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China-US relations

Xi and Trump are remaking the world, and we should all be afraid

  • Michael Chugani says China and the US have changed drastically under Xi and Trump’s leadership, for the worse in many ways, destabilising global relations
  • Few can escape the impact of their escalating rivalry, not least Hong Kong, which has seen its freedoms clipped amid Beijing’s fear of external interference
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 December, 2018, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 December, 2018, 6:23pm

On January 20, Donald Trump will have been the president of the United States for two years. His rule has been so erratic that not only the US but the world is no longer recognisable to his country’s allies and enemies alike. In the six years Xi Jinping has been China’s leader, he, too, has made his country unrecognisable to the outside world. 

There’s a toxic fallout from Trump’s tenacious assaults on China’s policies and Xi’s determination not to let the West thwart his country’s rise. This fallout has made Hong Kong unrecognisable, too. We were a city with all the trappings of democracy, minus only the right to directly elect our leader and all members of the legislature.

Our freewheeling media, free speech, and the right to stand for elections made us a beacon in Asia. Now the media dare not interview anyone who even peacefully advocates independence. Our government has added new limits on free speech.

The government has disqualified election candidates for exercising free speech. A political party has been banned. A foreign journalist has been expelled for moderating a speech on independence. And, last week, a Taiwanese heavy metal band led by a Taiwan independence advocate had to cancel its Hong Kong concert after our government refused visas.

A slow death for Hong Kong’s separate identity in China

I no longer recognise Hong Kong even though I was born and raised here. How did this happen? Some has to do with what Beijing believes is Trump’s dogged drive to stifle China’s rise. Beijing has, for some years, been spooked by talk of Hong Kong independence even though it involved a tiny minority of delusional youngsters.

Mainland leaders believed external forces were behind the independence and Occupy movements but avoided openly meddling in our affairs. Then came Trump with “America first”, the trade war, increased freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, demands that China ends state subsidies for hi-tech firms that compete in the global arena, and US pressure on allies to treat China as an adversary out to dominate the world.

Beijing saw this as the West ganging up on China. Mainland leaders had long feared external forces using Hong Kong to threaten national security. That fear became all too real for them when US allies took Trump’s cue to call out China on everything from cyber theft, forced technology transfers, and belt and road debt traps to the mass detention of Xinjiang Muslims.

Beijing reacted by tightening its grip not only on the mainland but also in Hong Kong to protect national security. Xi had long used his virtual one-man rule to turn China into a state that controls the daily lives of the people.

Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Vehicles and people are tracked wherever they go. Facial recognition is commonplace across the country. Even hotels take pictures of guests checking in. To Western and even Asian critics, China has become the world’s first true Orwellian state.

From drones to social credits, 10 ways China watches its citizens

This has trickled into Hong Kong as Beijing tries to make sure the city can’t be used to threaten national security. It no longer avoids being blatant with its heavy hand, even to the extent of using a flimsy excuse to ban a Taiwanese rock band.

Trump has at least two more years in office. Will he further turn the world upside down? America is now so chaotically divided that even allies wonder if the US can remain the leader of the free world.

China under Xi has become so powerful yet so authoritarian that not only neighbouring states but the world looks at it with combined awe and apprehension. Global stability needs at least some progress in the trade talks at the end of the 90-day deadline. That is likely to happen.

But read between the lines of last week’s US indictment against two mainland hackers accused of stealing trade secrets from at least a dozen countries. The uncharacteristically tough language by the US and its allies is a stark reminder that a new cold war is under way.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host