately, it may create a politico-military isolation (and financial burden) for China that would consequently justify and (politically and financially) cheapen the bolder reinforced American military presence in the Asia-Pacific, especially in the South and the East China Sea. It perfectly adds up to the intensified demonization of China in parts of influential Western media.”
When speaking with some of residents of Hong Kong during our recent visit there, we realized that many had adopted a fatalistic attitude towards their situation because of their economic dependence on China and their fear of the political powers of Beijing. People feel that China has reneged on its promises and freedom of expression is becoming severely jeopardized. The principle of the two systems framework, regards Beijing as being responsible for the city’s defense and foreign affairs while Hong Kong should be able to enjoy limited self-governance and avail of civil liberties, including an independent judiciary and freedom of the press. China promised that Hong Kong could elect its leaders through universal suffrage, but this is far from reality today when China is slowly but systematically tightening its grip over the territory. The people’s hope for a change in the political system, which would allow democratic elections and civil liberties, is quickly vanishing. Ben, a very pragmatic businessman whom we met, acknowledges that Hong Kong does not have the economic capacity to count without China, but China is not willing to make any concessions. Hong Kong is in a deadlock situation and seems to be doomed under the influence of China. According to Ling, a young activist of the Umbrella Movement, “the Hong Kong population will only protest in the case of a mass violation of the freedom of expression”.
Shortly after the transfer of power from Great Britain to Beijing, the post 80 generation could foresee that freedom of expression was going to be threatened. According to Mai Hai, a woman in her fifties, who is politically involved and very concerned about the lack of civil liberties in Hong Kong, “1997 was the beginning of a head-on confrontation with the CCP” and resistance to the government of Beijing has strengthened in Hong Kong. In 2005 Citizen Radio was launched in order to “bravely speak out” and defend the freedom of expression. However, the authorities of Hong Kong, under the command of Beijing, began acts of repression against the radio station. Szeto Wah, and seven of his colleagues were prosecuted for having dared to speak about the Tianamen Square protests on his radio program.
Over recent years the situation regarding universal rights has not improved in Hong Kong. In 2014, the journalist, King Lau, was prosecuted for having sharply criticized Beijing. This created public indignation and outraged the newly politicized generation who began protests in Hong Kong to defend the freedom of the press and demand “true universal suffrage”. The Umbrella Revolution, a pro-democratic movement, began in 2014 when students boycotted class in order to protest outside city government headquarters in favor of the restoration of civil liberties. More and more Hong Kongers of all ages and backgrounds joined in these peaceful street protests, eventually paralyzing the city’s central business district for weeks and even months. The humble umbrella became the key symbol of this protest as it was used not only to protect demonstrators from the tear gas and pepper spray used by the police and as a shelter for the night but it was also a symbol of resistance. Unfortunately, it would be naïve to think that these protests, filmed by the cameras of the entire world would have been enough to frighten and threaten the Chinese government. Beijing went from strength to strength in its relentless repression and opposition to the movement. The Umbrella Revolution was no exception to Chinese severe censorship procedure. Lok Yee, one of the remaining protestors who still slept outside under his yellow umbrella several months later, explained how information was controlled and falsified by the authorities in Beijing. At first any “inconvenient truths” related to the Umbrella Movement were either deleted or modified. When this became impossible due to the huge influx of information the government decided to lie by saying that Hong Kongers were only showing support for the CPC. When these first strategies failed they always found new methods of covering over, such as falsifying videos by cutting scenes where policemen launched tear gas. They even paid both Chinese and Hong Kong people to help boost the government’s popularity. These “soft warriors” also known as “50 cents” were paid fifty cents for each positive comment twitted about the government or for each comment against the demonstrators. They even received more money if they demonstrated against the Umbrella Movement.
The ten-year judicial sentencing of Yiu Manting, a Hong Kong editor and the recent disappearance of five staff members of the Mighty Current Publishing House (known for frequently criticizing China) shows that Xi Jinping is more determined than ever. Opposing the government and defying censorship is becoming more and more dangerous in Hong Kong. Freedom of expression is severely jeopardized and journalists have no option but to rely on self-censorship in order to avoid retaliation.
All types of communication including the state media and social media are strictly controlled on the mainland of China. A lot of information is censored or falsified or in many cases completely deleted if certain words such as ‘democracy’ are detected. The aim of the government is to try to hide information concerning its political policies and its methods of dealing with political dissidents or those who do not yield to the power of censorship. Baidu, the most popular search engine in China, has very limited resources on any subjects which are considered as sensitive by the Chinese authorities. Lence, a twenty-year-old student studying in Hong Kong, explained this to us and showed us that with a Chinese search engine it is impossible to find any facts about Liu Xiabo, the imprisoned human rights activist and Nobel Prize winner, who was absent from Oslo and unable to receive his award because he was kidnapped by the Chinese government.
According to Lence, the Chinese government is more and more concerned about the fact that Hong Kong students could bring their ”dangerous ideas” to the mainland of China. On his recent visit there, his newspapers and all his academic papers were confiscated at the Chinese border. However this severe treatment is nothing compared to that of some of the leaders of the movement. During demonstrations secret agents are sometimes sent by the Chinese government to follow and list the names of those who are prone to upset the stability of the communist regime. These activists are blacklisted and not allowed reach mainland China.
There seems to be no hope today for a better future in Hong Kong, a sensation felt even among the younger generation. What will the implications be for the people who are being progressively denied their civil liberties? Will Hong Kong find democracy? Probably not, because Beijing fears that the election of any pro-democracy candidate could destabilize communist ideology and bring down the regime. A group of students from the University of Hong Kong, that we had the opportunity of speaking to, confessed that they did not think Beijing would change its attitude towards the people of Hong Kong nor loosen its control over the press.
Is this fatalism definitive or could the situation in Taiwan bring hope to the people of Hong Kong? Thanks to Taiwanese activists the Umbrella Movement influenced the election of the pro-independent president, Tsai Ing-Wen. Could this in turn bring new energy to Hong Kong in its battle to continue its fight for fundamental rights?
Who would bell the China cat?
If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.
China’s tit-for-tat response
The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”
Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20.
Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.
India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.
India’s main problem
Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.
Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.
The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is thrice the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.
Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).
India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”
It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.
History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.
Xinjiang? A Minority Haven Or Hell
While the G7 meets under the shadow of Covid 19 and the leaders of the most prosperous nations on earth are focused on rebuilding their economies, a bloodless pogrom is being inflicted on a group of people on the other side of the world.
In this new era, killing people is wasteful and could bring the economic wrath of the rest of the world. No, it is better to brainwash them, to re-educate them, to destroy their culture, to force them to mold themselves into the alien beings who have invaded their land in the name of progress, and who take the best new jobs that sprout with economic development. Any protest at these injustices are treated severely.
Amnesty International has published a new 160-page report this week on Xinjiang detailing the horrors being perpetrated on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Amnesty has simultaneously announced a campaign on their behalf.
Persecution, mass imprisonment in what can best be described as concentration camps, intensive interrogation and torture are actions that come under the definition of ‘crimes against humanity’. More than 50 people who spent time in these camps contributed first-hand accounts that form the substance of the report. It is not easy reading for these people have themselves suffered maltreatment even torture in many instances.
The UN has claimed that 1.5 million Muslims (Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks) are in these internment camps and China’s claims of re-education camps made to sound as benign as college campuses are patently false.
People report being interviewed in police stations and then transferred to the camps. Their interrogation was frequently conducted on ‘tiger chairs’: The interviewee is strapped to a metal chair with leg irons and hands cuffed in such a manner that the seating position soon becomes exceedingly painful. Some victims were hooded; some left that way for 24 hours or more, and thus were forced to relieve themselves, even defecate, where they sat. Beatings and sleep deprivation were also common.
Activities were closely monitored and they were mostly forbidden to speak to other internees including cell mates. Trivial errors such as responding to guards or other officials in their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese resulted in punishment.
Amnesty’s sources reported the routine was relentless. Wake up at 5am. Make bed — it had to be perfect. A flag-raising and oath-taking ceremony before breakfast at 7 am. Then to the classroom. Back to the canteen for lunch. More classes after. Then dinner. Then more classes before bed. At night two people had to be on duty for two hours monitoring the others leaving people exhausted. You never see sunlight while you are there, they said. That was because they were never taken outside as is done in most prisons.
The re-education requires them to disavow Islam, stop using their native language, give up cultural practices, and become Mandarin-speaking ‘Chinese’.
Such are the freedoms in Xi Jinping’s China. If China’s other leaders prior to Mr. Xi effected moderate policies in concert with advisers, it is no longer the case. Mr. Xi works with a small group of like minds. He has also removed the two-term or eight-year limit on being president. President for life as some leaders like to call themselves, then why not Mr. Xi. His anti-democratic values make him eminently qualified.
An enlightened leader might have used the colorful culture of these minorities to attract tourists and show them the diversity of China. Not Mr. Xi, who would rather have everyone march in lockstep to a colorless utopia reminiscent of the grey clothing and closed-collar jackets of the Maoist era.
Looking back on India-China ties, one year past the Galwan incident
Two nuclear-armed neighbouring countries with a billion-plus people each, geographically positioned alongside a 3,488-km undemarcated border in the high Himalayas. This is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Differences in perception of alignment of this border for both sides have contributed to a seemingly unending dispute.
Chinese unilateral attempt to change status quo in 2020
One year back, on 15 June 2020, a clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh turned bloody, resulting in the death of 20 soldiers in the former side and four in the latter side. It was an unfortunate culmination of a stand-off going on since early May that year, triggered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops encountering Indian troops who were patrolling on their traditional limits.
It was followed by amassing of troops in large number by China on its side and some of them crossed the line over without any provocation, thereby blocking and threatening India’s routine military activities on its side of the traditionally accepted border. It was a unilateral attempt by the Chinese Communist Party-run government in Beijing to forcefully alter the status quo on the ground.
The LAC as an idea
Over the years, the LAC has witnessed one major war resulting from a Chinese surprise attack on India in 1962 and periodic skirmishes along the various friction points of the border, as seen in the years 1967, 1975, 1986-87, 2013, 2017, and the most recent 2020 Galwan Valley incident, the last being the worst in five decades. Post-Galwan, the optics appeared too high on both sides.
The LAC as an idea emerged with the annexation of Buddhist Tibet by Chinese communist forces in the early 1950s, bringing China to India’s border for the first time in history. This idea just emerged and was taking shape through the Jawaharlal Nehru-Zhou Enlai letters of correspondence that followed.
In 1962, while the world was engrossed upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese inflicted a huge military and psychological debacle on unprepared and outnumbered Indian soldiers in a month-long war along this border.
Even to this date, there is still no mutually agreeable cartographic depiction of the LAC. It varies on perceptions.
What could’ve led to 2020 stand-off?
One of the reasons that led to the current new low in India-China ties, other than differing perceptions, is the improvement in Indian infrastructure capabilities along the rough mountainous terrains of the Himalayan borders and its resolve to be on par with China in this front. This has been a cause of concern in Chinese strategic calculations for its Tibetan border.
The carving up of the Indian union territory of Ladakh with majority Buddhists from the erstwhile Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has indeed added to Beijing’s concerns over the area.
For the past few years, India has been upfront in scaling up its border infrastructure throughout the vast stretch of LAC, including in eastern Ladakh, where the 2020 stand-off took place. There is a serious trust deficit between India and China today, if not an evolving security dilemma.
Several rounds of talks were held at the military and the diplomatic levels after the Galwan incident, the working-level mechanisms got renewed and new action plans were being formed before the process of disengagement finally began.
The foreign ministers of both countries even met in Moscow on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in September, which was followed by a BRICS summit where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping came face-to-face in November, although virtually.
By February 2021, the process of disengagement of troops gained momentum on the ground around the Pangong lake area. So far, eleven rounds of talks were held at the military level on the ground at the border. But, the disengagement is yet to be fully completed in the friction points of Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains.
Diplomacy is gone with the wind
All the bilateral border agreements and protocols for confidence-building that were signed between the both countries in the years 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 were rendered futile by the Chinese PLA’s act of belligerence in Galwan.
The spirit of two informal Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summits to build trust after the 2017 Doklam standoff, one in Wuhan, China (2018) and the other in Mamallapuram, India (2019) was completely gone with the wind. This is further exacerbated by the Chinese practice of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, which is clearly undiplomatic in nature.
India’s diversification of fronts
Coming to the maritime domain, India has upped the ante by the joint naval exercises (Exercise Malabar 2020) with all the Quad partners in November, last year. Thereby, New Delhi has opened a new front away from the Himalayan frontiers into the broader picture of India-China strategic rivalry. Australia joined the exercise, after 13 years, with India, Japan, and the United States, a move indicative of militarisation or securitisation of the Quad partnership.
Recently, India has been consolidating its position over the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lying southeast to the mainland, and close to the strategic Strait of Malacca, through which a major proportion of China’s crude oil imports pass through before venturing out to the ports of South China Sea.
Economic ties, yearning to decouple
Last year, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar remarked that border tensions cannot continue along with co-operation with China in other areas. In this regard, the Narendra Modi government has been taking moves to counter China in the economic front by banning a large number of Chinese apps, citing security reasons, thereby costing the Chinese companies a billion-size profitable market. The Indian government has also refused to allow Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE to participate in India’s rollout of the 5G technology.
Moreover, India, Australia and Japan have collectively launched a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in 2020 aimed at diversifying supply chain risks away from one or a few countries, apparently aimed at reducing their dependence on China. In terms of trade, India is still struggling to decouple with China, a key source of relatively cheap products for Indian exporters, particularly the pandemic-related pharmaceutical and related supplies in the current times.
But, the Indian government’s recent domestic policies such as “Self-Reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat) have contributed to a decline in India’s trade deficit vis-à-vis China to a five-year low in 2020, falling to around $46 billion from around $57 billion in 2019.
The broader picture
The border dispute remains at the core of a range of issues that define the overall India-China bilateral relations. Other issues include trade and economics, Beijing’s close ties with Islamabad, the succession of Dalai Lama who has taken asylum in India since 1959 and the issue of Tibetan refugees living in India, educational ties, and the strategic rivalry in India’s neighbourhood, i.e., South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, among others.
Chinese belligerence has led India to find its place easily in the evolving ‘new Cold War’
The more China turns aggressive at its border with India, the more it will bring India close to the United States and the West. Despite India’s traditional posture of indifference to allying itself exclusively with a power bloc, in the recently concluded G7 summit, India referred to the grouping of liberal democracies as a ‘natural ally’.
India has been raising the need for a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific in as many multilateral forums as possible, a concept which China considers as a containment strategy of the United States. Possibly, India might also join the G7’s newly announced infrastructure project for developing countries in an appropriate time, as it is initiated as a counterweight to China’s multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
There was a time in the past when the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to lead Asia by cooperating with China. Considering today’s changed geopolitical realities and power dynamics, nowhere in anyone’s wildest dreams such an idea would work out. Prime Minister Modi’s muscular foreign policy imperatives are aligning well with the Joe Biden-led Western response to the looming common threat arising from Beijing.
Today, encountering Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of Chinese domination of the world (by abandoning its yesteryear policy of ‘peaceful rise’) is a collective endeavour of peace-loving democracies around the world, to which Asia is particularly looking forward. Most notably, it comes amid an inescapable web of global economic inter-connectedness, even among rival powers.
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