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The city of Hong Kong, as we have known it, is a unique and wonderful place. More than a simple region, it is a symbol. Its very existence was a covenant, a contract of good faith between Beijing and its liberal democratic partners. It was a living proof of diplomatic entente and testament to sincere cooperation between the Chinese Communist Party and the West.
Today, Hong Kong’s island harbours are home to a great global cosmopolis, where East and West meet and forge the indomitable spirit of its people. It is a truly Eurasian powerhouse grounded in English common law, built with the pioneering industry of Asia’s commercial revolution, and guarded by the security of China.
This vision now seems to be crumbling under the force of the new national security law being imposed on the island by the Chinese State. The global hub has fallen foul of a government in Beijing that has consistently gone down the path of imposing greater state control and ever more stringent security measures, both at home and abroad. The dream of a democratic Hong Kong is dying.
As with much of China’s trajectory over the last eight years, the hand of President Xi Jinping is not difficult to find. The clampdown in Hong Kong can be understood as the product of a wider mentality that has come to dominate Xi’s leadership of the Chinese Leviathan. A strongman elevated to root out corruption, Xi has inaugurated a period of more autocratic rule within the Communist Party system.
Ever since Deng Xiaoping’s opening and reforming programme unleashed an economic revolution that catapulted China to international prominence, the Communist Party has been engaged in balancing economic integration with the geopolitical risks this integration creates. Capitalist reforms must be synthesised with state socialism. The system must be strengthened by economic growth but secured against the free trade in ideas.
Now, after decades of this reforming programme, Xi has sought to re-emphasise security. His speeches reveal a man anxious about losing control of the pace of change; a statesman fearful that the dominion of the Chinese Communist Party may dissolve like the Soviet Union in Russia before it. Yet Xi has no intention of becoming a new Mikhail Gorbachev. He has accordingly sought to firm up China’s first revolution against the destabilising influences of its second.
At the centre of this project is what the President calls “big security”, according to historian Julian Gewirtz. This is a holistic view of statecraft, one which looks to strengthen the Communist Party by coordinating ideology with the strength of the state. It seeks to project power, interests, and values within China, and to expand its sphere of influence abroad.
In this vision, security is ensured through diplomatic dominance reinforced by economic prowess. Culture is allied with power; ideology becomes an instrument of security. This is the logic behind Xi’s ambitions to forge what he believes to be a path to modernity imbued with both socialist and Chinese characteristics.
In a speech made by Xi Jinping at the beginning of the year, published in Qiushi Journal and translated by Bill Bishop, the President defined the Communist Party’s mission as a quest “to unify our thinking, our will, and unify our actions.”
He invoked Mao Zedong, the father of China’s communist revolution, declaring that: “Mastering ideological education is the central link that unites the whole party in the great political struggle.”
In this vision, ideological dissent is the enemy of unity – and unity is the path to security against the risks posed by global integration. Nonconformity is the highway to secessionism, subversion and instability. In its own unique way, China is also gripped by a backlash against globalisation. There is insecurity residing behind big security.
This is the prism through which to see the new national security law in Hong Kong. Beijing’s statements and the Communist Party-run press publications are filled with justifications of the new law grounded in Xi’s expansive vision of security.
A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry announced that Hong Kong affairs “are China’s internal affairs”. The ministry warned in a statement that “Nobody and nothing could shake the Chinese government and people’s resolution and will to safeguard national sovereignty and security and uphold Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”
In such a mindset, objections made by Western countries – or by Taiwan – to the Communist Party’s actions are read as efforts to stifle or contain China’s power. Where the United States views Hong Kong’s special status as a bastion of freedom, the CCP sees a potential threat to the mainland’s ideological integrity and political stability.
From this point of view, the security law in Hong Kong does not look like an act of wanton aggression; it becomes a pre-emptive geopolitical strike against scheming foreign forces. It is this same pessimism, allied with a desire for ideological unity, which resides behind President Xi’s ambitions to see China’s other wayward satellite, Taiwan, brought back within the fold of the mainland.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the mainland, the persecution of the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang advances side by side with the ambitious Belt and Road Project. This is the vast series of economic threads by which the Chinese government seeks to connect Eurasia and bring the centre of geopolitical gravity ever closer to Beijing.
Power, influence, and security are projected globally, too, in the form of state-sponsored “national champions” like Huawei, which seek to dominate world markets. Big security breaks down borders and builds up leverage – it is the surveillance state projected outwards.
Yet the problem with big security is that it is becoming an increasingly blunt instrument. Its primary mode is bludgeoning force backed up by big subsidies, blustering stunts and bad ideas. It can easily backfire upon the statesman wielding it. Certainly, it hammers through certain security concerns, but it also creates new problems. Big security is a poor substitute for deft diplomacy.
In the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, Xi’s emphasis on projecting security has undermined China’s geopolitical strategy. The aggressive misinformation pumped out of China’s embassies across Europe about the origins of the coronavirus has caused countries such as Britain to reassess their relationship with Beijing, both diplomatically and economically. Huawei’s place in the UK’s digital infrastructure looks likely to be axed by Downing Street. Germany and France may follow suit.
On its own doorstep, China’s bullying of Taiwan has shored up the popularity of the pro-independence President Tsai Ing-Wen and her Democratic Progressive Party. Hitting Australia with heavy tariffs on meat and barley and directing cyber-attacks against the Australian government has not only damaged relations with a valuable trade partner – it has led Canberra to strengthen its defence and security ties with the United States.
Democratic governments may often be slower to respond at times of crisis, but they are often more durable for it. Here, Xi’s error has been confusing political openness with pliancy. The result is that a policy of getting tough on China now enjoys bipartisan support across democratic countries, from Westminster and Washington to Ottawa, Seoul and Tokyo.
The backlash against Beijing’s projection of its power is beginning to frustrate foreign policy goals and undermine the reach of China’s influence. This will threaten to spill over into China’s domestic politics over the coming years.
In Beijing, Xi’s rule is hegemonic for now, but views in China are not homogenous. The Communist Party’s rule is based upon its promise to offer continued economic success and its claim to competency in managing China’s role in the world. And as the American political scientist Minxin Pei has pointed out, a state that forgoes political rights in favour of managerial authority is in danger of becoming brittle when the fruits of economic growth begin to run dry. China has already, for the first time, been forced to abandon its 6% GDP growth target for this year.
Now the impact of the coronavirus crisis and tensions with wealthy consumer markets could put China’s state-owned export industries under greater strain. Since the trade war with Donald Trump’s White House ignited in 2018, China has managed to soften the blow by pivoting more towards the Eurasian markets facilitated by the Belt and Road initiative. But it is not clear how much more this alternative avenue could cushion the blow of further economic pressure.
This dilemma is compounded by the power grab in Hong Kong, where investors now fear that the sweeping national security law will inculcate a culture of self-censorship and stifle research in financial services. The death of Hong Kong’s civic rights will go hand-in-glove with its decline as a commercial centre. Everywhere, the strategy of big security designed to manage the dangers of global integration has created new risks.
The sad irony is that it did not have to be this way. Behind Beijing’s recent turn towards global confrontation there are some legitimate ambitions. China should, as one of the world’s premier powers, have influence over global governance. It should have a central role to play in international institutions. What is wrong is the way in which this desire for a greater global role is being pursued. It may have led to a tactical advantage in Hong Kong – but at the cost of burning strategic bridges elsewhere. The pessimistic assumptions lying behind Xi’s assertive diplomacy have turned his fears about opposition to Chinese ambition into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Perhaps, after all, a man who enjoys quoting from the Chinese classics ought to remember the warning of the master of the strategic treatise, Sun Tzu: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
Now, in the aftermath of a devastating pandemic, might be the time for Xi to begin rediscovering the art of strategy that first propelled China to prominence after the great reforms of 1978.