By Brian Fong
In recent years, “China’s influence” has become a buzzword in political and academic circles. The various forms of Chinese influence that the world is experiencing are not entirely new. Many share remarkable similarities to what Hong Kong has been experiencing since its handover from Britain to China in 1997, albeit in a much more direct and extensive manner.
In Hong Kong, the Central Government Liaison Office — Beijing’s representative office in the territory — is well-known for its coordinating role in the mobilisation of pro-China political parties, business chambers and immigrant groups in support of Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong.
This is similar to the coordinating role that Chinese embassies around the world play in the mobilisation of overseas Chinese, as indicated by events like the Chinese diaspora’s counter-mobilisation against anti-China protesters during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Canberra in 2017.
In Hong Kong, China has expanded its influence over local media outlets by means of political co-option, direct acquisitions and heavy-handed tactics towards non-compliant media outlets. Against this backdrop, practices of self-censorship have become part of the daily operation of local newsrooms, resulting in the serious deterioration of Hong Kong’s press freedom ranking as recorded by Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders.
This is similar to the widespread concerns in Taiwan about the erosion of press freedom amid the expansion of the media empire of Want Want China Times Media Group headed by pro-China Taiwan capitalist Tsai Eng-meng. And it also resembles the fears of self-censorship in Australia due to the Chinese state media’s direct acquisition of major Australian Chinese-language media as well as Chinese consulate officials’ high-pressure phone calls to non-compliant Australian media outlets.
In Hong Kong, there are grave concerns about the erosion of academic freedom as a consequence of China’s carrot-and-stick strategies. China’s tactics include staging attacks on pro-democracy university scholars, removing or blocking the promotion of pro–democracy scholars, and offering donations and research funding for grooming pro-China scholars.
This is similar to Chinese officials’ pressure on New Zealand scholar Anne-Marie Brady and Canterbury University’s management of her unpublished research on China and Antarctica. And it also resembles suspicions about the erosion of academic freedom in Australia following the acceptance of huge donations by the Australia China Relations Institute of the University of Technology Sydney from Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo.
Hong Kong and Taiwan differ from other countries in many political, economic, social and cultural aspects, not least in their respective constitutional statuses. Hong Kong is an autonomous entity under the “One Country, Two Systems” model, Taiwan is a contested state, while most other targets of Chinese influence are sovereign states like Australia and New Zealand.
Yet they all face China’s expanding influence in their political, economic, media and academic arenas. To better understand and respond to this situation, attention should be drawn to their common experience — namely, the similar modus operandi of China’s influence mechanisms. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and states like Australia and New Zealand are all located outside of the direct jurisdiction of the Chinese Communist Party-state, necessitating the construction and mobilisation of “local collaborator networks” for China to exert influence.
From this perspective, the geopolitical phenomenon of China’s expanding influence across the Indo-Pacific could be re-interpreted as a “concentric center-periphery model.” China as a geopolitical center is expanding its influence into three tiers of offshore peripheries located outside its direct jurisdiction: Hong Kong (peripheral autonomy), Taiwan (peripheral contested state) and Asian/Oceanic states (peripheral sovereign states).
What makes Hong Kong fundamentally different from Taiwan and other states when encountering the modus operandi of China’s influence mechanisms is that it lacks a democratic self-government. The absence of a democratic regime means that China can make best use of its “central authorities” (such as the appointment of Hong Kong’s chief executive and principal officials) to turn the Hong Kong government from an autonomous institution into a component of its “local collaborator networks” and confine local resistance movements to civil society as we could observe from the Umbrella Movement in 2015.
Without the protection of a democratic self-government, China’s influence has spread through almost all sectors of Hong Kong society. But in places like Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand, the presence of a democratic regime is proving to be an important institutional safeguard against China’s expanding influence.
Illustrative examples include the replacement of the pro-China Kuomintang government by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party government in the 2016 Taiwan presidential election and the efforts of the Australian government under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to pass anti-foreign interference laws.
The world must wake up to this: Hong Kong is at the forefront of China’s efforts to export its authoritarian influence to the liberal world. Conversely, it is also at the forefront of where the liberal world should be looking to when responding to this trend.
Brian Fong is the Associate Director of the Academy of Hong Kong Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. This article originally appeared in East Asia Forum. The idea of ‘concentric centre-periphery model’ was drawn from a forthcoming book volume currently being edited by the author. The tentative title of the book volume is Re-thinking China’s influences: Center-periphery tug of war across Indo-Pacific (forthcoming in 2019).
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