Hong Kong crackdown reveals China’s fear of contagious rebellion

Xi Jinping’s hardline stance sends fear across Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, where there are other challenges to monolithic rule

The harsh police crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, the most violent repression seen in the former British colony since the protests began earlier this year, will send a cold shiver of apprehension across a region already alarmed by the uncompromising policies of China’s bullish new leadership.

The demonstrators’ unsuccessful bid to surround government buildings crossed a line for the Beijing authorities and their local surrogates. Intentionally or not, it presented a direct challenge to monolithic Communist party rule.

This was both brave and dangerous. Whether the location is Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, or further afield, such lèse majesté will not be tolerated by Xi Jinping, crowned as China’s president last year, and his self-selected Politburo retinue.

Their grip on power is not as watertight as it might seem. They fear Hong Kong’s rebelliousness may prove contagious, and weekend municipal elections in Taiwan made the point. After a winning run in power dating back to 2008, the pro-Beijing Nationalist party, formerly known as the Kuomintang, suffered nationwide reverses. Taiwan’s premier, Jiang Yi-huah, resigned.

Although discontent with the government’s domestic policies played a part, so too did escalating worries that China’s anti-democratic stance in Hong Kong could be forcibly applied to Taiwan. Beijing officially views Taiwan as a “renegade province” of China, rather than what it is – a de facto independent country.

Last spring demonstrators opposed to China’s growing influence, known as the Sunflower Movement, stormed Taiwan’s parliament, chanting: “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan.” Some in Taiwan have taken to carrying umbrellas in solidarity with Hong Kong’s umbrella movement.

The election losses, which included the capital, Taipei, could upset plans by the Nationalist leader and president, Ma Ying-jeou, to hold a historic summit with Xi. They have also raised the hopes of the opposition Democratic Progressive party that they can win back the presidency in 2016. If that happens, relations with Beijing are likely to deteriorate sharply.

The impact of Hong Kong’s upheavals on Taiwan is not lost on Beijing, which issued a slightly rattled statement after the polls: “We hope compatriots across the [Taiwan] Strait will cherish hard-won fruits of cross-strait relations, and jointly safeguard and continue to push forward peaceful development,” it said.

China’s approach to Hong Kong carries chilling echoes elsewhere, according to Jonathan Fenby, a respected China analyst.

“There have been signs in recent months that Xi Jinping and his colleagues have decided to toughen their stance on [Taiwan] in line with their broader attempt to impose conformity and centralisation and to impose order on China’s peripheral regions of Xinjiang and Tibet,” wrote Fenby last month.

“Cross-Strait travel restrictions have been tightened. Official media have alleged plots against the People’s Republic hatched by Taiwanese ‘separatists’ manipulated by clandestine Japanese or American groups …

“Beijing’s insistence that it ultimately calls the shots in Hong Kong under the ‘one country, two systems’ has gone down badly in Taiwan.”

A recent upsurge in separatist violence in Xinjiang, a largely Muslim region of western China, seems to have encouraged Xi’s tough line countering political dissent – or was possibly provoked by it.

Xi recently proclaimed a more conciliatory approach to international foreign policy issues, including island and resource disputes with Japan and some south-east Asian nations.

But the crackdown in Hong Kong will render China’s democratically ruled neighbours, victims of Beijing’s bullying since Xi took power, more not less wary. Xi’s recent, awkward first meeting with Japan’s leader, Shinzo Abe, did nothing to dispel deep mutual distrust. The Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia all have cause for increased nervousness, despite Chinese goodwill gestures at last month’s Apec summit in Beijing. Nor is China’s developing alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia an encouraging sign.

The prospect that Xi would adopt a softer line on Hong Kong and other disputes closer to home was similarly remote, said commentator Dean Cheng.

“Such a move would be fraught with risk for Xi. A conciliatory stance could be seen as weakness rather than strength, both by Xi’s factional rivals, but also by other elements in China who are agitating for greater freedom.

“The Tibetans and Uighurs in the Tibet and Xinjiang Uighur autonomous regions, for example, would likely seize upon such an opening to militate for greater self-rule in these areas, a liberalisation which Beijing has made clear it is not prepared to countenance.

“It is important to recognise that Xi is still in the midst of his power transition. As the first Chinese leader to have assumed power without the blessing of a revolutionary-era leader (such as Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping), his position within the CCP [Chinese Communist party] is more vulnerable than any of his predecessors,” Cheng said.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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