As President Xi Jinping heads to the USA on 6-7 April for his first meeting with President Donald Trump, protocol and face off will be at the top of the Chinese leader’s list of priorities. More than anything, he wants to be treated as an equal, as the paramount leader of a rejuvenated China. Already, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s deferential visit to China last month, the new U.S. leadership has uncritically accepted China’s narrative without batting an eyelid. On that occasion, Tillerson said, “The U.S. side is ready to develop relations with China based on the principle of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” However, his choice of word distinctively echoed what President Xi himself said on previous occasions, lending credence to China’s egotistical pretensions to equality in terms of global power.
Indeed, the Global Times cloyingly trumpeted that “Tillerson has implicitly endorsed the new model of major power relations”. There have been a number of recent indications of Beijing’s far-from-honest approaches to a range of governance issues. One was the election of Hong Kong’s new chief executive on 26 March. Carrie Lam, the former chief secretary, was duly selected as the next leader with a runaway total of 777 votes out of the 1,161 cast. Of course, the election committee consisted mostly of Beijing loyalists, so there was no hope of anyone other than Beijing’s top pick from winning.
However, there was murky insider dealing going on throughout the election process. Some of this was revealed in the online publication Hong Kong Free Press. Mark Pinkstone, the chief information officer for one of the candidates running for chief executive nomination, Regina Ip, lifted the lid on this Pandora’s box. He stated: “The chief executive election makes one commonly known, but not spoken about, point: It is all controlled by the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government. The whole election protocol is a farce.”
Pinkstone claimed that Lam had been anointed as early as midway through 2016 to succeed C.Y Leung. Remarkable was Lam’s reversal of her decision not to run in the leadership race after earlier expressing a desire to retire. One of the other contenders, John Tsang was the most popular candidate in terms of public opinion, but the Liaison Office attempted to lure him out of the race with an offer of the position of CEO of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Furthermore, Pinkstone claimed the Liaison Office phoned every member of the nominating committee advising them to reject Ip and throw their weight behind Lam. Pinkstone continued with his allegations, even though Ip quickly distanced herself from them. “Almost every weekend prior to the elections, clandestine meetings were held in Shenzhen with Beijing officials, members of the Hong Kong Liaison Office and election committee members to discuss the outcome of the March 26 chief executive elections.”
Such allegations demonstrate that the Liaison Office violated Article 22 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which prevents the Chinese government from interfering in affairs rightly administered by the territory itself. Pinkstone lamented, “…The Central Government has lost all trust of the Hong Kong people in maintaining the One Country Two Systems principle.” Of interest, the South China Morning Post, now controlled by Jack Ma of Alibaba fame and with a decidedly pro-Beijing stance on every issue, refused to publish Pinkstone’s claims. On the other hand, Chinese-language newspapers were not reluctant at all about plastering Pinkstone’s revelations on their front pages.
As occurred with the Hong Kong election, China is renowned for its all-encompassing propaganda machine, one that will no doubt be in full flow during the Trump-Xi summit as it dignifies the Chinese president. Just how nefarious Chinese propaganda tactics are was revealed by Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She tweeted, “China Daily solicits articles on US-China relations, but only wants analysis of positives, win-win and mutual respect.” She showed a copy of a recent letter from the China Daily asking inviting her to submit an opinion piece for online publication.
The letter stipulated, “We hope you could focus more on mutual respect, cooperation (especially on economic and trade) and win-win instead of conflict and confrontation…We prefer a piece of the bigger picture to that of criticism of China or the US…Thus, we look forward to you [sic] could find a topic related to this theme and write us a piece.” Such letters have been received by other academics too, where Chinese media organizations have specified the tone and content of the puff pieces they want.
As if party censorship within China was not enough, state-run media are alarmingly using exactly the same methods in the West too. There are other reasons why Trump should call out China on its atrocious proclivity to silence its people and instead herald China’s and Xi’s unparalleled glories. One glaring example was the sentencing of two citizens for supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014 on social media. A Guangdong court sentenced Su Changlan to three years in prison for “incitement to subvert state power” on 31 March. The judge’s verdict said she had “created an influence, attacking the socialist system, [and] inciting others to subvert state power”. Chen Qitang, meanwhile, was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison on the same charge. His crime was taking photos of the Hong Kong protests and posting them on WeChat, as well as voicing support for Su.
They had been tried in April 2016 but the court had repeatedly delayed its verdict. Ironically, Su was stripped of her political rights for a period of three years. Obviously, one must question what kind of political rights Chinese citizens have in the first place? It seems the only right people have is to agree with the Communist Party of China. Her lawyer described the verdict and proceedings as “extremely absurd”.
Religious freedom is another area where Trump should attack Xi’s façade of global leadership. It recently emerged that churches in Wenzhou, often referred to as China’s Jerusalem because of the preponderance of Christian churches and an estimated one million believers, are being forced to install surveillance cameras for so-called “anti-terrorism and security purposes”. Cameras were to be located at gates, rostrums and offering boxes. The order was given late last year and began to be implemented in January, sometimes by sufficient force that believers have had to be hospitalized.
In 2014 Wenzhou grabbed the headlines because churches were forced to remove around 360 rooftop crosses, purportedly because they were illegal structures. Pastor Huang Yizi was jailed for one year for protesting these removals, and he has subsequently been closely monitored. The Christian community is simply suffering what the Muslim Uighur population has been enduring for years. In the latest restrictions implemented on 1 April, Xinjiang Province passed new regulations banning any “manifestations of extremism”.
The measures include women wearing veils, men wearing “abnormal beards”, what names are given to children and damaging legal documents. Other crimes are refusing to watch state television or listening to state radio, or stopping children from receiving a regular education. In many respects, China has not acted wisely in international relations either. While all countries can be blamed for parochialism, China’s behavior over the US Army deployment of a THAAD missile defense system in South Korea has been particularly one-eyed.
Beijing has complained vociferously that the associated radar will impinge upon China’s own security, but it has conveniently forgotten that South Korea and Japan are directly facing the threat of North Korean ballistic missile launches. Indeed, such a reality is totally absent from China’s tide of invective. Indeed, one could argue that China has brought this upon itself, for Beijing has done very little to dissuade Pyongyang from its belligerent pathway to ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
By the same token, China conducted clandestine oceanographic tasks with research vessels around Benham Rise in waters to the east of thePhilippines. The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs revealed this was not the first time China has shown unusual interest in the area off the Luzon coast, after applying for permission to conduct “marine scientific research” there in 2015. Manila refused to give such permission, with China’s main aim likely to be study of the ocean floor to benefit submarine operations. Yet Beijing vociferously protests the presence of US Navy research vessels within the South China Sea, again underscoring that China is willing to take but never to give, even where required under internationally accepted practices. Trump has many reasons to take Xi to task over the way China is being run so authoritatively.
Legal injustices, censorship, political interference and religious persecution are all rife within China, and these influences are spreading beyond its shores. Trump has made a name for himself by being blunt, so this is a good opportunity to continue in that vein. If Xi, China’s “core leader”, wants to sit at the global table, then he should be required to grant basic freedoms to his countrymen and start treating others with respect. Trump promised the meeting with Xi would be “a very difficult one”, but this has to be for reasons beyond mere trade and jobs.