BY JIANLI YANG AND AARON RHODES, OPINION CONTRIBUTORS04/24/20 08:30 AM EDT
On April 18, Beijing intensified its crackdown on the people of Hong Kong by arresting 14 high-profile Hong Kong democracy activists on charges of “illegal assembly.” Those arrested include the 82-year-old Martin Lee Chu-ming, considered the “grandfather of democracy” in Hong Kong, and media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, owner of the largest pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily.
These arrests are a classic example of opportunism by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The regime of Xi Jinping apparently has calculated that:
- The pandemic provides a distraction, and thus an opportunity, for a preemptive strike against the opposition that will thwart protests likely to occur around June 9, the first anniversary of the Hong Kong anti-extradition legislation protests.
- The United States, United Kingdom and other democratic powers, consumed by domestic challenges, are unable to react in meaningful ways, beyond condemning the arrests. The only liability the CCP likely will face is lip service supporting abstract principles.
- In the context of the global financial crisis caused by the pandemic, Hong Kong’s economy is even less a reason for restraint than when the protests were at their peak and Western voices were the strongest. Given the massive decline in China’s exports, Hong Kong’s special trade status is a minor factor.
- Fear of the virus and the stricter police restrictions will prevent large-scale demonstrations and no mass protests of the crackdown are likely. But as the virus gradually comes under control, this window of opportunity is closing.
Crushing the dissent in Hong Kong is more necessary to Xi’s rule now than before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The Wuhan outbreak exposed the bankruptcy of CCP rule. Xi finds himself facing unprecedented criticism, anger and, ever more bold, ridicule. In several public relations humiliations, he has met resistance from outside and within the party. The CCP’s propaganda and control could unravel under withering criticism from such prominent figures as Li Wenliang, the doctor who first raised alarms about the virus, Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrui, civil rights lawyer and activist Xu Zhiyong, Peking University professor He Weifang, journalist Chen Qiushi, Wuhan-based author Fang Fang , Ai Fen, director of the emergency department of Wuhan Central Hospital, retired scholar Zhao Shilin, netizen Ren Zhiqiang and others.
In this precarious situation, Beijing cannot afford the effect of demonstrations in Hong Kong on the mainlanders. It must squeeze the space for free political expression in Hong Kong to zero. On April 13, Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong urgently called for controversial national security legislation to quash the pro-democracy movement.
Xi’s internal political crisis apparently also has driven his recent moves toward Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has increased its activities around the democratic, self-ruled island. Since the middle of February, PLA air force flights have crossed the median of the Taiwan Strait six times. On April 11, Taiwan scrambled warships as PLA navy aircraft carrier strike group headed for the Pacific. On April 15, the official website of the Taiwan Affairs Office of China’s State Council featured a long article talking about uniting Taiwan with the mainland by force.
It may be assumed that this overt threat of military conflict with Taiwan, along with the Hong Kong crackdown, were thought expedient while the international community is preoccupied with COVID-19, but they also are a tactic to divert the attention of the people of China from failings by the CCP and Xi himself, and mobilize people behind his nationalist banner. Opposition had been increasing prior to the viral outbreak. It can be traced back at latest two years, when Xi removed the term limits from China’s constitution, clearly revealing his ambition to become president for life. It is now critical for him to not only struggle to enter a third term in 2022, but also to hold onto power.
With Xi’s domestic weaknesses exposed, and his international reputation deeply tarnished, a latent opposition has become more manifest. Xi is taking measure of how strong a hand he must show in order to reduce domestic threats without incurring unsustainable international reactions.
In this fluid situation, free societies around the world must come to terms with the threat of CCP subversion, and have the responsibility to support peaceful change toward democracy in China. The United States must understand Xi’s playbook, and be prepared to counter dramatic political and military events in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Even with the pandemic, world leaders must be ready to act.
Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a Washington-based pro-democracy movement. He was among the students demonstrating for democracy in Tiananmen Square.
Aaron Rhodes is president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and the author of “The Debasement of Human Rights” (2018).