Taiwan elects first female leader. Iran free to reopen oil markets. By Hamish McDonald.

Ominous crackdown on Hong Kong publishers

Publisher Gui Minhai appears on Chinese television after reportedly handing himself in to officials in October.
Publisher Gui Minhai appears on Chinese television after reportedly handing himself in to officials in October.
Credit: AFP Photo / CCTV

Such a lot has happened since we absented ourselves five weeks back. Most notably, in its impact on Australia, has been the almighty crash in China’s sharemarket, further devaluations of the yuan to boost exports and stem capital flight, and economic growth figures lower than the rate previously taken as a red line for political stability.

As dictators usually do in such circumstances, Chinese Communist Party chief President Xi Jinping is leaning to nationalist gestures and tearing up promises. Since meeting Barack Obama last September, he’s ignored United States pleas to cool it in the South China Sea. New satellite images show China is close to completing a second and third airstrip on artificial islands built on reefs, while carrying out test flights into the first one at Fiery Cross Reef. Incursions continue around disputed islands held by Japan.

In Hong Kong, Xi’s authorities are driving holes through the treaty guaranteeing 50 years of autonomy from the 1997 handover by Britain and pointing to full internal democracy by next year. Five executives of a Hong Kong publishing house, Mighty Current, which specialises in racy books on Chinese leaders, have disappeared into the mainland. One of them, Gui Minhai, appeared on Chinese television last Sunday stating that he’d “voluntarily” left his Thailand holiday apartment to return to China to face a drink-driving charge relating to a 2003 road fatality, even though reports from the time say he’d already got a probationary sentence. Though he has Swedish citizenship, he asked Stockholm to “let me solve my own problems” and that his case be left free of “malicious media hype”. Three others may have been lured across the border from Hong Kong. The fifth, Lee Bo, was grabbed as he left the publisher’s warehouse in Hong Kong itself, bundled protesting into a van by several men, and driven across the border.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, agrees that mysterious agents should not be able to abduct Hong Kong residents, and is “looking into” the Lee Bo case. So far, local newspaper Ming Pao has got further than the Hong Kong police in finding CCTV video of the abduction and locating witnesses. Meanwhile, Beijing’s intended effect is evident. Mighty Current has canned a new book by the exiled dissident writer Yu Jie, titled Xi Jinping’s Nightmare. It will now be published in Taiwan. Many Hong Kong bookshops have withdrawn the books about Chinese leaders and politics that used to be snapped up by mainland visitors.

Further erosion of local freedoms has come through interference with university appointments, entry visa denials, and the dropping of columnists critical of China from leading newspapers. The latter can only get worse with the purchase of The South China Morning Post by mainland internet portal Alibaba.

This year will see whether the Hong Kong population is cowed, when free elections are held for half the territory’s parliament, and whether demonstrations resume in favour of next year’s election of the chief executive being made open to all candidates, not just those pre-vetted by a panel stacked by Beijing.

1 . Taiwan elects first female leader

If Taiwan is anything to go by, Beijing’s ploys can be counterproductive. November’s unprecedented meeting between Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s then president, Ma Ying-jeou, has been followed by last Saturday’s rout of Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party) in both presidential and legislature elections in Taiwan.

The Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen becomes the new president, and the first female leader in the Chinese world since the Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908. How Chinese she feels is another matter. The DPP draws on sentiment that Taiwan has developed in its own way since the communists took over the mainland and is effectively independent. The KMT’s defeat, while it also reflects a less than stellar performance in government, shows the pool of believers in eventual reunion with the mainland is shrinking.

So far, Tsai has stressed she wants to maintain peace and stability in relations with the mainland, but she is shying away from a 1992 “consensus” that professes a belief in “one China” with different views about what that means. Washington has already sent envoys to both Beijing and Taipei to urge caution. It will be a long handover of power anyway, since Tsai won’t be inaugurated until May 20. 

Although the DPP has held the presidency before, under Chen Shui-bian from 2000-08 when relations with Beijing got very testy, it has never controlled the legislative yuan as it now will. This could make Tsai “more vulnerable to pro-independence sentiment among her fundamentalist supporters who presumably would try to use their legislative influence to pursue their more provocative objectives,” Douglas Paal, a former US representative in Taiwan, warned in The Diplomat. “It could get messy.”

With Xi having reorganised the People’s Liberation Army into air-sea-land battle groups this month, and Vladimir Putin having shown the way by grabbing historic Russian territory in Crimea, Beijing might be ready to respond to such “provocation” with force, if it thought a distracted or weak US administration would hold back. That would be the ultimate nationalist achievement for a Chinese president. 

2 . Iran free to reopen oil markets

North Korea exploded what it said was a hydrogen bomb, to considerable doubt. Iran, meanwhile, was certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency as having complied with its agreement to limit its ability to make any kind of nuclear weapon in a hurry, by scrapping many of its uranium-enrichment centrifuges, pouring cement into the core of a plutonium-producing reactor, and shipping stocks of enriched uranium to Russia.

As a result, Tehran now has access to previously frozen foreign funds, variously estimated between $US50 billion and $US100 billion, and is much more free to sell its oil. Its compliance removes the risk of another big conflict involving the US and Israel. Strategic tension with Saudi Arabia has conversely ramped up. The Saudis executed an influential Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. Protesters in Tehran attacked the Saudi embassy; Riyadh broke off diplomatic relations. The prospect deepened of a drawn-out Sunni–Shiite battle across the Middle East, often likened to the Thirty Years War in Europe between Catholic and Protestant powers.

All this was pushed aside in The Australian Financial Review’s editorial on Monday about Iran’s re-entry to the world economy free of sanctions. The “real significance” was the effect on already low oil prices. While this might lower petrol prices, it would hit Australia’s prices for its exports of LNG. The AFR painted an even worse scenario, if Iraq quells Daesh and ramps up its oil exports to full potential. “An Iraq free of IS would be welcomed by all,” it intoned, “but Australia will have to face of [sic] future of low LNG and coal prices as a result.” The horror!

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 23, 2016 as "Ominous crackdown on Hong Kong publishers".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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