Experts from Hong Kong and Taiwan highlight the ‘sharp power’ tactics used by the Chinese Communist Party to erode freedoms in its near-abroad and beyond.
The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy on Nov. 21 hosted a panel discussion in Taipei involving scholars and democratic activists from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Titled “Defending Democracy: Hong Kong under Chinese Influence and Taiwan’s Countermeasures,” the discussion was about how Hong Kong’s democracy and society have changed under China’s influence and how Taiwan can learn from the Hong Kong experience in order to counter such influence.
The Hong Kong Civil Hub published the report titled “China’s Sharp Power in Hong Kong” in September, showing how Hong Kong has become the “experimental ground” for China’s “sharp power,” which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would apply to other free societies after the tactics have been tested in the autonomous city. Similarly, the recently published U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual report points out that Beijing has continued to encroach on Hong Kong’s political autonomy.
Nathan Law, who was elected at the age of 23 to Hong Kong’s legislature and got disqualified for “failing to sincerely take the oath of office” in July 2017, told the panel that the Commission report has recommended the U.S. reassess its policy of treating Hong Kong and China as separate customs areas, as Beijing has continued to take Hong Kong as a legitimate front to bypass trade barriers and import sensitive military-related products to the Chinese mainland and even to North Korea and Iran. “The U.S. has come to realize the harms the Chinese government could do to the U.S. national security via Hong Kong,” Law said.
Beijing expects Hong Kong to follow Singapore’s example — closed politically but open economically and with a government that is “not by the people but is still able to be of the people and for the people.” But without autonomy, Law said, it is highly doubtful that Hong Kong could have a government that is for the Hong Kong people. For the People’s Republic of China (PRC), “Hong Kong could only have a government that serves PRC’s needs and is by the PRC, of the PRC, and for the PRC.”
“Recently in Hong Kong, there are many ‘integration’ projects launching or being finished,” he said, referring to the recently opened Hong Kong-Macao-Zhuhai Bridge and a new plan to build artificial islands. “The hundreds of billions [of Hong Kong dollars] could have been used to support the local policies and social welfare system, but they weren’t. It shows that what matters is actually Beijing’s needs rather than the Hong Kong people’s.”
Academia Sinica Institute of Taiwan History associate research fellow Wu Ruei-ren, who has been paying close attention to Hong Kong’s democratic movements in the past years, said the concept of sharp power is authoritarian powers’ malign corrosion of other sovereign countries via manipulation and cooptation. What Beijing has been doing to Hong Kong, however, is a suzerain exercising its ruling power over its sphere of control; there was no need of guise [of its power], and the reason why Beijing is still trying to keep its actions under the radar is not because it respects the sovereignty of Hong Kong but that it needs to maintain the appearance of ‘one country, two systems’ so as to keep the status of the city as a global financial hub and a separate custom.”
While “sharp power” penetrates another sovereign state via non-governmental sections, Beijing has co-opted Hong Kong’s traditional business leaders and British-trained government officials, Wu said. “This is what a foreign regime, lacking in local ruling base, would do in a new territory in order to create its own social support. The series of suppression after the Umbrella Movement was belated house-cleaning; Beijing has been neutralizing the influence of the native political elites, by co-opting the old elites and repressing the new ones. This kind of putting down’ [rebellions in] Hong Kong is actually colonial in character, which reminds us of the Kuomintang’s actions of suppression and cooptation in Taiwan after 1947,” Wu observed.
He stressed that Beijing’s “sharp power” against the de-facto independent Taiwan, on the other hand, is like what it does to other democratic countries, which is “combined attacks,” including military intimidation, diplomatic isolation, using economic leverage, and reaching to local pro-China collaborators. “Taiwan is a textbook case [of how ‘sharp power’ is used].” Entertainment and cultural groups in Taiwan have remained indifferent to or are deliberately overlooking politics, “but we have to understand that it is impossible to separate politics from the economic and cultural spheres and that we need to have a renewed understanding of China’s totalitarianism,” he said.
What Taiwan needs to do now is to expose China’s influence, make good use of the fact that Taiwan is a sovereign country to establish internal security mechanisms, reiterate democratic values to inoculate the Taiwanese people against the influence of “sharp power,” and “to raise the costs of those who try to collaborate with China — which means punishment,” Wu said.
The U.S. once believed that incorporating China into the liberal economic system could lead to its democratization, but what we see instead is that China’s anti-democratic ideology has proliferated and abetted a global democratic backsliding. “We need to be aware that [China’s] influence is global, and in this sense we share the same destiny that we must defend and safeguard democracy together,” he said.
Wu recommended that different sectors in Taiwan and between Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s civil societies should collaborate “to share information and experiences,” adding that working with what is left of Chinese civil society is likewise crucial. Hong Kong’s Alliance for True Democracy convener Joseph Cheng said the importance of cooperation is evinced in Beijing’s accusations of “convergence of forces” in Taiwan and Hong Kong. “It means it really is fearful of the alliance.”
National Cheng Kung University political science professor Leung Man-to, who was born in Hong Kong and has lived in Taiwan for 17 years, said that when facing the CCP, “there is only one kind of attitude, which is that you have to distrust it and then distrust it.”
Beijing’s control over Hong Kong is through media and the economy, he said, adding “1.3 million people in Hong Kong now live below poverty line; that is one seventh of the Hong Kong population.” “Beijing only cares about maintaining the city’s financial freedom so that [the Chinese elite] can undertake money-laundering and profiteering activities,” Leung said.
“Beijing is also good at polarizing people, making your fellow people either your friends or enemies. This is what it has been applying to Taiwan, too, using many controversial issues to manufacture serious divides,” he added.
Cheng also called on Taiwanese media to be aware of China’s united front tactics and be as objective as possible in their reporting to avoid polarization, while Hong Kong’s veteran democracy activist Leung Kwok-hung said we need to understand that the influence of China as a new imperial power is global. The Taiwanese government must be aware that there can be no political independence if Taiwan’s economy isn’t so.
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Feature image: From Flickr CC BY 2.0.