Argument

China’s Surging Nationalism Has Claimed Hong Kong

The new national security measures won’t be the end of Beijing’s belligerence.

Riot police stand guard during a protest against a planned national security law in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on May 27.
Riot police stand guard during a protest against a planned national security law in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on May 27. Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

The moment that many people have dreaded may have finally come for Hong Kong after Beijing announced a bill on May 21 to “safeguard national security” in the city-state. When this law comes into effect, it will effectively end Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” arrangement that has been in place since 1997.

But it isn’t just about Hong Kong. The bold move is merely the latest example of belligerent nationalistic behavior from China directed at both domestic and international targets this year. It follows several years of increasingly nationalistic messages emanating from the top of the Chinese government.

The national security law would ban secession, terrorism, and “foreign interference,” thus criminalizing a host of activities critical of the authorities such as protests or social media posts. In effect, Hong Kong would become just like mainland China, where any criticism or protest against the government and the Chinese Communist Party is forbidden.

The bill was announced the day before China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) opened for its annual meetings. The NPC delegates then voted to approve the bill at the end of the meetings on May 28. The law will be added directly to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, completely bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature.

Hong Kongers have been protesting fiercely since last June over a proposed extradition law that would allow anybody in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China. This national security law goes beyond the proposed anti-extradition law, which was subsequently withdrawn in October.

Clamping down on dissent in Hong Kong by imposing a security law that would shatter the “one country, two systems” model that the territory is governed under suggests Beijing does not care about reducing tensions with the protest movement in Hong Kong or international opinion. Beijing is willing to sacrifice Hong Kong’s financial hub status for the sake of political domination.

These days, China doesn’t worry about international opinion. In fact, it seems almost willing to defy it. In recent months, Chinese diplomats have engaged in spats on social media and in public with other countries, actions that have since been referred to as “wolf warrior” diplomacy, named after two nationalistic Chinese action movies.

Since 2019, dozens of Chinese ambassadors, embassies, and consulates have opened accounts on Twitter and Facebook and have been very active in issuing insults, warnings, and threats. Two of the most notorious wolf warriors are Foreign Ministry spokespeople Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying. Zhao called former U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice a “disgrace” and tried to spread a ludicrous conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was brought to China by U.S. military personnel.

China openly threatened Australia after it called for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak and went after the Netherlands for changing the name of its Taiwan representative office to signify warming ties. New Zealand and France have also come into China’s verbal firing line, the former for supporting Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly and the latter for agreeing to sell naval system upgrades to Taiwan. China then further escalated its threats to Australia with the imposition of tariffs on barley imports as well as bans on several Australian meat producers. This has led to a growing debate in Australia on its trade dependency on China.

Chinese belligerence hasn’t been limited to just verbal threats or tariffs.

There are now mounting tensions with India after Chinese troops recently faced off against their Indian counterparts in multiple locations along their shared border. In addition to physical conflicts that involved fistfights and sticks in May, Chinese helicopters also flew near Indian airspace several times in April. As a result, both sides are stepping up their troop presence near the site of their physical clashes. China has laid claim to parts of Indian territory along their shared border—or Line of Control—which has never been demarcated.

Over the last few months, Chinese coast guard and fishing ships have been involved in incidents with Vietnamese, Japanese, and Taiwanese ships. In April, China also sent a survey vessel into Malaysian waters for a month and designated part of the South China Sea it controls as two administrative districts, thus officially signaling that it was Chinese territory. China has continued to launch provocative military exercises near Taiwan, including a first-ever night flight, and sailed an aircraft carrier group around the island.

For China, ending one country, two systems in Hong Kong and cracking down on the protest movement are extensions of its increased repressiveness against its own people, from human rights activists and lawyers to the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

China cited terrorism and vocational education in justifying the imprisonment of at least a million Uighurs in detention camps since 2018. In reality, the camps enforce indoctrination by compelling them to give up their Muslim beliefs and Uighur customs.

The authorities’ iron grip on the media and internet, plus its intensive propaganda, has intensified even during the coronavirus pandemic by promoting China’s supposedly successful response and contrasting it with the West’s flailing performance. The Chinese government has also cultivated a personality cult for President Xi Jinping while bringing back Mao Zedong-era slogans and messages.

Xi has specifically made “rejuvenating the nation” and restoring Chinese greatness his core goals. He has made clear that the party will remain the sole arbiter in the political and economic spheres at home while asserting itself overseas.

Meanwhile, Chinese state media has presented a heavily distorted picture of the Hong Kong protests by playing up images of confrontations and vandalism while refusing to show the peaceful mass marches and report on the actual grievances of the protesters.

The authorities have constantly squeezed the space available for expression of different opinions, including even shutting down a popular joke-sharing app. A rare window of expression sprung up in February after Li Wenliang, a whistleblower doctor in Wuhan who had been detained in late December, died from the coronavirus, leading to an outpouring of grief and criticism from netizens. Soon after, this window was quickly shut while the authorities co-opted the doctor’s death by branding him a martyr—stripping his heroism of any political edge by giving him the state’s imprimatur and denouncing a few local officials in Wuhan for silencing him. In March, when another doctor, Ai Fen, gave an interview criticizing the official withholding of data, she went missing, presumably detained, and has not been heard from since, other than a cryptic video on her Weibo account.

While dissenting and moderate voices have been silenced, this has given rise to surging nationalism on social media.

Earlier this year, the Wuhan writer Wang Fang wrote a diary during the city’s lockdown when it was being ravaged by the coronavirus. After initially attracting a following, Wang suddenly became the target of vicious cyberattacks after she inked a deal to have her diary translated into English, which it was, and the translation was released in May. She was accused of making China look bad and undermining the supposed success of the country’s coronavirus efforts.

The wolf warrior attitude isn’t just limited to Chinese diplomats. It’s also apparent among social media commentators who promote the idea of war with Taiwan and the United States or claims that neighboring countries wish to become part of China. The latter provoked a diplomatic spat with Kazakhstan after a Chinese article claimed the Central Asian country was historically part of China and would welcome becoming one again.

The idea of invading Taiwan, which China claims belongs to it, has also been mooted by Chinese commentators on social media, such as the university professor Tian Feilong, though an ex-general publicly spoke up against the idea, urging that China focus on domestic development first.

Taiwan’s international profile has risen this year due to its relative success in containing the coronavirus on its shores and its ensuing donations of face masks and other protective equipment to countries around the world. This has brought the issue of Taiwan’s international isolation to the fore, especially its continued exclusion by the World Health Organization. While China has continued to issue warnings and threats, there is no doubt that Taiwan’s relations with the United States and other countries have strengthened. The solidifying of a Taiwanese identity, as well as President Tsai Ing-wen’s winning a second term in January in the face of pro-China domestic propaganda promoting her opponent, has gone hand in hand with a realization, as exemplified by the situation in Hong Kong, that any sort of unification with China, as Beijing insists on, is completely out of the question.

State media in China stokes anti-Western sentiment among the public through biased narratives while urging civil servants to beware of dating foreign “spies.” This has contributed to a noticeable xenophobia, amplified by the coronavirus. In April, Africans in Guangzhou were singled out for coronavirus tests and quarantine, and as a result, many were evicted from their apartments and banned from entering hospitals and restaurants—sparking a diplomatic spat with various African countries.

The wolf warrior diplomats’ aggressive verbal attacks on foreign countries and officials seem calculated to ingrain a defiant us-versus-the-world attitude among the Chinese public. As some have noted, these messages, while not gaining China any international friends, are meant for the Chinese public.

The fact that China is choosing this time to launch verbal and military provocations against so many parties at the same time is surprising, but there are several factors at play.

First, there are Xi’s constant messages of rejuvenating China, which strongly assume that China is becoming a dominant power that can assert itself against other countries.

Add to this overconfidence and opportunism, given that the United States, the European Union, and other major countries are seemingly incapacitated by the coronavirus and are perceived to be weaker and unable to push back against Chinese aggression. Taiwan would be a tantalizing target as the United States, its main protector, would not be able to offer as much help as under normal circumstances.

However, China is experiencing worsening economic crisis and decreased international standing given the ongoing U.S.-China trade war and the coronavirus pandemic. This is also fueled by strong criticism from the United States and other countries over China’s coronavirus cover-up, its ensuing propaganda efforts, and the many faulty personal protective equipment shipments from Chinese companies. China’s international standing in recent times has never been more threatened or under scrutiny, especially with the continuing turbulence in Hong Kong.

Despite the immense consequences of Beijing’s sudden move to force a national security law on Hong Kong, things won’t stop there. There is a strong possibility that China’s nationalism will continue escalating and will soon find other targets. That’s bad news for the world—especially China’s other neighbors.

Hilton Yip is a journalist in Taiwan.

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