The Chinese empire's burning peripheries

Crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang threaten Taiwan -- and regional peace.

Wall Street Journal

China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping , frequently reiterates that China is pursuing “peaceful development.” On a trip to France last year, he described his country as “peaceful, pleasant and civilised.” But 2014 saw the rhetoric of peace wearing increasingly thin.

That’s not just because Beijing is muscling for territory as far afield as Malaysia and Indonesia. Much closer to home, the discontents and hazards of Chinese empire are mounting. From Xinjiang to Hong Kong to Taiwan, the peripheries of Greater China are burning.

China’s leaders have decisions to make in every direction, and recent evidence suggests they may not choose compromise anywhere. Which means that fear and loathing of Beijing will likely increase among tens of millions of people, that the Communist Party will face growing challenges to its reputation for “harmonious” and prosperous rule, and that after years of quiet the Taiwan Strait may become a dangerous world’s most dangerous flashpoint.

Start with Hong Kong. After police tear-gassed peaceful pro-democracy protesters in September, 200,000 people flooded into the streets. For 75 days, umbrella-wielding demonstrators occupied downtown streets to defend the liberties and institutions that China promised they could keep after British rule ended in 1997.

Unless Chinese leaders reverse course and grant Hong Kong the universal suffrage that was promised, China’s most international city -- and still its leading financial center -- faces a future of raucous protest and paralyzed government. Beijing may prefer that outcome to the alternative of allowing seven million Chinese subjects to pick their own leaders.

But it entails risks, from democratic dissidents on the mainland drawing inspiration from Hong Kong’s struggle, to foreign investors losing trust in the city’s courts and regulators.

The gravest implications of Hong Kong’s drama concern Taiwan, the democratic island that is growing more and more determined never to live under Beijing’s authoritarian control. China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949 and tied its fate to Hong Kong’s since the 1980s, when Chinese supremo Deng Xiaoping promised that both territories would keep their freedoms if they came under Beijing’s rule.

“We have proposed to solve the Hong Kong and Taiwan problems by allowing two systems to coexist in one country,” he said.

The “one country, two systems” formula clearly failed to protect civil liberties in Hong Kong, which helps explain why Taiwan last year experienced an anti-China political earthquake of its own.

In March, the so-called Sunflower Movement blocked a trade deal with China by bringing 600,000 people into the street and occupying the legislature for 24 days. Protesters said the deal wasn’t transparent and would make Taiwan’s economy dangerously dependent on China. In November, midterm elections handed the Beijing-friendly ruling party its worst-ever defeat, a powerful verdict against six years of increasing economic integration with China. The opposition, which has previously called for formal independence from China and is hated in Beijing, is expected to win the presidency in January 2016.

That would end the calm that has prevailed across the Taiwan Strait since 2008. Gaining control of Taiwan has been a Chinese obsession for 65 years. It is the chief item of business left unfinished from Mao’s revolution and remains the focus of Chinese military modernisation. China would prefer for Taiwan’s 23 million people to unify voluntarily, but Beijing regularly warns that it “will not abandon the possibility of using force,” as retired general Liu Jingsong said last month. Xi Jinping said in 2013 that “these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation”.

If Beijing responds to the rise of Taiwan’s opposition by trying to intimidate Taiwanese voters economically or militarily, China would threaten regional peace in East Asia. Given those stakes, it’s concerning to see how Beijing treats other perceived domestic irritants, not only in Hong Kong but thousands of miles away, in China’s western borderlands.

Though it barely registers on international radar, the northwestern region of Xinjiang is twice the size of France and could become China’s Chechnya. The homeland of roughly 10 million Turkic Muslims known as Uighurs, Xinjiang is a battleground between a central government intent on control and a native population seeking to preserve distinct traditions. In recent decades Beijing has flooded the region with Han Chinese, discouraged or criminalized Muslim worship, and treated Uighur activists as separatists or terrorists.

This repression radicalizes Uighur discontent, which now appears to have spawned the terrorism Beijing always feared. In the past 15 months, explosions and knife attacks have killed scores of people in train stations, markets and even Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Clashes involving Xinjiang police have killed more than 100.

Beijing’s response is tougher and broader repression in Xinjiang. More bans on Muslim veils and beards in public, more closures of Uighur-language schools, more limits on Uighur travel. More family-planning restrictions and forced abortions. More discrimination against Uighurs seeking work in local government or state energy firms (Xinjiang has China’s largest coal reserves and 20 per cent of its oil).

In September a Beijing court sentenced Professor Ilham Tohti, the country’s most prominent Uighur spokesman, to life in prison on separatism charges for which no evidence has been publicly presented. Seven of his students were also imprisoned for shorter terms on the same charges.

Tighten the screws, refuse compromise, destroy moderates, alienate the next generation: While the implementation in Xinjiang is far more severe, this is the same playbook used by the government in Hong Kong, and it’s typical of the authoritarianism that makes Taiwan hold tight to self-rule. Such tactics have often fostered fury at the edges of empires, making those empires more volatile than they appear. The past year is a warning that China is no exception.

David Feith is a Journal editorial-page writer based in Hong Kong.

This piece was first published in the Wall Street Journal. Reproduced with permission.