China Finds Itself Under Fire in Myanmar

Attacks on Chinese factories could force Beijing to take a stand on the military coup.

Protesters sit on a barricade in Yangon.
Protesters sit on a makeshift barricade erected to deter security forces in Hlaing Tharyar township in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 14. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Myanmar security forces killed dozens of protesters in a brutal crackdown in one of Yangon’s biggest factory districts on Sunday, the bloodiest single incident since the military took power in a coup on Feb. 1. By the end of the day, multiple Chinese-owned businesses in Hlaing Tharyar had gone up in flames. Although the cause of the fires has not been established, workers said in the days leading up to the protest that if any blood was spilled, the factories would turn to ashes.

Chinese state media responded to the violence by focusing on the financial damage, enraging a population that already blames Beijing for allegedly supporting the coup—or at least doing little to condemn it. The attacks also seem to have strained China’s relationship with Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw. State-owned enterprises in Myanmar are pulling out nonessential employees, and state media has warned of “drastic action” if local authorities fail to protect Beijing’s interests. Martial law has now been declared in Yangon’s industrial outskirts, leading activists to fault China for escalating the situation and putting civilians at risk.

The incident underscores the complexity of China’s position in Myanmar. Although its leaders seem to have no qualms about working with an authoritarian government, they tend to prize stability above all else. The chaos that followed the coup instead threatens the regional superpower’s business interests, including major development projects signed off by the deposed democratic government. Meanwhile, protesters’ increasing animosity toward China may force it to clearly take a side in the conflict rather than straddling the fence and waiting for a winner to emerge.

Anger at China surfaced early in the demonstrations, with protesters regularly gathering outside the Chinese Embassy in Yangon until it was blocked off by security forces. What began as legitimate criticism of Beijing’s unwillingness to emphatically condemn the coup snowballed into widespread accusations that it had engineered it. Misinformation and rumors proliferated on social media, including false sightings of Chinese soldiers among security forces and unproven allegations that China is supporting the junta’s efforts to install an internet firewall.

People in Myanmar are understandably wary of China, which has previously shown a willingness to interfere in its domestic affairs by supporting ethnic armed groups and engaging in predatory resource extraction. But the conspiracy theories overlook that Beijing had invested considerable efforts in building a relationship with democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi and has a fraught history with the Tatmadaw. Recently, China allegedly offered material support to the separatist Arakan Army, placing it at odds with the military in the conflict-torn Rakhine state.

The coup has placed Chinese economic projects directly at risk.

The coup has placed Chinese economic projects directly at risk. Beijing will be anxiously eying planned developments in Kyaukpyu in Rakhine state, which would give it direct access to the Indian Ocean: It’s unclear if the junta will honor the agreements previously approved by the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s government. Greater instability could also lead to more conflict in Myanmar’s border regions with China, disrupting trade. And Beijing now also has to fear outraged protesters, who are threatening to target its projects throughout the country, including planned oil pipelines.

China had sought to avoid both condemning the military and angering the overwhelmingly popular democracy movement, looking for a way to preserve its economic interests and turn the situation in its favor. Such pragmatism was on display in the immediate wake of the coup, which the United States moved quickly to condemn. China joined Russia to block a United Nations Security Council statement strongly criticizing the power grab, watering down the statement to avoid the word “coup.” By targeting Chinese business interests, protesters may now hope to push China to take a harder line against the Tatmadaw.

Economic anxieties and concerns over the environmental effects of Beijing’s development projects have brought anti-Chinese sentiment to the forefront in Myanmar in recent decades. In the 1980s, mass migration from China’s Yunnan province caused grievances that contributed to the 1988 uprisings against Myanmar’s military dictatorship, according to Sebastian Strangio, author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century. People in Myanmar of Chinese heritage have “always faced some level of racial discrimination” because they are not one of Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic minority groups, said Sai Nay Nay Win, the president of the Burmese-Chinese Youth Association.

The uptick in anti-Chinese sentiment among protesters has made some members of the Burmese Chinese community deeply uncomfortable. “Some of our members’ families are really afraid,” Sai Nay Nay Win told Foreign Policy. The tensions are a “two-way problem,” he said, with many Burmese Chinese feeling more connected to China than to Myanmar. But people of Chinese descent have increasingly joined the protest movement, including two icons: Kyal Sin and Khant Nyar Hein, both killed by security forces at 19 years old.

Myanmar’s previous military regime, in power from 1988 until 2011, cozied up to China because it was spurned by everyone else, despite maintaining a “deep institutional suspicion of China,” Strangio wrote. With Western countries denouncing the Tatmadaw, it’s easy to see how that dynamic could reemerge under the current regime. But a desire to become less dependent on China arguably motivated Myanmar’s aborted democratic transition.

While many of her supporters might not want to admit it now, China enjoyed a fairly close relationship with Myanmar under Aung San Suu Kyi. The previous arrangement, with the NLD holding power but hamstrung by the military, seemed ideal for Beijing: It could make investment deals with the NLD, a largely rational actor, with Western countries kept at arms’ length due to the military’s continued human rights abuses. (The Tatmadaw, for its part, has already hired a lobbyist to argue that the generals want to distance their regime from China and strengthen relations with the West.)

Beijing has continued to insist it supports Myanmar’s democratic transition, calling for the two sides to settle the issue through dialogue, an increasingly unlikely solution. “The current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see,” Chinese Ambassador Chen Hai said in an interview with local media shortly after the coup, calling for the “immediate release” of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.

Chinese analysts don’t suspect Beijing of saying one thing and doing another in Myanmar. Yun Sun, the director of the Stimson Center’s China program and an expert on Chinese foreign policy, said she sees “no reason that China would support the coup. … [Chen’s] statement is strong by Chinese standard, which reflects the Chinese frustration with the military” for putting Beijing’s economic interests at risk.

China hasn’t hidden its support for authoritarian regimes in the past.

After all, China hasn’t hidden its support for authoritarian regimes in the past. When Cambodia’s government dissolved the main opposition party in 2017, turning the country into a one-party dictatorship, China backed the move and seemed to relish the subsequent diplomatic spat with the United States. Cambodia’s descent into authoritarianism was welcomed because it preserved China’s political influence and economic power in Phnom Penh.

The current crisis could present a small window of opportunity to China if it is willing to overlook its past differences with the Tatmadaw. Aung San Suu Kyi was wary of becoming too dependent on China. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar last year, no new projects were greenlighted, with the two sides only signing pledges to accelerate the already approved projects. That never happened; the NLD instead began reaching out to other regional heavyweights, such as India, in an attempt to diversify.

Likewise, China was likely looking to make backroom overtures to the military, hoping to find a more amenable development partner when the dust settled. Given protesters’ increasing pressure, Beijing can’t play both sides for much longer. It may soon have to choose between backing the junta enthusiastically or turning its back on the regime entirely.

Andrew Nachemson is a journalist covering politics, human rights, and Chinese development in Southeast Asia.
 Twitter: @ANachemson

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