While nations worldwide were busy dealing with health care and economic crises caused by the Wuhan virus pandemic, Beijing is exploiting the attendant confusion to tighten its control over Hong Kong and the South China Sea.
Beijing Tightens Its Grip on Hong Kong
Since summer 2019, an extradition bill that would have eroded Hong Kong’s judicial independence ignited the city’s pro-democracy movement. The spread of the coronavirus added a new dimension to the movement in 2020. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam faced widespread criticism for her refusal to shut down Hong Kong’s border with mainland China. Medical unions led a number of strikes in February to condemn what’s perceived as Lam’s failure to proactively protect health and public safety in Hong Kong.
In response to Hong Kong’s ongoing unrest, Beijing announced in the same month that Xia Baolong, a protégé of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, would be the new director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), an administrative agency Beijing established to represent its interests and coordinate political and economic policies among Beijing, Hong Kong, and Macau. Xia is infamous for ruthless persecutions of underground churches in the Zhejiang province. Putting such a hard-liner in charge suggests Xi wants to further tighten Beijing’s chokehold on Hong Kong.
Not surprisingly, shortly after Xia reported to his new post, the Hong Kong government arrested outspoken media mogul Jimmy Lai, two pro-democracy lawmakers, and a union leader in late February 2020 for participating in what the government deemed an “illegal” protest on Aug. 31, 2019. The arrests were just the beginning of retribution from Beijing.
On April 18, 2020, Hong Kong police made another round of targeted arrests, including Martin Lee, the “father of democracy” in Hong Kong because he co-founded its Democratic Party in 1994, as well as 14 other activists and former legislators for their roles in what the authorities called “unlawful protests” from August to September 2019. People familiar with their cases said Hong Kong authorities might build on these cases and plan for more arrests in the future, meaning more persecution of protesters is on the way. Critics called these waves of arrests a “Beijing-sanctioned political persecution.”
Besides increasing arrests, HKMAO, which mostly refrained from commenting on Hong Kong’s legislative issues in the past, openly condemned Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers’ filibustering as “adopting dirty tricks to paralyze the operation of the legislative body” and accusing these lawmakers of the “breaching of the [Legislative Council] oath.” Dennis Kwok, one of the pro-democracy lawmakers singled out by HKMAO, issued a rebuttal, reminding Beijing that “under the one country, two systems policy, no mainland units can interfere with Hong Kong’s internal affairs.”
Initially, it seemed even Lam thought Beijing had gone too far this time. Her office issued a statement, pointing out that the HKMAO is covered by Article 22 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which states, “[N]o mainland departments may interfere in the affairs which Hong Kong administers on its own in accordance with the mini-constitution.”
However, within hours after the HKMAO escalated the war of words, stating it does not abide by the Basic Law and has the right to interfere with Hong Kong’s affairs, Lam’s office retracted her initial statement. Instead she said she agreed with HKMAO’s interpretation and removed any reference to Article 22 from her second statement. Outraged pro-democracy lawmakers condemned Lam for “betraying Hong Kong” in her flip-flop and sowing confusions among Hong Kongers.
Hong Kong authorities kowtowing to Beijing and Beijing’s increasing interference in Hong Kong political affairs have already cost the city dearly. Its economy suffered a contraction in 2019, and the downward trend continues in 2020.
Recently, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission informed Google the company could use the Pacific Light Cable Network System link between the United States and Taiwan, but was not authorized to use the U.S.-Hong Kong section due to national security concerns. As Hong Kong becomes more and more like another city under the iron fist of the Communist Party, more foreign companies will take their businesses elsewhere and more foreign governments might rescind their past favorable treatment, which will devastate the city’s future.
China Is Aggressive in the South China Sea
The South China Sea is one of the busiest trading routes in the world, with an estimated $3.4 trillion worth of global trade as well as a third of global shipping passing through the area. The region is rich with natural resources such as oil, gas, and minerals. It also accounts for 10 percent of the world’s fisheries and has provided food and a way of living for millions.
Multiple countries, including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, have been in disputes of their claims in this region for years. When Xi became Communist China’s supreme leader in 2012, he regarded transforming China into a maritime power as a key component to his great Chinese rejuvenation. He personally decided to build artificial islands in the region and expand China’s presence. Today, China claims the majority of the South China Sea is under its jurisdiction, a claim none of its neighbors accept and which the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled as unlawful.
Beijing rejected the Hague’s ruling and has continued its aggression in the South China Sea, even in the midst of the coronavirus. On April 3, a Chinese coast guard ship collided with a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands and captured its eight crew members and two other fishing boats which came to its rescue.
China blamed the Vietnamese fishing boat for intruding into China’s territory and causing the incident. But in truth, these Vietnamese were fishing in their own internationally recognized exclusive economic zone. On the other hand, Chinese coast guard ships and Chinese fishing boats frequently travel illegally inside other countries’ exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea, harassing other fishermen and oil-drilling operations.
Shortly after this incident, a Chinese government-owned scientific exploration ship, protected by heavily guarded coast guard vessels, was reportedly surveilling the sea bed in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and later tagging an exploration vessel belonging to Malaysia’s state oil company in that country’s exclusive economic zone.
Sansha, the city China established in 2012 to administer the contested water, announced in April 2020 that it would establish two administrative districts despite multiple claims in the same region by other neighboring nations. The Xisha District will be based in Woody Island and manage the Paracels and Macclesfield Bank. The Nansha District will be based in the Fiery Cross Reef and manage the Spratly Islands and surrounding waters. Both the Woody Island and Fiery Cross Reef used to be uninhibited small geographical features, but now China has transformed them into man-made islands with an abundance of runways and radars.
Beijing Is Exploiting the Pandemic
Beijing’s aggression confirms its neighbors’ fear that the Chinese Communist Party is fully committed to fulfill its great power ambition regardless of the legitimate concerns and livelihood of other states. The U.S. State Department released a strongly worded statement, accusing Beijing of using the coronavirus as a cover to “assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea,” and calling for China to “cease its bullying behavior and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilizing activity.”
It seems Beijing considers the pandemic a strategic opening: While other nations are tied up with their resources and diverting their attention to the outbreak, Beijing could tighten its control in Hong Kong and the South China Sea without drawing too much international scrutiny and backlash. Beijing probably figured that by the time the pandemic is over, it will have already created enough control on the ground that it will be too difficult for any nation to challenge it. Such motives behind Beijing’s logic are dangerous.
China’s official first-quarter GDP showed that its economy contracted by 6.8 percent on a year-on-year basis. It was the first negative economic growth the Chinese government reported since 1976, the end of Chairman Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution.
It’s well known that China’s economic data is unreliable because provincial officials have strong incentives to fudge numbers to present an overly rosy economic picture, as their political advancements are closely linked with their provincial economic performance. Therefore, we can only imagine that the severity of its economic fallout from the two-month coronavirus-related lockdown is much worse.
To climb out of this deep economic slump, China now needs the rest of the world more than ever, which will be difficult given worldwide anger and frustration over Beijing’s mishandling of the outbreak in the early weeks. Beijing’s aggression in matters regarding Hong Kong and the South China Sea do not build goodwill and will only drive international partners away, further isolating China economically and politically from the rest of the world.