From Hong Kong to Nigeria: how the bullish Chinese regime takes control
— 9 minute read — By Sam Portillo
For centuries and millennia, the Great Wall helped define China as a defensive, or at least introspective state. Successive dynasties cherished and reinforced the wall as a means of keeping outside attackers from getting in. Stretching west from the North Korean border, through Beijing and across the Yellow River, its twists and turns amount to 21,000km of cement and brick: it’s hard to imagine a monument which speaks better to the notion of defence.
As recent as the twentieth century, China was a state plagued with infighting and instability. It suffered a series of humiliating losses to foreign powers: Hong Kong to the British, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula to Japan. Chinese ports, including a sprightly Shanghai, were dominated by Western merchants. From 1899, an increasing number of peasants rallied behind the Boxer cause, aiming to take back control of their country. Two years later, once again, China accepted defeat, failing even to grasp control of its own shores.
Modern China’s reach and ambition however have far surpassed the boundaries of the Wall. The country now is a different beast, becoming unrecognisable from its past self in the space of mere decades. Fishing harbours became mega-cities, market villages became industrial centres and modest towns became skyscrapers. The Communist Party has enjoyed seventy years of unrivalled rule, providing the country with desperately-needed stability and an opportunity to grow. And boy, has it grown. In 2000, China had the sixth-biggest economy in the world. Since then, its GDP – a measure of the value of all goods and services traded in the country – has doubled three times, taking it within touching distance of the United States.
In a literal sense, the population has grown, too, ballooning from 400 million at the start of the twentieth century to 1.2 billion by the end. Riding the waves of industrialisation and scientific advancement, every country transformed over the course of the century, but perhaps none more so than China.
The government has sured up control of its own borders, inside which lie a microcosm of the planet itself. Metropolitan mega-cities on the coast like Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin seem a world away from the empty plains of Qinghai, and the snowy mountains of Tibet from the Turfan desert, which can reach 40 degrees Celsius in summer. The distance between the capital, Beijing, and the Xinjiang province in the west is comparable to that of London and Athens. Underneath the mask of unity, then, the government works hard to spread its tentacles over a vast and diverse country.
Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous city-state on the southern coast, has its own currency, and a capitalistic economy defined by low taxation and market competition. Upwards of 90 percent of GDP comes from service industries, like retail, leisure, hotels and finance, compared to around 52 percent of the overall Chinese economy. Taking the population density, standard of living and affluence into consideration, Hong Kong is not dissimilar from Miami in the United States.
Over 3,400km away, the sparsely-populated Xinjiang province depends on agriculture and industry to provide livelihoods. The average worker earns around ¥42,000 (£4,600) in a year, making the region comparable to Algeria. In Southern Xinjiang, where only 5 percent of the population are Han Chinese, people earn perhaps half as much. This, despite the region being rich in oil and precious minerals, and being part of the second biggest economy on the planet.
While Xinjiang appears near the bottom of the list on Beijing’s investment agenda, it is anything but an afterthought. Local authorities, on behalf of the national government, are persecuting ethnic minorities at an alarming rate. In the last three years, Xinjiang police have detained at least 800,000 Uighurs from a total population of 12 million. They are not usually charged with a crime, given a sentence, or documented in police records, rendering the arrests illegitimate.
It is clear to see why President Xi, sitting pretty in Beijing, wants to tighten his grip on Xinjiang. Its people are poor, disconnected, and demographically distinct from the rest of the country. It is one of only two provinces (the other being Tibet) where the Han population is outnumbered by another ethnicity.
The Communists promote atheism, lest religious beliefs override people’s allegiance to the regime. Since 2014, Muslims living in Xinjiang have been subject to austere restrictions on their way of life: owning a prayer rug, Uighur literature, or even a beard is deemed a sign of “religious extremism” and grounds enough for persecution. Hundreds of thousands, possibly over a million of these alleged extremists have been detained in “re-education camps”, whose existence the government initially denied.
Former detainees have reported facing beatings, humiliation, and being forced to read and chant communist propaganda. Mihirigul Tursun, an Uighur who was detained in 2015, reports that herself and other inmates were made to take unknown medication and face electrocution punishment, and claims that nine women from her cell died during her five months in the camp. Leaked government documents set out the purpose of these: discipline, punishment and repentence – the end goal: “transformation”.
President Xi’s regime imagines “Chinese-ness” as a strictly-defined absolute, incompatible with other ways of life. As such, “re-education camps” are designed to replace rebellious behaviours with mainstream Chinese customs, like eating pork and drinking alcohol, usually forbidden in Islam. Gulnur Kosdaulet, another Uighur woman, claims her husband has been detained in a camp since 2017 after authorities found WhatsApp installed on his mobile phone. Some detainees are allowed to spend the night at home, albeit with security cameras installed inside their property; there is no escape from the watchful eye.
The Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in December 1984; the UK would seceed sovereignty over Hong Kong to the PRC, on the principle that Beijing would allow “one country, two systems”. The agreement recognised that, while geographic neigbours, and demographically alike, Hong Kong and the rest of China were politically and economically distinct from one another. Hong Kong practised a Western style of capitalism, with low taxes and free market competition, and a UK-inspired education system.
This 1st July marked the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to the PRC. It is a date which always sees anti-China takes protestors take to the street, like an inverted version of independence day. While older generations largely support Sinification, an overwhelming majority of young Hong Kongers – who are more concerned with values like globalism, freedom of information and democracy – do not.
On the day before the annual 1st July protests, the Communist Party passed a new security law which criminalises “secession, subversion, organisation and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security”. In effect, this made anti-government protests illegal in Hong Kong and across the country. Hong Kongers, who have long been antipathetic towards the Communist regime, are now severely limited in the ways they can express dissent and frustration, leading to concerns from the international community that the “second system” is being swallowed by the other.
According to reports, some protestors scattered joss papers – traditionally burned at Chinese funerals – across the streets, to symbolise the apparent death of “two systems”. At least ten people were arrested on the day, including a man who held a Hong Kong independence flag. Dozens of civilians were arrested for their participation in pro-democracy activist groups.
The pandemic gave Chinese authorities some restbite from the tension in Hong Kong, as the public largely observed safety measures and stayed at home, and large gatherings including protests became banned on public health grounds. Armed with face masks, however, thousands of protestors took to the streets in opposition to the new security law, facing water cannons, tear gas and pepper-ball bullets from the police.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson described China’s enactment of the security law on Hong Kong as a “clear and serious breach” of the Joint Declaration made some thirty-five years ago, and moved to make it easier for Hong Kongers to live and work in the UK, with a view to applying for citizenship.
Thousands of kilometres apart, and different in all but sovereignty, Hong Kong and Xinjiang are suffering much the same fate under a bullish Chinese government. Both, allegedly “semi-autonomous regions”, too. President Xi’s regime may have distanced itself from the famine- and poverty-inducing communism of the 1960s, but it is no less totalitarian, and no more apologetic to anyone who dare dissent.
Chinese troops patrol the grey areas around the national boundary, looking to cement control over territories on the Indian border. In May, when Chinese soldiers walked around the shared Pangong Tso lake, soldiers from both countries threw stones at one another and engaged in fist fights. Such skirmishes have happened at least two times since, and while they are isolated, non-lethal incidents, the Beijing government is not exactly ordering their troops to proceed with caution when tredding on other countries’ land.
Beyond South East Asia, where the government is less inclined to use police and military force to take control, China exercises its economic might by investing large sums in foreign markets and donating to developing countries. The People’s Republic has a history of lending money, first to fellow communist causes, like in Cuba and Laos. In the mid-20th century, communism was a serious force, taking root across the globe, knocking on the doors of Western Europe and North America. China, meanwhile, was a mediocre power with grand ambitions; its donations didn’t amount to much, itself being funded by Russia. Now, though, communism exists only as a memory – an irrelevance – the word a reminder of a distant past – whereas China finds itself centre-stage. Its economy comprises one-fifth of the global total, and the same applies to its population, too. It is unsurprising, then, that China’s ambitions stretch far beyond the Great Wall.
As part of a wider “Going Global” strategy, China’s government encourages businesses and corporations to invest in projects abroad. Where the West has long seen a burden, China sees a golden opportunity. Africa is the poorest continent, but also the fastest growing. As electrical supplies, transport links, education and other socioeconomic factors improve, the continent will see millions of well-paying jobs into existence. Market towns will become bustling urban metropolises, fishing villages will become important trading ports and slums will become rising cities. The continent is undergoing an economic boom, just as China did mere decades ago. In Africa, China sees a younger version of itself.
China wants to capitalise on this growth by investing in infrastructure, like railways and power plants, and civic buildings like the African Union headquarters, and even the Zimbabwean parliament. Financial experts suspect that twelve countries owe China over 20 percent of their GDP, including Niger, Zambia and the Republic of Congo. China wants to position itself as the preferred trading partner, not just for importing and exporting commodities, but financial assets too.
If China doesn’t become the outright global superpower, it will at least vie with America for the top spot. It is capable of bullying minnows, like underdeveloped and sparsely-populated Xinjiang, or minuscule Hong Kong, or buying into the growth of developing nations like Nigeria. But if China wants the respect and confidence of other developed powers, to be seen as a responsible global player, it must first learn to respect its own people. After all, it’s the people – the forgotten and the voiceless – that communism promises to serve.