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The rebellion in Hong Kong and its geopolitical effects

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The rebellion in Hong Kong is more complex and politically relevant than we may think, both nationally and internationally.

In the elections held on last September in the former British colony, as many as eight openly pro-independence representatives were elected who, at the first meeting, shouted hate phrases against the People’s Republic of China and expressed clear rejection of its specific sovereignty.

The “students” and the other participants in the protests immediately attacked  police stations and then closed the main tunnel that connects the island of Hong Kong with the rest of the former British colony’s territory. Finally ,in Wanchai’s Golden Bauhinia Square – a magnet for tourists from other parts of China – they spray-painted palaces and a statue with provocative statements such as “Heaven will destroy the Communist Party” and “Liberate Hong Kong”.

The operation, organization, stability and continuity of the rebellion, as well as the control and cohesion of its ranks, the elimination of undercovers, the military quality of the “students’ operation”, the excellent publicity and recruitment ability make us think that this rebellion is so well organized that it certainly has points of reference, sponsors and supporters abroad.

Who? Certainly, the United States – with its foundations for the globalization of democracy – which thinks of exploiting Hong Kong to destabilize China, especially given the proximity of Shenzen, one of the largest developing areas of Chinese economy and technology that could easily be “infected” by the rebellion.

Certainly, China’s current dilemma about its next military reaction and its impact on the world public is already a serious damage to Chinese national and foreign policy.

The United States has every interest in causing at least China’s global defamation before and after the Hong Kong rebellion, precisely pending the clash over duties and tariffs for the import and export of Chinese goods.

There is also Taiwan that, thanks to the large echo of the Hong Kong rebellion, is trying to publicize its idea of independence from China, as well as of reaction against China’s latest adverse actions against the Nationalist Island.

The countries interested in the destabilization of the link between Hong Kong and China may also include Japan, which is interested in weakening the Chinese strategic projection eastwards, and finally even Britain which -fallen prey to the retro dream characterizing the current phase of Brexit – could think of recovering the old colony or even merely taking revenge against China.

It all began with a major demonstration in late April against the extradition bill, which facilitated the transfer from Hong Kong to mainland China of Chinese people found guilty according to local regulations, as well as of Chinese criminals who could be protected by Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The rebellion has already forced Carrie Lam, the current Chief Executive and President of Hong Kong’ Special Administrative Region, to drop the extradition bill. But now it is too late to stop the rebellion.

One of the protesters’ objectives is also to “raise awareness” among the many Chinese tourists of their demands and claims, which have been magnified by the current crisis of the local economy.

Also the choice of this type of propaganda makes us think of an influence by Westerners. Indeed, a not casual influence.

Certainly one of the rebellion goals is also the attempt to radicalize and destabilize the Chinese areas on the border with the former British colony, which is the reason why President Xi Jinping has created a “cordon sanitaire” for the news coming from Hong Kong.

The longer the rebellion lasts, the more the goal – rather unrealistic but rational, considering the current political equilibria – is precisely that of “infecting” the most modern and productive areas of Southern China.

Overseas and in Asia, there are those who dream of even “disintegrating China”, by stirring up the major minorities present in the People’s Republic of China, and by destabilizing the centres of greatest industrial concentration in the South, as well as by infecting the areas of most difficult communication with the political Centre and with Beijing.

Three concurrent and simultaneous projects for destabilizing China, which have already been underway for some time.

With or without the Hong Kong rebellion, which – in any case – is currently strategic for the splitting up of the People’s Republic of China.

Otherwise, those who oppose the growth of China as a great power may think about strengthening the Islamist insurgency in Xinjiang and in Tibet or triggering another insurgency by one of the 56 recognized minorities of the People’s Republic of China, namely the Miao, the Dong, the Yao or the Koreans.

This is what really lies behind the idea of the “Hong Kong Nation” that is spreading among the leaders of the current rebellion.

The independence issue, however, still accounts for 20-25% of voters in the old British colony – and all this has nothing to do with “nostalgia” for Great Britain.

Hong Kong is an area of great importance for China: since the British takeover of the island in 1977, Beijing has always privileged relations with the powerful financial and industrial elites of Hong Kong.

Exactly in the phase of the Four Modernizations, this enabled China to actually have one of the major financial hubs in the world.

Goodness knows how important this was for the further and subsequent growth of China.

But the former British promontory is very important also from the geopolitical viewpoint.

Indeed, it is the fifth most important port in the world.

For years China has already been implementing the “Great Bay” project that will unite Hong Kong with China, both in fact and in law.

Moreover, there is already the project of putting Hong Kong in communication with Macau and Zhihai, but the promontory is also already a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and will hence play a remarkable role in the New Silk Road.

It should also be recalled that when control over Hong Kong returned to China in 1977, under Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the Four Modernizations (and of the repression of Tiananmen Square), the former British colony accounted for over a quarter of the GDP of the entire People’s Republic of China.

Hence the issue was not only strictly economic, but also strategic in nature.

For President Xi Jinping, however, the main issue is to avoid – both in Hong Kong and in China – what now appears to be an obvious “colour revolution”, similar to the Georgian and Ukrainian ones, and to the various Arab Springs that spread the jihad to a large part of the Maghreb region.

Currently the dilemma for China is radical and very hard to solve.

Should it come to terms and – as some Chinese leaders are envisaging –accept to meet some demands from the Hong Kong insurgents who, however, deeply hate China?

Or should it do the same as in Tiananmen Square? A likely, but still dangerous option – mainly for its international effects.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam will probably be held in power by China to avoid a new “election” by the Hong Kong Election Committee, a body of 12,000 members in a city of over 7 million people.

Moreover, 1.3 million of them live in deep poverty but, for the time being, the “rebellion” is entirely organized by the middle class – like the European protests of 1968, the best operation of destabilization in recent history that has many fathers.

Nevertheless, unlike the European protests of 1968, the Hong Kong rebellion still lacks official leaders. While, at the same time as the democratic and pro-Western “rebellion” is developing, the pro-China insurgency tries to invade the streets against the struggle of the “autonomists”.

We should not forget this part of the issue either.

The maximum pressure of the “rebels” will certainly last until October 1, the day on which the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China is celebrated.

In my opinion, this seems to be the key date beyond which a Chinese intervention could have the greatest political and economic impact.

After all, there are two real reasons underlying the autonomist and anti-Chinese “rebellion” in the city-State: the clear mistrust vis-à-vis China, on the one hand, and, on the other, the total distrust also vis-à-vis the current government in Hong Kong which is still – almost more than the Chinese power – the current objective of the civil war now underway.

China could still separate the two objectives of the rebels, thus sparking off a crisis in the local government and then reacting militarily against the rest of the “students”.

The rebels are aged 25, on average, and are equally distributed by gender.

Most of them come from the educated middle class, especially the part that already votes for the “pan-democratic” parties, those that have long been opposing the pro-Chinese government in Hong Kong.

The rebels even accuse the poor population of supporting China. According to them, the poor are not “true Hongkongers” – and this says a lot about the social nature of the rebellion.

The “movement” is also very decentralized. It publishes good magazines and it is even said that its cameras frighten the police.

None of the local universities, however, officially supports the “rebellion”.

There is not yet workers’ clear solidarity for the “rebellion” – not even by the many migrant workers.

For the current rebels in Hong Kong, the word “democracy” does not concern the creation of an electoral system with universal suffrage that, indeed, already exists – albeit to a limited extent – but it is a sort of universal “system”, without repression, restrictions and controls – and hence it will be difficult to face similar demands by simply extending political representation.

However, most of the citizens living in the city-peninsula still do not support the rebels – not even superficially.

With specific reference to the international support for the rebellion, certainly the United States views it favourably, but we should also mention the now known direct commitment of the NGO National Endowment for Democracy, linked to the CIA, while the Chinese press underlines that the bill that triggered the revolt was inevitable, otherwise the already judged and convicted Chinese criminals could have fled to Hong Kong, thus becoming untouchable.

Furthermore, seventy NGOs have already signed an open letter to stop the extradition bill, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Red Cross International.

Too many not to think badly. Moreover, the rebels’ slogans and messages seem to be produced with purely Western techniques and methods.

Many of them are already written in English, instead of Chinese, and Hong Kong has always been one of the main places of CIA’s action against China.

Moreover, the aforementioned NGO, namely National Endowment for Democracy, already operates mainly through the Hong Kong Journalists Association, the Civic Party, the Labour Party and the Democratic Party of Hong Kong.

There is also the cryptocurrency created by an obscure supporter of the rebellion, who calls himself “Dr. Dragon”, who has recently devised a “coin” to be distributed among the rebels to encourage and fund their actions.

As already said, Taiwan is certainly endeavoring to influence the rebels in Hong Kong.

There is also the Chinese Triads’ presence during the repression of the rebellion in the various cities of Hong Kong.

The Triads are essential to understand the economy of both Hong Kong and Macau.

Hong Kong is the traditional home of China’s major criminal organizations.

For example, the 14K, Wo Shin Wo and Sun Yee On Triads are essential in the entire world crime economy.

There are over 50 minor Triads in Hong Kong. Every economic activity in the former British colony is subject to bribery.

The major legal and illegal activities controlled by the Triads are gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking and dealing, as well as the counterfeiting of all kinds of products, ranging from drugs to toys.

Nevertheless, there is an economic sector in Hong Kong that is almost entirely in the Triads’ hands, namely the movie industry – mainly the genre related to martial arts and pornography.

Probably it is not by chance that the “rebels” often quote the old films of Bruce Lee, who was born in San Francisco but died in Hong Kong, and was a decisive figure in the martial arts movie sector.

Macau is the world capital of gambling. The city has five times the players of Las Vegas.

Moreover, as is well known, gambling is the main channel for money laundering.

While in China and Hong Kong gambling is forbidden – at least officially – the huge crowd of Chinese players goes to Macau for gambling. Also 47% of government officials and executives of Chinese state-owned enterprises go there for gambling and this allows to possibly blackmail a significant number of Chinese (and Hong Kong) bureaucrats.

However, there are also strong ties between the Triads and the Chinese government.

The activity of finding important civilian and military technologies is often “commissioned” to the Triads by the Department of the Chinese Intelligence Services, namely the Guoangbu.

The Chinese espionage relating to the World Trade Organization (WTO) is often carried out by the Sun Ye On Triad.

As part of the mutual assistance relations with the Chinese government, the Triads control and repress much of the petty crime in both China and Hong Kong.

Therefore, in all likelihood, there will also be the collaboration of some Triads in the future Chinese repression of the “rebellion” in Hong Kong.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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The Demise of a French Sub Deal: Is China a Threat?

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The conflict between emerging and existing powers is almost as old as time.  Labeled the Thucydides Trap, it first recounted the 5th century BC Peloponesian war and its inevitability as Sparta, the dominant power, feared the rise of Athens.  Is something similar about to transpire between the US and China?

The latest war of words is about nuclear submarines.  When armed with ballistic missiles, they become a hidden mortal danger.  So the US also deploys nuclear attack submarines which shadow rival nuclear ballistic submarines … just in case.

Australia was in the process of acquiring 12 French conventional attack submarines (a deal worth $37 billion) when the US and UK stepped in with the AUKUS deal.  Intended to counter China, it offers Australia  advanced nuclear propulsion systems and an opportunity to construct nuclear subs of their own with the technology transfer.  Australia will then become the seventh country in the world to build and operate nuclear submarines.

The fear of the ‘yellow peril’ is ingrained in the Australian consciousness from the days when they were afraid of being swamped by Chinese immigrants.  It led to restrictive immigration policies for non-whites. 

Much of the concern with China is due to the forceful nature of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policies.  In Xinjiang the Uyghur population is a minority in its home province due to the influx of Han Chinese.  Moreover, Uyghurs feel discriminated against, in jobs and the progress they can make.  Some have rebelled causing many to be put in re-education camps where there are tales of torture although denied by Chinese authorities.  Biden has declared it a genocide and introduced sanctions on leading Chinese officials there. 

China’s proactive foreign policy, renewed interest in Afghanistan, its warships patrolling all the way across the Indian Ocean to Africa are further evidence.

The new Afghan leaders, at least many of them, spent their exile in Pakistan giving the latter influence with the new government.  And Pakistan is effectively a Chinese client state.  The mineral wealth of Afghanistan, if it is to be developed, is thus likely to include Chinese help.

The UN General Assembly holds its first debate of the new session on the third Tuesday of each year; the session then runs through to the September following.  As leaders converge, one of the questions being asked of those involved in AUKUS is how they are going to pacify an angry France.  It has recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the US — in the latter case a move without precedent in almost 250 years of diplomacy.

If the French feel the Australians have been duplicitous, the Australians for their part claim they are obligated to do the best for the people who elected them.  The new deal brings jobs, technology and a greater role for Australia in dealing with an increasingly powerful China

It would be a great shame if the West in trying to shore up its interests in the Indo-Pacific region loses a crucial ally — France — at the very least in wholehearted support.  Is Mr. Xi smiling and quoting some ancient Chinese proverb, perhaps Lao Tzu, to his colleagues?   

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Japanese firms’ slow and steady exit is sounding alarm bells in Beijing

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Last year in March, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had indicated Japan would initiate measures to reduce the country heavily relying on China for factory production. Since July 2020, Japan has rolled out subsidies totaling over 400 billion Yen to move its enterprises out of China to Southeast Asia and beyond. It is yet to be seen if the scale of incentives has actually triggered a major change in where Japanese companies relocate production.  On the other hand, experts in China continue to wonder why would Japanese companies which are on average making 17% profit diversify into the ASEAN nations, where in 2019, their rate of return on direct investment was a mere 5%?

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In less than ten days, Japan is going to have a third prime minister within a short span of twelve months. On September 1 last year, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned on health grounds, Yoshihide Suga was chosen as Abe’s successor. At the time, China’s leadership did not show any worrying signs as the new Japanese leader was expected to continue with the foreign policy of the previous government. But one year later, Suga’s unexpected departure is leaving Japan’s diplomatic relations with China considerably strained over Taiwan. Yet the leadership in Beijing is not going to lose sleep over the next prime minister’s public stance on the Japan-Taiwan “alliance.” What China will be closely watching is how many more billions of Yen and for how long a new leader in Tokyo will carry on with rolling out subsidies to lure away Japanese businesses out of China?

Interestingly, on assuming office Prime Minister Suga had promised continuity in domestic policies and that he will respect Abe’s foreign policy. However, Suga’s promised commitment to further improve relations with China was viewed differently in the People’s Republic. Writing in an article on the day Yoshihide Suga took office in Tokyo, Zhou Yongsheng, professor of Japanese studies at Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University, observed: “[Under Suga] Japan will continue to align with the US as far as international relations and security affairs are concerned, and continue to back the US policy of containing China It is under these preconditions that Japan will seek cooperation with China.”

In sharp contrast, reviewing Suga’s foreign policy performance after two months, NIKKEI Asia’s foreign affairs analyst Hiroyuki Akita wrote in November 2020: “Suga has not said much publicly about his views on diplomacy but he has urged his aids to continue Abe’s diplomacy as it is at least for one year.” Akita gave a thumbs up to this approach and recalled a Japanese saying to describe it: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, not everyone agreed with Akita praising Suga’s brief record in diplomacy as flawless. Having spent seven years in the Abe cabinet as Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga’s image was that of “a fixer, not a leader.” Suga did everything in diplomacy in his early phase as the prime minister what Abe had been espousing for the past seven years.

But as Toshiya Takahashi, professor of IR at Shoin University in Japan had predicted within a few weeks of Suga becoming the top leader, “Abe’s shoes were too big for Suga to fill.” Why so? Mainly because unlike Abe, not only Suga was not ideological, he was also far less diplomacy driven. “Suga is not an ideologically driven revisionist — he is a conservative politician, but his attitude has no relation to ideology. He does not seem to hold any specific cherished foreign policy objectives that he is willing to push with all his political capital in the way that Abe did in 2015 with the passage of the security-related bills,” Takahashi had commented.   

To observers and experts in both Japan and China, Prime Minister Suga’s (he will relinquish office on September 30) non-enthusiastic approach to foreign policy might have much to do with the current state of strained relationship between Japan and China. Asahi Shimbun opinion poll last year claimed foreign policy and national security as among the two most popular elements of Abe’s legacy. No wonder, critics in Japan have been pointing out that Suga’s cabinet did not have the luxury and support Abe enjoyed in foreign affairs of having in the government someone like Shotaro Yachi – the former secretary general of the National Security Secretariat. In China too, reacting to Suga’s first policy speech after taking office, scholars such as Lü  Yaodong, Institute of Japanese Studies, CASS in Beijing had observed, “Suga seems not to be as enthusiastic about China-Japan ties as Abe. Compared with Abe’s administration, Suga may walk back China-Japan ties.” (Emphasis added)

Remember, as already mentioned, the LDP had succeeded in pursuing policy of (economic) cooperation and avoiding confrontationist diplomacy with China under Abe. But Suga government’s failure to effectively fight coronavirus pandemic and its perception that China was increasingly becoming aggressive in SCS, are being cited as reasons why Japan was compelled to take strong steps against China. It is too well-known by now how Tokyo angered Beijing by referring to the importance of Taiwan to regional security in the recently released 2021 Defense White Paper. In fact, a Chinese scholar had warned as early as within a month of Suga taking over as prime minister from Shinzo Abe, saying that “Japan will take a more offensive stance against China over maritime boundary disputes under the incitement of the US” (emphasis added).

Hence, it is of extreme import to mention here China’s top diplomat Wang Yi’s recent trip to four ASEAN nations. Apparently, the second visit by the Chinese foreign minister in quick succession in the neighborhood had aroused the global media attention as it was soon after the recent visit to the region by the US vice president Kamala Harris. However, according to a Chinese commentator, Wang Yi’s recent visit to ASEAN countries must be viewed in the context of the region turning into a “battle ground” for rising economic one-upmanship among big powers. “Just a day after Wang Yi’s departure, Vietnam reached an agreement on defense equipment and technology cooperation with Japan,” the commentary noted.   

Furthermore, whilst under the previous Abe government, Japan consistently increased its investments in the ASEAN nations, except in the year 2016, all through from 2014 until last year, Japan’s investment in the region far exceeded that of China’s. Contrary to his vows, since coming into office in September last year, especially following his meeting with President Biden in the White House in April this year, Prime Minister Suga’s quiet agenda has been to confront China in both political and economic arena. In Japan, the Suga agenda was interpreted by analysts as “rebuilding Japan-US industrial chain, decoupling economic ties with China.”    

A policy report released by Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in March 2021, revealed three important facts: first, in the year 2019, total Japanese investment in ASEAN nations stood at USD 265.5 billion – 14% of the country’s overall overseas investment, i.e., USD 1,858.3 billion.; second, in 2000, Japanese investments in ASEAN totaled USD 25 billion as against its USD 8.7 billion investment in China – a gap of USD 16.3 billion. Whereas in 2019, Japan invested USD 135.2 billion more in ASEAN as compared with China. As pointed out by one Chinese analyst, this gap is hugely significant, especially as the overall size of the ASEAN economy is a little over one-fifth of China’s GDP; third, followingthegovernment’s new strategy last year to encourage Japanese businesses to move out of China to new locations in ASEAN nations, the new guidelines also entailed reducing investments into China. A large part of the investments was diversified into ASEAN markets.

Finally, what is beginning to worry the Chinese authorities is the trend and direction of slow exodus of Japanese businesses out of China going back to Japan and towards Vietnam and Indonesia on one hand, and widening gap in Japanese investments between ASEAN and the PRC, on the other hand. At the same time, it was beyond anyone’s imagination in China that Japan would be acting foolish and risking “economic security” by diversifying businesses and investments into less profitable “barren” markets. But then who could anticipate what political and economic policy-rejigging coronavirus pandemic would bring about?

Overall, China’s more immediate and bigger concerns are firstly the sudden departure of Prime Minister Suga – in spite of Suga having made it clear he had no will to change or reverse “decoupling” policy he had been pursuing, and secondly, whoever emerges as the new leader of the four contenders by the month-end, analysts in Japan believe Tokyo is unlikely to change its “anti-China” political and economic policies.  

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How China Exacerbates Global Fragility and What Can be Done to Bolster Democratic Resilience to Confront It

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Authors: Caitlin Dearing Scott and Isabella Mekker

From its declared policy of noninterference and personnel contributions to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Missions to its purported role in mediating conflicts, China has long sought to portray itself as a responsible global leader, pushing narratives about building a “community of common destiny” and promoting its model of governance and economic and political development as a path to stability. This narrative belies the reality. Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-style “stability,” whether to protect Belt and Road Investments (BRI) or regimes with favorable policies towards China, in practice facilitates authoritarianism and human rights violations, contributes to environmental degradation and corruption, and undermines democratic governance, all of which can fuel instability, intentionally or otherwise.

In pursuit of its true goal – “a world safe for the party” – China has leveraged its diplomatic and economic power to weaken  the international human rights system, bolstering support for illiberal regimes, contributing to democratic decline and exacerbating global fragility in the process. Nowhere is this more apparent than in conflict-affected contexts.

Conflict Resolution, CCP Style

Although China brands itself as a ‘promoter of stability, peace, and unity’, its very definition of stability is built on its authoritarian model of governance. This, plus its concerns about non-interference in its own domestic issues, informs its conflict resolution approach, which emphasizes host state consent and political settlement, two-ideas that can be laudable in theory, depending on the context. In practice, however, China’s conflict mediation efforts in some instances have provided support to incumbent regimes who are perpetuating violence and conflict, promoting a  ‘stability’ that disregards the voices of vulnerable populations and the need for inclusive governance. In the case of the Syrian civil war, China’s “political solution” meant maintaining China-friendly Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, while blocking resolutions condemning the regime’s brutality against its citizens. 

“Stability” promoted by China can also come at the expense of human rights. China (and Russia) have previously pushed for cuts to human rights positions within peacekeeping missions, endangering the capacity of these missions to protect civilians in conflict.  In Myanmar, where the military is committing unprecedented human rights violations against its own citizens, China initially blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup and other international efforts to restore stability at a time when a strong international response was much needed. This was in line with China’s previous engagement in the country, working closely with the military regime to “mediate” conflict near the Chinese border in a way that preserved China’s interests and influence, but did little to actually address conflict. After a growing humanitarian crisis began to threaten its investments on the Myanmar side of the border, however, China changed rhetorical course, showing where human rights violations stand in its hierarchy of stability.

Advancing China’s Interests, Undermining Governance

China’s policies in fragile states mirror its unstated preference for expanding its economic and political interests, even if securing them sidelines the stated imperative of addressing fragility. In some instances, China has lobbied for UN policies in conflict-affected contexts that appear to support its own agenda rather than – or sometimes at the expense of – peace. According to the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2020 report to Congress, “China has shown an apparent willingness to leverage its influence in the UN peacekeeping operations system to advance its economic interests in African countries, raising the possibility that Beijing is subverting UN norms and procedures in the process.” Per the report, the most notable example of this was in 2014 when China lobbied to expand the UN Mission in South Sudan to protect oil installations of which the China National Petroleum Corporation held a 40 percent stake.

Moreover, China’s pursuit of its interests sets up countries on unstable trajectories. China’s economic investment policies and initiatives exacerbates governance deficits and increases fragility by encouraging corruption, facilitating authoritarianism and human rights violations, and contributing to environmental degradation, all key drivers of conflict. Two cases from Nigeria and Pakistan highlight the point.

In Nigeria, China’s investment projects have exacerbated corruption and fueled distrust in local government – key drivers of conflict and intercommunal violence in the country. China has exploited poor regulatory environments and worked within illegal and corrupt frameworks, often tied to armed groups and criminal networks. In one illustrative example, China state-owned timber trading companies  offered bribes to local officials to illegally harvest endangered rosewood. Members of local communities have cited feelings of exploitation by officials accepting bribes from Chinese businessmen, further stressing fragile ties between local government and citizens. Such business practices also demonstrate a blatant disregard for the environmental consequences of illegally harvesting endangered flora and fauna. Moreover, the inherently opaque nature of these projects that are tied to CCP interests makes it difficult to demand accountability.

Similarly in Pakistan, a 62-billion-dollar project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) aimed at linking Xinjiang to the Arabian sea, has exacerbated tension in conflict-affected provinces. The project plans to build infrastructure and extract resources from several less developed regions, while overwhelmingly benefitting industrial and political hubs such as Punjab. Many provinces, including Balochistan and Sindh, have accused political elites of altering the route of the corridor in their own interests, thus further marginalizing their communities. Separatist groups have launched several attacks throughout the country, not only fueling conflict between Pakistani ethnic groups but also leading to attacks against Chinese expatriates. Recently, prominent voices from within China have called for a military intervention in Pakistan. CPEC has increased military presence throughout small villages, sparked an uptick in violent conflict along the route, and further eroded trust in local government institutions.

These cases may of course signal more opportunism and indifference by China to the impact of its engagement on stability in any given country, as opposed to an explicit attempt to undermine democratic governance (as it has done elsewhere in support of pro-China interests). Regardless of the intent, however, the impact is the same. China’s focus on political leverage and profits first and foremost undermines stability – and China likewise can benefit from instability in states with corrupt politicians interested in trading local resources for short-term political gains.

What Can be Done: Bolstering Democratic Resilience to Address Fragility and Foreign Influence

Foreign authoritarian influence has a compounding impact in conflict-affected contexts, further undermining governance structures, institutions, and processes that can mitigate or exacerbate fragility.  Good governance, on the contrary, can not only help countries prevent and manage conflict, but can also help countries address the myriad challenges associated with foreign authoritarian influence. Strong democratic institutions help societies respond positively and productively to threats both domestic and foreign.

Targeted investment in democracy in conflict-affected contexts vulnerable to foreign authoritarian influence offers an important opportunity for utilizing the Global Fragility Strategy in support of US foreign policy initiatives and advancing the Biden Administration’s policy priorities to tackle climate change, prevent authoritarian resurgence, confront corruption, and prevail in strategic competition with China.  An investment in support of democracy and good governance to address any one of these issues will reap dividends across each of these issues – engaging in conflict prevention and stabilization programming will both advance global democracy and advance US goals vis-à-vis China and other authoritarian rivals. Such investments, which must be long-term to account for the compounding impact of foreign authoritarian influence in already fragile environments, should include:

  • Supporting governments, civil society, and citizens to better understand, expose and counter foreign authoritarian influence, particularly in conflict-affected contexts where data and research efforts can be challenging. An understanding of China’s playbook is critical to countering CCP influence operations;
  • Helping independent media to investigate and expose foreign authoritarian influence and how it fuels conflict, whether through training, financial support, or other protections of the civic and information space, to raise public awareness of the impact of such engagement on conflict dynamics and promote transparency and accountability in dealings with foreign actors;  
  • Developing evidenced-based tools to prevent and mitigate foreign authoritarian influence in fragile contexts;
  • Strengthening electoral institutions, political parties, legislative bodies, and judiciaries to uproot elite capture and mitigate malign influence;
  • Leveraging diplomacy to build political will and incentives for government officials to resist foreign malign influences. Such diplomatic efforts can include increased outreach and contact with countries previously neglected by the US – but prioritized by China – and public diplomacy to both expose the CCP’s misleading narrative and advance narratives about what democracy can deliver;  and
  • Coordinating with similarly-minded donors such as the European Union, Japan, and Australia, to implement a unified approach to match the scale of Chinese investment and maximize the impact of any intervention.

Only democracy can help countries navigate the nexus of domestic and foreign threats to their stability. In the era of COVID-19, authoritarian resurgence, and climate crisis, supporting countries to develop these “resilience” fundamentals is a sound – and necessary – investment.

*Isabella Mekker is a Program Associate with IRI’s Center for Global Impact, working on countering foreign authoritarian influence and conflict prevention and stabilization programming.

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