Why China Would Be Foolish To Make Another Tiananmen

Hong Kong has been a center of focus for much of the world these past few weeks, with good reason. Record-breaking protests, which initially began due to outcry over a potential change in extradition policy and now far exceeded that initial issue, have been rocking the city. Protestors have clashed with police who turned to tear gas and rubber bullets to repel them.

Amid this chaotic situation there have been whispers of fear that a tragedy from 30 years ago will be recreated.

However, it would be foolish for China to create another Tiananmen.

The main reason for this is quite simple. Information. In the age of the Internet any move China makes will be seen and heard around the world instantly, and without the need to smuggle pictures out in a box of tea. This is especially important given that China is currently embroiled in two major issues that are taking up a great deal of its focus and resources.

The United States and China are still battling each other in a trade war, which, despite hopes that things were improving, have now deteriorated further than ever before. This means that that US is watching China with an extremely skeptical eye. Any behavior that the Trump administration deems as provocative or negative, may cause them to pressure the Chinese government more heavily, not only economically, but politically, as well. President Trump has already made a connection between the potential of a trade deal and what is currently transpiring in Hong Kong, going so far as to say it would be “very hard” to do a trade deal if China resorts to violence in Hong Kong and making direct links to Tiananmen. Whatever one might say about using the Hong Kong protests as leverage for a trade deal, one thing is clear about the situation. The United States is watching.

The second issue, and where China is already receiving ire for its inhumane and counter-humanitarian measures is the Xinjiang/Uyghur issue.

The international community has been watching what has been unfolding in western China with concern as potentially one million Uyghurs have been forced into what the Chinese government is calling “vocational education and training centers” in order to “combat terrorism”. Most in the international community seem unconvinced.

The combination of these two issues put a great deal of pressure on the Chinese government, a fact that seems to irritate Chinese officials profoundly. This suggests that China is feeling the pressure of so many eyes watching them. If true, Hong Kong would certainly be no exception to those watchful eyes.

However, one does need to take pause. Though this article is of the opinion that it would be foolish for China to create another Tiananmen that does not mean that those who make up the Chinese government are of the same opinion or that they won’t. Here are some things that should be considered.

Though much of the international community has condemned China’s actions against the Uyghurs, there are some who commended them. 37 countries, including: Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, the Philippines, and Zimbabwe have pledge their support for China openly. However, one could easily point out that the human rights records of these countries supporting China are quite dubious themselves and thus their word on this matter means little. That said, that these countries are backing China does present a problem towards limiting any action the Chinese might take with regards to Hong Kong.

It should also be stated that American support, limited as it may be now, is not assured. Given that the Trump administration is currently trying to create a trade deal with China; needs Chinese aid to better assure a North Korean denuclearization treaty; and have given security assurances to Taiwan, including recently selling them billions of dollars worth of F-16 fighter jets, much to China’s displeasure; they may decide any fight over Hong Kong is not worth the risk.

There should also be concern with Chinese leadership. With President Xi Jinping’s continued consolidation of power, he seems more intent on control and creating stability in China, something which the Hong Kong protests certainly go against.

To reiterate, though the idea of a Tiananmen Square situation occurring in Hong Kong should be met with great sadness, and would be unwise of the Chinese government to enact in an era in which it is trying to be an active participant in the international community, it is not impossible that the Chinese government will decide to use force against Hong Kong, in spite of any damage or pressure inflicted upon China or its image. That said, it is possible that they will recognize that the world is watching them very intently and decide not to act in an aggressive manner for the sake of not turning the international community against them further. As such, one may hope that cooler heads prevail with this situation and that a positive outcome comes about.

Sources:

The Diplomat; Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill and Taiwan’s Sovereignty Dilemma; Ming-Sung Kuo; June 26, 2019 https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/hong-kongs-extradition-bill-and-taiwans-sovereignty-dilemma/

The Diplomat; 2 Months on, Hong Kong Remains Defiant; Adryel Talamantes; August 21, 2019 https://thediplomat.com/2019/08/2-months-on-hong-kong-remains-defiant/

BBC; The photos that defined a massacre; Fiona Macdonald; October 5, 2017; http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20171005-the-photos-that-defined-a-massacre

The Diplomat; What Happened to the US-China Trade Deal?; Paul Wiseman; August 10, 2019 https://thediplomat.com/2019/08/what-happened-to-the-us-china-trade-deal/

Reuters Video; August 19, 2019; https://www.reuters.com/video/2019/08/19/trump-links-china-talks-with-hong-kong-p?videoId=589317206

The Diplomat; China Stays Tough on Xinjiang Policy Despite Growing Global Outcry; Charlotte Gao; November 29, 2018 https://thediplomat.com/2018/11/china-stays-tough-on-xinjiang-policy-despite-growing-global-outcry/

Reuters; Exclusive: China will retaliate ‘in proportion’ to any U.S. sanction over Muslim Uighurs – ambassador; Michael Martina; November 27, 2018 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-uighurs-exclusive/exclusive-china-will-retaliate-in-proportion-to-any-us-sanction-over-muslim-uighurs-ambassador-idUSKCN1NW2PA

France 24; 37 countries defend China over Xinjiang in UN letter; July 12, 2019 https://www.france24.com/en/20190712-37-countries-defend-china-over-xinjiang-un-letter

Bloomberg; China Threatens Retaliation Over U.S. Arms Sale to Taiwan; August 21, 2019; With assistance by Iain Marlow, Lucille Liu, Miao Han, and Debby Wu https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-21/china-threatens-retaliation-over-u-s-arms-sale-to-taiwan

The Diplomat; Xi Jinping Continues His Quest for Absolute Party Control; Shannon Tiezzi; July 10, 2019 https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/xi-jinping-continues-his-quest-for-absolute-party-control/

US-China Relations: Suggestions for the Future

American-Chinese relations are in a difficult position. Tensions over trade, territory, and North Korea, among others, has turned their relationship into an all-out rivalry. But there are ways to improve the current predicament so that both sides may feel more secure and benefit from their relationship.

On the American side, there are a variety of methods that they can enact to ease tensions and improve cooperation. First and foremost, the trade war pushed forward by President Trump must be ended. He is not wrong that the Chinese government has manipulated the scales in order to benefit their own economy, but a trade war only serves to increase tensions and will do significant harm to numerous wings of the American economy. Instead, the President should promote economic interdependence, tying China as heavily to the American economy as heavily to the United States as possible. This would be a major piece in a much broader program of creating more open forums for discussion and cooperation. As the world’s two leading nations, there must be numerous, and easy to use lines of dialogue in order solve issues and bolster their interests.

Naturally though, the US is skeptical of China’s rising power and is rightfully concerned about Chinese investment and acquisitions in such areas as artificial intelligence and other dual-purpose technologies. As such, it was wise to strengthen their Committee on Foreign Investment and more steps should be taken to ensure sensitive technology and information is protected. On that note, the US should focus more heavily on their cyber defense capabilities. The US has an extensive arsenal of cyber tools, but they are focused on offensive capabilities, which opened not only itself, but the world to cyber attack when those tools are lost, and the US can be sure that China is bolstering is capacity to wage war in cyberspace.  

Finally, the US must reinvigorate old alliances. The President may see legit issues with current alliances, but in these times of nervousness and tension he would do well to set aside these points of contention, at least for now. The US must join with friendly nations like Japan, South Korea, and Australia, to properly handle the problems associated with China’s rising power. It must also join with newer partners, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia, who have shown increasing concern about their larger neighbor.

However, the US is not the only one which must change if a resolution is to be found. China has issues, as well, that it must address if it wishes to ease current tensions.

Firstly, China must cease its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. Its profound claims of ownership, coupled with its island building and sequent construction of military installations, is an affront to international stability and disturbs numerous countries, such as the previously mentioned Vietnam.

Another action China must take, should it wish to ease tensions abroad, is open up their markets. China is notorious for limiting foreign access to its markets at the same time it is actively pumping money into other markets including real estate and artificial intelligence. This has led to frustration by China’s two largest trading partners: the European Union, and the United States. Added onto to this is the issue of China’s State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), which are insulated from outside forces. These too, must be made more open, at least in some, non-strategic sectors, not only to elevate pressure from foreign entities looking to enter the Chinese market, but also to end the drain on China’s economy itself.

On the issue of economics, China must also gain a respect for intellectual property rights. The scope of China’s intellectual theft is extensive with a 2017 updated report from the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property stating the cost to the US economy totaling somewhere between $225 and $600 billion annually. This can only do harm to any relationship between the US and China and will remain an open wound for future grievances until properly addressed.

There are also actions that both may improve their relationship.  As stated earlier, creating or improving existing conferences and institutions that allow for a forum of discussion and a mode to address issues is vital. Should tensions between the two strain their capacity for an open dialogue, a chain of communication, such as through Japan or South Korea, could also be utilized. This would have the added benefit of bringing such countries into the fold and decreasing the risk that they feel sidelined.

These are but a few methods that may be used to improve the current condition of US-China relations and ease concerns amongst the many parties, and there are certainly others. For both countries they may find the suggestions provided difficult to implement, or even against their perceived interests. In some ways they may be right. However, it’s to no one’s interests that the US and China, the two largest economies, vaste populations, and both controlling nuclear arsenals, should come into conflict.

Bibliography

Congress Strengthens Reviews of Chinese and Other Foreign Investments, New York Times, August 1, 2018

Security Breach and Spilled Secrets Have Shaken the N.S.A. to Its Core, New York Times, November 12, 2017
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http://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/countries/china/

Fixing China Inc, The Economist, August 30th, 2014

The Unreal Scope of China’s Intellectual Property Theft, The American Conservative, July 23, 2018

Update to the IP Commission Report, The Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property, published by The National Bureau of Asian Research, February 2017, initial Report May 2013

The World Bank, World Integrated Trade Solution, China, https://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/CHN/Year/LTST/TradeFlow/EXPIMP/Partner/by-country