It’s easy to get swept up in the ongoing Xi Jinping deification campaign. It has given the now all-powerful Chinese leader an air of immortality and his grand vision for a Chinese renaissance the weight of inevitability.
After all, China’s rise from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution 40 years ago to the economic powerhouse we see today is an astonishing story, and Xi’s meteoric ascent to Mao-like status is no less breathtaking.
Not that they have much choice, but Hong Kong officials from Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on down have certainly been quick to jump on the Xi juggernaut, embracing what the recently anointed Leader-for-Life has called “the Chinese dream” and pledging full support for Xi-inspired initiatives, intended to transform China into a wealthy, fully developed 21st-century nation and global superpower.
In politics, this has meant toeing the authoritarian Xi’s pronounced “red line” against talk of anything that sounds like advocating independence for the city, disqualifying lawmakers who cross that line, vetting candidates for office according to their perceived loyalty to the motherland and promoting patriotism in schools.
And soon, it appears, through local legislation that will make it a crime—with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison—to disrespect the national anthem, the “March of Volunteers.”
In transportation and infrastructure, selflessly putting “national development” ahead of local interests has required the Hong Kong government to fork over $84.4 billion (US$10.7 billion) for an entirely unnecessary 26-kilometre, high-speed rail link to Shenzhen so that we have the privilege of being connected to the greater glory of the high-speed rail system extending throughout the mainland.
We have also won the privilege of suspending our basic constitutionally guaranteed human rights and immigration laws at the West Kowloon terminus for the express rail link, scheduled to open in September, as mainland officials and mainland law will be employed there.
Moreover, the larger logistical and transportation vision for Hong Kong, dubbed the Greater Bay Area Initiative, sees this city becoming an integral part of a mammoth economic and business hub linked to 10 other cities in the Pearl River Delta—Macau, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Zhongshan, Dongguan, Huizhou, Jiangmen and Zhaoqing.
Clearly, the grand plan for Hong Kong is — brick by brick, bridge by bridge, train by train, one massive construction project following another — to integrate us out of our uniquely East-West identity and into a greater Chinese mega-city that will act as a black hole for the Cantonese language and culture, already taking a beating under our present circumstances.
And let’s remember that the Greater Bay project, colossal as it sounds, is only a small part of Xi’s positively gargantuan One Belt, One Road Initiative, which aims to turn much of the developing world into a prodigious, Chinese-managed transnational construction zone.
This will advance China’s military and commercial interests while turning other involved countries into neo-colonial client states slavishly in debt to their benefactors in Beijing.
Again, as if they had a choice, Hong Kong officials are keen to get their economic teeth into this behemoth, and the city will proudly play host in June to a Belt and Road Summit at the Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Those in attendance will do their best to pretend that this exceptionally aggressive initiative is China’s magnanimous gift to the global economy and not a naked pursuit of land, resources and self-interest.
Check out the Belt and Road web portal created by the organiser of the summit, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, and you will be amazed by claims of the countless economic opportunities and benefits that this 21st-century Silk Road is set to bring to the world, especially to developing economies looking to Sugar Daddy China for funding and inspiration.
Thus – from the tiny country of Djibouti in Africa to the central Asian nations of Mongolia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, from Laos in southeastern Asia to Sri Lanka and Pakistan on the Indian subcontinent — unbridled Chinese lending has financed hugely expensive infrastructure projects including highways, railways, ports and airports, mostly built by Chinese companies, often using Chinese labour.
The problem, as has been pointed out by the International Monetary Fund and the Centre for Global Development, a Washington-based think tank, is how can these countries now possibly pay back their mounting debts to Beijing?
Perhaps through reduced spending on health care, social services and education? Through additional loans and painful debt restructuring? Through land and resources concessions? Maybe all of the above?
None of these options or any combination thereof sounds good for the putative beneficiaries of China’s largesse, countries now so in hock to Beijing that they face the prospect of a debt crisis and eventual bankruptcy.
The worst case of loan bondage appears to be Djibouti, a poor, largely barren country strategically located along the Gulf of Aden near some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and therefore of keen interest to China and the United States, both of which have military bases there.
If Chinese-sponsored infrastructure projects currently in the pipeline go ahead as planned, Djibouti’s debt-to-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio—which measures what a country owes against what it produces—will stand at more than 90 percent, almost all which is claimed by Beijing.
So, as you can see, Hong Kong is not the only place in the world losing its heart, soul and wallet to China. We are in good company.