Why it's in Beijing's interest to preserve HK autonomy

August 01, 2019 10:18
Beijing must tread with great care in its management of Hong Kong and make sure that the territory retains its special status. Photo: Bloomberg

Last week Australia's education ministry announced that the government is investigating whether deals between 13 universities and the Confucius Institutes breached new foreign interference laws.

Over the last 15 months, at least 15 Confucius Institutes on US campuses have closed. Set up in 2004, the Confucius Institute program is China’s most high profile initiative to project itself as a cultured country with long-standing, respected values. Its recent problems are one of many setbacks China has faced in promoting its soft power worldwide.

Australia has accused China of infiltrating local politics. A recent book by Clive Hamilton is called “Silent Invasion—China’s Influence in Australia”. Recently, the FBI said that China posed more of an espionage threat to the US than any other country, including Russia. Prominent Chinese scientists have been dismissed from US universities on suspicion of passing to China confidential research without authorization.

All this negative publicity has come despite colossal spending. China has disbursed billions of dollars to project its soft power around the world. Xinhua, the state news agency, aims to open 200 bureaus by 2020 – the Associated Press has 254. The state-run CGTN, a rebranding of CCTV for international audiences, is hiring around the world. Chinese interests have bought stakes in many foreign media firms, sometimes purchasing them outright.

But, in the West, this effort has failed.

Those in charge of the propaganda campaigns have huge budgets but have to operate within the narrow political constraints set by their masters in Beijing. These work fine in the mainland but do not convince audiences in the West. There cannot be, for example, any discussion of the future of Taiwan, Xinjiang or Tibet.

In this battle to win the minds and hearts of people around the world, the Hong Kong protests – except for the violence – have aroused widespread sympathy. As parliamentarians and the public around the world watch on television hundreds of thousands marching for withdrawal of the extradition bill, they were touched. Britain, the US and the EU have called on China to restrain its use of force in Hong Kong.

In July, Time magazine named Hong Kong's protesters among its 25 most influential people on the Internet, putting the movement alongside the likes of US President Donald Trump, Korean boy-band BTS and Britain's Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

In this high-stakes game of international opinion, Hong Kong is a very strong card for Beijing. A sensible, peaceful approach to solving Hong Kong's conflict will win big points for China internationally. It will balance the unfavorable publicity Beijing has received in recent years.

Hong Kong's economic value to China has declined because of the mainland's own economic rise. However, the territory continues to provide many benefits which no Chinese city can match.

Foreigners like to come here. No visa is required for citizens of many countries; visitors can say, read and listen to what they want, access any Internet site and do not expect their telephone to be tapped or e-mails monitored.

This role will become more important as the Sino-US conflict intensifies. Washington is refusing visas to many Chinese officials and scholars it suspects, rightly or wrongly, of spying. Some already there have had their contracts terminated and have chosen to return home.

The next step may be to limit access of Chinese companies, especially state ones, to US capital markets. The next American president, be it Trump or someone else, is likely to continue these anti-China policies.

In this scenario, Hong Kong will return to the role it played for China during the Cold War – a place where Chinese can easily meet non-Chinese, do business and conduct joint research. If they cannot raise funds in the US, Chinese firms will be able to do that in Hong Kong.

All this means that Beijing must tread with great care in its management of Hong Kong and make sure that the territory retains its special status.

That was evident in Beijing on Monday in a news conference by the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of China's State Council. Spokesman Yang Guang’s amiable manners were vastly different from the harsh posture of his predecessors; he was very restrained in his language. He did not voice support for the extradition bill nor criticize the idea of an independent inquiry into police handling of the protests.

He did not use the word ‘rioters’ (暴徒) to describe the most violent of the protestors.

Monday was also the day of the funeral of ex-Chinese premier Li Peng, and cremation at the Babaoshan cemetery in Beijing. The handling of the student protests in Beijing in spring 1989 – led by Li Peng -- is a negative example which the government is keen to avoid.

The military crackdown led to years of diplomatic boycott by Western countries. The image of an armless Chinese citizen trying to block a PLA tank left an inedible mark on the world’s conscience.

If Beijing sends the PLA onto the streets of Hong Kong, it would be a greater catastrophe. The level of resistance of the Hong Kong people would be high; deaths are likely – all to be broadcast live worldwide.

It would also spell the end of any hope of peaceful reunification with Taiwan and ensure the re-election of Tsai Ying-wen in the presidential election in January 2020, the outcome Beijing least wants.

Today the outlook seems bleak – a Hong Kong leader arrogant and self-righteous and refusing to listen to the voice of her people: and the public intent on making her change her mind.

One writer, Liang Jing (梁京), summed up the situation well, in an article in Radio Free Asia:

“Compared to society in the mainland, Hong Kong has been deeply influenced by the British rule of law and culture of autonomy. In the face of all kinds of extremism and radicalism, Hong Kong has a much stronger internal ability for self-restraint. These social qualities and cultural resources are exactly what China needs in the 21st century to build a new order. They are the most precious.”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.