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Xinjiang provides a window on Hong Kong’s future

Posted By on August 20, 2020 @ 06:00

The arrest [1] of Hong Kong media figure Jimmy Lai on 10 August and the subsequent police raid of the offices of his Apple Daily news company sent a clear signal of how Beijing intends to use the new national security law [2] to bend the population of Hong Kong to its will.

It’s unsurprising that Chinese authorities have Hong Kong’s independent media at the top of their list of targets for the new legislation. Local media coverage of protests in Hong Kong since 2019 not only played a role in sustaining the pro-democracy movement through saturation coverage, but also acted as a constraining influence on the actions of local security services.

If Lai’s arrest proves to be the first step in a campaign by Beijing to throw a shroud over events in Hong Kong—by using the new law’s ambiguously worded offences [3]—then the environment in Hong Kong will change fundamentally.

And, given that events in Hong Kong over the past year have arguably threatened Beijing’s authority, one only has to look at what’s been happening in Xinjiang to predict how the situation might unfold in Hong Kong over the next decade.

Comparisons between Xinjiang and Hong Kong have already been drawn [4] by long-time China watchers, who see Xinjiang as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Clearly, Hong Kong is not Xinjiang, not the least because of the profile of Hong Kong on the international stage. The influence of Hong Kong’s diaspora communities far exceeds the influence or voice of the global Uyghur diaspora. There’s also a deeply ingrained anti-Muslim sentiment [5] and potentially racism at the heart of Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghurs that isn’t a factor in Hong Kong. And not even the most foolhardy of commentators would suggest that Beijing intends to roll out a Xinjiang-style program of mass internment of Hong Kong’s population.

Nevertheless, comparisons of Hong Kong and Xinjiang are valid because both regions are viewed by Beijing as threats to its authority. In this context, the experiences of the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang provide a cogent case study on how Beijing deals with perceived security threats that might help us understand the potential future of Hong Kong.

In the case of Xinjiang, Beijing has arguably not faced a genuine separatist threat there since the People’s Republic of China absorbed the Second East Turkestan Republic [6] in 1949. Yet, since 2016 it has used the pretext of Uyghur separatism and terrorism to conduct an escalating campaign of persecution that has mutated into a program of genocide [7] involving mass incarceration [8], forced labour [9], forced sterilisation [7] of Uyghur women and organ harvesting [10] from detainees.

The protests in Hong Kong over the past year, on the other hand, have rocked the foundations of Beijing’s authority, and the relative moderation of Beijing’s response so far stands in stark contrast to the brutality of its treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. But Hong Kong is now seeing the start of a more oppressive and brutal response from Beijing.

Importantly, a number of ingredients that were critical to Beijing’s ambitions in Xinjiang are present, or becoming apparent, in Hong Kong.

First, Beijing benefited from pervasive electronic surveillance infrastructure and the ability to deploy an overwhelming physical security presence across Xinjiang. Much of the technical infrastructure required for pervasive electronic surveillance is already in place in Hong Kong. And since the introduction of the new security law, Beijing has also started augmenting its police and security intelligence presence in Hong Kong.

Second, Beijing was able to almost completely curtail the media’s ability to directly chronicle the events unfolding in Xinjiang. Our understanding of the situation in Xinjiang has relied on rare first-hand accounts of witnesses, occasional disclosures of official documents outlining the details of Beijing’s anti-Uyghur program, scrutiny of government contracts and procurement, and satellite imagery.

The paucity of information has enabled Beijing to counter reports of human rights abuses with claims that the reports are fabricated or merely anti-Chinese propaganda, and mount personal attacks [11] against some of the more prominent commentators on the plight of Xinjiang’s Muslims. If the arrest of Lai is the first step in a campaign to extinguish free media in Hong Kong, it won’t be long until Beijing is able to dictate the media narrative in Hong Kong in the same way it does in Xinjiang. To paraphrase the Washington Post’s masthead, human rights die in darkness.

Third, Beijing has been allowed to act in Xinjiang with relative impunity. While some commentators were encouraged by Washington’s decision in early July to target Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang with sanctions under the Magnitsky Act [12], there was no real cause for optimism. The symbolism of these sanctions was largely lost in the noise surrounding Washington’s increasingly toxic relationship with Beijing and ultimately their impact will likely be so inconsequential as to be meaningless.

And even when 22 countries issued a statement [13] condemning Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur minorities in mid-2019, almost twice as many countries [14] were prepared to commit their names to a register of shame praising Beijing’s ‘remarkable achievements in the field of human rights’.

Chinese investment bought the silence and complicity of a large number of states with regard to the human rights abuses it is perpetrating in Xinjiang. And, despite the strength of the Hong Kong diaspora and Hong Kong’s status as a technologically advanced global financial hub, it’s possible that Chinese money will also buy the silence of other countries if Beijing embarks on a brutal campaign to bring the Hong Kong populace to heel. Already, 53 countries [15] have voiced their support for Hong Kong’s national security law, eerily echoing earlier support for Beijing’s campaign in Xinjiang.

But there is a further aspect to Hong Kong that differentiates it from Xinjiang, and which may prove to be the primary determinant of its future. Hong Kong’s vibrant, innovative and cosmopolitan population has a long tradition of active political and social participation, public mobilisation and debate on issues affecting Hong Kong society.

Hong Kong, along with Taiwan, is a model of Chinese society that is free, vibrant, engaged and wealthy. By its very existence, Hong Kong stands as a direct rebuke to the hyper-intolerant, oppressive and totalitarian regime in Beijing.

Hongkongers, then, present a much more fundamental threat to the enduring authority of Beijing than the Uyghurs of Xinjiang ever have, and will likely be treated accordingly.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/xinjiang-provides-a-window-on-hong-kongs-future/

URLs in this post:

[1] arrest: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/11/hong-kongs-apple-daily-vows-to-fight-on-after-arrest-of-jimmy-lai

[2] national security law: https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3091595/hong-kong-national-security-law-read-full-text

[3] ambiguously worded offences: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-52765838

[4] drawn: https://twitter.com/CarlMinzner/status/1289056212093296640

[5] deeply ingrained anti-Muslim sentiment: https://www.hudson.org/research/15095-the-anti-islamic-movement-in-china

[6] Second East Turkestan Republic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_East_Turkestan_Republic

[7] program of genocide: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/15/uighur-genocide-xinjiang-china-surveillance-sterilization/

[8] mass incarceration: https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/detainees-11232019223242.html

[9] forced labour: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/uyghurs-sale

[10] organ harvesting: https://chinatribunal.com/final-judgment/

[11] personal attacks: https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1197187.shtml

[12] sanctions under the Magnitsky Act: https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/us-enacts-magnitsky-sanctions-on-chinese-officials-for-xinjiang-abuses/

[13] statement: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/11/more-than-20-ambassadors-condemn-chinas-treatment-of-uighurs-in-xinjiang

[14] almost twice as many countries: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-mass-detentions-uighur-muslims-un-letter-human-rights-a9003281.html

[15] 53 countries: https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/which-countries-support-the-new-hong-kong-national-security-law/

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