China is seeking to co-opt its citizens, what with unemployment, low growth, thin fiscal stimulus and uncertain global conditions, under the garb of aggressive nationalism where the enemy is not within, but external
In recent history, China has played ‘victim’ only to wallow in its citizens’ support. From Hitler to Indira Gandhi to Donald Trump, the external enemy has come in handy. China’s Xi Jinping is not playing a new card
History is rife with leaders taking to the crutch of an external enemy to deflect attention from simmering domestic issues, for example ‘foreign hand’. China—authoritarian but whose political system and accruing institutions root on the ‘mandate of heaven’ or the economic legitimacy to rule—is feeling the credibility deficit emanating from a 1.4 billion people. Today, China faces a multiple whammy of external pressures, from strained relations with the world to economic and diplomatic tensions with the US, likened as the ‘new Cold War’. Has Xi Jinping’s response been to whip up aggressive nationalism?
Recent talks by China of ‘smashing’ separatist moves by Taiwan; aggressive stance on South China Sea (China sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel a month ago); altercations along the India-China border with stones and rods albeit arising from different perceptions of the border, a border that is not amenable to demarcation; and finally the national security law for Hong Kong add up to the bottom line of nationalism.
Time and again, China has flogged nationalism to unify people, deflect attention and seek a new route to the mandate. Anti-Japanese demonstrations in China over disputed islands in 2012 and anti-South Korea protests over US deployment over THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in 2017-18 to deflect attention from domestic crises are cases in point.
In the first quarter of 2020, China’s economy shrank by 6.8%. China’s official (registered) urban unemployment rate is 5.5%, or more than 25 million people. Real estimates suggest 70-80 million or more are unemployed, including migrants. The deliberations of China’s recently concluded parliamentary sessions called Lianghui (Two Sessions) of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and National People’s Congress (NPC) highlighted these issues. While the two parliamentary bodies, akin to India’s Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, have little political weight as they are a ‘rubber stamp’ parliament, Premier Li Keqiang used the sessions to highlight the Communist Party’s priorities.
Ideological, economic and political implications
Li’s Government Work Report to the NPC highlighted three dimensions. Despite the initial mishandling of the crises, Li upheld Xi’s leadership. Xi’s primacy as the ‘core’ of the Communist Party and ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ continue to be the lodestar, as is the goal of Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’ of national rejuvenation. Xi’s victory in the ‘people’s war’ against Covid-19 has been upheld. Unlike other years, no specific growth target was set. There is a renewed focus on ‘employment first’. In fact, Li mentioned employment 38 times in the course of his speech. The report pledged to focus on new urbanisation (public facilities) and new infrastructure (next generation information networks) to boost consumption. One trillion yuan of government bonds, or ‘special treasury bonds’, will be issued, the first since 2007, to help local governments battle the fallout of Covid-19. The third dimension was the political message, where China used issues as ‘proxy’ to deliver it. China rejected Taiwan’s claim for independence. China also struck back at a restive Hong Kong with a national security law.
China’s political message via Hong Kong
The recent India-China altercations at the border were not about territory (neither was 1962), but about geostrategic influence and comprehensive national power, as India tips to the US, and is partnering with the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), despite appearing not to. The recent US Strategic Approach 2020 indicates India will be the ‘linchpin’ of US interests in Asia as it seeks to partner India’s Security and Growth for All in the Region.
China is hardly unaware of the implications of the changing balance of power. To hone its own message to the world, it chose to rock the status quo of Hong Kong. Like Taiwan, China considers Hong Kong a part of the ‘motherland’. In recent times, Hong Kong has rocked with protests over an extradition Bill (now defunct), whereby suspects could be tried in China. In recent months, Martin Lee (founder of the Democratic Party) and Jimmy Lai (founder of the Apple Daily) have been arrested.
China used the parliamentary session to propose and pass a national security law aimed at curtailing sedition, foreign interference and secession in Hong Kong. Caixin Global reported that China plans to establish a ‘legal framework and implementation mechanism, including allowing national security organs of the central government to set up agencies in Hong Kong for enforcement’.
In effect, China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) would oversee and review Hong Kong’s law and order, and may establish an intelligence agency. As of now, Hong Kong police is independent of China. The legislation also bans ‘activities of foreign forces’. China has long accused the US and Taiwan of interference in Hong Kong protests.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has assuaged Hongkongers that the new legislation will target only an ‘extremely small minority of illegal and criminal acts and activities, while the life and property, basic rights and freedoms of the overwhelming majority of citizens will be protected’. The People’s Daily also reiterated a similar message that it will affect only a ‘small minority’. But the lines blur with perception, of what is ‘small minority’ as this could include dissidents and critics. For example, China has used its perception of the India-China border to flex its muscle.
China’s proposed law not only bypasses Hong Kong’s legislature, but also its law and order enforcement mechanism. Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law (mini-constitution), the Hong Kong government could enact a national security law prohibiting acts of ‘treason, secession, sedition, or subversion’ under Article 23. But in 2003, 17 years ago, this legislation was met with the whiplash of mass protests and subsequently abandoned. Clearly, Hongkongers don’t want it.
How is the world interpreting China’s message?
China’s message is clear: It has sought to justify Hong Kong as an internal matter, and used the opportune time (Covid-19 lockdown) to bell the cat of ‘one country, one system’ in Hong Kong. But Hongkongers fear that China will subvert the law to arm-twist dissidents and silence critics. More than 300 Hongkongers have been arrested.
In a joint statement, Australia, Canada, the UK and the US have said that China has reneged on its international obligations. The US and Britain raised the Hong Kong issue informally at the UN Security Council after China (backed by Russia) blocked the call for a formal open council meeting.
While the UK has said that it will widen the rules around the British National (Overseas) passport holders and open a ‘path to citizenship’ which will enable 3 million Hongkongers to go to Britain, the US is considering revoking Hong Kong’s preferential treatment as a separate customs and travel territory from the rest of China.
China is seeking to co-opt its citizens, what with unemployment, low growth, thin fiscal stimulus and uncertain global conditions, under the garb of aggressive nationalism where the enemy is not within, but external. In recent history, China has played ‘victim’ only to wallow in its citizens’ support. From Hitler to Indira Gandhi to Donald Trump, the external enemy has come in handy. China’s Xi Jinping is not playing a new card.
The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies. Views are personal