China, of course, is no guardian of democracy and freedom. Authorities in Beijing keep draining Hong Kong of its civil liberties, facilitate repression on an Orwellian scale in Xinjiang, and deride the democratic successes of Taiwan as the workings of an illegitimate, renegade government. On the international stage, China has helped prop up autocratic regimes and routinely wielded its veto powers at the U.N. Security Council to shield human rights-abusing despots from foreign censure.
So it would stand to reason that the coup d’etat in Myanmar — a country whose meddling military juntas have had long and at times close relationships with China — would barely ruffle a feather in Beijing. But that would be wrong.
To be sure, there was a clear rhetorical difference between China’s reaction and that of Western capitals after the Feb. 1 military intervention in Myanmar before the opening of parliament, which saw hundreds of elected officials and activists, including civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, detained. The former characterized events as “a major cabinet shuffle,” the latter as an illegal power grab that merited targeted sanctions. China blocked a statement at the Security Council condemning the coup.
But the coup’s bitterly contested aftermath is presenting China a serious geopolitical headache. The mass groundswell of protests rocking cities across the country have, in moments, taken on anti-China tones, with demonstrators rallying outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon and calling for boycotts of Chinese goods. Opponents of the coup in Myanmar have accused China of both aiding the military in censoring the Internet and supplying illicit transfers of weapons to put down the protests. Last week, China’s ambassador in the country denied these activities and said the current situation in Myanmar is “absolutely not what China wants to see.”
He’s probably right. Beijing was likely satisfied with the pre-coup status quo, one in which its state companies were invested in a slate of enterprises throughout the country while its officials maintained links not just to the military but perhaps even warmer ties with Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party. The current imbroglio places a question mark over billions of dollars in deals and is deepening anti-Chinese sentiment in a strategic country along its border.
The military takeover belies knee-jerk assumptions of an earlier era, when it was assumed Beijing would prefer an opaque, quiescent regime on its doorstep. “The coup has complicated a geopolitical struggle over a country that had only recently emerged from diplomatic isolation,” noted the New York Times. “China has sought to make it a pliant neighbor, while the United States has searched for the right mixture of pressure and encouragement to nurture a transition to democratic rule. It is also unclear how much any outside influence, from east or west, will sway the generals, whose bunkered mentality cut Myanmar off from the world for half a century.”
While the Biden administration is struggling to muster the right leverage to pressure Myanmar’s generals, Beijing has its own problems. “China is the biggest loser from this coup,” Enze Han, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, told the Atlantic’s Timothy McLaughlin. “The PR that it has done to improve its image over the past five years working with the NLD has all gone to waste.”
After 2015 elections saw the NLD take control of a civilian-run government, Suu Kyi chose China as the site of her first foreign trip. “That showed a clear signal that China’s worst nightmare wasn’t going to come true: that the NLD, which China long viewed as being sponsored by, or perhaps a puppet of, the West, was not wholeheartedly turning toward the West,” Mary Callahan, associate professor of international studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, told the Wall Street Journal.
Suu Kyi’s newfound rapport with Beijing was likely instrumental in helping tamp down ethnic conflicts flaring along China’s borders with Myanmar. After the military’s brutal campaign against the Rohingya on the other side of the country — what then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called “ethnic cleansing” or, as many international experts contend, genocide — both Suu Kyi and Chinese officials worked to shield Myanmar’s top brass from international punishment.
But the military establishment is still wary of Beijing, both for deep-seated historical reasons as well as China’s increasingly diversified points of contact in a modernizing Myanmar. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s top military commander and leader of the coup, “chafed at China’s role in Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations,” a former senior diplomat who had met the commander told the Atlantic. “I did not see him as particularly friendly to China.”
That’s not great news for Beijing. “They spent considerable energy, time cultivating Aung San Suu Kyi — with some success,” Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singaporean diplomat and chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, told the New York Times. “Now they have to start again with a new bunch of generals, and these generals are not just difficult for the West. They’re difficult for everyone.”
And as protests continue, the prospect of a bloodier crackdown remains. “The big questions are will the civil disobedience movement be sustained and remain peaceful, and will the police and armed forces continue to avoid a showdown?” wrote Nicholas Coppel, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar. “Min Aung Hlaing sees his forces, the Tatmadaw, as the praetorian guards of national unity and stability and will step in if there is rioting or violence.”
There have already been a number of casualties after reported incidents of security forces opening fire. But anti-coup activists aren’t going to be cowed by the threat of violence.
Violence against protesters “can happen anytime in Yangon, but we have to keep doing what we should do, even if the soldiers are ready to shoot us,” Thura Zaw, a 32-year-old resident, told my colleagues. “Under the military dictatorship, no one is safe, whether you take to the streets or sit at home, so we chose to voice our objection rather than staying silent.”