What China has been up to under the cover of coronavirus

Global power dynamics are changing, the world order re-shaping; the risk of escalation is everywhere, as further strategic and ideological confrontation looms. This is Xi Jinping’s assertive new nationalism happening. Gone, the “bide your time” deference of pre-superpower status. Welcome to China’s brave new world. (Subscribe: https://bit.ly/C4_News_Subscribe)

If you’ve been a little distracted by the Covid-19 coronavirus that’s going round, you’re not the only one. But while maybe you – and just about everyone else – was focusing on things a little closer to home, China been busily stoking the fires of global anxiety. This, it believes, will be China’s Century and the way things are looking, Beijing’s determined that no one, no country will come in its way. At home, President Xi Jinping’s grip is tightening. Abroad, well, some say Mr Xi’s been over-playing his hand.

In one month flat, Donald Trump’s administration’s undone Nixon’s bold vision of that new world order. America’s and China’s differences now a chasm too wide to span.

In the past four weeks, we’ve seen the US place sanctions on senior Chinese officials, the revocation of Hong Kong’s special status, a declaration that Beijing’s would-be maritime empire is “completely unlawful.” Beijing’s response was to compare Mike Pompeo to an ant trying to shake a tree.

Suddenly the long-running plight of ethnic Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in western Xinjiang Province has come to international prominence. Allegations of discrimination, incarceration, torture, forced sterilisation and slavery amounting to genocide have been extensively documented. There is evidence that more than one and a half million Uighurs are currently under mass-detention in re-education camps.

The allegations of human rights violations against Uighurs have been flatly denied by Beijing.

What’s less-often cited is what’s going on in Tibet, occupied and annexed by China the year after Mao’s revolutionaries came to power. Under the cover of the pandemic, Beijing introduced an Ethnic Unity Law there in May, a forced assimilation programme which criminalises separatism or any action seen as undermining “the one-ness of the Motherland.”.

It’s no wonder that in Hong Kong, that other supposedly autonomous region, Beijing’s new sedition law has triggered fears from the millions opposed to Chinese authoritarianism, that their city, for so long a lone beacon of democratic freedom in China, will go the same way as Xinjiang and Tibet. The draconian law, again, introduced as the rest of the world was focused on the pandemic has pretty much put an end to mass-protests which convulsed the city last year. The majority of Hong Kongers now find themselves on the front line of growing global resistance to Xi Jinping’s imperial nationalism.

Where the People’s Liberation Army’s projection of power has triggered greatest alarm is its militarisation of the South China Sea, amid the world’s most lucrative sea-lanes. It’s placed cruise and surface-to-air missiles on outposts in the Spratly Archipelago, where it’s reclaimed land on remote coral atols and built bases and runways. It’s had punch-ups with Vietnam over the Paracel group and confrontations with the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia and warned off US and Australian freedom of navigation patrols.

At the heart of China’s dispute with five other countries is its nine-dash line, which encircles 90 per cent of the contested waters, running as far as 2,000 kilometres from the mainland, an area over which Beijing claims “indisputable sovereignty.” The nine-dash line even features on all new Chinese passports.

In 2016, a Hague tribunal nullified China’s claims, in an effort to resolve a dispute with the Philippines, ruling that China had no historical claim to the South China Sea or to resources within it. Now both Australia and the US have toughened their positions, asserting the claim as no legal basis and Pompeo stating that “the US will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.” The South China Sea has long been a potential flashpoint, but if this cold war turns hot, this is where it is likely to start.

All this as China bristles with Taiwan, which it’s vowed to reunify with the mainland. There have been several violent incidents along China’s disputed border with India. China appears to be picking fights everywhere and retaliates forcefully against countries which it views as Sino-phobic. Britain is bracing for Beijing’s response to its offer of a bolt-hole for Hong Kongers and its blacklisting Huawei. Two Canadians are in jail, charged with espionage in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a Huawei executive.

For Beijing, the time’s come to reclaim what it believes is China’s rightful place in the world.

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