China’s Regional Conduct Demonstrates Global Ambitions
Hidden in plain sight, China’s treatment of its neighbours tactically exhibits the Party’s international intentions.
Xi Jinping became president of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, and within less than a decade, has managed to single-handedly reshape China both within and beyond its borders. Despite being shrouded in vague obscurity, changes and decisions within the country are nevertheless easier to decipher than the subtleties of its global reach. Yet each internal policy, partnership and promotion is a subversive strategy that indicates the Party’s external objectives.
China currently lies at the heart of some of the world’s most challenging geopolitical tensions, including trade wars, democratic suppression, human rights abuses and oppression of free speech.
Beneath these conflicts lies a trail of deliberate, tactical decisions aimed at maximising the gaps in social cohesion to infiltrate, even undermine, the longstanding values that the cooperative world has been built on.
Whether unwilling or unable, China is not fulfilling the necessary requirements to perform on the global stage and the principles of its current status quo. As a result, Xi Jinping’s presidency has been a worryingly tactical catalogue of decisions aimed at rewriting the script, where China can play the lead role.
The Hong Kong protests that began in 2019 were sparked by the announcement of a proposed extradition bill, which would allow residents to be extradited to mainland China for criminal trial, despite Hong Kong’s entitlement to judicial independence. By the time chief executive Carrie Lam pledged to withdraw the bill in September, clashes with police had taken hold of the city and activists were demanding the fulfilment of four further demands, namely: inquiry into police brutality during the protests; a retraction of the term “rioters” associated with protestors; amnesty for arrested protestors; and universal suffrage.
Significantly, China directly responded to the protests with the approval of a National Security Law in June 2019, by-passing approval from Hong Kong’s local legislature and instead directly enacting the provisions. The law is intentionally vague, outlining the criminalisation of Hong Kong’s secession from the mainland, subversion against the Chinese government, and any acts that ‘endanger national security’ — a loose term generally affiliated with any acts the CCP deems threatening to their authority.
Seeds of frustration have arguably rumbled beneath Hong Kong society since the UK handover to mainland China in 1997 — and in many ways, Hong Kong has always struggled with its own autonomy, identity and freedom.
The agreement’s principal terminology is merely utilised to appease international criticism of China’s actions in Hong Kong. So while China continues to emphasise the idea of ‘one country, two systems’, in the space of five years alone, it has become glaringly apparent that the CCP is pushing for one country, one system, by pressuring Hong Kong’s political and democratic autonomy into submission. School textbooks have been rewritten with the removal of information about the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989; teachers are increasingly pressured to teaching Mandarin; and district councillors are now forced to swear allegiance to the Party.
Through Hong Kong, China demonstrates a brazen disregard for the international principles and alliances necessary for peaceful coexistence. In fact, the CCP outright disputes the validity of the 1997 Sino-British agreement, claiming “it is a historical document that no longer [has] any practical significance”. In a further rejection, China announced that it would no longer recognise the British National Overseas passport as a valid travel document. (The UK has stated that BNOs could be used as a route to residency, and eventual citizenship, for Hong Kongers living in or emigrating to the UK.)
This selective acceptance and dismissal of legally acknowledged treaties subject to whimsy is continuously pushed to the limit by CCP geopolitics — and is expanding outwards. Beyond Hong Kong, it insists that according to “international law” — though it is unclear which — China holds sovereignty over Tibet, Taiwan, and contested maritime regions of the South China Sea, while recently antagonising co-operative ceasefires in the border regions between Nepal, India and Mongolia.
Where compliance is undesirable, laws themselves are reinterpreted, warped through the prism of the CCP agenda. Nowhere is this more obvious than in conversations surrounding the forced imprisonment of Uyghur Muslims in the eastern province of Xinjiang.
China initially denied having built what they call ‘re-education centres’ in the region, only to launch mass state-sponsored broadcasts purportedly showing happy and willing students learning Mandarin, trade skills and pledging allegiance to Xi Jinping, following definitive reports and photographs showing the actual existence of these centres.
Responding to international backlash, China insisted their policies in Xinjiang were aimed at combating poverty and terrorism, and that people were not forcibly detained — rather, they were free to come and go. (No evidence has shown this claim to be true.)
In October 2020, The Economist published a letter from Zeng Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in London, insisting that these camps “are useful and positive”, and, remarkably, “fall in line with the principles embodied in a number of international documents on counter-terrorism, such as the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.” A subsequent response article by Human Rights Watch highlighted the obvious fact that the UN Strategy in fact “emphasizes the need to uphold human rights, and warns that violations of human rights and rule of law can fuel terrorism” — namely, it does not possibly support what international governments are increasingly calling genocide.
It is worth nothing, however, that China was nonetheless elected to the UN Human Rights Council in 2020, while the International Criminal Court has refused to pursue an investigation into the detention camps in Xinjiang.
By rewriting universal principals to which we must all abide in order to evade accountability, China is further demonstrating its intent to circumvent international policy. Moreover, the argument of counterterrorism itself falls flat amid claims of forced sterilisation and unrivalled invasions of privacy.
Xinjiang is now home to prisons within a prison. If ethnic minorities manage to evade the camps, residents are obligated to install apps that read calls and messages, with many families assigned a Han Chinese official to monitor their behaviour and search their homes, with some even living there for weeks at a time to monitor behaviour — if they pray, or refuse to eat pork and drink alcohol. But Xinjiang has also become a testing ground for the effectiveness of China’s surveillance technology.
The market for A.I. services is expanding, and China has been poised to fulfil the demand for many years. In Xinjiang, cameras have been fine-tuned to recognise the facial features of ethnic minorities — and are therefore capable of digital racial profiling. Police checkpoints throughout the major cities are part of a larger system built around data collection software, that has now grown so vast it takes just one click to retrieve an individual’s medical or criminal records, education, family background, commercial purchases, even travel history. The worryingly impressive network is interconnected, omnipresent and inescapable.
Not only is this kind of system potentially expected to be implemented across the country, but China intends to package and market the technology to other countries — and already has. A report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation recently found that more than half of London councils currently use some form of these surveillance systems sold by Hikvision or Dahua. (Both firms, among several other Chinese manufacturers, were blacklisted by the Trump administration and placed under severe restrictions, but with a change in presidency, it is unclear if this will remain.)
The full extent of UK reliance on China for surveillance technology as yet remains unclear, but it is nevertheless indicative of a systematic and gradual infiltration of a country’s market vulnerabilities. China cannot directly win favour in democratic countries through oppression, however fragile or fallible that democracy may be. But if a reliance on China is built, it will inevitably create greater dependency. With more at stake, it is likely that criticism of China will be disregarded, as actions we would never permit are overlooked for the sake of preservation and protectionism. In this way, countries are bound, forced to fold the hand of necessary accountability as China fills their economic or import-based vacuums.
A similar phenomenon is taking place in many media outlets across the world. Buckling under budget cuts and declining readership, many Western publications have taken to including paid supplements and editorial pages by Chinese state-media, including the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph (though they ceased publication of state-written pieces in 2020). An alarming number of publications have been, or are being, paid millions in advertorials from Chinese media companies. State news channel CGTN recently lost its license to broadcast in the UK following Ofcom violations, but nevertheless managed to broadcast forced confessions and countless propaganda run ‘documentaries’ before being taken off the air, and still retains an international presence. China is also sponsoring and training journalists from around the world, offering them prominent placements at global outlets with an ever-growing audience in order to tell what they deem the other side of the story.
Journalistically, there are at least two sides to every story. But a government-directed perspective cannot truly be considered the other side, since the arguments are controlled by a singular entity and moored by censorship. Within itself, such a narrative fails to offer another side, a secondary voice, instead manifesting itself as little more than a PR campaign aimed at asserting influence by taking advantage of a free press while strengthening censorship at home.
A perfect display of how China views facts and free speech recently took place on the Andrew Marr show last year, Chinese ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming bemusingly declared, “There is no such [thing as] concentration camps in Xinjiang”, while simultaneously being shown footage of chained Uyghurs being escorted onto trains. Essentially, it doesn’t matter what is said or shown — the Party line is the only line, and the story, along with ‘mutual respect’ and ‘rule of law’, are reshaped to fit the mould of China’s definitions and interests alone.
And this is the crux of the issue. Every country undoubtedly works to maximise its governmental policies in favour of themselves. But there is a universal rulebook that has been fundamental to ensuring global stability, and enables effective, respectful partnership between nations regardless of political leaning.
The policies and actions instigated by the CCP since Xi Jinping took presidency are a clear display of how the Party views democracy, free speech, human rights, trade and international cooperation. All centre around a politicised narrative that emphasises the effectiveness and necessity of implementing and adapting to the Party’s policies to varying degrees throughout the world.
In every sense of the word, China is abusing its opportunities on the global stage, testing its potential reach based on an individual country’s needs and weaknesses. Some could argue this is no different from anything that’s happened before — we have always imported and exported, struck trade deals, formed alliances with others for mutual benefit.
But “multilateralism” to the CCP means something altogether different, and ends one of two ways: suppressing the voices of those it can control, and undermining those it can’t through reliance on goods, services and money.
As China’s economy and influence continues to grow, these gradual, subtle ripples of influence will culminate in a damaging blow to the same international values that we follow and utilise to hold each other accountable. By creating this vacuum, the same values will no longer apply — and a new collective of dictatorial rules will trickle in to fill that void.
A country that does not respect its own people will not respect the countries that surround or exist far beyond it. A regime that does not respect human rights will not act in accordance with human rights towards others. A country that has no respect for democracy will undermine freedom in those that do. And a country that interprets international law in accordance with their own ideology cannot operate in uniformity with the rest of the world.