Beijing’s Overstretch

Is Xi Jinping’s drive for national cohesion having the opposite effect?

Arriving back in Beijing from a lavish foreign trip to the Middle East, Chinese President Xi Jinping will no doubt relish in the growth of Chinese clout abroad. He is even getting his way in the South China Sea. But as he secures deals and territory abroad, the kingdom is becoming more fragile. On the edges of Mainland China, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party is facing a rejection of its rule.

Not welcome under our umbrella

Begin with Hong Kong. The city is still reeling from the Umbrella protests that took hold in late 2014. The catalyst for the protests was Beijing’s reluctance to give Hong Kong a real choice in electing its chief executive, and opted instead for the city to select from a list of CCP-approved candidates to ensure national cohesion.

It was counter-intuitive, of course. Thanks to a mix of distrust towards Beijing and concerns over inequality, the protests soon boiled over into the biggest unrest seen in China since 1989.

Recent kidnappings of five anti-CCP booksellers have stoked further anti-Beijing sentiment in the city. Lee Bo, one of the five, had not been seen since December 30 when he was mysteriously taken over border into Mainland China under bizarre circumstances. He did not, for example, tell his wife about his plans and when she managed to contact him via the telephone he spoke in Mandarin rather than his native Cantonese. Chinese security forces announced on January 21 that they had in fact been holding Mr Lee.

Mr Lee was known for selling scandalous anti-CCP books that made wild claims about the private lives of those at the top. This is thought to be his crime.

After the failure of negotiations to decide how Hong Kong would elect its chief executive, the missing booksellers represent an insecure Mainland government that thinks it can scare Hong Kong into tolling the party line. Indeed, the case makes Hong Kong seem more integrated into the Mainland by showing a disregard for the rule of law.

Taiwan has been watching events in Hong Kong closely. The yiguo liangzhi (one country, two systems) model in place in Hong Kong granted the city promised a high degree of autonomy and its own independent judiciary. This system agreed by Deng Xiaoping had always been intended to market reunification to Taiwan. But thanks to the recent kidnappings and Beijing’s reluctance to give Hong Kong a real choice in electing a chief executive, the agreement now looks a farce.

Like Hong Kong, Taiwan is an issue for Beijing that blurs the distinction between internal and external. While both the city and the island nation are considered to be parts of China in the CCP’s eyes, both cherish their freedom from Beijing’s authority — much to the CCP’s chagrin.

Beijing considers Taiwan to be a Chinese province, albeit one that should abandon its “hallucination” of independence. In reality, it is a de facto independent state that is heavily reliant on the mainland economy, but is not under Beijing’s jurisdiction — even less so with the coming to power of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP).

Indeed, relations between Taiwan and China are set to take a frostier path, following the stunning victory that has brought the pro-independence DPP to power in the island-nation. By electing their first female president, Tsai Ingwen, the Taiwanese people have resoundingly rejected closer ties with China.

In a thinly veiled jab at Beijing, President-elect Tsai told reporters at the DPP’s headquarters in Taipei, “Our democratic system, national identity and international space must be respected. Any forms of suppression will harm the stability of cross-strait relations.”

Again, Chinese meddling has been counter-intuitive. Consider that before the election, Taiwanese pop star Chou Tsu-yu was made to apologize for waving a Taiwanese flag during a performance. It is now thought that this interference was partly responsible for propelling the young into voting stations and securing a comfortable victory for the DPP.

Worse still, consider China’s most westerly region Xinjiang. Though officially an ‘autonomous region’, the freedoms of the Uighur people that live there -particularly the freedom of religion- have been severely compromised. Muslims, who make up 58 percent of the population, were restricted from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and mosques have been barred from broadcasting the call for prayer. New York Times journalists who recently travelled to Xinjiang told of a region “seething with anger and trepidation” with a faraway government that is attempting to minimize its unique culture and beliefs in favour of a more unified Chinese state.

Human rights activists in the region have also bore the brunt of Beijing’s authority. On January 22 one of its most prominent rights activists, Zhang Haitao, was handed a 19-year sentence for “incitement to subvert state power”.

By beefing up security, Beijing has been responding to quell acts of violence in the region. A recent knife attack that killed at least fifty people in September was just one episode in an ongoing conflict that has cost over a thousand lives since 2007.

The causes of the conflict depend on whom you ask. The government says that it is retaliating against Islamist militants in the region, while exiles and rights groups say that there is no conclusive evidence of the existence of a cohesive militant faction fighting the government. Instead, much of the upheaval is linked to anger over controls imposed on the culture and religion of the Uighur people by Beijing.

Imperial overstretch?

The drive for national cohesion has been a goal of Chinese leaders for millennia. Yet the short term answer for the CCP’s recent authoritarian leanings lie in the economy.

As the stockmarket tumbles, the CCP will fret about its political implications as well as the economic ones. Never voted into power, the Party bases its legitimacy to rule on economic management and stability. With the announcement of 6.9 percent growth -the lowest in twenty years-, Mr Xi and his party are taking preemptive steps to strike against any internal unrest that may arise from this slowdown.

This is also evident in both his anti-corruption drive and the growth of online censorship. Party cadres are now facing arrests for “serious violation of discipline”, such as criticizing the party. Changes in the law now make “spreading rumours” online punishable by up to seven years in prison — without specifying what a rumour could be.

But Beijing is overextending. The Party and the Internet may be under Mr Xi’s authority, but territories like Hong Kong and Xinjiang are increasingly resistant. Taiwan is also rejecting any Mainland influence. These places will remain a headache for Mr Xi unless he adopts a lighter touch. The more he seeks to bring China together, the less it will comply.

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