“Never trust China”, a wrathful Hong Kong protestor said during large-scale protests in Hong Kong’s Sha Tin district earlier this month. “We are not fighting to gain anything, [but] we are fighting not to lose anything. I am worried about Hong Kong becoming China.”

Though ostensibly inspired by opposition to a controversial extradition law, which would allow Beijing to retrieve an try fugitives, the protests are fundamentally about preserving the city-state’s unique freedoms.

At the heart of their grievances are real and perceived threats to the so-called “one country, two systems” formula, which has undergirded the autonomous city’s Britain to China handover in 1997.

Hong Kong’s protests, however, can also be viewed through the prism of a larger regional backlash against China’s influence, including its utilization of big-ticket economic deals to co-opt regional elites and lending terms that undermine the sovereignty of smaller nations.

Beijing’s long-term strategy of charming regional states through rich aid, assistance and investment is looking increasingly fragile.

A recent anti-extradition bill recent protest in the Admiralty area of Hong Kong. Photo: Asia Times

For a growing number of Hong Kong protesters, Beijing is now increasingly emphasizing the “one country” aspect at the expense of undermining Hong Kong’s unique political system, including press freedom, freedom of assembly and universal suffrage.

“The only thing I know is that no matter how much money I earn [because of Chinese investments],” one protestor told the author (July 14), “freedom is something I can’t earn from China.”

“We should not only focus on economic growth, since China is just using economic ways to influence [other countries],” another protester related.

“Regional states should not only focus on economic growth…since China is just using economic ways to influence [other countries’],” she added. “Regional states should focus on their freedoms and own citizens.”

Such sentiments are increasingly commonplace across the region. The latest survey conducted by Academia Sinica showed for the first time in years that a majority of Taiwanese prefer reassertion of their de facto sovereignty over economic engagement with China.

In recent years, Taiwan has gradually decoupled from China by shifting its investments elsewhere in the region, especially in Southeast Asia. “We now have more liberty to speak for our independence,” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen told this writer in June, “[because] people have to bear in mind that you need to be independent [economically too], since China uses economics as leverage.”

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a press conference at the Presidential Office in Taipei on August 21, 2018. Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh

The developments in Hong Kong are being closely watched across the region, especially in Taiwan, which is set for crucial presidential elections in January 2020.

The pro-independence President Tsai is up against Beijing-leaning rivals, namely populist Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu and billionaire businessman Terry Gou, who have favored closer economic ties with China.

The anti-China protests in Hong Kong will likely strengthen the hands of the incumbent, who has repeatedly warned against Chinese efforts to sabotage Taiwan’s democracy and de facto independence.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s consistent efforts to portray China as a friendly ally have failed to gain public support, opinion surveys show.

If anything, his China-leaning foreign policy has faced growing domestic opposition, especially amid concerns over onerous terms of Chinese investments as well as festering disputes in the South China Sea.

Similar to Hong Kong and Taiwan, many Filipinos remain skeptical vis-à-vis China’s pledges of large-scale investments in the country.

Activists display anti-China placards and flags during a protest at a park in Manila on June 18, 2019, after a Chinese vessel collided with a Philippine fishing boat which sank in the disputed South China Sea. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

One source of concern are potential “debt traps” due to allegedly non-transparent and potentially lopsided financial terms of economic deals with China.

Prominent Filipino magistrate Antonio Carpio has accused China of seeking Philippine government assets, including energy resources within Philippine-claimed waters, as collateral for its multi-billion dollar infrastructure loans.

“We should do away with placing our government commercial assets [as] collateral,” Carpio told the author on July 18, accusing China of leveraging infrastructure deals to eventually seize strategic assets in the Philippines, especially in the contested South China Sea.

“Let’s not be naïve [with Chinese intentions],” he added, citing the case of Sri Lanka, where a Chinese company took control of the Hambantota port it helped to finance and build following a loan default.

The larger source of anti-China sentiments in the Philippines, however, is Beijing’s aggressive actions in Philippine waters.

Last month, a suspected Chinese militia vessel rammed and sank a Filipino fishing boat in the contested Reed Bank, an energy-rich area within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone that is contested by China.

In response, a majority of Filipinos have called on the Duterte administration to take a tougher stance against China. As many as 93% of Filipinos want the government to wrest back control of Philippine-claimed land features seized by China, according to the latest Social Weather Stations Survey conducted in late June.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) gestures as Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte (R) looks on during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila on November 20, 2018. Photo" AFP/Mark R. Cristino/Pool
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) at a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace, November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mark R. Cristino/Pool

Meanwhile, as many as eight out of 10 Filipinos want the government to form alliances with international organizations and international partners to constrain Chinese encroachment in Philippine waters.

Another survey by the SWS, conducted from June 22 to 26, showed that majority of Filipinos (51%) had “little trust” in China. China still remains as the least trusted foreign power, according to a Pulse Asia survey earlier this year.

Beijing has arguably faced the greatest resistance in Vietnam, where its investments and commercial interests are frequently targeted by anti-China popular protests, including mass demonstrations last year against a new 99-year land lease law many felt would sell out national interests to China.

Some expect new rounds of protests could erupt over a weeks-long naval standoff between China and Vietnam over the Vanguard Bank, an energy-rich area that falls within Hanoi’s EEZ and China’s nine-dashed-line in the South China Sea.

Fears over Chinese influence have also been reflected in the region’s electoral polices. In Malaysia, where Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad dislodged his predecessor by adopting anti-China rhetoric, and Indonesia, where the opposition made huge electoral inroads by openly accusing President Joko Widodo of kowtowing to Beijing.

Demonstrators convene in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park with multi-lingual signs opposing extradition to China, June 9, 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie

Across the region, a majority of respondents still preferred the US over China as a regional leader, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year. The anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong will have only reinforced existing anxieties over China’s rise, some suggest.

As the protests take a more radical turn, with participants calling for independence from China, the risk of a lethal crackdown is likewise raising concerns of possible regional spillovers.

As one protester told this writer, “We are never going to give up, people are fighting to their last breath.”