President Xi Jinping outlined a vision of “openness and cooperation” in a keynote speech at a virtual meeting ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit earlier this week.
But while his APEC address might have played well at home, it failed to ease growing skepticism in the international community.
“We will not reverse course or run against [the] historical trend by ‘decoupling’ or forming a small circle to keep others out,” Xi said in a reference to outgoing US President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.
“China will remain committed to openness and cooperation, and adhere to multilateralism and the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits,” he added.
At times, his speech bordered on platitudes in a world ravished by the Covid-19 pandemic and Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian approach on the global stage.
Predatory trade practices, human rights abuses at home and the all but dead “One Country, Two Systems” policy in Hong Kong have taken place under Xi’s watch. “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy and not his stale soundbites have increased tension in the South and East China Seas amid threats to the island democracy of Taiwan.
Massive spending on the People’s Liberation Army and the PLA Navy has also left Asia-Pacific neighbors and the West nervous, along with outrageous claims on vast regional waterways that have no basis in international law.
“Chinese-American relations are at a very dangerous juncture,” Yang Yi, a retired Chinese admiral and former director of the Strategic Study Institute at China’s National Defense University, said.
“It is very difficult for both countries to step back from their fixed strategic objectives. In the post-pandemic era, the structural tensions between China and the United States are even sharper, and it will be very hard for ‘technical measures’ to resolve or ease them,” he wrote in a commentary for Global Times, a state-run newspaper.
But this is not just a Sino-American battle of ideology and supremacy. It has become an issue, revolving around human rights, freedom of speech and the moral principles that have underpinned democracies across the world.
In Hong Kong, China has left the “One Country, Two Systems” on life support after imposing a draconian National Security law on the city. Beijing’s decision came after the 2019 summer of discontent, where hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy supporters took to the streets.
Since then, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has cracked down on dissent and gutted Hong Kong’s local legislature by disqualifying politicians deemed “unpatriotic.” The decision later triggered a mass walkout of opposition pro-democracy parties.
“The National Security law is being used to disenfranchise the majority of Hong Kong’s citizens. It is obviously now illegal to believe in democracy … This is the sort of behavior that you would expect in a police state … an outrageous political purge,” Chris Patten, the last British colonial governor of Hong Kong, said.
Global reaction has mirrored his views.
On Wednesday, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group called on Beijing to reverse course and scrap its campaign to silence critics.
They cited promises made in the Joint Declaration agreed under a “One Country, Two Systems” formula that guaranteed Hong Kong autonomy. The document lodged with the United Nations was the cornerstone of the United Kingdom’s policy to end colonial rule and hand the city and the New Territories back to China in 1997.
“We urge the Chinese central authorities to re-consider their actions against Hong Kong’s elected legislature and immediately reinstate the Legislative Council members,” foreign ministers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US said in a joint statement.
“China’s action is a clear breach of its international obligations under the legally binding, UN-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration,” the Five Eyes added.
In response, Xi’s administration expressed “dissatisfaction” and “firmly opposed” the statement, reiterating that its decision was “legal, legitimate and beyond any challenge.”
“These countries acted against international law and basic norms guiding international relations. They should be careful or their eyes will be plucked out,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a news briefing.
Those sort of statements and unfulfilled trade promises under Xi’s “opening up” mantra have infuriated the European Union, China’s largest trading partner.
Back in 2018, the bloc’s business lobbies in China, along with the French and German ambassadors to Beijing, called on the Communist Party government to announce concrete changes after complaining of “promise fatigue.” The original phrase was coined in 2017 by the EU Chamber of Commerce when referring to regulatory barriers.
Three years later, that situation still exists.
“Over the past few years, the European Union and a handful of other European countries have reluctantly moved away from a China policy organized around economic engagement toward a policy of limiting China’s influence in Europe for strategic and security reasons,” Thomas Wright, a director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow with the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, said.
“This is a distinctly and uniquely European style of balancing, which involves marshaling Europe’s internal power and working to build unity across member states. It has almost nothing to do with kinetic military power and is instead focused on technology, diplomacy, economics, and politics,” he wrote in a July report entitled Europe Changes Its Mind On China.
So much for Xi’s vision of “openness and cooperation.”