China Gets it Wrong

China is in the unique position of laying claim to three regions directly outside its borders, at least according to the people who live there, whose citizens mostly would like nothing more than to have China leave them alone. They are Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet, at least the Tibet that existed prior to the 1950 invasion.

Since the beginning of this century, China has been on an intensive campaign to make nice, through such bodies as the Confucius Institutes, some 440 of which have been established on campuses across the world to promote Chinese interests. In recent days, Beijing has announced it is going to shake up its propaganda apparatus to make it more effective. But in the regions closest to its borders, nothing has worked.

If China had hoped to demonstrate its soft power to the world, it appears to have been tone-deaf beyond belief. The recent events in Hong Kong, in which the mainland heavy-handedly told the city that Beijing and Beijing alone would in effect pick the candidates for the next election of the city’s chief executive in 2017, have only served to exacerbate the situation and told its neighbors to forget about any way but the China way.

In Taiwan last week, as Asia Sentinel correspondent Jens Kastner reported, when President Ma Ying-jeou said Hong Kong would receive the “full backing of the Taiwanese people,” the Taiwan Affairs Office answered back with a blast that Ma was speaking of “a minority of people” trying to “tarnish the one country, two systems policy, damage Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity and hamper the development of the cross-strait relationship.”

Support for the mainland, as Kastner wrote, has fallen sharply. Despite the signing of at least 20 trade agreements that are largely favorable to Taiwan, a July poll conducted by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council found that only 33.4 percent of Taiwanese surveyed thought the Chinese government was friendly toward the Taiwanese, while 50.3 percent believed it to be unfriendly. Taiwan’s youth are even less enthusiastic about a close relationship.

Reunification thus seems farther away than ever. China had counted on the so-called “lips and teeth” relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland to encourage a closer relationship with Taiwan. That appears off the cards for now. The same appears true in Hong Kong, where in 2003 Beijing gifted the territory with a dramatically favorable trade pact called the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement that turned around the city’s terms of trade. In addition, China allowed for the unlimited entry to Hong Kong of mainland tourists, who reached 42 million in 2013, propped up the consumer economy – and managed to seriously irritate the locals, who call them locusts.

In Tibet, at least 131 men and women have set themselves afire in protest not only because of China’s occupation of their land but because of their subsequent treatment, despite the fact that China, since invading in 1949, has poured hundreds of billions of renminbi into development, including for railways, hydropower stations, mines, gas and oil transmission tube lines, schools, hospitals and roads and streets. The Tibetan answer is to set themselves ablaze in a vain attempt to shame them into leaving. The Chinese answer has been to blame the Dalai Lama for the immolations.

What Beijing seems not able to understand is that regardless of the economic uplift, regardless of the billions spent to try to placate the three regions, they are regarded as unwelcome visitors to territories not their own, and neither Myanmar nor Vietnam trusts them much more. That holds true largely throughout the Southeast Asian region, where China’s intransigence with its “nine-dash line” pushes Chinese hegemony over the South China Sea virtually to its neighbors’ doorsteps while at the same time China is trying to cultivate approval by serving up significant infrastructure projects across the region

There seems a Han mindset that is solipsistic and incapable of believing any other point of view is possible. It is a point of view that said the mainland's Catholic Church could supersede the one founded in Rome 2,000 years ago. It is a point of view that impelled the internal colonization of Xinjiang, where the oppressed Uyghurs have started what amounts to their own Intifada. In Inner Mongolia, there is a less-publicized desire for autonomy. It is a point of view that allowed China to imprison Tibetan Buddhism’s Panchen Lama and create its own despite the fact that ostensibly Tibet’s religious leaders are carefully discovered after months, sometimes years, of searching for the reincarnated one.

China’s current leader once spent two weeks on a Muscatine, Iowa farm as a teenager. On his elevation to the presidency, his seemingly amiable smile and the experience of a democratic system led many in the west naively believe he would be a liberal as China’s president. That was a forlorn hope at best. Xi is backed by 4,000 years of Chinese history – and 65 years of Marxism – that made him what he is. Soft power and billions in aid don’t seem to be producing any significant gains.

For one thing, China seems unable to see beyond its own parochial interests. Until it does, it is not going to win hearts and minds unless, as a US general in Vietnam once suggested, it gets them by the balls and their hearts and minds are dragged along.

Three examples stand out. When Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda struck the Visayas region of the Philippines last November, killing 6,300 people and doing U$3.5 billion worth of property damage, the US 7tn Fleet was there almost immediately, providing medical care, organizing relief and playing an invaluable role. China, just across the South China Sea, took days to send a paltry amount of aid.

Second, when Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in one of the most puzzling losses of an aircraft in history, 152 Chinese passengers were among the 227 aboard the plane. The US and Australia were almost immediately on the scene, providing help and search ships. China’s immediate response was late and surly, announcing it had found a large chunk of the plane in the South China Sea only to have it turn out to be a piece of unidentifiable flotsam at a time when the plane apparently was thousands of kilometers away in the Indian Ocean. Beijing continued to browbeat Malaysian officials, allowing passengers’ relatives to run riot against the Malaysian embassy in Beijing.

In the wake of the March, 2011 Fukushima Earthquake that devastated the east coast of Japan, the US military deployed a carrier group off the coast, including the USS Ronald Reagan, 19 naval vessels, 18,000 personnel and 140 aircraft as “Operation Tomodachi [Friends] ” was launched. There is no indication that China responded at all.

This is not to make a case for the US’s obviously more robust approach to aid, nor is it possible for the US to take the moral high ground on subjugation of minorities, having virtually obliterated its own Native Americans by the millions. But these are examples of how China, seeking to become a global superpower, is unable to see beyond its own interests. Its treatment of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, and the response of their peoples, should tell the leaders in Zhongnanhai that they have to rethink what propaganda is, and soft power, if they are to gain the region’s trust.