In Hong Kong, three months of massive protests have had an impact. There has not been much violence, especially from the millions of protesters. Police have arrested about 1,300 protesters so far but most were quickly released and only a hundred have been charged with any offenses. About a quarter of the population has participated in the demonstrations so far. The Chinese government continues a policy of waiting out the protestors and refusing to meet demands. One exception has been the extradition law that was recently withdrawn as protestors had demanded. But now the protestors are demanding more than that.
The current cycle of protests began on June 4th because Hong Kong was the only place in China were anyone could gather to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Hong Kong is the only place in China where you can do a lot of things but one thing China does not want was another widespread call for political change as occurred in 1989. Tiananmen was a spontaneous 1989 pro-democracy demonstration that scared Chinese officials a great deal. Tiananmen was regarded as potentially the start of a Chinese version of the early 1989 collapse of communist rule in East Europe. Every year at this time Chinese Internet censors are noticeably more active in a continuing effort to keep any news of the 1989 uprising from the Chinese public. Any discussion of the savage crackdown has been banned since 1989 and the government has been successful at keeping most Chinese from knowing the details or caring much about it.
However many Chinese are aware that something happened and now with the months of Hong Kong protests becoming difficult to ignore, even in China. Many Chinese are also discovering details about Tiananmen. Chinese are also noting that Hong Kong is different from Tiananmen in some important ways. For one thing, the Hong Kong demonstrations have been far larger than any of the Tiananmen events.
Overall both Tiananmen and Hong Kong had the same number of people demonstrating. The main demonstration, in Tiananmen Square, was the inspiration for smaller protests in hundreds of other towns and cities. The Tiananmen Square situation was dangerous because it was a large occupation in the heart of the capital. That meant lots of foreign diplomats and journalists to witness events. What they witnessed was a demonstration that was composed mostly of students who were calling from less corruption and more efficient government by the ruling CCP (Chinese Communist Party). In 1989 the CCP feared that anti-communist fervor, seen overthrowing all the communist parties of Europe, was spreading to China. That was not the case. The CCP had more credibility because it had recently revived a market economy and was encouraging everyone to get rich for the good of China. Equally important was the fact that China had recently endured a century of revolution, civil war and invasion by Japan. Peace and prosperity was popular, another civil war was not. Three decades later the Chinese note that the former communist states of Europe are thriving and Hong Kong, which has a Western style economy and government, is doing much better than the rest of China.
The Hong Kong protestors began with demands that the CCP abide by the deal they worked out with Britain in the late 1990s, to allow Hong Kong 50 years of their own form of government before becoming just another Chinese city. Three months later the Hong Kong demonstrators are calling for democracy. The CCP does not want to have the Chinese people deciding if communist police state rule should continue. This is not a new dispute for China, it is what ended thousands of years of monarchy in 1910. For a growing number of Chinese, the CCP is too much like another imperial dynasty. That is, a government that feels it is entitled (has the “Mandate of Heaven”) to rule and none but the celestial powers could change that. The imperial government fell because it was corrupt, ineffective and often arbitrary and cruel. Chinese leaders see all this talk of democracy and the “people as sovereign” as very politically incorrect and not to be tolerated. A growing number of Chinese are coming to understand the implications of these CCP attitudes but have not been as organized or as bold as the Chinese in Hong Kong in acting on those ideas.
The Primacy Of History
Chinese rulers, including the CCP, have always studied and respected Chinese history and are, as was the case in 1989, divided on how to interpret the current situation. Crushing the Hong Kong resistance as was done at Tiananmen would be a lot more difficult and messier. The diplomatic blowback from Tiananmen would be worse in the case of Hong Kong. The CCP is already under pressure from the United States for decades of corrupt and dishonest economic behavior as well as blatant theft of technology and much else. China is trying to negotiate with the Americans and bloody suppression of Hong Kong protestors would not help at all and might spark more unrest throughout China. The CCP has to agree on whether violence is being decisive or inflammatory. Worse Hong Kong is a key component of the Chinese economy, especially access to foreign markets and financial institutions. All that would be seriously damaged if the government decided to go all Tiananmen on the Hong Kong protestors.
There are many nasty aspects of Chinese history that most Chinese are dimly aware of but not particularly curious about. In China, there is a lot to forget and good reasons for doing so. The 30th anniversary of Tiananmen was notable in that Chinese censors apparently were alarmed that the forbidden Tiananmen related chatter in Chinese Internet and cell phone networks (both of them monitored, and actively censored) had increased. This prompted senior officials to break their usual silence about Tiananmen and insist that the crackdown made it possible for the Chinese economy to continue growing. The censors noted that these announcements did not have the desired effect.
Memory wipes are an ancient Chinese practice and often remarkably effective. But during the last few generations researchers have been uncovering more details about some of the ancient sages, philosophers and such who were thought effectively wiped from the historical record. Modern technology (lots more records and copies of them, better tools to search and find data) has made the old school memory wipes much less effective. The memory of Tiananmen persists and seems to be getting stronger because the truth is available in so many places the Chinese censors cannot reach.
The current “Remember Tiananmen Square” demonstration in Hong Kong prompted many to remember that in 2006 over 20,000 Hong Kong residents demonstrated in favor of full democracy for the former British colony. China tolerates this activity in Hong Kong, but not elsewhere in China. That is changing this time because pro-democracy demonstrations of over half a million people have become common in Hong Kong. Despite that, there have been no violent attempts to overthrow Chinese control. To professional paranoids in the Chinese security services, Hong Kong is seen as an explosion waiting to happen and a threat to Communist Party rule.
The government has massed thousands of paramilitary police, complete with armored vehicles, just outside Hong Kong. This appears to be intimidating. For Hong Kong, the annual commemorations of the Tiananmen Square massacre for three decades ensure that everyone in the city knows how brutal the national government can be to peaceful protestors. The government seems to realize this show of force is not having the desired effect and it unsure how to respond to that. Another restraining factor is one the Chinese government does not want to discuss; the national economic impact a violent crackdown in Hong Cong would produce. Hong Kong has the fifth largest stock market in the world and much of the local wealth is found in very expensive Hong Kong real estate. A major military operation in Hong Kong would cause property and stock market values to collapse. That would be felt throughout China and the world. But most of the economic damage would be in China. That would be accompanied by embarrassing revelations of how many corrupt Chinese officials and businessmen invested their dirty money in Hong Kong real estate. These economic and political risks were not present in 1989 when the Tiananmen Square massacre took place. Times change and so do consequences.
The government has found that its strategy of economic pressure has worked to prevent diplomatic backlash from Moslem states over Chinese mistreatment of its Moslems in the far west (Xinjiang province). Moslem majority nations, even Turkey, have quietly agreed to keep quiet in return for loans and other economic or diplomatic help from China. It was feared that Turkey would be troublesome anyway. Since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Turkey sought to support fellow Turks in Central Asia. Because of Chinese diplomatic and financial pressure, Turkey agreed to treat the Turkic Uighurs as Chinese, not Turks and ignore Uighurs and whatever was happening to them in China. The rest of the Moslem world was persuaded by China to do likewise. China applied the same methods to their mistreatment of Chinese Christians, and nearly the same degree of success with potential critics in Christian majority nations. To foreigners, the government position on all these situations is that it is an internal affair and none of your business.
China and Russia are the principal obstacles to the release of a new UN report on North Korean sanction violations. China and Russia continue to tolerate North Korean evasion of the sanctions, although such tolerance is more restricted than in the past, especially in China. The new UN report got leaked anyway and the contents documented the support North Korea still obtains from Chinese and Russian sources. Not from the governments of China and Russia, but from the companies or criminal gangs in those two nations that make possible illegal imports and exports with North Korea. Having these operations described in a UN sponsored report that has been officially released puts pressure on UN members listed as working with North Korea to curb those activities. Russia and China are the biggest offenders and among the few UN members who have permanent use of a veto over UN decisions. Thus UN sponsored research like this usually has problems getting past Russia and China, which tend to have some of their people showing up as involved in whatever bad behavior is being studied. In practice, it is mainly China the UN has to worry about because Russia is increasingly dependent on Chinese economic and diplomatic support to survive and can be pressured by China to do whatever China wants. In the case of UN sanctions on North Korea, the report shows how China is not bothered by blatant Russian efforts to help North Korea evade sanctions. This ranges from tolerating the North Korean use of Russian student visas to continue exporting workers to Russia (who have most of their pay taken by the North Korean government) to facilitating illegal exports (coal) and imports (oil).
The UN study detailed how North Korea was continuing to carry out transfers of refined petroleum products at sea. This is being done by using smaller ships to take the cargo from Chinese or Russian tankers. These smaller ships are not required to have the most effective transponders (to show the position of the ship) and can more easily evade detection as they head back to North Korea with their cargo. In this way, North Korea has been importing about three times more refined petroleum products than sanctions allow. North Korea is also able to illegally export coal and other minerals using the same technique.
South China Sea Standoff
China stands firm on its illegal claims to own all the smaller (and largely uninhabited) South China Sea islands. One of the major victims, the Philippines, tried being more realistic about resisting the Chinese effort to take possession of the South China Sea. That did not work out and the Filipino government recently concluded that China was not willing to negotiate when it came to its South China Sea claims. The Chinese effort to defend its claims is massive. For example, during the first three months of 2019 China deployed 900 navy, coast guard and naval militia ships around Pagasa Island to block access to fishing areas that Filipinos have been using for centuries. International law makes it clear that these are Filipino waters but the Chinese naval effort, and base constructed on Pagasa challenge Filipino ownership blatantly and often physically. Of all the nations involved with this Chinese aggression, the Philippines has the most to lose. In terms of land area, the 7,600 islands that comprise the Philippines amount to only 300,000 square kilometers (120,000 square miles) of land area. Compare this to China, with 9.6 million square kilometers of land. But according to international law (which China agrees with, at least officially), the Philippines controls (via its EEZ or Exclusive Economic Zone) water areas covering 2.26 million square kilometers. By the same standards, the Chinese EEZ waters comprise 877,000 square kilometers. But the new Chinese claims, not recognized by any international law or treaty, claims most of the South China Sea and expands the Chinese EEZ to 3.8 million square kilometers, mostly at the expense of the Philippines. Vietnam also suffers major losses.
The Philippines and Vietnam have the most to lose in the South China Sea but all other Western Pacific countries feel threatened by growing Chinese naval power and aggressiveness. These nations are coming together in an anti-China coalition that may (if the Americans take an active role) persuade China to back down and play by the international rules it agreed to in the past. So far China is building bases and, according to one Filipino official, only “controls” seven percent of the South China Sea. China is not yet trying to strictly enforce its claims although it is increasingly vocal about other nations for “violating Chinese territorial waters.” This includes non-military force to prevent non-Chinese (especially Filipino) fishing boats from operating in traditional (and legally Filipino) fishing grounds. President Duterte of the Philippines sought to negotiate a deal with China that would compensate the Philippines for lost access to their fishing areas. That was blocked by Filipinos invoking the constitution and its prohibitions against officials negotiating away those rights without the assent of the people (the national legislature).
Chinese claims have no standing when it comes to existing international law and agreements. Yet China is slowly seeking control over the entire South China Sea and is willing to spend as much time as it requires to achieve recognition as the undisputed owner of the South China Sea. This is the ancient “death of a thousand cuts” strategy China has used for centuries and is being blatantly applied, for the first time, on vast maritime areas. The fishing resources alone are enormously valuable and, based on past Chinese performance, likely to be exploited to the point where there are not many fish left to catch. There is also offshore oil and gas and much else on the bottom of the shallow waters of the South China Sea. Initially, the Philippines tried to accommodate China but the feeling, both popular and among the leadership, is that the Chinese threat will not be tempered by accommodation. China wants it all and the only question now is will China risk war over their territorial claims.
September 5, 2019: In Hong Kong protest leaders are repeating what many of their followers are calling for; the introduction of full democracy in Hong Kong. This would, among other things, honor the 1997 agreement (with Britain) to treat Hong Kong as a “special entity” for fifty years. Full democracy in Hong Kong, while still part of China, would enable Chinese, and their communist government, to learn how democracy would work in the rest of China. This idea is not popular with many CCP officials but it does appeal to many Chinese. After all, it worked in Taiwan and Singapore, two Chinese majority nations who rank very high in worldwide surveys of economic success and citizen satisfaction.
September 4, 2019: In the Strait of Hormuz (the entrance to the Persian Gulf) Iranian armed speedboats and various aircraft (helicopters and UAVs) continue confronting commercial ships that Iranians believe are British. The Iranians are apparently still seeking to seize a British tanker or freighter to seize but so far British and other allied (U.S., Australia and Bahrain) warships have forced the Iranians to back off. India and China discussed sending warships to escort their own commercial shipping and not be part of the U.S. led coalition. At the same time, China has worked to obtain immunity from Iranian attacks by violating sanctions. This includes purchasing Iranian oil and investing in the Iranian oil industry. While China can still get away with that sort of thing it is much more difficult with the current U.S. government, which is not as susceptible to Chinese deceptions and intimidation that worked against previous American governments. China is hoping the 2020 elections will install are more China-friendly government. But in the meantime, the American economic, legal and military pressure is having an impact.
September 3, 2019: In Venezuela, a Chinese firm halted work on local oil infrastructure because they had not been paid for nearly a year. Some payments had been made but a growing number were not and the Chinese government seemed unable to get the Venezuelans to act in their own interests and pay for the work the Chinese were doing to maintain and increase oil production. China is the only country willing, and able, to do this work. China has an interest in improving Venezuelan oil production because that is how Venezuela pays off the huge loans previously made to Venezuela. Some Chinese oil firms are withdrawing from Venezuela because of the increased American sanctions on the Venezuelan oil industry.
August 30, 2019: After more than a decade of discussions and negotiations Russia and China signed a deal to cooperate on designing and building (in China) a successor to the Russian Mi-26 heavy lift helicopter. In 2010 Chinese and Russian helicopter manufacturers established a joint venture to perform maintenance and refurbishment on helicopters, especially those of Russian design. This was part of a larger plan, which also included the factory in China building Mi-171s. There was also a proposal for China and Russia to jointly develop a large transport helicopter, based on the existing Mi-26T (a 20 ton aircraft that can carry 80 passengers). The Mi-26T model was modified to suit Chinese needs and the Chinese military and commercial firms continue to buy it from Russia. There may be other joint development deals to produce updated versions of existing Russian helicopter designs. This sort of thing could be mutually beneficial. China now has a domestic source for inexpensive transport helicopters which its civilian and military users are demanding many of. China has had problems designing helicopters and building key components (engines and transmissions). This is similar to the problems China has with building large commercial jet engines and high-performance military jet engines. Obtaining this tech is easier if China does it legally, which they are doing in this case. China has stolen a lot of Russian military tech in the past and now finds Russia more willing to sell the tech along with the manufacturing methods at a price the Chinese are willing to pay.
August 29, 2019: The Chinese Army troops that serve as the Hong Kong military garrison were rotated, as has been the case for the last 22 years. The 5,000 troops inside Hong Kong are there to defend Hong Kong from foreign threat. These troops are replaced each year with new units that have not been to Hong Kong before. Keeping troops in Hong Kong for many years at a time is considered unwise as the soldiers might pick up troublesome ideas (like the benefits of political freedom) from the locals.
August 25, 2019: Russia has replaced China as the largest customer for Venezuelan oil. Earlier this month China stopped importing Venezuelan oil because of the American sanctions. For most of 2019, China was importing 350,000 BPD (barrels per day). Now Russia is buying about 70 percent of Venezuelan oil exports. This violates the sanctions but Russia is already under a lot of sanctions and feels it can get away with ignoring the U.S. sanctions on Venezuela. Russia gets the Venezuelan oil at a discount because it is one of the few nations willing to handle the stuff. Russian then arranges resale to China, India and other buyers who are willing to handle Venezuelan crude as long as they don’t have to do it directly and violate the sanctions. This arrangement won’t last much longer because much of the Venezuelan oil goes to reduce Venezuelan debts to Russia (currently several billion dollars are still outstanding)
August 23, 2019: China transferred to Sri Lanka a recently retired Type 053H2G frigate. The 2,300 ton ship entered Chinese service in 1994 and was recently retired when more recent warship designs replaced these older frigates. Sri Lanka will use the Chinese frigate mostly for coast guard (offshore patrol) duties. That’s what China does with a lot of these recently retired small warships, transferring them to the Chinese coast guard.
August 14, 2019: In the southern Philippines (Tawi-Tawi province), it was reported that Chinese warships had been spotted offshore five times during July. In some cases the Chinese ships were passing through coastal waters, usually Sibutu Strait, exercising the right of “innocent passage” but deviating from the shortest route (international law says should be used) and coming closer to the Filipino coast than is normal or proper. The Chinese have done the same thing three times so far in August. Earlier the navy reported a similar problem off one of the main islands (Palawan) where, in June, four Chinese military vessels passed close to Palawan in Filipino waters where they are obliged to respond to hails from Filipino authorities. The Chinese ships ignored the hails and proceeded as if they were in international, or Chinese, waters. The navy noted that other foreign warships when traveling these same routes respond to Filipino hails, ask permission or notify the Philippines of their planned innocent passage through Filipino waters. When asked about this behavior by their warships, China refuses to answer or denies these events even took place.