OnePacificNews, December 29 2018, Saturday

Ng Weng Hoong, Twitter: @WengCouver

More than five years on as communist China’s most powerful leader since founder Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping has given the world a full view of his ‘soft power’ strategy to win friends and influence people. On the foreign policy front, it is mostly about using China’s economic power to buy the allegiance of countries through so-called “win-win” deals. Domestically, soft power means promoting citizen loyalty to the communist party, censoring information, and “disappearing” anyone who disagrees with the party.

It is no surprise that President Xi’s soft power approach is having the opposite effect amid growing suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that China is out to colonise the world. Even with the US in retreat from the crumbling global liberal order,  Beijing has blown its case to help make the world a better place.

Mr Xi started brightly in 2013 with his signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to integrate the economies of Asia, Middle East, Europe and Africa into a giant industrial corridor for mutual benefit. Five years on, the US$1-trillion project is increasingly viewed as a debt trap, having ensnared the early few — Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Kenya, among others — who took up China’s generous offer of investments, loans and aid.

But it is at home that the Chinese government has incurred its greatest loss of credibility. Mr Xi’s demand for complete subservience has helped the birth of a pioneering pro-independence movement in Hong Kong. Some, especially the young, believe they have no future in the former British colony as it morphs further to become another Chinese city under Beijing’s totalitarian rule.

On the mainland, Chinese security has been snatching people off the streets on a breath-taking scale to silence debate.

Among them, an estimated million people from the Uyghur community in Xinjiang has been interned and housed in giant camps that Beijing had quietly built and initially tried to hush up.

On the 70th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, the World Uyghur Congress and 20 other organisations issued a joint statement calling for the world to stand up to “China’s dedication to creating the ultimate police state.”

The 21 organisations are campaigning for China to improve its human rights record as well as treatment of Tibetan and Mongolian minorities.

The statement mentioned that Tibetans pilgrims attending Buddhist teachings have ‘disappeared’ for months to be sent for ‘re-education’ in military camps and other facilities.

In southern Inner Mongolia, “thousands of Mongolian herders seeking to defend their way of life and their rights to land and natural resources have been arrested, detained and imprisoned without any legal due process.”

The statement also called for the defence of the rights of dissidents in China and those of the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

But the cause of Chinese dissidents has been undermined by the Chinese government’s campaign to target the dwindling pool of human rights lawyers still brave enough to practise in the country. Like other government critics, they been given the disappearing treatment.

On December 26, a Vancouver-based group joined in the call for the immediate and unconditional release of five individuals detained by Beijing for their work on advancing human rights. Wang Quanzhang, Yu Wensheng and Zhou Shifeng are human rights lawyers, while Hu Shigen is a church elder, and Wu Gan is a civil rights activist.

“In a sweeping crackdown that started in July 2015, the totalitarian regime in China arrested, detained and prosecuted over 200 lawyers, legal workers and advocates, court cases of which are known as the “709 cases”, said the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement (VSSDM).

“709” stands for July 9, 2015, the day in which Beijing launched a national crackdown on lawyers and activists to stop the rise of China’s human rights defence movement, according to the South China Morning Post.

The lawyers and activists, like other Chinese dissidents, have been placed under long-term detention, and have been denied family contact and access to legal representation of their choice.

“Most of them are persecuted only for peacefully defending or advocating human rights, Some were even stripped of their practicing licensed, resulting in deprivation of livelihood. All these draconian measures are in extreme violation of the prevailing international standards and principles,” said the VSSDM.

The society said Mr Wang, who began his Beijing law practice in 2007, often represented sensitive cases, including land rights, citizens’ rights and religious rights, and has long been a thorn in the eye of the authorities. He wrote online articles critical of the authorities and reported on the development of civil society in China.

Scholars have observed that China has become increasingly intolerant of criticism under Mr Xi’s government. If arresting and detaining citizens for disagreeing with the official party line represents soft power, what will China’s hard power look like?