Tag Archives: China

Some thoughts on the ongoing protests in Hong Kong

Those watching the news over the weekend have probably noticed growing reporting on the protests in Hong Kong, under the name of ‘Occupy Central’. Discontent has been brewing for a while, in anticipation of changes to the Hong Kong electoral system. Hong Kong was officially handed over from British rule to China in 1997, and a big part of the handover agreement included the idea that Hong Kong would be ruled under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model. Consequently, Hong Kong has it’s own Basic Law,  a form of constitution based on the system it inherited from British rule, which guarantees freedom of speech and assembly until 2047. On an everyday level, this means that today, Western social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which are banned in mainland China, are still accessible in Hong Kong. In 2007, China promised that Hong Kong would attain universal suffrage by 2017. Hong Kong is ruled by a Chief Executive, currently Leung Chun-ying, and China promised that the post of Chief Executive would be elected – one person, one vote – by 2017, and it is this promise that is the focus of the current protests.

Currently, the Chief Executive is elected by a committee, and the plan is for the committee to remain, but that it will nominate candidates which are then  up for election by universal suffrage. This is where the problem arrives: on August 31st, Chinese authorities announced that candidates would need the support of more than half of the ‘broadly representative’ nominating committee to appear on the ballot: and the committee contains a high number of Beijing loyalists. Consequently, only candidates which Beijing approve of would have a chance to get nominated. This is what the protesters of ‘Occupy Central’ are unhappy about.

So who are Occupy Central? The movement was initiated by an associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong called Benny Tai Yiu-ting, in early 2013, when he proposed an act of civil disobedience in the Central, the finance district of Hong Kong. The movement has included large consultations with citizens about Hong Kong’s democratic development, and has been slowly gathering support throughout 2014. It’s important to recognise that not everyone is unhappy about the Chinese decision, nor does everyone support Occupy Central: some polls have suggested that only around 50% believe Hong Kong should reject Beijing’s proposals. It’s an eclectic movement made up of academics, students and a number of other groups, the full name of which is ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’. Occupy Central have been warning Beijing that protests would ensue if it’s election proposals did not meet the standards they expect, and so after the decision on August 31st protests have been gathering support, with huge numbers turning out over the weekend and into today.

Photo via @OCLPHK
Photo via @OCLPHK

China has made it clear that Hong Kong is still ultimately under Chinese rule, despite the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model, and have so far signalled that they have no intention of budging on their decision. Earlier in the weekend, the army responded to the protests with tear gas, but yesterday and today protests have continued, calling for the resignation of the Chief Executive for pandering to China. Today (Wednesday) more people are expected to join: many are off work as 1 October is a national holiday, celebrating the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. Tensions are set to rise as protesters use the day to bolster support.

Some suggest that Beijing is losing the hearts and minds of Hong Kong. News reports of the events in Hong Kong have been blocked in mainland China, and Instagram, which was used to share photos of the protests, has also been blocked in the mainland. It is very difficult to tell how this is going to end: some have drawn parallels with the Tiananmen protests in 1989. However, the spread of information, particularly via social media – even within mainland China – makes a cover-up of any military response impossible. Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, has been amassing and centralising power since taking over, and has even modelled himself on Deng Xiaoping, who was behind China’s opening up to the West. However, Deng was also in charge in 1989.

The protests taking over 1 October celebrations is likely to be particularly testing. At this point, no one knows how China will deal with the situation, but those with any influence should be emphasising restraint. A military response would lose China any international and domestic support, but the lack of military intervention since Sunday is a good sign: let’s hope the protests open the space for conversation about Hong Kong’s electoral system, instead of bloodshed.

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Is China reclassifying energy as a military security issue?

Last week, news broke that China is sending troops to South Sudan to protect its oil interests in the troubled region. The troops will join the UN’s peacekeeping force in the area later this year. The original Wall Street Journal article notes that ‘while Beijing’s troops will operate under UN command, their posting to South Sudan marks a sharp escalation of China’s efforts to ensure the safety of its workers and assets in Africa and guarantee a steady flow of energy for domestic consumption’. It also marks China’s first commitment to send a battalion to a UN peacekeeping force, though they have contributed smaller numbers of peacekeepers to other missions.

The UN mission in South Sudan is backed by a Security Council mandate which permits peacekeepers to protect civilians in South Sudan’s now nine-month long civil war, which has seen thousands of casualties and over a million people displaced. It has also shut down a third of the country’s oil production. The UN mission’s mandate allows it to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians in physical danger, including civilians at oil installations. Rebels have been kidnapping Chinese oil workers during the unrest and some have already been evacuated. Reuters published a response from Joe Contreras, UN spokesperson for the mission in South Sudan, who confirmed that under the mandate peacekeepers will be protecting ‘civilian oil industry workers’ but not oil industry installations, including ‘the refinery or pipeline or storage tanks’.

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UN peacekeepers in South Sudan

Reuters also note China’s unusually active diplomatic role in the conflict: ‘Chinese officials have been in regular contact with Western diplomats to help African mediators push for a halt to fighting in the country. China has also pushed rival factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar to talk’. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), one of China’s ‘big three’ state-owned energy companies, has big investments in South Sudan – both in oil fields and a 1000-mile long oil pipeline to the coast.

Military interventions to protect foreign energy supplies are hardly new, and the role of energy in foreign policy is well-documented, as are concerns over China’s international energy policy. However, these troops mark a big change both in China’s behaviour internationally and its approach to energy security. China’s international energy policy or expansion has so far been limited largely to investments in actual energy deposits, such as oil fields, or infrastructure. While the current mission is only mandated to protect civilians and workers rather than oil fields or infrastructure, it marks China’s biggest international military secondment in recent years – and is hardly unrelated to the country’s significant economic interests in the area.

China’s growing energy demand is well-established, and energy has consistently been considered an issue of national security in recent years. However, this marks China’s first (relatively) large military engagement in an area where it has significant energy interests. China has so far released very little information about the mission, but is stressing that the goal of the mission is strictly to fulfil the mandate of the Security Council, ultimately to maintain peace and security in the area.

It’s difficult know how much impact this will have on Chinese policy in the longer term, but it is definitely one to watch – especially given China’s increasing international energy investments in volatile regions. It may indicate a further shift in Chinese perceptions of energy security, towards viewing energy as a military security issue. If it sets a precedent for Chinese intervention to defend its energy interests abroad we’re likely to see much more focus on this in the future.

iSecuritization? China says the iPhone is a threat to national security

In what I am shamelessly calling iSecuritization, Chinese Central Televison (CCTV) have said that the iPhone is a threat to national security. This is due to the ‘frequent locations’ feature, which Apple states is used in order to ‘to learn places that are significant to you’.

If you’ve got an iPhone it’s worth checking out. Frequent locations is turned on by default and it’s currently tracking your movements. Have a look at your frequent locations and realise how creepy your iPhone is by following these instructions.

CCTV state that frequent locations amounts to a threat to national security as, according to one researcher quoted in the Independent, ‘if this information was accessed on a large scale it could reveal a country’s economic situation and “even state secrets”.’

Unfortunately my frequent locations don’t reveal anything half as interesting.

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But regardless of how uninteresting my activities may be, frequent locations and the fact it’s turned on by default does draw out some interesting issues in regards to surveillance and security (which Zygmut Bauman and David Lyon cover in detail).

Apple say that they have ‘never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers, and we never will’. And I guess that’s good news. Apple is tracking your every move by default and might not be sharing it with governments, but what can they do with it themselves? Frequent locations may not be a threat to national security, but is it a threat to yours?

China ‘declares war’ on pollution: what does it mean?

On 5th March, China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang opened the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. These speeches tend to be full of the usual, ‘expected’ and generally repetitive bureaucratic language. However, this time Li’s speech was a little out of the ordinary: it explicitly declared a ‘war on pollution’ – an unexpected choice of words which suggests the issue is increasingly considered one of security. This blog has already talked about China’s ‘Airpocalypse’, and whether or not deteriorating air quality should be considered a security issue. The government has been considering and implementing a range of measures to deal with urban pollution, and with up to 500,000 people dying early each year from air pollution related illnesses action is desperately needed. Li’s speech, in declaring war on pollution, took the debate to another level. Xinhua reported Li as stating that ‘Smog is affecting larger parts of China and environmental pollution has become a major problem, which is nature’s red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development’. Miao Xuegang, a deputy to the National People’s Congress, called Li’s declaration “a letter of commitment from the government”.

Premier Li Keqiang on March 5, from TIME

The statement is ‘the highest-level acknowledgement yet of the enormous challenges China faces’, directly recognising the seriousness of the issue. The language is reminiscent of securitization theory’s suggestion that when issues are declared issues of security and supreme priority, they can be dealt with differently – allocating extra funds and enabling emergency measures. It suggests the government is taking pollution seriously, and it will be interesting to see how far the it will take this – the Airpocalypse will likely remain a popular topic in Chinese media, and with rising numbers of environmental protests it will be difficult for the government to shirk responsibilities. The biggest obstacle, however, remains economic development. It is widely seen as the cause of China’s pollution problems, but Li’s speech also reiterated a commitment to keeping economic growth at 7.5% and it is difficult to see how this will enable a serious improvement in pollution levels. Ai Nanshan, from Sichuan University noted that “you can not get a beautiful GDP figure at the cost of environment”. This is clearly a puzzle the government has yet to solve.

Part three: Energy security vs climate security

Reblogged from Saving humans:

It is clear that energy security opens up some difficult questions about what or whose security should be prioritised. At the centre of this is the growing conflict between the focus of much energy security policy and discussion on fossil fuels, and the human need for a stable climate and environment. Energy security as currently understood by most policymakers is incompatible with a stable climate. We see perhaps the biggest conflict between energy and climate security today in China.

As recognised by the International Energy Agency, burning fossil fuels for energy is by far the central source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. If climate change and air pollution are also considered, fossil fuels ultimately no longer provide security. China’s rapid economic development has led to a huge growth in its demand for energy. It still relies largely on domestic resources, which makes it ‘secure’ if you equate energy independence with energy security. However, nearly 70 percent of China’s energy comes from coal – which is both cheap and domestically available. Coal is by far the dirtiest source of energy, and contributes more to global warming than any other fossil fuel.

China’s air pollution problems became world news last winter, when the air quality hit new lows. The US embassy in Beijing has been measuring air quality since 2008, and publishing the data on a twitter account using a pollution measurement scale from the US Environmental Protection Agency. The air quality index suggests measurements between 101 and 150 are unhealthy for ‘sensitive groups’, meaning children, the elderly and those suffering from asthma. For pollution levels between 301 and 500, labelled ‘hazardous’, they recommend everyone to refrain from doing any physical activity outdoors. Last winter, readings reached 755 – on a scale that stops at 500. The ongoing ‘trend’ has been labelled an ‘airpocalypse’, with high levels of pollution linked to increased levels of some types of cancer, as well as respiratory illnesses. Air pollution is also a cause of acid rain, which contaminates food supplies and damages ecosystems. Air and water pollution has been linked to a new phenomenon of ‘cancer villages’ in parts of China, where inhabitants suffer unusually high rates of cancer.

A photo of the same view in Beijing, on a clear day and during bad pollution during winter 2013

Unsurprisingly, people are increasingly unhappy about the social and environmental costs of development, and the number of environmental protests in China is rising. The government is attempting to tackle the issue, but growing energy demand means that a reduction in coal use is unlikely to happen even in the next decade. The growing conflict between increasing energy demand to support economic development and environmental stability is going to be one of the biggest challenges for China in the next decade. The government has repeatedly stated that economic development does not have to be unsustainable, but it is yet to back this up with serious action.

While the situation in China is at the centre of this debate, the rest of the world has also failed to come up with a clear solution. Existing approaches to energy security still largely overlook the impact policy choices have on the climate or the environment. Some argue that the environment or the climate are not ‘security’ issues, and while I personally disagree, whichever position you take it is clear that these are issues increasingly affecting the lives and livelihoods of human beings. The question we seem to be left with is: do we have to choose between energy security and a stable climate? Is it possible to ‘have it all’?