China likes to claim that it is intent on peacefully rising and developing, and that therefore its emergence as a superpower in its own right poses no threat to its neighbours and the broader environment.
The thesis of this short article is that China is fast abandoning all pretence to such a claim — in the belief that its superpower status (especially economically) will trump over the existence of a united front arrayed against it.
China the benefactor is calculating — or so it seems — that its economic and financial juggernaut will be portrayed and imaged in benevolent terms to “needy” nations. This should rollover any tinge of doubt and drive through its “debt diplomacy” principally via the One Belt, One Road mega-project (land, sea).
In 2018, an unprecedented US$60 billion (RM246 billion) African aid package (which marks China’s “coming of age” — since the era of Zhou Enlai — as a world leading donor country) was announced that will further cement the already robust, albeit one-sided, trade and investment ties.
On the surface, China’s growth in prestige and influence seems to be reflective of its mantra of a “peaceful rise or development”.
It is true that since the open market reforms of 1978 under the tutelage and paramount leadership of the venerable Deng Xiaoping, China has not sought to overtly threaten or pursue aggressive territorial expansionism.
Exceptions would be the border disputes with Japan (Sensaku/ Diaoyu islands) and India (most notably around the Aksai Chin area); and not least its uncompromising insistence on the “One China” policy vis-a-vis Taiwan.
Yes, there is the unresolved issue of the “nine-dash line” claim over the South China Sea flashpoint, outrageous as it is. Yet in all of this, on the external front, China has more or less to a large extent allayed fears of a full-blown or all out conflict of apocalyptic proportions ala World War 3.
So far, its anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) strategy has not resulted in any clashes with the US. Even the brazen intrusion on the sovereignty of claimants in the form of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) such as fishing grounds has not yielded exchanges of shots and firepower.
Be that as it may, China is increasing its presence like a centrifugal force — pushing out from the centre and expanding even as far as Africa. And actually, it is now said that Africa is the new fertile Lebenstraum (“living space”) for Chinese colonialisation — landgrab China-style, to satisfy its insatiable and voracious appetite for natural resources and assets.
China’s African expansionism is most acute in the sub-Saharan countries, particularly in the eastern part of the continent — where Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania have paid obeisance to the capital, financial and diplomatic clout of Beijing.
Detractors would contend that Africa is the epitome of China’s so-called “debt trap” in full swing or display.
Only last July at the World Economic Forum in Dalian, the Belt and Road Africa infrastructure development fund totalling US$1 billion was announced.
And there are already two million Chinese migrants spread throughout the continent with more to come. The migrants — both expatriates and migrant labour — are located in “hermeneutically-sealed” sites euphemistically known as “special economic zones” or SEZs (what else?) that is “walled” against outsiders or rather locals.
Such arrangements have provoked resentment and grievances — doing very little to erase prejudicial misconceptions or worse caricatures or parody of the mainland Chinese as “heartless” carpetbaggers.
As it is, there is a lack of empathy in many cases — at the risk of over-generalisation — by the Chinese migrants for their indigenous African hosts resulting in frequent misunderstandings and miscommunications.
The Chinese are often seen as either aloof or disrespectful of the local way of doing things.
The “Ugly Mainland Chinese” has roused antipathy amongst the local Africans, many of whom were already sceptical and cynical of the presence of the former.
Social media such as YouTube, for example, are never short of grievances about the stereotypical cheating or bullying mainland Chinese — whether employer or retailer.
Unfortunately, this would seem to place the Chinese as at an even a worse category than the European colonialists.
Basically, current trajectories of China’s outreach and global influence as well as presence belie its much earlier worldview and philosophy of a peaceful rise or development.
The facts do not seem to match the rhetoric.
What about the domestic front?
The issue that is hogging the preoccupation and attention of the media is that of the mistreatment or rather the allegation of ethnic cum religious repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Credible reports and sources (in the media and by international bodies such as Human Rights Watch) suggest that over a million Uyghurs have been detained in concentration camps dubbed as vocational and training centres.
Human rights violations and abuses perpetrated against ethnic Uyghurs are common place, and indications point to increased levels of repression and suppression even as the covert policy of Sinification gathers pace under the current CCP.
Testimonies of exiled Uyghurs alongside the eyewitness accounts point to a deliberate and systematic attempt of brainwashing and cultural re-engineering. Non-conformists are tortured and subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment, including female victims.
The well-known account would be by Mihrigul Tursun at a US Congressional hearing on November 28, 2018. Her four-month-old son died without explanation at one of the detention camps. She was also electrocuted and witnessed nine other women die during the three-month detention
Even ordinary Han Chinese are flexing their numerical muscle by bullying and mistreating the Uyghurs by, for example, forcing themselves on the womenfolk renowned for their exquisite beauty.
So, externally and domestically, both officials and citizens alike are guilty of tarnishing the image of China and bringing its claim of peaceful rise or development into grave disrepute.
So, on both the external and domestic fronts, China has been acting and behaving aggressively — in a manner that undermines the claim of a peaceful rise or development.
Modern-day China would do well to take heed Deng Xiao Ping’s sage advice: “If one day China should seek to claim hegemony in the world, then the people of the world should expose, oppose and even fight against it. On this point, the international community can supervise us” (quoted from “Persisting with Taking the Path of Peaceful Development,” Statement by Dai Bingguo, December 6, 2010).
And also mention must made of Lee Kuan Yew’s advice to Chinese citizens, in particular the younger generation, about having a more secure worldview (made at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy 5th anniversary Q&A session with Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 2009).
The late Lee, it must be remembered, could well considered to be a Father of Modern China (indirectly) — as being instrumental in shaping its rise by influencing the late Deng’s decision to directly open up the country and embark on much needed economic reforms.
Lee had opined that the root of cause of the younger Chinese’ ultra-nationalistic sentiments lay in the fanatically ingrained belief that for centuries China had been humiliated and oppressed by outsiders.
Notwithstanding, there is still time and space for China to reverse the damage done to its reputation internationally.
For starters, the detainees of the concentration camps in Xinjiang must be released unconditionally. Those who have been subject to physical and psychological torture must be compensated and given an official apology.
The Uyghurs must be allowed to practice their religion and culture free from official repression and proscription.
China should remember Deng Xiaoping’s gesture to offer joint-development projects with claimant countries in the South China Sea. But this has to take place under conditions where both parties are equal and are entitled to equal share and recognition — both at the government-to-government (G2G) and business-to-business (B2B) level.
The Chinese must let go of “dangerous memory” and stay true to the context wherein the term, “peaceful rise/ development” was originally coined (by the old guard).
Last but not least, there has to be sort of a recognition that any overseas aid or development that shackles a recipient or beneficiary or debtor country to China’s sway, especially when it comes across as full-scale colonisation, is unsustainable.
Sooner or later, there will be a backlash resulting in a lose-lose situation for all.
Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.