China is finding that it is running out of both friends and options when it comes to dealing with Hong Kong. The over three-month-long crisis which has seen an estimated 2 million pro-democracy protesters out on the streets in the former British colony has not only shown, no signs of abating, it has put Beijing in the dock with a ‘crucial’ UN meeting scheduled to take place on Hong Kong.
The UN meet follows a blunt statement from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet earlier this week. In the statement, the UNHCR chief stated that there was ‘credible evidence’ that law enforcement officers in Hong Kong were using ‘less-lethal weapons’ in ways that are ‘prohibited by international norms’ such as ‘firing tear gas canisters into crowded, enclosed areas and directly at individual protesters on multiple occasions, creating a considerable risk of death or serious injury.’ In response, Beijing has predictably reacted with belligerence stating the UN rights body’s statement was ‘interference in China’s domestic affairs’ and ‘sent the wrong signal to violent criminal offenders.’
But with international pressure rising by the day China seems to have shifted its stance of stonewalling queries on ‘human rights’ violations to one of deflection. And this is where it seems to be playing its ‘Kashmir hand’. Beijing’s call for a UNSC meet on India’s recent move to revoke Article 370 and the special status awarded to Jammu and Kashmir is a clear bid to deflect world attention from its sketchy human rights record and put the spotlight on its South Asian neighbour.
It does not matter to Beijing that the UNSC has shown no interest in discussing the Kashmir issue – Pakistan has already tried three times and failed. What does matter to Beijing is that by highlighting the ‘Kashmir issue’ it can put India under pressure and try to ensure Hong Kong is removed from the global spotlight.
Such Machiavellian manoeuvres are not grounded in reality. First, Poland’s Foreign Minister and UNSC president Jacek Czapu
Third, unlike India, China’s human rights record tells against it. From the unforgettable scenes in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to the ongoing struggle for Tibet to Beijing’s bid to silence criticism in the UN Human Rights Council for its arbitrary detention of more than a million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, China will find it hard to play its strategy of deflection with any hope of success. Nor can it hope to continue with a show of force and hope to succeed. 2019 is not 1989.
The solution then for China is to first stop looking for scapegoats and look to put its own house in order, fast. The first step can begin by replacing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Lam who swept into office on a wave of goodwill by becoming the first female executive of Hong Kong in 2017 has now become the ‘hated face’ of China’s proposed extradition bill which allows all individuals in Hong Kong to be deported to mainland China. The anger against her multiplied by the fact that the people of Hong Kong see her as a ‘puppet’ of President Xi is becoming a liability for him. Replacing Lam, who is now anyway being seen as ‘lame duck’ chief executive, is a good place to start to quell people’s anger.
Beijing must also realise that its propaganda campaign of showing protesters as ‘criminal offenders’ ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies’ to China is not yielding dividends. In a poll conducted recently, only 10 per cent of Hong Kongers identified themselves as ‘proud to be Chinese’, a record low ever since the former British colony was passed into the hands of China in 1997. This will no doubt worry Beijing who want Hong Kongers to feel Chinese. So, easing up on the propaganda and disinformation campaigns in China, easing restrictions on traditional and social media in Hong Kong will help provide space for some level dialogue. This can set the tone for normalisation of relations.
None of these moves is likely to be palatable to Beijing. Ever since President Xi first took office in 2013, reports of human rights violations have noticeably increased. China has so far looked to cover this up by emphasising ‘development’ and ‘national sovereignty’ while seeking to push individual rights in the background. So opting for change is an internal matter that it must take a call on quickly. However, whatever Beijing decides to do it must realise that finger-pointing at other countries will not help. The world is concerned about Hong Kong, not Kashmir.