The ongoing protests in Hong Kong have captivated the world, prompting speculation of another brutal Tiananmen-like government crackdown. Rather than viewing Hong Kong merely through the lens of a China problem, however, it may make more sense to see it in the context of the broader Asia-Pacific region.
The “one country, two systems” arrangement, under which Hong Kong has been administered by Beijing since London handed the former colony over to Chinese control in 1997, has theoretically given the territory an almost country-like status. But in recent years, the Chinese Communist Party—led byXi Jinping, its strongest leader since Mao Zedong—has worked to erode the high degree of autonomy that it promised Hong Kong.
Around the region, it is not difficult to find examples that echo Hong Kong’s experience, with co-opted politicians, shaping of local media narratives, and massive influxes of investment being the primary methods of influence. I spoke with five experts who have been ringing the alarm over CCP influence in their countries. The resulting snapshot highlights the difficulties of existing in China’s orbit without succumbing to its gravitational pull.
Few governments in the Asia-Pacific region have embraced the CCP as much as Cambodia’s. The key to Beijing securing influence over the strategically located kingdom has been Prime Minister Hun Sen, the former Khmer Rouge officer who for decades has deftly maintained his grip on power, shifting from one patron to the next, as needed.
Initially reliant upon Vietnam for his power, Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party later derived legitimacy from assistance provided by international aid organizations and Western governments, including the U.S. But Washington and others insisted upon some semblance of democratic elections if the aid money was to continue to flow, creating space for a real opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, to make gains in the legislature and challenge Hun Sen himself. Hun Sen completed his slow-motion pivot toward China prior to the 2018 election, with Beijing providing election assistance and voicing support for him after he banned the CNRP and cracked down on local media. Effectively unchallenged, Hun Sen “won” another term as his CPP took all 125 seats in the National Assembly.
CNRP President Kem Sokha is under house arrest, after spending more than a year in prison on spurious treason charges. Mu Sochua, the party’s vice president, told me that Hun Sen is now beholden to the CCP.
“There’s no way Hun Sen can say no to China; he’s paranoid about losing his power,” she said. “There’s no way he would win a free and fair election.”
Cambodia effectively serves as a proxy vote for China in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), she said. Indeed, Hun Sen’s government has voted twice since 2012 to block language critical of China’s island-building in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, massive amounts of investment are flowing into Cambodia, which is expecting GDP growth of about 7 percent this year, through Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. In the capital, Phnom Penh, construction of luxury condominiums, widely viewed as vehicles for Chinese money laundering, is booming. In the country’s south, the small city of Sihanoukville has become a hub of Chinese construction, which has brought with it more than 80 casinos, sex and drug trafficking, and a skyrocketing cost of living that is pricing most Cambodians out of what was once their home.
Sochua, the Trump administration, and others are also convinced that, just as in the South China Sea, the Chinese port development in Sihanoukville will eventually become an installation serving the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
“You’ll lose the fundamental rights of your people,” Sochua warned other smaller countries considering closer ties to Beijing. “You’ll lose your territory; you’ll lose your sovereignty.”
Last week, another Lennon Wall of Post-it notes expressing support for the protests in Hong Kong was once again torn down at the University of Queensland, which has emerged as one of several flash points where Chinese nationalists have confronted supporters of the Hong Kong protesters, sometimes violently. Patriotic students who were violent toward Hong Kong supporters in Sydney, Melbourne, and elsewhere have recently been praised by the Chinese embassy in Canberra.
“Perhaps China’s greatest success in influencing Australian discourse has been to paralyze it,” Alex Joske, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told me. “Many influential Australians, even policy makers, have been convinced that China-Australia relations are so sensitive that any frank discussion about it is dangerous.”
Australians now recognize that the CCP is growing more authoritarian and ambitious and seeks to interfere in Australian politics and society, but government policy and guidance has yet to fully incorporate this new understanding, Joske said.
The CCP has waged successful influence operations in Australia that propagate false dichotomies and narratives about China. Much of this happens through united front work, he said, whereby the CCP seeks to manufacture or co-opt “representative figures”: community and business leaders, political elites, media outlets, and academic organizations who have influence and claim to speak for different interest groups in society.
An example of this, and a major turning point in Australia’s conversation about its relationship with China, was the 2017 resignation of up-and-coming Labor Senator Sam Dastyari over his relationship with the Chinese political donor Huang Xiangmo. Dastyari had parroted Beijing’s line regarding China’s activities in the South China Sea.
After the passing of sweeping legislation targeting foreign influence in politics, in June, the focus has shifted to universities, where the largest number of foreign students come from China.
“Universities have consistently turned a blind eye to the Chinese government’s influence over PRC students, which has allowed many to remain in a propaganda bubble even when they're abroad,” Joske said. “The failure to address CCP influence is at the heart of what’s happening at UQ, and doing nothing will only make things worse.”
Foreign influence in local politics will remain part of Australia’s China conversation for the foreseeable future. On Monday, Huang, who has been banned from returning to Australia, was back in the news when a corruption inquiry heard testimony that the billionaire had personally delivered a grocery bag containing 100,000 Australian dollars ($68,000) to the Labor Party’s New South Wales headquarters in 2015.
New Zealand is about two years behind Australia in waking up to the CCP’s influence operations, said Anne-Marie Brady, a University of Canterbury professor who has been at the forefront of exposing the impact of what she calls the “CCP party-state-military-market nexus” in New Zealand.
Brady’s 2017 paper “Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities Under Xi Jinping” was a turning point in the discussion of New Zealand’s relationship with Beijing. The CCP’s approach to influencing states operates on multiple vectors, Brady told me, combining what it calls “total diplomacy” and “saturation” to see what works in that particular setting.
“The more politically or economically open a country is, the more vulnerable it is,” she said. “Open societies are like limestone, and CCP tactics are like water—it will eventually find the cracks, and every society has cracks.”
New Zealand, which felt economically abandoned by its main market, the U.K., after it grew closer to what was then the European Economic Community, eventually turned to China as a promising new export market nearly two decades ago. But, Brady said, while China has been a valuable market to the New Zealand economy, its importance has been overblown both by China and local media.
“China accounts for 24.5 percent of our export market, but if you read the newspapers here, you’d think it was 80 percent,” Brady said, adding that campaign donations from CCP-connected individuals and Beijing’s co-opting of local Chinese-language media have also served the Chinese government’s interests.
New Zealand’s previous timidity in questioning its relations with China is changing. One indication: the current Justice Select Committee’s inquiry into foreign interference, to which Brady has submitted a paper outlining CCP influence methods, as well as recommendations for a strategy going forward.
“We’re trying to make ourselves resilient in a way that doesn’t attract attention,” she said.
In 2016, the Philippines was one of the only Southeast Asian countries willing to speak out against China’s increasingly muscular regional presence. At the time, President Benigno Aquino’s administration challenged China’s claim to resources within the so-called nine-dash line, an unofficial border that Beijing uses to mark its vast territorial claims in the South China Sea, most of which are not recognized by other countries or international law.
In July 2016, a UN tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, in what could have been a major opportunity for Southeast Asian countries to speak together against Chinese territorial claims in the region. One month earlier, however, Rodrigo Duterte had assumed the Philippines presidency, and he quickly made it clear that he was not interested in standing up to China. Duterte’s accommodation was effectively a gift to Beijing when the Philippines chaired ASEAN in 2017.
“The Philippines squandered what leverage it might have had against China by shelving the arbitration during its chairmanship of ASEAN,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines. “Without Philippine interest in putting the case on the agenda for discussion within ASEAN, none of the other countries within or outside this region would have a moral authority to invoke the ruling.”
Beijing, in addition to supporting Duterte’s brutal drug war and offering Philippine government-media workers training in shaping public discourse, is actively challenging Philippine control over islands it has held for generations. In fact, the Philippines is unable to exercise its rights over its own resources for fear of provoking an adverse response, Batongbacal said.
With the next presidential election in 2022, Batongbacal is not expecting China’s growing local influence to translate into political problems for Duterte, whose approval ratings remain high.
“There is still no truly charismatic leader in the opposition who can challenge him, or his family, for leadership of the country,” he said.
Unlike other countries in the region, Taiwan faces an existential threat from the CCP, which claims it as its territory despite never having ruled it.
The CCP has coveted Taiwan for 70 years. Closer cross-strait economic ties have enabled Beijing to infiltrate Taiwan-based media outlets, with both the Financial Times and Reuters recently uncovering direct editorial involvement by Beijing in major Taiwanese publications and broadcasters.
China-friendly media here have been vital to the rise of Han Kuo-yu, the presidential nominee for the pro-China opposition party, the Kuomintang. With Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections scheduled for early January, the war for public opinion has begun, with China banning individual travelers to Taiwan last month. Despite GDP and wage growth, pro-China media here have had success in pushing the narrative that president Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has hurt people’s livelihoods by refusing Beijing’s overtures to unification.
Austin Wang, an assistant political-science professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said that though most Taiwanese are wary of fake news, the compartmentalizing effect of popular social media here, including Facebook and Line, mean that “everyone is still living in their own echo chamber.”
Another issue, Wang said, is that for those fed up with the major parties in Taiwan, the CCP offers an alternative—one that many do not fully understand. This is largely owing to China-influenced media avoiding discussion of human rights and other issues in China while focusing on its economy. Taiwanese voters, he said, rarely consider the responsibility they should shoulder when living in a democracy. Rather than engage in politics directly when dissatisfied with those in power, some Taiwanese might instead think of the CCP as another viable option.
“In normal democracies,” he said, “there is no such option.”