UNEXPECTED MASS DEMONSTRATIONS FORCE XI JIN-PING INTO CORNER
The recent massive demonstrations in Hong Kong against proposed amendments to an extradition bill may well be defined as a gross miscalculation on Xi Jinping’s part. But he effectively asked for it, along with his other headaches.
As the outcry against the revision has continued unabated in Hong Kong, the international community has intensified its criticism in unison of the Hong Kong government and the Xi administration that wields the real power in the former British colony, which was handed over to Beijing in 1997.
On Sunday (June 9), more than 1 million demonstrators poured into Hong Kong’s streets, and their number doubled to approximately 2 million a week later, on June 16, according to the organizers. This meant that 29% of the island’s 7 million citizens joined hands to express their opposition to a government that they see is steadily becoming one with mainland China. The US and European media outlets continued their live coverage of the demonstrations, sounding the alarm that the human rights and freedom of the citizens of Hong Kong are in great danger.
There is a good possibility that demonstrations will become even larger as July 1 nears—the national day marking Hong Kong’s return to the mainland. Xi is slated to fly to Japan prior to this date to attend the G20 Osaka Summit, where he likely will encounter a barrage of criticism from the international community.
Observing a series of developments involving the bill that have proved damaging to Xi, Akio Yaita, deputy foreign editor of the conservative Sankei Shimbun and an expert on China, likened the Chinese leader’s situation somewhat similar to “getting involved in a car accident that directly is none of his fault.” He explained:
“Last year, a Hong Kong man murdered a woman in Taiwan and fled to Hong Kong. The authorities in Taiwan demanded that he be extradited. But Hong Kong failed to comply on the grounds that it has not signed an extradition treaty with Taiwan, or China for that matter, although formal extradition treaties have been signed with nations like the US and Great Britain. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, made up her mind to seek a revision of the existing treaty. Presumably, she didn’t act under direct instructions from Xi or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the time.”
There is an intriguing sequel to this murder case. In May this year, the authorities in Taiwan demanding the extradition of the murder suspect had a sudden change of policy, informing Hong Kong that they would retract their request. Two reasons for this policy change were given: 1) the authorities were concerned about a possible revision of the extradition treaty by Hong Kong’s legislature, creating a chance of it being misused by the CCP; and 2) they took into consideration the Hong Kong people’s fierce opposition to the revision.
Freedom in Hong Kong Deprived in Rapid Succession
Meanwhile, Lam was determined to not let her chance slip away. In point of fact, she visited Beijing last November for lengthy consultations with Xi, who reportedly demanded that Hong Kong implement a more rigid “development of laws.”
The planned revision of the extradition act that Lam held firm on would have included “China, Macao, and Taiwan” as new signatories. The people of Hong Kong feared that Beijing would without fail take advantage of the revision as a tool to intensify its oppression of anti-Chinese elements.
Under the proposed revision, not only Hong Kong citizens but foreigners residing in the semi-autonomous city, as well as foreign businessmen and tourists visiting the city, would be subject to extradition. This was shocking to the tycoons of Hong Kong’s international business community, who have supported its economy.
Sparked by the murder case in Taiwan, the Hong Kong government advanced preparations for the projected revision despite mounting criticism from all circles, including the international community. But its actions unexpectedly prompted 2 million citizens in a single day to storm the streets in protest. As journalist Yaita pointed out, Xi in some respect may be described as having been involved in a “car accident without really being in the driver’s seat.”
But the suppression of anti-Chinese elements on the part of the Beijing government has been ruthless over the years, with the CCP being totally neglectful of international law and universal values. I can only state that the Chinese leadership now must reap what they have sowed, as China is to blame for the negative chain reaction its authoritarian behavior has created.
Hong Kong was supposed to be guaranteed high autonomy under a “one state, two systems” scheme following its return from Great Britain to China in 1997, but has in fact had its freedom continuously deprived. In 2014, the people of Hong Kong appealed for democratic elections in a series of street sit-ins popularly called the “Umbrella Revolution,” but their demands were mercilessly rejected. Today more than half of the 70 members of Hong Kong’s legislative council have effectively been nominated by the CCP. They keep an eye on Hong Kong not as representatives of its citizens but of the CCP, constituting a powerful group out to make Hong Kong as much like China as possible.
They never take kindly to criticism of the CPP in any sense of the word. The year after the “Umbrella Revolution,” several booksellers dealing with books critical of the CPP, including the manager of a well-known Causeway Bay bookstore, disappeared. It was later revealed that they were detained in China, unable to contact their families in Hong Kong.
Even after being released, they are unable to enjoy the same freedoms of speech and publishing they had before. There is no knowing when they may be detained without anyone knowing, abducted to the mainland, and subject in the worst case to torture or extinction. In point of fact, a former top employee of the Causeway Bay bookstore defected to Taiwan on April 26, getting wind of the move by the legislative council towards revising the extradition act.
In light of these developments, the people of Hong Kong are acutely wary about the CCP enhancing its control over them. It is only natural that the international community is sympathetic to Hong Kong’s plight. Many countries, with Hong Kong’s former suzerain Great Britain in the vanguard, have expressed strong support of the demonstrations. The US has reacted especially sternly.
Eight American senators, including Marco Rubio, together with two members of the House, have threatened to introduce a bill to strip Hong Kong of its status as a special trading partner.
“Clash of Civilizations” between US and China
At present, the US imposes lower tariffs on Hong Kong products than those on goods from mainland China. Tariffs on Chinese-made products re-processed in Hong Kong are held at the same level as Hong Kong goods processed there and labeled as “Hong Kong made.” The 25% tariffs currently levied on virtually all Chinese imports apply to China-made products that merely pass through Hong Kong en route to the US.
If enacted, the bill proposed by Rubio and other US lawmakers would deal a heavy blow to Hong Kong, spurring international corporations to desert Hong Kong and contributing to a significant decline in foreign investments. China would be hard hit, but it would be a matter of life and death for Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing legislators, a majority in the legislative council. Hong Kong has thrived on free trade, and many of its pro-Beijing legislators are leaders of its business community.
There is nothing for Xi to do under the present circumstances but “play possum,” according to Yaita, who observed:
“There was a move within the Chinese leadership last year to get rid of Xi. However, the leaders thought twice, realizing that America’s posture toward China would not change, even if Premier Li Keqiang replaced Xi. They concluded that ousting Xi at that juncture would be meaningless if the framework of the US-China confrontation remained unchanged. Ironically, this awareness has brought about a stalemate on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts that has contribute to the stability of the Xi regime.
In other words, the fierce power struggle within the CCP leadership has temporarily been stalled before America’s solid resolution to confront China. The ongoing conflict between the world’s two largest superpowers is now likened to a “clash of civilizations.” The US demands that China become a fair nation that honors international norms and rules. The US naturally expects China to not steal intellectual property, intelligence, or sensitive technology; it also expects it not to suppress minorities and respect their basic human rights. However, the truth of the matter is that the CCP is bound to collapse if it accepts these demands.
Against the backdrop of the fierce confrontation between the US and China, Japan must more clearly define the values on which it stands. The least the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who advocates “value diplomacy,” should do now is express manifest support for the demonstrations the people of Hong Kong are staging. Further, Japan must clearly speak up to China, expressing its resolute opposition to Beijing’s suppression of the Muslim Uyghurs in China, its blatant behavior in the East and South China Seas, and the pressure Beijing is applying to Taiwan. As a leading democracy in East Asia, these are actions that we must take. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 857 in the June 27, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)