Francis Moriarty: China: The Sinicization of everything

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Every year the U.S. State Department issues reports on the condition of human rights in other countries. Prepare for the incoming salvos that China will fire after the next report in April.

No aspect of China's governance will be spared. The last report needed 350 words to list the concerns — and that was just in the executive summary. The entire report, heavily detailed, is an indictment of the Chinese political and legal system. High on the lengthy list of criticisms is the absence of popular mandate for the one-party Leninist state.

The State Department's report on China also includes the situation in Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau. Tibet is a perennial problem area for China. Macau, until 1999 a Portuguese-administered enclave, has since come firmly under Beijing's thumb. In Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, political and civil rights are being steadily eroded as the territory inexorably falls prey to the mainland's remote-control system of guidance.

China of course defends itself, usually charging its critics with hypocrisy and double standards. Tired of being boxed around the ears year after year, Beijing decided some time back that two could play the blame game and began issuing its own reports on the condition of human rights in the United States. It usually appears shortly after the U.S. report. But this is becoming more than a pro forma exercise in retaliation.

China's next response promises to escalate, fueled by Canada's arrest of Meng Wanzhao, CFO of the Huawei electronics giant, following an extradition request by the U.S. She is wanted in an investigation into financial irregularities linked to American sanctions against Iran.

Beijing's wrath is traditionally aimed at the U.S., but in a significant change Beijing's ambit of anger is widening, and its purpose is more pointed and strategic.

Here's the new point: China is staking out a position of moral equivalency, aggressively insisting that its systems of governance are every bit the equal of — and even superior to — those of its critics. It's presenting this case with escalating stridency and populist rhetoric.

China's leaders are pursuing a national policy that could be called the "Sinicization of Everything." That's to say that everything — and everybody — under Beijing's control must somehow be rendered Chinese.

This includes, for example, the forcible eradication of the ethnic Uighurs' language, culture and religious faith. It means selection of Tibetan Buddhist leaders according to traditional ceremonies administered by Beijing. It means yanking crucifixes off Christian churches, while reaching a deal with the Vatican giving the state-run patriotic church a role in ordaining clergy. It means obliging Hong Kong to legislate a ban on even symbolic displays of anti-China sentiment.

China's ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, explicitly laid down an example of the new hard line when writing last month in the Hill Times, a newspaper in Ottawa.

SPLENETIC RHETORIC

Until recently, Canadian premier Justin Trudeau had been pursuing a policy so warm toward China that he was being increasingly criticized for undercutting traditional Canadian values.

That helps explain Lu's splenetic rhetoric in attacking Canada's detention of Meng as an example of "white supremacy and "back stabbing" by a friend. He then warned of China's retaliation if Huawei were barred from Canada's new 5G network.

U.S. officials worry that Huawei's links with China's military mean it might install spyware or leave backdoor channels vulnerable to espionage. Meng would likely face related questions if returned to the U.S. She is now confined to her Canadian home, forbidden to travel and wearing a court-ordered ankle monitor.

China has also retaliated by taking two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, into custody on allegations of being involved in activities that endanger China's national security. In addition, another Canadian already held on a drug conviction had his case reopened, and his 15-year sentence was increased to the death penalty.

What accounts for China's enhanced reactions?

Externally, China is a rising global power pursuing an expansionist blueprint involving economic clout and growing military muscle. Internally, the ruling Communist Party bases its mandate on improving living standards, promotion of national pride (carefully managed), enforcement of social order and the restoration of territories — like Taiwan — deemed integral to China.

China's leadership under President Xi Jinping is a study in contradiction: growingly assertive and self-confident, yet also shrill, thin-skinned and defensive. With no democracy, failure to deliver on the above criteria could bring down the party.

Washington does not issue these annual rights findings because our own society is a model of guaranteed rights and equality. The reports are compiled because the values they express derive from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) ratified by the U.N. in 1948 and the moral touchstone of the post-war international order.

Many countries object to these assessments, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union no nation complains more loudly than China, which is quick to point out that not all of the rights enumerated in the UDHR are guaranteed by the U.S. itself.

Among those missing rights are the right to a decent standard of living, sufficient nutrition, equal access to health care, and shelter. Little surprise that China, an ostensibly communist state ruled by a single party, focuses its attention on the material aspects.

Beijing is now asserting moral equivalency. U.S. leaders might bear this in mind when weighing policies at home and regime change abroad.

Francis Moriarty is a former senior political correspondent for Radio Television Hong Kong, a public broadcaster, and has reported from across the Asian region.

     


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