World

Australia’s link to Trump inquiry. Protests continue in Indonesia. Beijing celebrations overshadowed by Hong Kong protest shooting. Mohammed bin Salman on Khashoggi murder PR offensive. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Hong Kong chaos eclipses China celebrations

Militia members march past Tiananmen Square during this week’s military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
Credit: Reuters / Peter Thomas

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: The inquiry into whether Donald Trump pressured Ukraine’s leader to interfere with the 2020 presidential election is little more than a week old but has expanded rapidly to include senior White House figures as well as those of other countries, including Australia.

The decision by the Democrats to proceed with an impeachment inquiry is risky, but opinion polls indicate support for it has grown. A Quinnipiac University survey released on Monday found 47 per cent of voters say Trump should be impeached, up from 37 per cent a week earlier; another 47 per cent say that he should not.

This support may increase as the inquiry has widened to ensnare a range of officials. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was this week accused of obstruction after he resisted efforts to hear from diplomats who were present during a call in July in which Trump asked Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, to investigate Joe Biden, a leading Democratic candidate ahead of the 2020 election.

Australia was also caught up in the saga after The New York Times reported that Trump asked Scott Morrison for assistance in investigating the origins of the Mueller inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections. One of the catalysts for the inquiry into Russia’s role was a tip from Alexander Downer, who was then the high commissioner to Britain and passed on information he received from an adviser to the Trump campaign during a meeting at a London pub. Morrison agreed to Trump’s request, which was followed soon after by a rare state dinner for the Australian leader.

As the inquiry and its targets have widened, Trump’s Twitter rhetoric has become more inflammatory. This week, he described the inquiry as a “COUP”. According to USA Today, Trump sent 500 personal tweets in September, about twice his average monthly rate.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Indonesia: In two weeks, Joko Widodo will be sworn in for a second five-year term as Indonesian president – an occasion that should have been a celebration of his commitment to deliver ambitious plans to build new roads, rail, ports and airports around the country.

Instead, he is struggling to handle public anger at a series of measures that threaten to erode civil rights and governance. These include a criminal code that would effectively ban extramarital sex and same-sex relations, and a law to weaken the independence and authority of the anti-corruption agency, one of the country’s most respected institutions.

On Monday, violent protests erupted in Jakarta as thousands of students, workers and activists demonstrated across the city. More than 20,000 riot police and military personnel were deployed.

This capped a week of student-led protests throughout the country that have marked some of the biggest since the unrest in 1998 that led to the end of Suharto’s 32-year rule. At least three people, including two students, have died during the recent protests.

Widodo has apologised for the deaths, and has delayed the draft criminal code and suggested he may revoke the anti-corruption law. But members of his ruling coalition have indicated they will oppose any compromise. The students, meanwhile, have expanded their demands for a withdrawal of troops from Papua, and action to prevent forest fires.

Widodo appears torn between placating the protesters and retaining the support of his coalition. But he also appears relatively detached, even though these issues touch on the future of liberalism and tolerance in Indonesia. It is not clear whether he fails to appreciate the significance or whether he sees these questions as too difficult to handle, or as a distraction from his main aim, which is to open new rail lines.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

China: From a balcony overlooking Tiananmen Square, Xi Jinping presided over a supersized military parade on Tuesday to mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Standing above an enormous portrait of Mao Zedong, he clapped at the passing display, which included an enormous portrait of himself.

The parade featured 15,000 troops and 580 new types of weapons, including a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the US. But the choreographed precision and the cult of weaponry will do little to allay global concerns about Xi’s repressive domestic rule or his assertiveness abroad. Rory Medcalf, of the Australian National University, observed in a tweet: “Rolling nuclear-capable missiles through the streets is the ultimate show of insecurity and Cold War thinking.”

Yet the spectacle, impressive as it was, was overshadowed by events in Hong Kong, where chaos was erupting. On Tuesday, a pro-democracy protester was shot with live ammunition, the first time this has happened since the demonstrations began four months ago. Tsang Chi-kin, an 18-year-old student, was shot at close range in the chest and survived but was arrested for assaulting a police officer. Police commissioner Stephen Lo said the action was “reasonable and lawful”.

The protesters are demanding the resignation of Hong Kong’s pro-China chief executive, Carrie Lam, who was in Beijing for the parade.

Xi said in his speech that China must support Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” formula and maintain the city’s prosperity. Some analysts believe he has been determined to avoid a harsh crackdown on the protests until after the long-awaited anniversary celebrations.

SPOTLIGHT: Khashoggi killing

Saudi Arabia: A year after the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely believed to be behind the operation, marked the anniversary with a public relations offensive to try to salvage his reputation. He told America’s 60 Minutes that he did not order the “heinous crime”, which he says was conducted by rogue officials. Asked how it was possible he did not know about the murder, he said: “Some think that I should know what three million people working for the Saudi government do daily? It’s impossible.”

Yet the 15-member team of assassins that carried out the murder and dismemberment included associates of the Crown Prince. The Saudis charged 11 suspects, but none has been named and it is unclear whether any were jailed. An exhaustive inquiry by the United Nations found bin Salman should be investigated, and the CIA reportedly concluded he was personally responsible.

Yet bin Salman, who has also fuelled a disastrous war in Yemen, has escaped with minimal consequence. The US has never publicly accused him of the crime, even though Khashoggi was a US resident who wrote for The Washington Post. Trump has made clear he will not let the murder disrupt arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Business leaders have also proved willing to overlook any wrongdoing. According to The Washington Post, senior executives from firms such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup will soon travel to the kingdom for the so-called “Davos in the Desert” investment conference. Several firms boycotted last year’s event but are now apparently ready to return. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is another expected attendee. The kingdom also recently announced a new tourist visa program that could potentially allow large numbers of Westerners to visit. The aim of these initiatives appears to be to generate headlines that are unrelated to Khashoggi’s murder. It’s a hard crime to forget.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 5, 2019 as "HK chaos eclipses China celebrations". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.