Hong Kong arrests and Taiwan flybys: China advances its interests during Covid-19 crisis

Beijing has drawn accusations it is using the distraction of the coronavirus pandemic to advance regional interests. Here are some examples

China has been accused of using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to take some bold and provocative actions, including expansions in the South China Sea, crackdowns on activists in Hong Kong and further detention of activists in the mainland. Some analysts have suggested Beijing is sending a message that China’s aggressive foreign policy is still business as usual, or testing its adversaries for weaknesses.

Rounding up activists

The frequent protests that have rocked Hong Kong for months were already in a lull when the outbreak started, but amid fears of an epidemic in Hong Kong they have almost completely stopped. The Chinese government and its supportive Hong Kong counterparts are taking advantage of the break to try ensure they don’t start up again.

More than 7,000 people have been arrested on charges relating to the protest rallies, some of which drew millions to the street, but the arrests of senior figures in February and then again on Saturday have drawn sharp rebuke.

Martin Lee, the 81-year-old founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic party, has said there will be more fatalities and protests if authorities try to pass anti-subversion laws – which would outlaw “sedition, subversion and the theft of state secrets” – before the September legislature election. “The Communist party won’t show any mercy” he told the Guardian. “They have already stated their stance.”

Veteran activist and politician Lee Cheuk Yan, who was arrested in both roundups, said: “They are using this opportunity of the pandemic so we can’t come out in the marches.”

The arrests drew condemnation from around the world, and China director at Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson, said the arrests of the 15 activists were “another nail in the coffin of ‘one country two systems’”.

Authorities maintained the action was about the rule of law, creating a deterrence, and securing the city before the protests started up again.

“Non-release releases”

After four-and-a-half years in prison for “subversion”, human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was released from a Chinese prison two weeks ago. But he was immediately sent to compulsory quarantine in his home town of Jinan, not in Beijing where he lives with his wife and son.

The US state department and human rights groups have called for Wang, jailed after the 2015 roundup of more than 300 human rights lawyers and legal associates, to be released from “unjust detention” and allowed to return home.

Poet and activist Li Bifeng was released on 7 April after serving a 10-year sentence but forced into “quarantine” in a guesthouse in Sichuan province. Authorities refused to disclose his location to his family.

The practice of “non-release releases” of dissidents has been criticised by rights groups.

Further detentions

Police detained film maker and poet Chen Jiaping in early March, according to his wife. Chen had been making a documentary about legal scholar and activist Xu Zhiyong, who went missing in February and is believed to be held by police under a secretive detention system known as residential surveillance at a designated location.

Zhao Huaiguo, the pastor of an underground house church in Hunan was detained on 14 March on charges of “inciting subversion”. Consumer rights activist Wang Qing, known for using China’s open government information system to hold officials accountable, was charged alongside three other men for extortion and blackmail last year. In April, he was denied an appeal on his case.

Three citizen journalists disappeared in Wuhan after reporting on the outbreak, Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua. Li resurfaced in the past week with a video detailing his detention by police and forced quarantine.

Numerous activists and lawyers remain in jail, despite international calls for their release. Veteran activist and founder of a human rights website, 64 Tianwang, Huang Qi was detained in November 2016, on suspicion of “illegally leaking state secrets abroad.” Last year he was jailed on a 12-year sentence.

Human Rights Watch said authorities have refused requests from his lawyers for documents, and disbarred two of them. Sichuan police have also harassed his mother, a woman in her eighties, including placing her under house arrest and sending government agents to live in her home, HRW said.

“While everyone’s attention is on Covid-19, we should not let the Chinese government off the hook for their ongoing crackdown on human rights activists, lawyers and independent journalists,” said Human Rights Watch China researcher, Yaqiu Wang.

One country, one system

While Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy semi-autonomy until 2047 before it is returned to Chinese rule, the past week has seen some suggest China is trying to bring that deadline forward.

Last week Beijing’s top organisations in the region, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) and the liaison office, weighed into domestic political arguments, criticising pro-democracy legislators over filibustering tactics and creating a backlog of legislation.

The office was accused of overreach and intruding into Hong Kong affairs in contravention of Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the Basic Law, which guarantees non-interference.

Beijing authorities claimed the protections in the Basic Law article didn’t apply to them, and that the Central government exercised “full governance” over Hong Kong.

It came as the head of China’s liaison office in Hong Kong, Luo Huining, called for long-shelved national security legislation to be introduced as soon as possible to safeguard against threats to national security, like the protests.

South China Sea

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has accused China of exploiting the world’s focus on the virus with “provocative behaviour”, including advancing its presence in the South China Sea.

China claims ownership of much of the South China Sea, but this is disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia.

State broadcaster CGTN said on Saturday that China had established administrative districts on the Paracel islands and Spratly islands, the site of overlapping ownership claims.

Zhang Junshe, a senior research fellow at the People’s Liberation Army naval military studies research institute, told China’s Global Times the new districts would “fulfil the responsibility of safeguarding our national sovereignty” and “bring convenience to residents on the islands and fishermen’s lives”.

Vietnam’s foreign ministry quickly accused China of having “seriously violated its sovereignty”, demanding it “abolish its wrongful decisions”.

Last week a Chinese survey ship was seen tagging a Malaysian state oil company drillship, just north of Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, in disputed waters claimed by Vietnam and Malaysia.

It also drew criticism from the US, but the Chinese foreign ministry accused US officials of smearing Beijing and said the vessel was conducting normal activities.

US and Australian warships also arrived in the region this week.

Vietnam also lodged a formal protest after a Chinese military ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel off the coast of the Paracels, in the second such confrontation in a year.

Buzzing Taiwan

China has also been flying regular fighter patrols near Taiwan, which China claims is part of its territory despite having not governed the island in modern times. In mid-March the People’s Liberation Army sent warplanes across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, and briefly approached Taiwan. The move, which analysts said was at least partly to intimidate Taiwan, prompted Taiwan to scramble fighter planes to intercept.

China is also sending military flotillas past Taiwan and Japan on a semi-regular basis. Last week a six-vessel strike group led by China’s only aircraft carrier sailed through the Miyako Strait and past Taiwan, under watch by the Taiwanese and Japanese defence forces.

In January, a military flotilla, again led by the aircraft carrier, passed through the straits of Taiwan. It didn’t enter Taiwan’s waters, but did cross its air defence identification zone.

Investing in India

Several countries including India and Australia have introduced new laws or regulations covering foreign investments amid concerns about Chinese acquisitions while nations and companies struggle during the pandemic.

This month the People’s Bank of China bought shares in HDFC, India’s biggest mortgage lender, eventually obtaining more than 1%.

Under the new laws in India, anyone from a country sharing a border with India needs government approval before any kind of investment, local media reported. While this included many nations, it has been seen as geared towards China, since it includes Hong Kong.

• This article was amended on 28 April 2020. An earlier version said that China had never governed Taiwan. This has been corrected to say that it has not governed the island in modern times.


Helen Davidson

The GuardianTramp

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