The Fall of China’s Mask

Policy - - In This Issue - Robin V. Sears

As China’s be­hav­iour on the world stage has been em­bold­ened by the in­com­pe­tence and un­pre­dictabil­ity of Don­ald Trump, Bei­jing’s abuses of power have be­come in­creas­ingly brazen. On is­sues from Hong Kong to Tai­wan to Huawei, the eco­nomic stakes and in­tim­i­da­tion tac­tics that served to mute crit­i­cism of China for more than a decade are prov­ing less and less ef­fec­tive. As vet­eran China-watcher Robin Sears writes, “It is hard to un­der­stand what Xi’s endgame is.”

Chi­nese pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has done se­ri­ous dam­age to his coun­try’s global rep­u­ta­tion, per­haps ex­ceeded only by that in­flicted by Mao in his de­clin­ing years. This is not en­tirely sur­pris­ing, since Xi clearly sees him­self in the same vein, as a trans­for­ma­tional leader. The sta­tis­tics that track the rep­u­ta­tional dam­age are bru­tal. In Canada, only 15 per­cent of Cana­di­ans to­day still hold a pos­i­tive view of China—a fall from 58 per­cent 15 years ago and 43 per­cent when Xi took of­fice in 2013.

More se­ri­ously, 85 per­cent of those polled by An­gus Reid say they do not be­lieve Bei­jing’s COVID fa­bles. China’s fail­ure to ad­e­quately pro­tect African stu­dents from racist at­tacks has wounded them in many African

coun­tries. The EU coun­tries are con­sid­er­ing steps to block Chi­nese in­vest­ment, as is Canada. The United States has seen two-way in­vest­ment flows cut in half, and is ac­tively try­ing to weaken the Chi­nese econ­omy, es­pe­cially in the tech sec­tor.

Even China’s quiet march through mul­ti­lat­eral in­sti­tu­tions—im­plant­ing loy­al­ists in ex­ec­u­tive roles in or­ga­ni­za­tions from In­ter­pol, to the UN Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion and the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion among many oth­ers—is now be­ing pushed back on, with the sup­port of some de­vel­op­ing na­tions that China could have counted on the pur­chased loy­alty of only two years ago.

But it is China’s use of per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment, es­pe­cially masks, as a diplo­matic card in an at­tempt to buy goodwill, that has failed most spec­tac­u­larly in re­cent months. First, it was re­vealed that China can­vassed the world to im­port PPE equip­ment in late De­cem­ber and Jan­uary, when Bei­jing knew that COVID was get­ting out of con­trol in Wuhan, that the epi­demic was com­ing, but was stren­u­ously deny­ing it pub­licly.

Then in March, when the pan­demic went global, China started to man­u­fac­ture masks in great quan­ti­ties and of­fer them, of­ten free of charge, to African and Euro­pean na­tions. Canada’s ship­ments, like many oth­ers, were re­turned when the masks were found to be de­fec­tive or of shoddy qual­ity. EU chief diplo­mat Josep Bor­rell called out China very di­rectly, say­ing that China was fight­ing “…a strug­gle for in­flu­ence through spin­ning and the pol­i­tics of gen­eros­ity.” Since then, things have gone badly wrong for the Chi­nese spin­ners.

Tai­wan, an in­creas­ingly nim­ble com­peti­tor, also sent masks—but theirs were of very good qual­ity. Canada at first re­fused to crit­i­cize the Chi­nese ship­ment of un­safe equip­ment pub­licly, or to ac­knowl­edge the Tai­wanese gen­eros­ity by name. Days later, pre­sum­ably af­ter some­one had whis­pered in his ear about how craven this ap­peared, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau of­fered a terse thanks. It took Trudeau some weeks to ac­knowl­edge that China had made er­rors in its early han­dling of the cri­sis, and even longer to join the call for the WHO to launch an in­de­pen­dent in­quiry into its mis­han­dling of COVID.

The first telling ex­am­ple of how Canada was be­gin­ning to turn away from China, and how badly wrong the game of diplo­matic masks had gone was the leak of Am­bas­sador Do­minic Bar­ton’s harsh de­nun­ci­a­tion of China’s games in a brief­ing to the Cana­dian In­ter­na­tional Coun­cil. Those who know Bar­ton as the savvy global leader of McKin­sey, and one of Canada’s most ex­pe­ri­enced China hands, do not be­lieve that the “leak” of his re­marks was un­planned.

Then came Bei­jing’s move to im­pose Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party-style re­stric­tions on free speech in Hong Kong. Claim­ing that it needs to fight ter­ror­ism, Bei­jing’s plan would al­low China’s security and in­tel­li­gence ap­pa­ra­tus to op­er­ate in Hong Kong, and pun­ish the usual au­thor­i­tar­ian catch-all hob­gob­lins of “trea­son, se­ces­sion, sedi­tion and sub­ver­sion”.

This has pro­voked a storm of crit­i­cism in­clud­ing a joint de­nun­ci­a­tion by Canada and key al­lies and a move to end Hong Kong’s spe­cial trade and eco­nomic sta­tus by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion—crit­i­cized by some as ef­fec­tively pun­ish­ing Hong Kong in­stead of China. Then came the for­ma­tion of a nine-na­tion group of par­lia­men­tar­i­ans to push for stronger mea­sures on China’s ab­ro­ga­tion of its treaty obli­ga­tions to the United King­dom and Hong Kong.

The last British gover­nor of Hong Kong, Chris Pat­ten, de­nounced the non­sense that China needed to take this step for the security of the city, point­ing to ex­ist­ing laws in Hong Kong which gave the gov­ern­ment am­ple tools to chal­lenge what Bei­jing called “for­eign-spon­sored ter­ror­ism.” The U.K. then of­fered a fast track to ci­ti­zen­ship to the 3,000,000 hold­ers of the travel doc­u­ment is­sued be­fore the han­dover—the British Na­tional Over­seas Pass­port. Canada said to the 300,000 hold­ers of Cana­dian ci­ti­zen­ship and pass­ports in the city that they were “wel­come home” any­time.

Canada at first re­fused to crit­i­cize the Chi­nese ship­ment of un­safe equip­ment pub­licly, or to ac­knowl­edge the Tai­wanese gen­eros­ity by name. Days later, pre­sum­ably af­ter some­one had whis­pered in his ear about how craven this ap­peared, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau of­fered a terse thanks.

Se­nior Chi­nese diplo­mats of an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion have shared with Western col­leagues how em­bar­rass­ing Bei­jing’s be­hav­iour is to them. They un­der­line how­ever, that it is the prod­uct of di­rect or­ders from the pres­i­dent and those around him. In pri­vate, lead­ers of an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion say to trusted Western­ers, “We have seen this movie. It was called the Great Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. We know how it ends.” But how this se­quel will end is per­haps not as clear as the vet­er­ans of the “Great CR”. To­day, China has nearly 150 USD bil­lion­aires. They have a lot to lose if China slides into pro­tec­tion­ist iso­la­tion­ism and its provoca­tive be­hav­iour on the global stage in­curs wider sanc­tions. Bei­jing has com­mit­ted to nearly $2 tril­lion of in­vest­ment over­seas. Some of that in places like Ethiopia is al­ready be­ing threat­ened with takeover by an­gry na­tional gov­ern­ments. It is hard to un­der­stand what Xi’s endgame is.

As a pow­er­ful na­tion of many mil­len­nia and a leader on the Asian stage, China must surely un­der­stand that if you pro­voke ev­ery one of your neigh­bour­ing states—with the ex­cep­tion of your fel­low au­thor­i­tar­ian, Rus­sia— you will have en­cir­cled your­self with a ring of en­e­mies. If you turn the Euro­peans from am­biva­lence to anger, and the Amer­i­cans from rhetor­i­cal threats to ac­tive mea­sures to weaken your econ­omy, you face eco­nomic dis­as­ter at home. If your growth rate con­tin­ues to slide and un­em­ploy­ment rises, you will im­peril the steely grip of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party.

Those who stand up for Tai­wan, Hong Kong or Ti­bet in Canada are of­ten swamped on so­cial me­dia plat­forms with in­sults and even death threats. In some cases, the threats have been de­liv­ered in per­son.

An­other dif­fer­ence be­tween to­day’s self-de­struc­tive be­hav­iour and the end of Mao­ism, is the ris­ing sta­tus of Tai­wan. Pres­i­dent Xi has un­wisely hitched his legacy to the uni­fi­ca­tion of Tai­wan with China. This will not hap­pen, un­less Xi is so fool­ish as to be­lieve the world would stand by as tens of thou­sands of Tai­wanese died in a bloody in­va­sion, fol­lowed by a bru­tal oc­cu­pa­tion. The Amer­i­cans, the Ja­panese and the South Kore­ans have been qui­etly build­ing up their de­fence and security re­la­tion­ship with Tai­wan. The Amer­i­cans have stepped up high-tech­nol­ogy arms sales, and per­mit­ted some U.S. diplo­mats and mil­i­tary lead­ers to visit the coun­try for dis­cus­sions on mil­i­tary and strate­gic co-op­er­a­tion.

Bei­jing’s un­re­lent­ing pres­sure on Tai­wan—at­tempt­ing to freeze them out of mul­ti­lat­eral bod­ies, flaunt­ing a large net­work of spies and black­mailed lo­cal busi­ness lead­ers and politi­cians, and an un­end­ing stream of in­sult­ing threats to Tai­wan’s pres­i­dent, Tsai Ing-wen, re-elected just in Jan­uary—have served to deepen Tai­wanese de­ter­mi­na­tion to fight to main­tain their sta­tus. The longer Canada fails in its ef­forts to win re­lease of its two high-pro­file po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the more in­tense will be the de­mands on the prime min­is­ter to in­crease pres­sure on China, in lock­step with the world’s lead­ing democ­ra­cies.

Canada also needs to re­spond in­ter­nally to re­li­able re­ports from sev­eral Chi­nese Cana­dian civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions that they are sub­ject to ha­rass­ment and threats. Those who stand up for Tai­wan, Hong Kong or Ti­bet in Canada are of­ten swamped on so­cial me­dia plat­forms with in­sults and even death threats. In some cases, the threats have been de­liv­ered in per­son. In­ves­ti­ga­tions, ar­rests and con­vic­tions should be one of the tools we use to pun­ish the work of Bei­jing’s paid en­forcers in Canada.

In­stead of ex­pelling a long list of of­fend­ing diplo­mats—who will merely be re­placed by of­fi­cials of sim­i­lar style and de­meanour—we should call out the of­fend­ers by name and cite the re­sults of in­ves­ti­ga­tions of their threat­en­ing Cana­di­ans.

It al­ready feels like an­cient his­tory that Pres­i­dent Xi, at Davos days be­fore Don­ald Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, ap­pealed for global har­mony:

“World his­tory shows that the road of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion has never been a smooth one and that mankind has made progress by sur­mount­ing dif­fi­culty. No dif­fi­culty, how­ever daunt­ing, will stop mankind from ad­vanc­ing. When en­coun­ter­ing dif­fi­culty we should not com­plain, blame oth­ers, or run away from re­spon­si­bil­i­ties ... In­stead we should join hands and rise to the chal­lenge. His­tory is made by the brave.”

It marked the high­point of Xi’s in­ter­na­tional sta­tus, which has de­clined badly since then. The man who ap­pealed to the world to “join hands,” risks be­com­ing the pariah whose prof­fered hand world lead­ers will refuse. Not merely be­cause post-pan­demic hand-shak­ing will be out of fash­ion for a long time to come. But be­cause it be folly do­mes­ti­cally for those lead­ers to be seen shak­ing his hand. It was mov­ing to see tens of thou­sands of Hong Kongers com­mem­o­rat­ing the Tianan­men mas­sacre on June 4, as they have done for three decades, de­fy­ing Bei­jing and their own gov­ern­ment de­spite the risk of mass ar­rests.

Mean­while, Pres­i­dent Xi presents an in­creas­ingly tragic fig­ure whose diplo­matic mask has in­deed fallen.

Con­tribut­ing Writer Robin V. Sears, a prin­ci­pal of the Earn­scliffe Strat­egy Group in Ottawa, pre­vi­ously served for five years in Tokyo as On­tario’s agent­gen­eral in Asia, and later worked for an­other five years in the pri­vate sec­tor in Hong Kong.

Iris Tong Wiki­me­dia photo

Thou­sands of pro-democ­racy pro­test­ers de­fied a po­lice ban to par­tic­i­pate in the an­nual Tianan­men Square me­mo­rial vigil in Vic­to­ria Park, Hong Kong on June 4, 2020.

World Eco­nomic Fo­rum photo

China’s Pres­i­dent Xi at Davos in 2017, now emerg­ing, writes Robin Sears, as “an in­creas­ingly tragic fig­ure, whose diplo­matic mask has in­deed fallen.”

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