A terrible scream of pain contorts a little girl’s face and tells the story of the army’s brutal crackdown in Myanmar. Shwe Yote Hlwar, five, is standing beside an open coffin containing the body of her father, Ko Zwe Htet Soe, shot dead by security forces.
Her face is a picture of searing, bottomless grief. Women try to help. But there is no comforting her. Who can explain her dad’s needless killing? Who can say why men in uniform think it’s OK to do such things?
Shwe’s agonised scream is that of an entire nation. It echoes around the world.
Some hear it, many do not. At the UN security council last week, China, backed by Russia, India and Vietnam, again blocked outright condemnation of last month’s military coup and stymied a UK-authored move towards punitive sanctions.
China’s is the vote that matters most. It has invested billions in Myanmar as part of President Xi Jinping’s imperial Belt and Road plans. This, rather than outrage over the army’s “killing spree”, to quote Amnesty International, determines his policy.
It’s true China is not directly to blame for the dozens of civilian deaths and thousands of arrests and beatings. It’s probable Xi would have preferred Myanmar’s elected, Beijing-friendly leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to remain in charge.
The coup leader, Gen Min Aung Hlaing, has accused China in the past of conspiring with ethnic insurgents. He’s no big chum. But Xi would rather stick with him than risk more instability. And he would rather face international opprobrium than help restore democratic rights that are anathema to China’s communist party.
In short, in Myanmar and elsewhere, the CCP is learning that empire-building is problematic and can incur high reputational costs. Grand designs for global hegemony invite escalating global pushback. This is what Xi’s characteristic brand of arrogance and aggression is now producing on a range of fronts.
Anti-China sentiment is never far from the surface in Myanmar. People there regard their giant neighbour in much the same way Poles or Estonians regard Russia. But with Beijing defending homicidal generals, that latent hostility is finding public expression.
There are boycotts of Chinese businesses. Chinese officials are alarmed by threats on social media to blow up a key Belt and Road pipeline project linking China to the Bay of Bengal, the independent Irrawaddy website reported.
Yet since China views the coup as an “internal matter”, protesters note sarcastically, sabotage of its assets would be a purely internal matter, too.
Accustomed to manipulating news at will, China’s bosses pretend this crisis isn’t happening, that awful crimes are not occurring daily. They seem not to realise that in the world beyond their censors, there is an ever diminishing chance of permanently hiding or denying such atrocities, wherever they occur.
It’s a lesson Xi has signally failed to absorb over Xinjiang. A detailed, independent US report last week confirmed that his regime has repeatedly breached the UN genocide convention in its horrific mistreatment of Uighurs.
Yet still Beijing persists in issuing grotesque statements flatly denying filmed and documented evidence of gross abuse. Its lies would be funny if they were not so egregious. Simultaneously, it traduces independent, fact-based journalism – and whinges mightily when Britain’s ambassador stresses its importance.
This sorry crew of party hacks and throwbacks must wake up. Polls show that China’s international standing is plummeting. Feelings of animosity and enmity grow. The ever more sophisticated, connected global audience scrutinising its daily actions is not so easily bamboozled as, say, its rural masses, held in check by starvation wages, propaganda and fear.
If Xi wants the respect traditionally afforded a great power, he must act responsibly in crises such as Myanmar, come clean on crimes in Xinjiang and Tibet, stop bullying the neighbours, and cease spewing silly lies as if he can somehow create an alternative reality.
Hong Kong is another unwilling stage for his black-hearted theatre of the unreal – and another focal point of the anti-China backlash. Last week brought a new law denying elected office to candidates deemed “unpatriotic”.
To claim that Hong Kong, under such a system, may still be styled a democracy is to insult everyone’s intelligence. Perhaps the sycophantic cadres of the National People’s Congress believe it. They believe anything Xi tells them.
International pushback is building. Britain and partners weigh new sanctions. Hong Kong’s fleet-footed opposition is reassembling in exile. Pressure is rising in the US to unambiguously guarantee Taiwan’s defence. A top American admiral is urging new missile deployments along the “first island chain”.
Hi-tech firms such as Huawei are cold-shouldered. Developing countries balk at Beijing’s debt diplomacy. The containment alliance known as the Quad – the US, India, Australia and Japan – is reviving. China’s loud-mouthed “wolf warrior” diplomats daily compound the reputational damage. Foreign agents of influence, peddling the party line for cash and favours, face greater scrutiny.
The tide may be turning. Yet Xi’s China resembles a runaway train, a huge Make China Great Again locomotive that inexorably gathers momentum but lacks brakes. Regional analysts suggest Xi, the “new Mao”, is over-reaching, putting self-aggrandisement and personal legacy before national interest.
Others warn that the Xi era is feeding a nationalist-populist frenzy that cannot ultimately be controlled. It will end in tears, they say. Cooler, wiser heads in Beijing should calm things down while they can – or risk an almighty derailment.
This week will see the first foreign-minister-level meeting with the Biden administration. It’s a good moment for China’s leadership to get real, forgo geopolitical one-upmanship, and focus instead on boosting common goals and universal values.
Catching the men who murdered Shwe Yote Hlwar’s dad would be a good start.