Is China a friend to Asia?

Asian countries want to engage with China economically but not at the expense of compromising national security and sovereignty.

The words and actions of Xi Jinping do not match and as the supreme leader of China, his lack of credibility is reflecting badly on the country.  

By Lee Kok Leong, Executive Editor, Maritime Fairtrade

With General Secretary Xi in charge, even if many Asian countries want constructive ties with China, they will naturally be skeptical of Chinese promises and intentions.  They are anxious as to China’s ambitions regarding territorial expansion in South and East China Seas, and Taiwan Strait.  They worry too about keeping business interest separate from geopolitical issues as Xi is intend on using China’s economic clout to bully weaker countries and foreign businesses to yield to his dictates.  

Consequently, Asian governments and businesses come to realize that when dealing with China, they are into a win-win relation, with Xi getting a double win.

Big words but empty promises

Xi is seen to have a deficit of trust and a credibility problem.  On the international stage, he disseminates disinformation and false narrative and his words and subsequent actions are complete opposite of each other.   

A notable example happened on September 25 2015 when Xi stood in the White House Rose Garden and said to the whole world that “China does not intend to pursue militarization of the Spratly Islands” and “China’s outposts would not target or impact any country”.  

We know that is not true.  In the disputed South China Sea, Xi has instead embarked on a comprehensive militarization program which included construction of administrative bases, fighter jet hangars and runways, deployment of anti-ship cruise missiles, and even using a massive fleet of militia fishing vessels and Coast Guard ships to harass local fishermen.  Sometimes this maritime militia was in skirmishes with law enforcement authorities from other claimant countries.  

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, after the enactment of the draconian Security Law in June 2020, there were crackdowns, arrests and overt use of force at intimidation.  However, in his address to the 75th United Nations General Assembly in September 2020, Xi claimed Beijing is for peace and democracy.  Even now, stamping out dissent, criticism and protest is still ongoing.  

On May 14, Jimmy Lai, the owner of pro-democracy Apple Daily who was earlier sentenced to 14 months in prison for taking part in unauthorized assemblies during protests in 2019, had his assets frozen.  This decision by the Hong Kong court is also a warning sign to global investors and businesses that the risk of doing business has increased.   Effectively, Xi is undermining Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub, which may lead to a capital outflow and talent exodus.  

It has long been known in the foreign business community about limited market access, opaque regulatory processes, the favoring of domestic companies and state-owned enterprises, and loopholes in intellectual property protection.  Foreign companies have repeatedly call on the authority to uphold fair play and not to whip up consumer boycott using nationalism.  Nevertheless, Beijing says it treats foreign and domestic companies equally.

The great firewall of China

In yet another blow to China’s credibility, it is ironic that as Xi and his wolf warriors, including diplomats and journalists from state-owned media, are actively using Twitter and Facebook to shape public opinion in foreign countries, these platforms are banned in China along with heavy censorship on much of the Internet.  

While the authority deems it necessary to use western social medias to let the outside world know of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) viewpoint, they are afraid of letting their own citizens know of opinions that are different from those of the CCP.  In a deeper level, this shows that Xi is not confident of the legitimacy of his rule, and therefore he feels the pathological need to brainwash and control the thought of the people. 

The death of press freedom

Without credibility, one will always suspect whatever Xi says and take it with a pinch of salt.  One also cannot help but feel that Xi is bringing China down a path of economic and military confrontation with the rest of the world.  It may be a benefit to Xi personally, as he uses Maoism to cement power, but his brand of ideology is definitely detrimental to Chinese citizens as well as to the Chinese diaspora worldwide in light of the prevalent anti-Chinese sentiments, especially in western countries where there are racist attacks against Chinese for purportedly spreading COVID-19 virus.  

The danger is that whether we like it or not, the perception and reputation of Xi will reflect on all Chinese around the world.  Xi’s behavior and his wolf warriors may further fuel the hate crimes.  It does not help that Xi also portrays himself to represent all Chinese.  

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Xi has used his propaganda apparatus to plant positive narrative and to boost China’s image in global media coverage.  To reach this goal, he engages in disinformation and pushes false narrative about the virus origins.  Lest we forget, at the beginning of the pandemic, it was Chinese doctors and citizens who shared with the world important information at great personal cost as they faced official persecution.

However, in a sign that some of the media is becoming suspicious of what the CCP is up to, a May 12 survey by the International Federation of Journalists found that Asian media outlets in particular, are pushing back against China’s influence.  In the 21 Asian countries surveyed, the resistance to China’s media outreach is strong. One-quarter of respondents reported a ban on Chinese apps in their country and almost half of all countries said Chinese influence on their national media is negative.

In yet another sign of distrust in the Chinese regime, a group of leading scientists questioned the WHO report, jointly written with Chinese scientists published in March, that stated a laboratory leak of the COVID-19 virus was “extremely unlikely”.  The group of 18 scientists said on May 14 that the origin is still unclear and the laboratory leak theory needs to be taken seriously until there is a rigorous data-led investigation that proves it wrong.  They also added that the WHO’s investigation had not made a “balanced consideration” of this theory.

China’s credibility problem is not good for Asia

As the wolfs howl louder, China’s credibility drops further.  If not for the kind of wolf warrior behavior that intimidates and threatens foreign governments and businesses, and the very nature of China’s regime as has been fashioned by Xi into the extreme Maoist ideology, there will not be that much ill-will and resentment against the CCP. 

Xi stands against democracy and human rights.  He is a threat to a competitive market, to transparent supply chains, to open exchange of information, and to the free navigation of the seas.  Xi poses a danger not only to neighboring Asian countries but also to Chinese citizens.

Nobody begrudged the relatively peaceful rise of China, not least Asian countries who benefited enormously economically, under the past leadership of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zeming, Hu Jintao.  But things took a dive under Xi.  

Asian countries want to engage with China economically but not at the expense of compromising national security and sovereignty because they know if they go too far in pleasing Xi, sooner or later, their reputation will suffer and more importantly, there will be a backlash from their own citizens.  They have woken up, perhaps belatedly, to the hard reality that Xi is not a friend.

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Lee Kok Leong

Lee Kok Leong

Kok Leong, executive editor, has overall editorial responsibility for the direction and focus of Maritime Fairtrade. He has two decades of working experiences, including holding senior regional roles in business-to-business (B2B) print and online publications. He enjoys his work as a journalist, and regards it as a calling.

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