In the past decade, China has turned ‘smoke and mirrors’ diplomacy into an art form. It has mesmerized foreign multinationals and an array of prominent world leaders.

But in the last 12 months, the smoke has cleared and the mirrors have started to crack, revealing the authoritarian face of the ruling Communist Party.

Moreover, President Xi Jinping’s administration has not been afraid to throw its weight around at home or abroad while still brandishing its “free trade,” “globalization” and “reformist” credentials.

Beijing has pursued an aggressive policy to militarize the South China Sea by turning reefs and atolls into fortified complexes. China has even disregarded a United Nations ruling in favor of the Philippines while continuing to impinge on the sovereign rights of other nations.

Issues such as these are conveniently glossed over by the state-run media machine along with “debt diplomacy” in the form of the new Silk Road superhighways, or the Belt and Road Initiative, and the internment of at least one million Muslim Uighurs in the province of Xinjiang.

As for Taiwan, the mere mention of the island tends to send Beijing’s spin doctors into fits of collective hysteria.

“In Xinjiang, reports are piling up of a monumental deployment of technology and state security to impose what most agree is an almost universal curfew that goes far beyond trying to route out small cells of radical Islam,” Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese Studies and the director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College in London, wrote earlier this week.

‘Muscular’

“In the South China Sea, China’s behavior has been muscular and resurgent. The often tepid dialogues China once had on human rights and other contentious issues are now largely dead … because of its new prominence, there is a sense that China does [not] need to even play along anymore,” Brown, who is also an associate fellow at Chatham House, added.

Quite simply, Beijing’s attitude has hardened, despite a bruising trade war with the United States and disputes with the European Union about intellectual property rights violations and a slowdown in reforms.

After all, wealth leads to power. Between 2007 and 2017, China’s trade surplus with the rest of the world was a staggering US$3.192 trillion, according to statistics from statista.

The economic miracle also produced a booming middle class of approximately 300 million shoppers. Consumerism now walks hand in hand with Communism in the world’s second-largest economy.

But this new found status has come at a price. Political dissent is denied oxygen as the Great Firewall encircles China’s internet, upgraded with more sophisticated AI, or artificial intelligence, monitoring technology.

Words such as democracy are bracketed with pornography, news feeds contain a steady drip of state-sanctioned snippets, and commentaries and editorials are contained within the Party line.

Even harmless children’s cartoons, such as Winnie the Pooh and Peppa Pig, are regularly banned for political or ideological reasons.

“On the human rights front, China’s more confident behavior feels like a direct existential threat because it seeks to subvert the fundamental norms which have shaped global progress toward greater respect for liberal democracy and the rule of law,” Ted Piccone, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think tank, said.

Similar comments are collectively ignored by Beijing or strenuously attacked by the Party’s battalions of online trolls, spouting the gospel according to Xi.

Yet they probably keep one or two senior officials awake at night in Zhongnanhai, the secure compound of the political elite. Unfortunately, the chance of real political reform died along with countless young lives during the Summer of Protest in 1989, which culminated in the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Chants calling for democracy were silenced by PLA bullets. Student slogans were crushed under the tracks of tanks.

“Nearly three decades after Tiananmen, repression in China is worse than ever,” Michael Caster, a human rights advocate and the editor of The Peoples Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances, said.

“Amid a widespread crackdown on human rights defenders, China has systematized enforced disappearances and extralegal detentions,” he added. “The government has also developed a vast system of digital surveillance that intrudes into people’s daily lives, nowhere more so than in Xinjiang.”

Beijing rejects this.

Framework

Last year, the State Council published a document, entitled New Progress in the Legal Protection of Human Rights in China. The government’s de facto cabinet spelled out the framework and judicial protection of Chinese citizens.

“The rule of law is a symbol of human progress, and serves as the guarantee for ensuring human rights,” the State Council stated. “It is the determination and ultimate goal of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government to fully implement law-based governance of the country, strengthen legal protection of human rights in all areas, ensure that the Chinese people fully enjoy their rights and freedoms, achieve social fairness and justice, and promote overall human development and social progress.”

Long winded and open to ridicule, the Party’s approach has come under fire from groups such as Human Rights Watch.

“The broad and sustained offensive on human rights that started after President Xi took power five years ago showed no sign of abating in 2017,” it said in a report. “The death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in a hospital under heavy guard in July highlighted the Chinese government’s deepening contempt for rights.

“The near future for human rights appears grim, especially as Xi is expected to remain in power at least until 2022. Foreign governments did little in 2017 to push back against China’s worsening rights record at home and abroad.”

At times, it has been difficult to divide the two.

Piccone, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, stressed that the state’s “growing power is felt not only at home.”

He highlighted the “expanding portfolio of loans, direct investment, and trade agreements around the world,” and how China uses them as leverage for diplomatic gains, which “challenge the US-led international order.”

Then, there is Taiwan. Beijing’s obsession with the island has only been rivaled by its fixation with Hong Kong before the handover.

But since 1997, the rule of law in the former British colony has been eroded, despite the “One Country, Two Systems” guarantee from paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

In only 20 years, Hong Kong has become just another city in what China now calls the Greater Bay Area.

Taiwan is next on the list. This young, democratic enclave is being pressured to hop into bed with an authoritarian neighbor for the love of the motherland.

“[China] is making steady progress in isolating democratic Taiwan by offering economic incentives to developing countries like El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and Burkina Faso, which previously did not recognize Beijing,” Piccone said.

“It has [also] begun promoting its model of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ as the preferred path for protecting human rights while chipping away at well-entrenched principles that define the international human rights system,” he added.

Spotlight

Chipping away is a phrase that would resonate with Brown, the King’s College professor and the author of The New Emperors (I.B. Tauris, 2014).

He has looked objectively at the “China model,” while shining a spotlight on “the sharp treatment of Taiwan,” [and] the “incredible, pervasive growth of the surveillance state in China.”

Brown has also opened up a new avenue of debate:

“More people in Europe and the United States are starting to be uneasy about the ways in which Confucius Institutes are allowed to operate in Western establishments without similar freedoms for Western equivalents in Chinese ones. They wonder why the Chinese can buy, invest, and work so freely in their environments while it is so difficult for foreigners to do the same back in China.

“They wonder why Chinese lobbyists and activists are able to freely express their ideas in London, Sydney, or Washington, and seek to influence outcomes that matter to them there, when there is precious little space for this sort of activity back in China. More and more will start to ask the simple question, where is the reciprocity? And they don’t want answers just in soothing rhetoric.

“They want to see real actions and measures that show there is reciprocity. The simple fact is a Chinese citizen can stand before the White House and curse the US system and the president and suffer no consequences as long as they do so peacefully. Try that in front of the central leader’s compound of Zhongnanhai as a foreign passport holder and see how long one lasts!”

Probably as quick as saying, “smoke and mirrors.”