The recent meeting of China’s National People’s Congress has thrown up a whole number of speeches preaching nationalism and anti-foreign sentiments. These are not policy – yet. But they indicate the direction in which China is continuing to move, regardless of its Trump-era claim to be a guardian of globalisation against trade barriers and economic nationalism.
Sentiments at the NPC are particularly significant coming before the meeting later this year of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party. This twice-a decade event will reflect how President Xi Jinping gets his own people into positions to replace retiring members of the Politburo and Central Committee, who in turn will provide the post-Xi leadership, assuming that he retires in 2022.
The nationalist rhetoric also comes at a time when the economy, though far from crisis, is likely to continue to grow at ever-slower rates, regardless of official promises. A static labor force and the difficulty of sustaining the productivity gains of the past would be an obstacle even were the government not emphasizing social stability and the importance of the Communist party’s role in enterprises over competition and private sector initiative.
Even without NPC rhetoric, the government is pushing ahead with crackdowns on dissent at home, and on foreign cultural influences, the latest being a campaign to cap the number of translations of foreign children’s books, including picture books.
Meanwhile at the NPC, some delegates launched an attack on Hong Kong’s continued use of some non-Chinese judges in its legal system. There were calls for the revision of the territory’s Basic Law, its mini-constitution, which provides for foreign appointments to its Court of Final Appeal, as well as to its lesser courts.
Nationalist outrage was particularly connected to the jail sentences handed down by a British judge to Hong Kong policemen guilty of the vicious beating – captured on video in the center of the city, of a demonstrator during the 2014 Umbrella movement. While it could be argued that the sentence was severe given the circumstances at the time, the accompanying personal attacks on the judge were specifically racist.
Some critics of the judiciary went so far as to argue that the whole basis of law in Hong Kong was British and therefore should be replaced with one compatible with China’s legal system. The separation of powers, giving the judiciary an ability to challenge the executive and the police was wrong, they charged. It should be up to the police to determine how to deal with demonstrators.
Such an attack on the legal system strikes at the heart of Hong Kong’s identity. And taken to its conclusion amounts to a police state – one where the police make as well as enforce the laws.
Steady erosion of Hong Kong’s separate status is anyway already official policy. In his work report to the NPC, Premier Li Keqiang argued for Hong Kong to be part of a “Greater Bay Area” encompassing much of Guangdong and akin to the New York or Los Angeles coastal areas. This is clearly not a vision of Hong Kong as “Asia’s World City” or a reflection of what most of its inhabitants want. As it is, Beijing’s interference in domestic issues has reached a new peak with its public pressure on the its 1,200 strong Election Committee to back its preferred candidate, Carrie Lam, a humor-short bureaucrat, for Chief Executive despite lagging far behind her main opponent in opinion polls.
It is not just Hong Kong which is the butt of nationalist and xenophobic talk inside and outside the NPC. Threats against Taiwan should it formally declare independence are nothing new. But voices are now being heard suggesting that China cannot wait forever for unification and should consider calling the US bluff and moving once it has built up its forces and economic clout to an overwhelming level.
Meanwhile South Korea has become the target in a move which shows China’s preference for power plays over open trade. The decision to deploy the US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Missile Defense) system has led to an explosion of angry Beijing rhetoric. Sanctions against one Korean firm in particular, Lotte, for the grave crime of selling a golf course as land for THAAD, an officially imposed sharp reduction in tourist visits to Korea, and veiled threats of broader economic retaliation.
By comparison, China’s criticism of North Korea’s behavior has been mild, despite adding the murder of Kim Jong Nam to Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear test challenges to regional stability.
Other countries may take heed and deem that encouraging hordes of Chinese tourists and trade deals brings short term benefits but longer term makes them subject to political pressures and general bullying which make a nonsense of open trade principles.
Nationalist and expansionist goals have also been on display as the NPC meets. After President Duterte threw away the Philippines’ landmark victory over China at the Court of Arbitration on South China Sea claims, China has turned its attention to another issue within the Philippines exclusive economic zone. This is the Banham Rise. Although some 200 kilometers off the east coast of Luzon, China is reported to have been surveying its hydrocarbon and mineral potential.
At the same time it has arrogated to itself the claim that the rise does not belong to Philippines. In other words, it can be exploited by China should it wish. This despite the fact that the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf have declared that it belongs to the Philippine EEZ and thus the Philippine has control over exploration.