A woman places a placard on a wall to protest against a controversial extradition law proposal near the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong on June 14. Agreements China struck with Britain before the 1997 handover are being torn to threads. (AFP photo)
Throughout the 1990s an army of businessmen were salivating over the economic prospects on offer in China while ignoring the nastier side of the communist state, with issues like the Tiananmen Square massacre and the fate of Hong Kong quietly brushed aside.
Financial magazines and newspapers were gushing in their praise, cheerleaders for China’s rise, claiming human rights would improve as the economy grew in staggering double-digit leaps to turn the 21st century into China’s century.
Two decades later, however, China’s ascension to global greatness is falling short of expectations.
The massacre of about 10,000 pro-democracy advocates — according to a secret British diplomatic cable — in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago did cause a rethink inside the politburo. A quid pro quo was hatched for the angry masses, economic reforms were initiated and in return the Chinese Communist Party would retain power.
Gross domestic product grew tenfold and hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty as China opened up to Western business as the blessings heaped upon its leaders knew no bounds.
However, as China emerged as the world’s second largest economy — a ranking only made possible by its vast population — the figures that matter paint a different story. On a per capita basis, the Chinese rank alongside the people of Nauru, Kazakhstan and Turkey.
The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the United Nations say each Chinese person earns around US$9,000 a year — a great leap for China but from a global perspective a long way short of the US$60,000 notched up annually by each person in the United States.
About a third of Chinese remain in dire poverty while Beijing touts itself as an economic superpower amid a refusal to open its capital accounts and growing suspicions its central bank is simply printing money, not unlike the Weimar Republic.
Growth has also slowed sharply since 2014, mass production is giving way to niche markets as the digital era unfolds, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade war could do to China what Reaganomics did for the Soviet Union before its collapse and what sanctions did for Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Debt is as much a problem in China as it is in the United States and elsewhere.
Transactional diplomacy and human rights
China’s lackluster economy is hardly a prescription for its strutting on the world stage, where Beijing’s influence is being challenged and friendships in the diplomatic arena are transactional.
Among its near-neighbors, only Cambodia can be counted on to support its illegal claims in the South China Sea and to date that has carried a price tag of around US$20 billion.
Debt traps to fund its Belt and Road Initiative make for routine headlines from Africa and Sri Lanka to Fiji, and while people in government behave like paupers finding free money, too many of China’s citizens are mired in poverty and anti-Chinese sentiment is palpable.
It's a transactional policy honed in China in the decades following World War II when Beijing refused to confront Japan’s wartime past, such as the atrocities laid bare by Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking, until the late 1990s when war reparations and soft loans finally ended.
Once the money ran out, Beijing’s justifiable complaints about Japan went from bleating to the echo chamber while its attitude to human rights became selective and absurd.
Its silence during the recent 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was deafening while Chinese diplomats were quietly asking, “Why all the fuss over an incident that occurred so long ago?” It is forbidden to discuss the subject in China.
Nevertheless, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe did make an unprecedented comment on the mass slaughter of university students and anyone who might have supported them.
“There was a conclusion to that incident. The government was decisive in stopping the turbulence,” he said, adding it was "political turmoil that the central government needed to quell, which was the correct policy … Due to this, China has enjoyed stability.”
And in a warning to Trump, he added: “If they want a fight, we will fight till the end."
Back to basics
Wei’s “stability” helped China to punch above its weight for too long. Hopes that its human rights record would improve with economic growth have evaporated and will probably worsen as its overrated economy stagnates and stumbles amid the trade war.
That bodes badly for Hong Kong, where agreements struck with Britain before the 1997 handover are being torn to threads bit by bit.
In the latest upset, Chief Executive Carrie Lam ignored million-strong protests by her own people over an extradition treaty which will enable Beijing to pick and choose its sources of irritation and deliver them to camps known all too well by the ethnic Uyghurs.
Instead, she bowed to Beijing. Passage of the bill has been suspended but it remains pending. It’s one of many broken promises that have forced expats, locals and all those businessmen — who once led the choir — to leave or least think twice about remaining.
And it’s the same wherever Chinese interests and its client states are threatened by the sovereign rights of others.
One simple example is Cambodia, colonized by China at a greater rate than British India. Beijing backed Cambodia’s return to a one-party state and its government no longer affords U.N. sanctuary for the oppressed like it once did and is now facing sanctions as businessmen pack their bags.
China’s desire to dominate, as opposed to being a part of the world, is breathtaking. Its current leadership shares the same contempt for students in Tiananmen Square three decades ago for anyone who dares to challenge its global view.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the money, buying power and compliance.
Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for ucanews.com. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.