China: A political view

Chinese Communist Party

I read Dr Mohamad Zreik[2] interesting and comprehensive article on the growth of China’s economy. It has come a long way since the days of Mao Tse Tung and the days of his communist experiment, the Long March, when millions died.

The years that followed Mao set the path from which the economy took off and it has succeeded impressively as Dr Zreik writes.

The Chinese also really went on a charm offensive, particularly if the country being ‘pursued’ had natural resources requiring to be exploited, e g Africa.

In the last ten years or so, once Xi Jinping became the head of the Party, he strengthened his base, to the extent that after he was completing his two terms as leader as per the constitution, when he would be stepping down, his base was strong enough for him to be considered again, this time as President for life.

In 1997, the British, in accordance with the agreement signed one hundred years earlier, under some duress it has to be said, handed Hong Kong back to China. Hong Kong largely unfettered by government, had developed into a highly successful trading hub and the citizens were somewhat apprehensive of the future under the hand of China.

They managed to secure a deal for 50 years that said there would be ‘one government, two systems’, which was interpreted as ‘business as usual’ by the Honkies as the people of Hong Kong are called. Unfortunately for them, Xi’s government had been turning more authoritarian if not dictatorial under his direction. It started with Beijing not liking the freedom of the press in Hong Kong and trying to suppress content especially that which was critical of Beijing in any way.

That, in turn brought out protests with students and the younger generation demonstrating in very large numbers. Tiananmen square being a remembered case in point. The demonstrations became larger and more riotous and the Chinese response became tougher with some more ardent of the opponents being jailed.

Carrie Lam latterly was appointed head of the legislative assembly (Legco) and she became the voice of Beijing much to protests and grumbles of the people. She has recently stepped aside and her appointed successor, John Lee, a retired police officer, is even more of a hard-liner, emphasising again the dictate of the Chinese government. There is no going back; one can say goodbye to the free-wheeling days of a democratic Hong Kong. Gone is the promise of 50 years with ‘one government, two systems’.

In the past decade, the plight of the 12 million Moslem Uighurs, who live in the western province of Xinjiang, has been brought to the fore although the Chinese authorities have tried to suppress their actions from outside view. The Uighurs are an embarrassment to Beijing and they perceive them as an internal Islamic threat to the Chinese government way, whether they are or not, probably not. They use this as a justification to their persecution of the Uighurs and brainwashing camps in the best Orwellian tradition. Beards and veils are banned.

Over the past few years, the Chinese have taken hold, somewhat by stealth, of the highly strategic Spratly Islands, which boast reserves of hydrocarbons and straddle shipping lanes to Northeast Asia. They have gradually been developing Islands with reclamation of dredged sand and establishing them into military outposts, although they said at the start they would not.

These islands, which lie closer to the eastern ASEAN countries – Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei – and which dispute the Chinese claim, and the ASEAN body itself are mildly alarmed at China spreading its reach. Furthermore, the USA is now paying closer attention to China’s ambitions. But possession is nine/tenths of the law as the old saying goes!

In recent days the Solomon Islands, which are based in the western Pacific among the many islands that are based there and historically tended to lean towards Australia signed an agreement with China and sent alarm bells off in Canberra, not that the recent defence pact which goes by the name of AUKUS – Australia, the UK and the US – pleases the Chinese.

With China stepping up their demands on absorbing Taiwan by 2025, the people of Taiwan are rightly concerned. For over 70 years they have managed to follow an independent path, ever since Chiang Kai Shek fled there with his supporters after losing the fight to control China to Mao’s communists in the days following WWII.

With US help the country has developed into a prosperous independent state. Now the eyes of Xi are on taking it back under direct authoritarian control, as per Hong Kong, after the Qing dynasty handed over the island of Formosa albeit with reluctance to the Empire of Japan at the treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, following their war.

Economy is concentrated confidence

Again, in the last few years, China’s economy has grown and with it the confidence this engenders. It has proposed a modern version of the old Silk Road by which China was connected to the countries to the west. Marco Polo, the 13th/14th century merchant and explorer, used this route to link up Venice in the Mediterranean to the Mongol court of Kublai Khan in China. He spent considerable time at the court of the emperor and brought back an understanding of Chinse ways and products to the west. 

Xi Jinping raised this opportunity in 2013 as the Belt & Road Initiative but it is slow to take off, understandably as it involves several countries. However, a long goods train has shown that it can be done, a journey time of 4 days between Xian and Rotterdam. It could save considerable time compared with sea transport, but there are many political and relatable administrative questions to be answered first.

The focus had to be changed dramatically, however, when President Vladimir Putin invaded his neighbour, after saying that his war games close to the border with Ukraine should not be interpreted as anything more than that, on 24th February this year. Just before, he attended the beginning of the Winter Olympic Games, held this year at Beijing. He met with Xi to discuss his intentions for the war, or special military operation as he calls it.

Putin was convinced that he was going to win quickly and would give that impression. He wanted China to understand that he had to go to war to defend his country and wanted China to watch his back. Having obtained sufficient assurances, he returned to Moscow and ordered the invasion.

Now he is still fighting as the Ukrainians have put up unexpected stiff resistance, and NATO countries, although not directly involved since Ukraine is not a member, is helping Ukraine with arms; and mercenaries are also lending their support. A long war is now the threatened outcome with the Russian bear losing and embarrassed. Before that, will Putin survive?

Putin says he was always concerned about having the defence alliance of NATO, which was only put into effect to counter Russian expansion at the end of WWII, against the border with Russia, and Ukraine, rightly fearful of their neighbour’s intentions, had made noises about joining NATO. NATO is now on high alert and other countries are likely to join – Sweden and Finland. Putin now has the very response he was hoping to avoid.

But what can China take from this? China should realise now that for its expansionist aims across the world, little help will come from Russia. They have been tested and found wanting. Xi can now plan accordingly and provided he can resolve his other problems, including his handling of the omicron variation of the coronavirus, which is being watched, for instance by the WHO, he will be free to exercise his plans of which Taiwan is on the medium-term horizon. The one ’good’ thing of the Ukraine situation is that the NATO countries are now awake from their peacetime slumber. Or so we would hope.

About the author:

Dr J Scott Younger, OBE, is a professional civil engineer; he spent 42 years in the Far East undertaking assignments in 10 countries for WB, ADB, UNDP.  He published many papers; he was a columnist for Forbes Indonesia and Globe Asia. He served on British & European Chamber boards and was a Vice Chair of Int’l Business Chamber for 17 years. His expertise is infrastructure and sustainable development and he takes an interest in international affairs. He is an International Chancellor of the President University, Indonesia. He is a member of IFIMES Advisory Board. Lived and worked in Thailand from 1978 to 1983 and visited Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal for projects.

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