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It emerges just days after Beijing caused fury in Britain and democracies worldwide by imposing a new security law on the former colony, breaking terms of the handover treaty which guaranteed it democracy under “one nation two systems” until 2047.
But last night experts warned that President Xi Jinping ‘s aggressive policies may be running out of fuel as he struggles to deliver economic promises while unemployment in China soars.
There have been two military exercises designed to practice the military takeover of Hong Kong in the last eight months, sources say, suggesting Beijing is preparing itself to use troops to quell dissent.
The first, in November, consisted of two groups of four Changhe Z-8 troop- carrying helicopters which practiced in mountainous regions to simulate Hong King’s geographical terrain. That exercise, which was held at night, was curtailed after one of the eight helicopters crashed, killing 17 soldiers and crew.
The second was held at the end of February, just six weeks before the Chinese Communist Party began to deliberately circulate rumours about the intended introduction of the new national security law to gauge response among its cadres.
Also a night-time exercise using troop-carrying helicopters, it is understood to have focussed on northern Hong Kong and was completed successfully.
Though full details of the new security law have not been published, summaries suggest it will make secessionist, subversive, or terrorist activities illegal, as well as foreign intervention in the city’s internal affairs.
Other reports have suggested that it will let Hong Kong’ chief executive pick judges for national security cases, for cases to be tried in mainland courts – which notoriously have a 99 percent conviction rate – and that it could be applied retroactively.
It is already having its effect, with pro-democracy leaders branded secessionists even though they have not argued for Hong Kong’s independence.
Despite strict Covid-19 lockdown measures, more than 300 demonstrators were arrested after the new law was announced last week.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the move a “grave and deeply disturbing” breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that set out Hong Kong’s mostly autonomous rule for 50 years after the territory was handed back in 1997.
Britain has now offered bespoke citizenship rights to around 3 million Hong Kong nationals, and the US has imposed visa restriction in Chinese officials.
But while the world watches China further isolate itself as it pursues an increasingly aggressive foreign policy, the underpinning of Xi’s power may not be as secure as many think, warned China expert Matthew Henderson, of the Henry Jackson Society think tank.
This is because China’s actions in South China Sea, which it plans next year to brand an Air Defence Identification Zone – tantamount to imposing territorial authority – India, where border clashes are escalating and even Hong Kong, where foreign investment is expected to dry up, is not helping Xi to keep promises of economic growth.
“China’s people are under increased surveillance, subject to AI monitoring and the social credit system (which grades the population’s civic mindedness and curtails freedoms for low scorers) – all in return for which they were promised six percent growth. Xi needs this to maintain social order. But it isn’t happening,” said Henderson, a former diplomat who worked in both Hong Kong and Beijing,
“During the National People’s Congress in May, the party didn’t even set a target for growth because it knows the economy has actually contracted by 6.8 percent over the last year.
“It needs 3 percent growth just to meet employment targets. And employment is the big deal.
“There have been around 70 million lost jobs so far since the Covid-19 pandemic began, according to Western observers with inside knowledge, but the figure is probably much higher.”
In addition, some 373 million people are earning less than $5.5 a day while 291 million migrants have zero employment opportunities, he said.
China’s domestic economy had already stalled because Xi refused to privatise State Owned Enterprises to make the economy more spontaneous and innovative.
And Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, designed to boost Chinese employment by selling often unnecessary infrastructure projects to developing countries in return for high loan returns and the use of Chinese labour, was already failing even before the Covid-19 crisis.
“At Davis 2017 China portrayed itself as the economic superpower that looks after the developing world, “ said Henderson.
“What we actually saw was an export of debt, shoddy standards, and dams and railways and massively redundant infrastructure being sold as vanity projects which were vehicles for money laundering by the corrupt elite.
“BRI caused great damage to economies overseas which were fragile; it left swathes of Africa and much of South America in a state of economic disarray, with countries like Venezuela and Ecuador completely destroyed economically, and increasing damage to Brazil, Argentina and Chile.”
Instead of leveraging huge accumulations of wealth to buy its way in to more dynamic markets, much of the money loaned by China will have to be written off, he said.
This includes a $60bn loan to Venezuela.
“BRI was desperation dressed up as benevolence and there is no doubt at all that it has failed.
“Economies that were beginning to stabilise and diversify were forced back to selling resources. These countries will now be questioning whether they made a mistake.”
Even the pandemic, which has stalled the global economy and effected Chinese exports, happened on his watch when he hesitated for two weeks before imposing a lockdown that was too late to stop the epidemic spreading.
More than this, Xi broke the cardinal rule imposed by former President Deng Xiaoping – that the CCP can only effectively operate as a collective.
“Deng knew what would happen if another Mao came along, so he imposed checks and balances which Xi has now swept aside,” said Henderson.
“Xi micromanages everything, from the military to the economy to technology through a series of small leadership groups which are essentially echo chambers consisting of cronies who block him from reality.
“The biggest stress is the unwillingness to criticise him. People are extremely scared, so they don’t.
“He goes on thinking his policies are working because no one is telling him they aren’t”
Protests across China after the death of whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang prove that citizens still have a voice, he said.
“Dr Li said it was wrong when a country has only one voice. But we now know China does not have only one voice.
“The people spoke very briefly, but their voices were heard.
“This is a brittle system under extreme stress and the economy that drives it is flawed, and getting worse. Xi cannot control this and nor can he control what might happen in the future.”
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