Saturday 21 September 2019

Beijing's quiet encroachment part of relentless pursuit of dominance

Clashes: Police fire tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters against a proposed extradition bill. Photo: Reuters
Clashes: Police fire tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters against a proposed extradition bill. Photo: Reuters

Con Coughlin

Hong Kong's political crisis should be seen as a salutary lesson in the absolute determination of Beijing's autocratic regime to get its own way, irrespective of the international condemnation its policies may attract.

Ever since Britain left in 1997, successive regimes in Beijing have been quietly encroaching on the quasi-autonomous political system that was bequeathed to the people.

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Chris Patten, who enjoyed a fractious relationship with his Chinese counterparts during his ill-tempered tenure as governor in the 1990s, voiced serious concerns that, once Britain's imperial sojourn had ended, Hong Kong would be vulnerable to Beijing's irredentist designs.

Back then, as now, there was little appetite in Britain for any confrontation with China that, given the latter's overwhelming military superiority, it had little prospect of winning. So the farewell ceremonies were conducted in the hope that China would honour its commitment to respect the territory's distinct status, rather than seek to subject it to Beijing's diktat.

To judge by the massive demonstrations in Hong Kong in recent days, Beijing is palpably pursuing the latter option which, given the centralising nature of President Xi Jinping's regime, can hardly have come as a surprise to residents.

Large demonstrations have become a regular feature of the territory during the past two decades as Hong Kongers like to flaunt their right to protest, a privilege denied to their Chinese compatriots.

There have even been occasions when the protests have achieved their objective, such as in 2003 when an estimated 500,000 people took to the streets to oppose a controversial national security bill, that resulted in the pro-Beijing authorities shelving the measure.

That was before Mr Xi emerged as the dominant force in China's Communist Party, accumulating power at home and seeking global dominance abroad.

Consequently, even though the latest protests - over plans by Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam to implement a controversial law allowing extradition to mainland China - have resulted in an estimated one million locals (around one fifth of the population) taking to the streets, they have little chance of making an impact on Beijing.

For Hong Kong, this is likely to result in yet another round of arbitrary arrests, with leading political activists mysteriously disappearing, as happened in the infamous case of Hong Kong's Causeway Bay Books in 2015, where five employees went missing, only to be discovered being held in detention in mainland China.

China's clumsy power grab in Hong Kong also needs to be viewed in the context of Beijing's wider activities, where its expansionist policies are in danger of putting it on a collision course with other world powers.

China's militarisation of the South China Sea, where it has established a network of bases, including airfields and missile launchers, on artificially created islands, has already put it at odds with the US, which has challenged their legality.

Similarly its much-vaunted "Belt and Road" initiative, which Beijing says is designed to boost global trade, has attracted controversy over claims that China has deliberately lured impoverished nations into taking out loans they can ill afford, thereby making them Chinese vassals in all but name.

Thirty years after China's communist elite signalled its determination to cling to power by crushing anti-government protests in Tiananmen Square, the regime's relentless pursuit of economic dominance has even prompted senior officials in the US administration to regard Beijing as posing an existential threat to world peace.

In Britain, there is a powerful constituency among senior Tories who to want to curb China with close trade ties.

The problem with this approach is that China cannot be trusted to observe the norms of international conduct. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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