BEIJING: The economy dominated the Chinese legislature’s annual session, but other challenges cropped up too, including the potential for new instability on the Korean Peninsula, unrest in Hong Kong, the election of an independence-leaning government on the self-ruling island of Taiwan and tensions in the South China Sea.
Such issues could prompt President Xi Jinping to shore up his support by turning up nationalist rhetoric — one of the ruling Communist Party’s traditional strategies for building legitimacy.
A look at some of them:
HONG KONG HEADACHE
The Occupy Central street protests in 2014 sought to expand democracy but ended without a clear resolution — and a distrust of authority has lingered in Hong Kong. A Lunar New Year street riot last month shocked many in the city, while the disappearance of five people linked to a publishing house specializing in politically sensitive books has raised fears that Beijing is tightening its hold on the southern financial hub. Elections this year for the 70-seat Legislative Council could result in deadlock, while unpopular Chief Executive C.Y. Leung appears to be Beijing’s only option to run for a second term in 2017.
Premier Li Keqiang said Wednesday that China won’t be changing its basic policy of allowing Hong Kong to maintain a substantial degree of autonomy, and expressed faith in the city’s government and citizens to manage their problems while Beijing maintains a watchful eye.
TAIWAN TURNS AWAY
Beijing was helpless to watch the pro-Chinese Nationalist Party go down to ignominious defeat in Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections in January. The result was a huge win for the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, whose leader Tsai Ing-wen is set be be inaugurated as the island’s first female president in May, backed by her party’s first majority in the legislature. During the eight-year rule of Nationalist President Ma Ying-jeou, Beijing had hoped to use economic inducements to bring the island closer to its goal of eventual political unification, but the policy seems instead to have generated resentment among young voters.
Li has avoided mentioning Taiwan’s elections, but said Wednesday China would stick to its core policies of opposing the island’s independence and insisting that Tsai agree that Taiwan and mainland China are part of a single Chinese nation.
After working to repair ties with its communist neighbor, Beijing was angered by Pyongyang’s purported hydrogen bomb test in early January and a subsequent satellite launch that was seen as a test of banned missile technology. Though initially unwilling to take tougher action that might destabilize Kim Jung Un’s regime, China hardened its attitude in mid-February and agreed with the U.S. on tough new U.N. sanctions to punish Pyongyang for violating earlier resolutions.
In a phone conversation Tuesday with his Japanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaffirmed China’s commitment to fully implement U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang and called for new talks with North Korea on nuclear disarmament.
SOUTH SEA ESTRANGEMENT
Tensions have been building for years in the South China Sea as China’s increasingly robust moves to assert its maritime claims in the strategically vital region prompted angry exchanges with other claimants, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. Frictions have risen further when China added more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of land to its holdings by expanding existing islands or creating entirely new ones by piling sand atop coral reefs. The addition of airstrips and military infrastructure has Washington and others worried that China is attempting to assert total dominance over the region’s waters and airspace.
Foreign Minister Wang last week warned that China won’t permit other nations to infringe on what it considers its sovereign rights in the area.
NEXT UP: NATIONALISM?
The need to burnish his own image, deter rivals and divert attention from slower growth could prompt Xi to intensify Chinese nationalism through the use of jingoistic rhetoric and by taking a hard line with the US and others, US analysts Robert D. Blackwill and Kurt M. Campbell wrote in a recent report. “Economic growth and nationalism have for decades been the two founts of legitimacy for the Communist Party, and as the former wanes, Xi will likely rely increasingly on the latter,” the two wrote.
Nationalism has proven effective before in mobilizing support, as in the 1990s when the party deflected criticism over the bloody suppression of the 1989 pro-democracy movement by stirring pride in China’s achievements and resentment against its rivals, especially the U.S. But such a strategy can also spin out of control, as with recurring violent anti-Japanese protests that have forced the government to quickly reassert control.