Beijing finds itself under scrutiny as a result of protests in Hong Kong opposing a controversial extradition bill and international criticism of the internment of Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang. However, these developments should not be used to criticise Beijing's model of governance, Chinese academic Gao Jian told a regional conference in Malaysia on Tuesday.
Gao, who is secretary general of the Shanghai Academy of Global Governance and Area Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, said the protests in Hong Kong should be resolved by Hongkongers and their local government. In the case of Xinjiang, Gao said China's critics should consider the consequences of Beijing becoming unstable should it fail to confront terrorism.
He was responding to two audience members who referenced the protests in Hong Kong and the policies in Xinjiang to criticise Beijing's approach to governing.
In recent weeks, millions of Hongkongers have taken to the streets to protest a bill that would allow the transfer of fugitives to mainland China and other jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no extradition deal. The demonstrations have prompted renewed criticism of Beijing's administration of Hong Kong under the constitutional principle of "one country, two systems".
Speaking at the 33rd Asia-Pacific Roundtable, a regional conference hosted by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, Gao said the dispute had little to do with Beijing: "(Hongkongers) happen to protest, so? They have negotiations with the local government, so what? Hong Kong people administrate Hong Kong with a large degree of autonomous rights, so if they have disagreements with the local government, negotiate with them. It's very common issue. To be very frank, Hong Kong is a city in China " and we have many more cities."
Authorities in the Chinese province of Xinjiang have been accused of interning and torturing thousands of Uygurs and keeping the population under strict surveillance on the pretext of curbing extremist activities. Gao said no nation in the world would welcome terrorism and asked: "Why (are people) so interested in the Xinjiang issue " concern for the people? I doubt it. Do we want a stable China or a chaotic China?"
However, the two panellists alongside Gao on stage suggested hardline tactics from Beijing would heighten anxieties within the region.
Bates Gill of Macquarie University's Asia-Pacific Strategic Studies said Chinese President Xi Jinping was predisposed to concentrate power and eschew reform.
"For the foreseeable future, it appears as though President Xi has decided the best way forward is to come down even harder on contrary voices, to reinvigorate party discipline, to insist upon an obsequious and non-questioning media, to treat dissent quite harshly and to place the party-state at the centre of China's way forward," Gill said.
Aileen Baviera of the Asean-ISIS Network said other governments in Southeast Asia regarded Beijing with apprehension as there was "no escaping it".
"Everyone wants China to be a benign power but we don't know that's going to happen," Baviera said. "For China to evolve into such a benign power will take a lot of processes " internal and also how other countries will relate, its neighbours as well as other big players."
These tensions are playing out in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in October. China is now the world's second-largest economy and a top trading partner for the region but is locked in a trade and tech war with the US while competing for strategic dominance in Asia.
Gao also said China had learned about self-reliance the hard way and had developed through toiling, not "colonisation" and "plundering". He insisted China did not have a "model" it wanted others to emulate, and the US simply wanted "western clones" of itself.
A similar point was made at dinner hosted by the Chinese Embassy in Malaysia on Tuesday night. Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia Bai Tian said China's modus operandi in international relations was to "make the pie bigger" so everyone could have a share.
He also said China did not want a trade war but "of course we are not afraid of one … we will fight to the very end if we have to".
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