China: A dream too big to fail

Whatever it takes, the Communist Party will not let Chinese capitalism fall

Published on Backbench on 20th July 2015.

‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was how Deng Xiaoping, the leader who reformed and opened up China’s economy, described his vision for the country.

Earlier this month, with the stock market in meltdown, China’s economy was closer to capitalism with socialist characteristics. With trillions of dollars down the drain, the government fisted its very visible hand at the market violently. Over 50% of stocks were suspended, as state-owned companies were barred from selling their shares. The Communist Party was fighting to save capitalism.

Some have compared today’s China to the Wall Street Crash in 1929. I believe Chinese investors will seek comfort in an example of successful state intervention closer to its historic and geographical proximity – Hong Kong during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis – when the government there took decisive action and protected its currency from speculators led by George Soros, who ‘broke the Bank of England’ with currency speculation just five years before.

For sure, China’s heavy handed approach has deviated from its expected direction of travel towards a more liberal economy. However, as the Chinese Communist Party legitimises itself by performance, the political incentive to intervene always overrides the economics. With more stock traders than Communist Party members now in China, the Party cannot afford to upset a market that only expects gains, irrational as it may be, for the sake of its survival.

When I visited China just over a month ago, it was a different world. The China Dream was going global, with the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the emergence of ‘One Belt, One Road’. We were told about the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ as we were greeted by officials. 2015 was destined to be China’s year.

In particular, the establishment of the AIIB itself was a resounding political win for Beijing. Britain’s determined entry to the AIIB, against the wishes of Washington, was the game changer, as only then did other western countries follow suit. This is a personal achievement no smaller for Chancellor George Osborne than his landmark Budget last week.

By contrast, last week’s intervention by the Chinese government will damage confidence in the nation, and cast doubt over President Xi Jinping’s ability and seriousness about carrying out essential economic reforms, the building block of his China Dream. In a recent report published earlier this month, the World Bank warned China over its ‘distorted incentives’ in the financial market, and highlighted that 95% of high-level bank assets were owned by the government.

Pundits hostile to China have long expected an economic meltdown, followed by a political upheaval marking the collapse of the Communist Party. David Shambaugh, an authoritative academic on Chinese affairs, boldly claimed in January, that ‘the endgame of Chinese Communist rule has now begun… its (the Communist Party’s) demise is likely to be protracted, messy and violent.’

While I have criticised Beijing on a range of issues, from democracy in Hong Kong to the Tiananmen Massacre, I shall not jump on the apocalyptic bandwagon, as tempting as it may be.

The China Dream is too big to fail, and the authorities in Beijing know that their fate depends on it. A slump in the stock market will not kill the Communist Party, but a lack of reform in response to its deep rooted problems might do. The future of the Chinese Communist Party future will depend on which way it turns at this crossroads.


Gone not forgotten: 26 years on, it is all the more important that we remember what happened in Tiananmen

An edited version was published on Independent Voices on 4 June 2015. 

As night falls, our tour bus races on to Chang’an Avenue. The streetlights are slightly dimmed and tainted yellow. Barriers are everywhere, as if this country is perpetually on guard. Despite the neon lights and buzzing nightlife, it is a stomach churning feeling as I entered the city Beijing.

I have never been to the Chinese capital before, but these surroundings paint all too familiar a picture. This is the Beijing I recognise through documentaries and history books, the Tiananmen Square I travelled to many times through word of mouth and collective memory. This is the Beijing of 1989, where the People’s Liberation Army indiscriminately murdered students who protested for democracy during that feverish season.

I am in Beijing as part of an overseas Chinese delegation, invited by the Chinese government to exchange ideas over how best to support overseas Chinese. In truth, we all know there is a wider agenda at play, the narrative of ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ or ‘the China Dream’ – a phrase repeated at any given opportunity during the week-long trip, as we are showcased China’s latest innovation and most stunning sceneries.

This is President Xi JinPing’s flagship policy goal. It prioritises economic development and national strength over all other concerns, including human rights.

China’s only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate remains imprisoned, as rights activists are accused of overthrowing the state. The students of Tiananmen fall into the trashcan of history, and June 4th (known as ‘6.4’ in Chinese) propagated as an insignificant event in the shadow of the great achievements of the Communist Party.

Almost 2,000 kilometres away from Beijing, another battle for history and memory commences.

Over half a year since the beginning of the Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong, the only place in China where Tiananmen vigils can legally take place, splits over how best to commemorate June 4th.

The younger generation of activists, some of whom refuse to be defined as Chinese, reject their predecessor’s alignment of Hong Kong’s democratic movement with China’s, and instead see June 4th as a caution of the Chinese government’s brutality, rather than a common struggle with their mainland counterparts.

But back in mainland China, the freedom to debate how or if we should at all remember June 4th is an extravagance. In recent days, messages started flowing in on my WeChat (main social media app in China), warning people that the internet police and Baidu (China’s largest search engine) are joining hands in censorship. These messages cautioned users not to share any satirical images to avoid sanctions against individual accounts or groups.

This is the Big Brother state, only cooler and richer than George Orwell could ever envisage. Worse, people actually believe in it.

Across China, people are content with the Communist Party’s legitimacy by performance. China’s economic growth lifted millions out of poverty and put pride back in the nation’s soul. However, as the tides of nationalism sweep across history, the memory of Tiananmen is slowly fading away, before eventually being wiped out of existence altogether.

That is why, 26 years on, it is all the more important that we learn the lesson of history, and to one day fulfil the dreams of those brave souls that sacrificed in Tiananmen Square – a freer country where people can fill their stomachs as well as speak their minds, with no cruel choice presented between the two.


Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution might be over, but it doesn’t matter — the pro-democracy movement will only come back stronger

Published on Independent Voices on 15 December 2014.

The moment bailiffs started removing the barricades in Hong Kong’s occupied financial district, the Umbrella Revolution seemingly drew to a final close.

This was not the anticipated ending. When tear gas fogged the sky over Hong Kong in late September, politicians and protesters alike feared a Tiananmen-style crackdown, with the People’s Liberation Army ordering in their tanks. Or when the “counter-revolution” of pro-China gangs attacked and intimidated students, commentators speculated if the movement would be broken up by violence. Neither has happened.

Ironically, the movement was halted by what was its greatest strength – spontaneity. The moment students suddenly broke into the area outside government headquarters, the movement was destined to be defined by it. The willpower of individual protesters survived the infiltration and attacks from police, gangs and counterdemonstrations.

Yet without a unifying figure or strategy, the movement could go only so far. The occupy campaign camp to be perceived as too conservative and ineffective, especially by more radical factions. “[It] needs to be taken to a new level,” Wong Yeung-tat, the leader of Civic Passion, told The New York Times. “There needs to be escalation, occupation of more areas or maybe government buildings. The campaign at this stage has become too stable.”

Groups such as Civic Passion are much more openly anti-China. They speak the language of “autonomy” and “deciding our own fate”. They are confrontational and refuse to surrender to the police. And while they are far from representing mainstream public opinions, they have galvanised more clout and sympathy during the past two months than ever before.

This presents Beijing with a bigger problem than the one they feared. Before they vetted political candidates in August, the Chinese government faced a harmless minority of moderates, who espoused upon the ideals of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Now they face far more anti-authoritarian and uncompromising groups, whose ideologies are more akin to Malcolm X than Dr. King.

But the Communist Party is not the only loser. The police force in Hong Kong, long hailed as one of the best in the world (presiding over very low crime rate), are facing its toughest time in terms of citizen-police relations. While it took less than a day to reopen the roads, it will take much longer than that to wash away the horrific images of plainclothes policemen dragging a protester to a corner to beat him up, not to mention police hitting protesters with batons, pepper spray and tear gas indiscriminately – all alien to this city of stability.

There is also an unexpected guest on the list of losers. David Cameron was criticised by MPs for being “weak” over China’s ban on MPs to investigate how the protests were being handled. Under the Joint Declaration, Britain is the only guarantor Hong Kong has if China breaks its promise over democratisation and autonomy. Now that the worst case scenario has become reality, however, Downing Street has done next to nothing.

Although the occupations have now concluded, we certainly haven’t seen the last of the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Banners and signs saying “We will be back” were left behind by protesters. And when they return, it will be a new generation of youngsters, battle-hardened, uncompromising, and determined to put everything on the line for the sake of their future.

I recently spoke with someone who had stayed on the frontline. I asked them if the movement was too fragile, and what more can be done. “Worry not,” she said. “Hope lies not with us, but with these kids in school uniform. When they grow up, democracy will come to our city.”


Britain needs a Hong Kong policy

Published on Progress on 5 December 2014.

Seldom is Westminster this united. This week, as China threatens to bar British members of parliament from Hong Kong, parliamentarians condemn China in unison and urge the United Kingdom government to show more strength over Hong Kong’s democratic demands.

‘If you want to be a member of the G20, you have to behave like a member of the G20.’ Richard Ottaway, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, took aim at Beijing. The flame of fury burns across the political divide. China has ‘reneged’ on its commitments and ‘there is no other way of putting it’ said Tory John Baron, as Labour’s Mike Gapes mocked the Communist party for being ‘afraid’ ‘nervous’ and ‘worried’ over the MPs’ visit.

MPs are angry because this is not the first time China has insulted Britain recently. A week ago, China refused MP Richard Graham’s request for a visa over his unflinching support for the Umbrella Movement, forcing the cross-party delegation to abort their business trip. Even before the protests, China humiliated parliament by demanding MPs to halt their current review into post-handover Hong Kong, interfering in Britain’s ‘internal affairs’ – a phrase often used by Beijing to rebut criticisms by the west.

What are actually internal affairs of Hong Kong, however, are suffering from heavy interventions by China. Beijing barring MPs’ entry into Hong Kong illustrates once again the erosion of the city’s autonomy is not abating. As Ottaway stated, ‘immigration is a devolved matter … it’s not for China to ban them.’

China has, in effect, unilaterally declared the death of a solemn agreement it signed with Britain. As Chris Patten explained to the committee, whereas before 1997 Britain was obliged to China for a stable and peaceful handover, after this date ‘the obligations are now from China towards the UK’ on ensuring the completion of democratisation.

We need a Hong Kong policy, separate from our China policy. It must be clear and consistent in recognising Hong Kong’s unique status under the joint declaration. After all, Britain has an agreement with China over Hong Kong only, not Tibet or Taiwan. Hong Kong is a special case, where British interest does not amount to ‘interference’.

If David Cameron fails to deliver this policy, we should start thinking about this in the Labour party.

Hong Kong has been an awkward territory for Labour. It was Margaret Thatcher who signed the joint declaration, John Major who vowed to honour it, and Patten who threw himself into a tug of war with the Chinese for democratic progress in Hong Kong, of which many Hongkongers are still very grateful for.

For too long, we have turned a blind eye on China’s subversion of Hong Kong, as Labour ministers went along with Foreign Office officials’ strategy of avoiding conflicts with China at all cost. We, the party for the working people, should have been the first to denounce Beijing’s crony capitalism and the denial of Hong Kong people’s democratic rights.

We should also be creative in our foreign policy. For instance, why not get our message across via the European Union? As Tony Blair has repeatedly argued, ‘the rationale for Europe today is power.’ Surely we should leverage this power over an issue of this importance, and seek strength in our European allies?

Either way, Britain has a right and a responsibility to defend the seven million people it handed to China in 1997. Seventeen years on, with China breaking its promises, it is about time we remind ourselves of these obligations.


China-Japan relations analysis II: APEC shows two sides of the same coin

Published on Backbench on 21 November 2014.

Behind cold handshakes, both countries are realistic about the need to warm up relations. At the most recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, President Xi JinPing and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hinted what closer Chinese-Japanese relations might look like – with arguable the most awkward diplomatic handshake of all time.

‘There were no smiles or banter,’ reported International Business Times. ‘Instead, both men were stern-faced and when Abe attempted to speak to Xi, the latter simply turned away to face the cameras.’

It was no easy handshake. The two leaders were both playing to the public gallery domestic opinions, antagonised by the existence of the other, the root causes of which stretching back over a century. The PR stunt certainly paid off for Xi. Images of the handshake went viral on Weibo, an effort comparable to Kim Kardashian’s attempt to ‘break the internet’. There was even a drawing featuring Xi as Winnie the Pooh and Abe as Eeyore circulating online.

Nevertheless, the fact that a bilateral meeting between Abe and Xi took place at all is significant. The encounter was first of its kind in two years. It signals that, away from the cameras, both leaders are realistic and serious about repairing relations. So while we may see more of these cold hands from future Chinese presidents and Japanese premiers, the two country’s economic and security ties can simultaneously turn hot in years to come.

A closer look at public opinions in the second and third largest economies will help us understand the future of Asia-Pacific. Returning to the Genro/China Daily poll fromPart I of this analysis, we already know that both Chinese and Japanese publics anticipate military conflict with each other in the future. We also know that history – territorial disputes over Diaoyu/Senkaku, arguments over revisionist history textbooks, and Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine – is the root cause of anguish.

However, although the ghosts of history often obstruct optimism, they have not always been at the forefront of diplomatic relations. 81% of the Chinese public, for example, believed the two countries’ relations ‘will improve or will probably improve’ in 2008, at the height China’s glories embodied in the Beijing Olympics as the West slumped into recession. That number has now fallen to 17.7% [figure 1]. In contrast, those who see this troubled relationship going downhill now top any other group, standing just shy of half of the respondents. A similar trend was found in Japan, where 36.8% of the public are also sceptical about the future of the two nations, with a mere 8% still optimistic about improvements.

[figure 1]

That is not to say Chinese and Japanese disregard the indispensible nature of their two countries’ relations. Those who argue this relationship is ‘important or relatively important’ polled consistently high. Despite decline in recent years – probably due to China’s increasingly assertive stance in territorial disputes and the US’s ‘return to the Pacific’ – the percentage of people who believe in the importance of China-Japan relations still stand at 65% and 70.6% respectively [figure 2]. Regardless of their concerns over history, it appears that public opinion in both countries welcome cooperation on the basis of economic realities.

[figure 2]

In fact, that cold handshake does not reflect recent progress in China-Japan diplomacy at all. Days before the summit in Beijing, China and Japan agreed to a document to ease tensions over territorial disputes. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’sstatement did not waste any words in dressing up the controversial issue of territorial disputes. Instead, it announced that the two sides ‘agreed to prevent the situation from aggravating through dialogue and consultation and establish crisis management mechanisms to avoid contingencies.’

Further, there is a groundbreaking element in this document: the unprecedented step to go beyond economic ties and embrace each other in security partnership. ‘The two sides have agreed to gradually resume political, diplomatic and security dialogue through various multilateral and bilateral channels and to make efforts to build political mutual trust.’ This adds a new dimension to China-Japan relations and will dictate the fate of Asia-Pacific’s regional security.

Summing up these figures, it appears that China-Japan relations has promising potentials. It is essential that public opinion in the two countries favour more cooperation, without the pretext of detangling the complex web of history. People of both countries understand sensible talks are ongoing behind the PR stunts. The two countries may therefore return to a scene more familiar to observers before 1980s.

But that does paint a very rosy picture; the two countries still have some fundamental conflicts to contain. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s raison d’etre is the ‘national revival’ of the Central Kingdom – restoration of Chinese supremacy; whereas Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s platform is to build a ‘beautiful country’ – a lionised Japan. It will require absolute restrain and political wisdom from both sides to maintain peace and prosperity in this seemingly stable region. All that it takes is a single mistake made in either Beijing or Tokyo – such as a swing to accommodate ultranationalist sentiments, and the whole of Asia-Pacific will be condemned to chaos once again.

By Noah Sin

Coming Soon…

In the next piece of this three-part-analysis, Noah will examine the recent developments in the region, especially efforts by both Japan and China to woo India and Australia.

Extended Reading…

For a more in depth study of the document between China and Japan concerning economic and security cooperation, read this article by Shannon Tiezzi in The Diplomat.


Hong Kong Protests: As long as China keeps the door to democracy closed – the umbrellas will stay open

Published on Independent Voices on 16th October 2014.

After being filled with tear gas, the air briefly cleared in Hong Kong two weeks ago, when the government accepted students’ offer to engage in dialogue. The Umbrella Revolution was on course to a peaceful closure.

Then came the counter-revolution. Pro-China crowds, including thugs with criminal records, attacked protesters in an organised manner. Shameful police collaboration with these gangs further inflamed public outrage. They casually released suspects, even escorted some to public transport.

Subsequently, talks with the government were halted. But masked mobs continued to dismantle protesters’ barricades, some with knives in their hands. Hard won confidence in the police built over decades evaporated overnight. And the conclusion to this chapter of the former British colony’s history is nowhere in sight.

The Umbrella Revolution can only end with a political solution, for this is a political problem. Beijing wants to impose Iranian style democracy in Hong Kong. Hongkongers want real democracy and genuine universal suffrage. The government in Hong Kong has rejected dialogue and resorted to force. Force may move barricades, but it will not kill the people’s desire for democracy. Ultimately, it is Beijing’s call to make. So long as the Chinese government vows to keep the election process closed, umbrellas on the streets of Hong Kong will stay defiantly open.

This is also above politics, as Hong Kong faces an unprecedented human rights crisis. Attacks orchestrated by thugs and police have thrown Hong Kong into disarray. Just this week, a protester was attacked by six plainclothes policemen, who carried him into a dark corner where he was punched and kicked repeatedly.

“It is stomach-churning to think there are Hong Kong police officers that feel they are above the law,” said Amnesty International. The self-censorship of this story by Hong Kong’s largest TV network resulted in an open letter signed by its journalists, criticising the management’s interference of editorial independence.

From freedom of the press to protest, Hong Kong is rapidly being remade in the image of the Motherland’s authoritarianism. This is not the Hong Kong Britain handed over to China in 1997.

It’s ironic that the hacktivist group Anonymous has done more to defend Hong Kong’s freedom than democratic governments, by shutting down Chinese government’s websites and leaking their data online.

While no sane citizen would antagonise China unnecessarily, it is equally true that those with democratic mandate are subjected to public pressure. David Cameron, for instance, has incrementally moved from being “concerned” to saying we should “stand up” for voting rights in Hong Kong, which is a long way from the Foreign Office’s endorsement of Beijing’s decision to vet candidates in September.

The moral of the story is that political dynamics change. The idea ofOccupy Central was ridiculed as wishful thinking in the face of the mighty Communist Party. But ordinary citizens of Hong Kong exceeded expectations by spontaneously forming a mass movement without “leaders” or command and control.

They further amazed the world with their peaceful manner ofprotest.Where else in the world would you find over 50,000 protesters without a car overturned or a shop set on fire? Sceptics told them this was impossible, and Hongkongers proved them wrong. Now these same sceptics are calling demands for democracy idealistic and call for immediate withdrawal. They will be proved wrong once again.

The Umbrella Revolution is an ongoing operation. It will end when democracy and freedom finally prevail in Hong Kong.


Pro-Umbrella or not, we should condemn human rights violations in Hong Kong

Published on Backbench on 10th October 2014.

In Hong Kong, the date ‘28th September 2014’ will forever be remembered as the day the Umbrella Revolution began. Yet as we approach the end of the second week for the movement, the question now is: how does this come to an end?

“On the basis of ‘one country, two systems’, the problem must be solved locally and politically.” That was part of the negotiation offer made by the Hong Kong Federation of Students last Thursday, in response to the government’s erroneous attempt to pit police against protesters, using force to end a political problem. The prospect of a peaceful end to the Umbrella upheaval seemed likely again.

However, when pro-Beijing mobs crashed into one of the occupied spots, instead of ordering the police to act, the city’s leader – CY Leung – seized this opportunity to call for the protesters to leave. Unlike the earlier snap response by Hong Kong police, readily engaging protesters with pepper spray and tear gas, there was no anti-riot police present to protect protesters, including school children in uniform. There is evenfootage of policemen escorting members of mobs and send them off on taxi.

This is extraordinary for Hong Kong, a city that battled with triads and police corruption when under British rule. A city that caused the establishment of the ICAC, which is famous for making Hong Kong one of the least corrupt cities in the world. This well managed reputation was shattered yesterday, when Russian skinheads-style violence was introduced to the Pearl of the Orient. By any country’s standards, this is a human rights crisis. As Amnesty International made clear, “Hong Kong’s police failed in their duty to protect the demonstrators. Women and girls were among those targeted, including incidents of sexual assault, harassment and intimidation.”

This is no longer a matter of “China’s internal affairs” – as the country’s foreign minister put it in Washington earlier last week. The international community should show the same concern it did with beaten up Tibetan monks, the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu XiaoBo, as well as it with human rights abuse from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to Putin’s persecution of the LGBT activists in Russia.

We must also reject the misguided colonial apologists. One of whom is the author Martin Jacques, who argued recently that “there is no alternative: China is Hong Kong’s future.” Jacques disregarded turned a blind eye on the fact that Beijing will be able to vet candidates at present and in the future, and instead chose to focus on the past – that Britain never allowed democracy in Hong Kong. “Although Hong Kong came, over time, to enjoy the rule of law and the right to protest, under the British it never enjoyed even a semblance of democracy.” Jacques went on to blame the “much larger group (than what he called anti-Beijing democrats), among them many students, who oppose Beijing’s plans for more idealistic reasons.

Many outsiders who are less well-informed on Hong Kong’s history would fall for Jacques’s fallacy. Yet given a careful second thought, anyone can see Mr Jacques’ ‘peculiar’ argument defies logic. How can we justify colonial injustice in the past with Chinese quasi-colonial injustice at present? Have we forgotten about the basis for Hong Kong’s handover in the first place – democratisation and the protection of its way of life? When we criticise the ‘idealists’ and ‘radicals’ in the crowd, shouldn’t we remember it was the students initiated the dialogue first, only to halt the channel when police refused to protect protesters?

As I emphasised on BBC West Midlands (from 34:28 onwards), Hongkongers seek real democracy and genuine universal suffrage – basic human rights. Democracy was promised in the first place because Hongkongers believed it is the safeguard to our liberties. This has been highlighted by the violence by both the police and the mob on peaceful protesters. Without the right to genuine universal suffrage, come another Beijing-vetted administration, Hong Kong’s liberties will continue to be lost in the name of national security and patriotism.

The world can no longer stay silent. Whether you support the Umbrella Revolution or not, whether you think this is China’s internal business or not, so long as you believe in the freedom from fear, you should condemn the naked violence we have seen this week. The protests will only end when violence ceases. The movement will only end when there is a political solution, for this is a political problem.

But one thing is for sure: this will not end with mobs harassing young men and women. And this will not end unless Beijing begins to soften its stance.