The year 2019 was to be an incredible one for China: lavish events were organised to celebrate 70 years of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), that Chairman Mao, after winning a bloody war against the Nationalist forces, had announced from the rostrum of Tiananmen Square.
On October 1, 2019, President Xi Jinping was on the same wavelength as his predecessor: “No force can ever undermine China’s status, or stop the Chinese people and nation from marching forward.”
Those who watched some 15,000 troops from 59 units, 47 belonging to the ground forces and a dozen airborne squadrons, could not doubt say that China has arisen. Also on display that day was the DF-17 hypersonic ballistic missile (a hypersonic glide vehicle that can deliver both nuclear and conventional payloads) or a new-generation road-mobile DF-41, intercontinental missiles, which can reach the US, and several other futuristic gadgets.
Many examples could be given to show that China is doing well. In terms of defence for example: the website Aerospace & Defence reported: “While the US Navy launches a handful of destroyers each year, the single image of a Shanghai shipyard shows nine newly constructed Chinese warships. China’s Navy is modernising at an impressive rate. A key ingredient is the construction of a fleet of large destroyers, amphibious warships and aircraft carriers.” Not far away, China, which already has two carriers, works on the next-generation carrier (known as Type-003), with electromagnetic catapults similar to the latest US ones.
It is believed that in the same shipyard, a “sailless” submarine is being built; according to Forbes: “This submarine is a unique design that has no sail to speak of. All other submarines have this fin-like structure rising up from the middle of the deck where the periscope goes.”
Examples could be multiplied: quantum communication, supercomputers, artificial intelligence, new warning and reconnaissance abilities and so on.
That’s for the bright side.
But all is not well in the Middle Kingdom. In October, the BBC commented: “Modern China has since developed at an extraordinary pace, but it is also one of the world’s most restrictive states. The celebrations were overshadowed as thousands took to Hong Kong’s streets, with some violent clashes breaking out.”
Take the fourth plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee finally held in Beijing from October 28 to 31; it took place after a delay of more than a year to discuss the Chinese economy — this long postponement is not a healthy sign. During the plenum, it was openly admitted that China faces many challenges, the communique mentioned: “the complicated situation of increasing risk challenges at home and abroad.”
The gathering upheld the principle of “one country, two systems”, and of “maintaining lasting prosperity and stability in Hong Kong and Macao, and promoting the peaceful reunification of China”.
At that time, China was certainly not expecting a “tsunami” in favour of the pro-democracy movement, which won 392 out of 452 seats in Hong Kong’s local elections: the anti-Beijing candidates took control of 17 out of 18 district councils.
Beijing was left speechless. According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP): “Xinhua waited [a day] to release a two-paragraph news report on the polls, stating only that the elections took place and ‘18 districts produced results’”. The People’s Daily just mentioned the history of US intervention in foreign elections.
To make things worse for Mr Xi, on November 16, the New York Times published excerpts of 403 pages of internal classified documents with dreadful new details on China’s crackdown on Xinjiang.
The documents provide an unprecedented insider’s view on the clampdown and particularly the internment camps, where more than one million Muslims are kept. According to the New York Times: “Senior party leaders are recorded ordering drastic and urgent action against extremist violence, including the mass detentions, and discussing the consequences with cool detachment.”
At the end of August 2016, Chen Quanguo, the then party secretary in Tibet, was sent to Xinjiang to “pacify” the restive Muslim region. Mr Chen had “managed” well on the Roof of the World. Three years later, Mr Chen has transformed Xinjiang into a vast camp (either called “concentration” by the West or “vocational” by China).
In Tibet, Mr Chen had implemented powerful slogans such as “Social Management”, “Comprehensive Rectification”, “Preventive Control”, “Eliminate-Unseen-Threats”, “Nets-in-the-Sky-Traps-on-the-Ground” or “Copper-Ramparts-Iron Walls”; the latter one for example, translates into “an impenetrable public security defence network consisting of citizen patrols, border security posts, police checkposts, surveillance systems, Internet controls, identity card monitoring, travel restrictions, informant networks and other mechanisms”.
China seems today to be caught in a vicious circle of repression and does not have a solution to come out of it.
Though China and the United States have now reached an agreement in their trade negotiations, which should temporarily stop the trade war, many issues remain unsolved, simply because China’s economy is not in good shape, though Wang Shouwen, the Chinese vice-minister of commerce, announced that the agreement would cover a wide range of issues, including intellectual property protection, technology transfer or purchase of agricultural products.
In the meantime, Beijing’s propaganda has become more hyperactive than ever. The South China Morning Post observed: “While more Chinese diplomats and embassies have activated Twitter accounts, they have entered a cold new world.” But this does not help as most of China’s neighbours are getting tired of Beijing’s bullying tactics.
During a forum on Strengthening National Security for Taiwan and Japan held in Taipei on December 14, Adm. Hideaki Kaneda, a retired officer from Japan’s maritime self-defence force, openly called for a strategic partnership between Japan, the US and Taiwan to counter China’s growing influence in the region. The admiral noted that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had long been preparing for military action against Taiwan, simulating attacks on the presidential office, strategic Taiwan ports, and even streets.
Mr Kaneda suggested that, to start with, Taiwan should be included in the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief training (HADR) of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), an international maritime warfare exercise.
Emmanuel Lenain, the French ambassador to India, has recounted in an article that before taking his post in September, President Emmanuel Macron briefed him, and his first task was “to consolidate Indo-Pacific ties based on shared values and principles”. Obviously, China is not always “sharing” international recognised values on the ground (or on the seas).
Last month, French Navy Chief Adm. Christophe Prazuck asserted: “There are different behaviours in the South China Sea… We go there, we will still go there, and we will continue to go there and we continue to, and by our action, support freedom of navigation.”
This trend of other nations asserting their “core” interests will not stop next year, and China will have to learn to live with it. And if President Xi does not want a coalition of nations against China to emerge, in his own words: “we will continue to work with people from all countries to push for jointly building a community with a shared future for humanity,” will need to be more than mere propaganda words. This is the challenge for China in 2020.