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Is China Imperialist?
When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. - Desmond Tutu
I came across a piece published over the weekend in an Indian newspaper outlining how the CCP has recently crushed anti-PRC resistance in the Malaita province of the Solomon Islands. While there are other articles talking about the protests sparked by the ouster of anti-PRC provincial leader Daniel Suidani, this article provides something more of an on-the-ground perspective through its interview with Suidani. It highlights just how China’s status as a global heavyweight has granted it extraterritorial powers, which it uses to influence smaller nations that usually have less importance internationally, and are therefore ignored by other major powers.
In 2019, the Solomon Islands switched their recognition of China from Taiwan to the PRC. At the time, one provincial leader, Daniel Suidani of the Malaita Province, voiced his opposition to the move, banning Chinese companies from setting up shop in his province. He states that the Prime minister and his supporters introduced a new budget without consultation, and illegally passed a vote of no confidence against him in 2023, all under the auspices of the CCP. Despite how much fanfare the rest of the world makes about China’s interference in other countries, no one seems to care.
“At the moment there is no help from anyone. We get encouragements and words—“stand strong”—but without any help. No country is assuring us about our struggle and our fight for principles.” - No one is helping us in our fight against PRC: Daniel Suidani
The case of the Solomon Islands is not the first time China has been caught meddling in the affairs of those who it said it never would. While it would deny this claim, it’s keen to point out the failings of others. I don’t intend to link my newsletter to one another, but recently they seem to be forming a nice little chain. In the last newsletter, I mentioned that China had recently published a hit piece masquerading as a policy positioning report about how the US spends all its time interfering in other people’s business, keeps expanding its sphere of influence, and is generally ruining “the international political and economic order and the international rule of law.” No small feat, but also not necessarily wrong.
But just because the US may well be the unelected arbiters of dubious international legal systems, this does not mean that China’s record is squeaky clean. In that piece, I also discussed how China and the US often get into spats because they are so similar, and because China wishes to have the influence and power that the US has internationally. China has a laundry list of accusations against the US, and claims that it is causing irreparable damage to countries and peoples around the world. But if one examines the CCP’s own track record in recent years, China begins to look a lot more like the US than they think.
The incident of the Solomon Islands is just one case in point; there are plenty of other examples. So, using the report released by the Chinese government as a jumping off point, let’s compare and contrast what China accuses the US of doing with what China is doing or has done itself.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ publication “The U.S. Willful Practice of Long-arm Jurisdiction and its Perils” mainly focuses on sanctions and other legal measures taken by the US against any country who takes an action that ‘affects’ the US, with the threshold for that measurement being historically quite low. These extra-judicial liberties the US takes with other countries either lead to severe social and economic damage, or go as far as to cause the collapse of their government. These heinous acts include:
Asking banks and data firms to provide information about accounts outside the US
Punishing companies or individuals for non-compliance with sanction laws
Interfering with companies and markets in other countries to disrupt competition
Instituting laws specifically to support long-arm jurisdiction, including: Trading with the Enemy Act, International Emergency Economic Powers Act, Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, USA Patriot act, and the National Defense Authorization Act
Applying US laws to foreign criminal cases using extraterritorial clauses
Any comparison between the US and China cannot be a direct one-to-one comparison, because, as the report points out, the US really is the only power that is able to institute effective sanctions, and can essentially coerce other nations into following along, or support allies in their efforts to alienate others. China can’t really do this and, as they note, has often been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment. But doesn’t mean that 1. They haven’t tried and 2. They don’t do similar things through different means. China is also guilty of most if not all of the things on this list, but not quite in the same way that the US is.
Let’s start with the collection of foreign data. We’ll put Tik Tok aside, because we’re supposed to be talking about punching down here. Huawei’s Safe City program in Nairobi, Kenya is a project in partnership with local government and telecom company Safaricom to support police efforts and reduce crime. Huawei has provided Nairobi and Mombasa with almost 2,000 security cameras, facial recognition technology, cloud computing services, and other AI surveillance tools. While it's not clear how much access China has to the data provided by these technologies, it would be naive to think that data collection and storage was not built into the initial contract. Especially if China wants to monitor the effectiveness of its technology in order to promote it to other safe city enthusiasts. Also just generally, these sorts of technologies promote the undermining of individual privacy and data rights, and enable incumbents to spy on rivals, monitor speech and the movement of dissidents, and effectively police freedom of expression. Yay.
China is not yet powerful enough to enforce its own domestic laws abroad as the US does. In fact, in the process of working with other nations, Chinese firms are often transformed into “learning institutions” that have to adapt to local norms, cultures, and legal systems in order to operate successfully. That said, though the CCP is not enforcing Chinese laws abroad, China has no problem supporting military governments that are seen as illegitimate by their own people, like in the case of Myanmar, actively upholding the systems of government that it feels pairs well with its own brand of authoritarianism. Forcible clearings out of villages may be conducted by the junta, but they are for the development of Chinese projects, to build Chinese funded hydroelectric dams or dig quarries.
When contrasted with its work in Kenya, the Myanmar situation shows how Chinese influence is unequally distributed, with China being able to exert more influence in nations with more authoritarian countries, and less able to take advantage of weaknesses in democratic, more advanced, internationally established countries with more global ties. Whereas in Nairobi, Huawei is actively working with local firms and institutions, in Malaysia, for example, Chinese firms are able to expropriate land, ignore the needs of locals and trample environmental codes with the encouragement of the government due to developmental needs.
“The many BRI construction projects across the country bring prospects of economic development to remote regions which have, until recently, remained relatively under-developed… Nonetheless, construction projects appear to have had a limited effect on job creation for locals, as firms and workers from China are commonly engaged for various reasons such as specialised skills, experience, and differences in working practices. More significantly, development projects have had a detrimental environmental and social impact on some of the most marginalised communities.” - Left Behind: The Impact of China’s Mega-projects on Malaysia’s Marginalised
But if we take the idea of applying domestic law to foreign countries more broadly, then the case of the National Security Extradition Law, which sparked mass protest in Hong Kong in 2019, is surely a clear example of China overstepping its bounds. Let’s not forget that China has also basically un-countried Taiwan, forcing countries to cut diplomatic and economic ties with them, and threatening to go to war with the US over a simple state visit. If coercing the WHO to ignore life saving techniques for saving people during a deadly pandemic that have benefitted the entire world isn’t ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ I don’t even know what we’re doing here.
While China cannot implement internationally backed sanctions, it can create hostile trading situations that are tantamount to bans on goods. For example, in 2020, following allegations that China was interfering in local Canberra elections, Australia tightened its foreign interference laws and stopped their collaboration with Huawei to introduce 5G in the country. China retaliated by imposing import tariffs on Australian goods like coal, sugar, barley and lobsters, and a 212% markup on the import of Australian wine. While not quite the same scale as global sanctions, it’s worth bearing in mind that at the time it was estimated that China accounted for up to 40 per cent of Australia's exports and one in 13 Australian jobs.
I could go on and on about more subtle coercive measures, like Confucius Institutes, scholarships for Taiwanese students, or Chinese training centres for foreign journalists that explicitly promote positive outlooks on China under the guise of provisioning infrastructure for developing countries. But for now let's move on to examining the results of China’s ‘long-arm’ actions.
Like any good piece of work, the report is kind enough to give us examples of the consequences of the US’ action throughout history. For example:
US sanctions on Iran has caused a total loss of US$150 billion in Iraq's oil revenue from 1990 to 2003, and sanctions under the Trump administration has caused at least US$200 billion worth of economic damage
Iraq's education, health and social security systems have been destroyed; its literacy rate fell from 89 percent in 1987 to 57 percent in 1997
Iran’s application to the IMF for a US$5 billion dollar exclusive loan during the pandemic was blocked by the US, and the freezing of their overseas funds prevented them being able to buy vaccines, exacerbating the spread of the virus and causing up to 13,000 deaths
The World Bank noted that Libya has suffered up to US$18 billion economic losses as a result of sanctions, while an official Libyan estimate put the figure at 33 billion.
The imprisonment of a senior manager from the French power company Alstom in 2013 under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act on charges of bribing foreign officials. The information he provided against his company left Alstom no choice but to accept General Electric's acquisition
Now, I’m not here to assess the validity of these claims, but in general I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the most powerful global power in the world has caused harm in various different ways to various different nations as a result of their actions which are largely taken in their own self-interest. However, in quite literally trying to replace the US as the world’s preeminent superpower, the report fails to point out how China may not only be emulating the US’ actions, but even causing the same sorts of issues for those at the end of their ‘long-arm’.
Returning to the case of Malaysia, for example, China’s actions have had a profound effect on local fishermen. Not only do China’s grand construction projects not create new jobs for local firms and workers, Malaysia is still an emerging country with a large poor population, who rely on subsistence fishing for a living. It would be hard to measure their displacement in terms of impact on GDP, but we can assume that it’s not going to be in the billions of dollars. But does that mean it doesn’t matter? Displacement, culture, livelihood, way of life, connection to land, sense of belonging and ownership are not necessarily things that can be measured financially (although they probably could if someone cared to try), but because these people don’t grow the economy, they’re overlooked. After all, this is a country that doesn’t really believe in accepted definitions of ‘human rights’ anyway.
And what of Chinese projects’ impact on local ecology? Chinese SOEs have been able to exploit Cambodia’s weak legal institutions to circumvent Cambodian laws requiring an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to be undertaken before building hydroelectric dams, despite protests from locals. In Myanmar, a Chinese firm managing a copper mine used so much sulfuric acid in their work that the surrounding farmland became infertile and caused health problems for the villagers. A new book, Cobalt Red by Siddharth Kara, explores how Chinese mining companies exploit loose child labour laws, continuous conflict, and local corruption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in order to mine precious metals.
China has also been accused of debt trap diplomacy, whereby countries like Sri Lanka become beholden to China and forced to enter into long-term repayment plans where China may even get to lease some of their land. This debt is usually the result of a loan that China has granted to a government to build a project that will be carried out by Chinese contractors. While this concept has been disputed by those who say it takes agency away from recipient governments, they often fail to highlight the simple premise that beggars often cannot be choosers. And before anyone tries to come over here without that tired argument that a lot of these companies are individual firms and not representative of the Chinese state, let me remind you that most are state-owned enterprises, and even those that are not would not be able to move without the active approval of the government.
These may seem like little examples, scattered here and there, but they add up. There are more and more cases brought by local communities against Chinese companies every year, and in some cases, these lawsuits are won. They demonstrate that China is still not the heavyweight that the US is. For example, though it’s difficult to measure because of the pandemic, the bans on Australian imports only affected around 1% of Australian GDP. There was some pressure put on manufacturers and miners, but most of them were able to redirect products to other countries. It may have cost Australia $8 billion, but they have other trade partners, and as a developed country with many allies, it’s difficult to tear them down without internationally backed action.
The pigs are walking on two legs
Ultimately what China is trying to achieve through its consistent smears of the US’ reputation is to paint a picture of a bully slowly losing its grip on its domain. It not only takes advantage of those weaker than it, but it does so illegitimately. The report concludes on the note that the US uses its power as “a hegemonic tool to maintain U.S. hegemony, suppress foreign competitors, interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, and even subvert the governments of other countries… It also interferes with and distorts normal international commercial exchanges and trade order, disrupts the supply chain of global trade, damages the interests of enterprises and raises their operating costs.”
Global citizens are by now quite well adjusted to American interventionism, but many are confused as to where to place China on the ‘oppressed-oppressor’ spectrum because it is both very new to the game and very foreign to us. Few who have observed events unfolding in Taiwan and Hong Kong over the past couple of decades or so would doubt China’s imperialist bent. But things like the BRI is a much subtler, but perhaps more effective route to making developing nations with little to no infrastructure and shaky, often corrupt governments beholden to them the same way the rest of the world is beholden to the US.
Again, China does not see themselves that way. Or perhaps, like the US, they’re keeping up appearances for the rest of us, while behind closed doors those at the top of the power structure talk candidly about their aims for global domination. If one defines imperialism as Britannica does, namely “extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other areas,” then China’s 21st century empire is simply a work in progress.
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