by Kerry Brown
2019 was not an easy year for Xi Jinping’s China. The most obvious cause of this was the ongoing tensions with the US, mostly taking the form of trade frictions. While these dissipated to some degree by the year’s end, it was the happenings in Hong Kong and Xinjiang that will probably prove most significant. These are likely to have a long term impact on the trajectory of the People’s Republic, with Xinjiang in particular offering a more profound and worrying set of problems.
For Hong Kong, the perpetual protests from the middle of the year were the issue that attracted most international attention. The city is held in deep affection by anyone who is associated with it, or even knows about it. To see it’s people often divided, with the government some days almost under siege, with acts of violence by police and protesters on the streets, sometimes almost daily, was truly a tragedy. A unique, hybrid place looked, towards the year-end, to be in perpetual decline.
It is easy to seek to defend one of the sides involved in the Hong Kong issue over others. But the fault lies with almost every party. The Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has been lamentable. Her greatest failure in the long term will probably be the way in which she has illustrated with a stark finality none of her three predecessors ever did the lack of power in her hands and the need to constantly be seeking support from Beijing. From her handling of the original proposal to introduce extradition legislation which was seen as violating the city’s hard-won legal autonomy, to her response to the subsequent demands of the protesters, there is little about her performance that inspires confidence. She remains in power however because she has managed to maintain the support, however, of the one group that matters to her – the leadership in Beijing.
On their part, the Xi leadership has refrained, so far, from direct intervention in the security of Hong Kong, no matter that it might or might not be doing behind the scenes. But its shrill defensive attitude to the plight of the city, and the ways in which it has indicated little real desire to compromise only expose the ways in which it clearly regards the One Country, Two Systems rubric as little more than window dressing. For it, the most worrying aspect of the city’s 2019 travails should be the ways in which they showed the real problems of a Chinese model of governance in a place which is incontestably of Chinese identity, and part of the PRC sovereign territory. The impact of that on views in Taiwan, where many look on in dismay at Hong Kong and fee their rejection of the ways in which it is offered as a model they may one day which to reunify with the Mainland, has been dramatic, and will probably have long term consequences. There is little overt sign at the moment at least that this is the lesson Beijing has drawn from 2019 and Hong Kong – but it should be.
But nor can the protesters be spared criticism. Lionised by many in the west, including the US Congress, some members of whom have sought to reap political capital from the city’s challenges, protesters have proved a diverse, and sometimes disunited and fractious group. While many have shown courage, and the success of more pro-independence parties in the 2019 local elections was a huge moral victory, they still lack coherent political leadership. It is an easy thing to be critical about this, and a hugely hard thing to achieve – but in the end, unless there can be unifying, and pragmatic voices from the protesting groups managing to steer their grievances in a more constructive, political direction, rather than stoking constant protest, it is hard to see how they can create long term benefit for themselves out of the shocks of the last few months.
Hong Kong, however, does have some things worth fighting for – from its legal system, which at least still has some integrity, to the vestiges of freedom of expression which, for all the complaints, are still there, albeit eroded. Xinjiang was, until quite late in 2019, a less exposed issue. But it is likely that this will be the one with potentially the deepest long term consequences. The implementation of harsh security measures there since 2018 have involved, reportedly, up to a million people. Papers obtained by the New York Times in November 2019 showed the extent of the commitment to the clampdown on Uighur’s, along with some evidence of opposition to it by officials locally which had been snuffed out.
Chen Qiangguo, Party Secretary of the autonomous region, and previously the top official in Tibet, has received unwelcome international attention as the protests have increased across the world, from Turkey to Europe to the US, about what has been occurring in the area. Under the guise of security and counter-terrorism, the detention of so many has resulted in some gut-wrenching testimony of families destroyed, and ordinary people swept up in a series of events that clearly have left them incarcerated, evidently judged guilty without even the vaguest pretence of an attempt to follow any kind of due process.
Xinjiang is an issue over which the central government seems unwilling to brook any compromise. Attempts to discuss the issue even in the most placatory way are usually met with defensiveness in China. This is our domestic issue, the line goes, and one that involves serious issues of security concerns. Foreigner’s comments and criticisms are unwelcome.
Despite this, Xinjiang is potentially a long term, deep worry for the Chinese government for a number of reasons. Through the imposition of draconian policies, some, according to the evidence offered by the New York Times leaked documents, imposed with little consideration of the risk of unwanted outcomes, there is a high possibility that a generation of Uighurs ostensibly being re-educated in the camps in the region is actually being radicalised. The official measures here are almost designed to breed deep resentment and anger, something which may take years or decades to manifest itself, but which should not be taken lightly. The very outcome that all the effort the government has expended in Xinjiang over the last few years – greater security – may well be the one put most at risk by the way it has sought to achieve this.
This is a strange position for the Chinese government to be in. Usually so cautious about what it does, and deliberative, it seems that in Xinjiang it has acted according to an almost knee jerk way, bringing in a suite of actions and regulations that show little sign of having been pondered a bit more thoroughly and questioned.
One of these side effects can already be seen – the detrimental effect that Xinjiang has had on international opinion towards Xi’s PRC. Already, a formidable array of critical voices have started to be raised. At a time when the country’s global role is already becoming more prominent, and its potential critics and enemies are seeking for something to rally around, this issue above all has unfortunately given them plenty of highly legitimate material to cast back at the Chinese government.
With some signs at the end of 2019 that the policies in Xinjiang might be softening, 2020 may well see the intense anger at this issue at least decrease. The government may, after all, have been listening, and seek to silently repair some of the damage done. But the odds must very unfortunately be on them harvesting a long term and a serious set of challenges from the 2018-2019 Xinjiang clampdown. What is currently a tragedy for many people in Xinjiang may well end up being one for the whole country, proving one of the most bitter lessons from Chinese history: that its greatest threats come more often from the inner Asian region than its coastal areas.
Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. He is an Associate of the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House, London, an adjunct of the Australia New Zealand School of Government in Melbourne, and the co-editor of the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, run from the German Institute for Global Affairs in Hamburg.