from Asia Unbound

China’s Summer of Discontent

Student leader Nathan Law (C) celebrates on the podium after his win in the Legislative Council election in Hong Kong, China September 5, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

September 6, 2016

Student leader Nathan Law (C) celebrates on the podium after his win in the Legislative Council election in Hong Kong, China September 5, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
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Xi Jinping

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Hong Kong

Heads of State and Government

I was struck by a recent headline in the South China Morning Post heralding Xi Jinping’s political gains at home from his diplomacy abroad. If the assessment is correct, it would suggest that a series of foreign policy travails has only served to heighten Xi’s popularity; by almost any objective calculation, it has been a challenging summer for Xi and his foreign policy team.

First, and most significantly, in July, a tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China and for the Philippines in the latter’s case regarding territorial claims in the South China Sea. Certainly China’s pre-established non-compliance with the ruling limits the efficacy of the decision. Nonetheless, as legal scholar Tara Davenport argues, the award has a number of additional important ramifications, including: pushing China to clarify its policies, providing private actors such as oil companies with a legal decision on which to base their investment decisions, and serving as a “focal point” that can be used by other claimants to pressure China to adjust its behavior. China even tried to round up countries in its own version of a “coalition of the willing”—but we all know how that ends.

Second, Hong Kong voters turned out in record numbers to vote in the Legislative Council elections over the first weekend in September. The results swept into office several young democrats, who have been pushing for greater political autonomy—even independence—from Beijing. One of them, 23-year old Nathan Law, received the second highest number of votes in the Hong Kong island constituency. With their victories, the democrats retain enough seats to veto any efforts by the pro-Beijing government to effect constitutional change.

Third, China suffered a few high-profile setbacks in its going global strategy for Chinese state-owned energy companies. Australia rejected a bid by China’s State Grid Corp. to buy a majority stake in Australia’s electric grid—Ausgrid. And in the United Kingdom, newly-elected Prime Minister Theresa May put a temporary hold on the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant, in which China has a one-third stake. Previous Prime Minister David Cameron had hailed the plant as a “historic deal.” In both cases, Chinese officials or official media stated that further Chinese investment could well be harmed by these setbacks.

Fourth, China’s G20 moment was hijacked by the confusion surrounding President Obama’s path off his airplane. Did China deliberately snub President Obama by not providing a red carpet descent off his plane? Was the United States simply being difficult? Did a Chinese official really yell, “This is our country!” at a U.S. official? Inquiring minds apparently wanted to know more about this event than about international efforts to combat global corruption or to reform international financial institutions.

And finally, China failed to deliver on its Olympic promise, earning just over half the gold medals of the United States and one fewer than the United Kingdom. No one outside China really cares how many medals China wins; people care how athletes from their own country fare, about athletes with compelling personal stories, and about athletes that transcend nationality like Usain Bolt. However, the Chinese media made such a fuss about the fact that the number of gold medals didn’t matter that of course, everyone understood that it really did matter.

It is possible, but unlikely, that some of these hits to China’s soft power will prompt Beijing to consider how its policies at home and its diplomacy abroad may contribute negatively to its international image. In the Orwellian world of China, however, it is likely that none of this actually matters and some of it never happened. China won’t abide by the South China Sea ruling, it will continue to crush democracy in Hong Kong, there will be other energy deals to be had, the G20 in Hangzhou was a “great success,” and no one cares about winning medals at the Olympics. And if the South China Morning Post has it right, through it all, Xi can win at home by losing abroad.