Hong Kong and the Western conundrum

20-11-19

Dear Partners in thought,

The unrest in Hong Kong (HK) started about a proposed law pushed by HK’s Chief executive, Carrie Lam, to extradite criminals to the mainland. Incidentally Carrie Lam, may be remembered, as David Cameron always will be for Brexit, for a proposal that was not really needed and created havoc. Like with the Yellow Vests in France and while that proposed law was shelved, unrest continued to focus on more fundamental issues centred around freedom and the very future of HK. Demonstrations became increasingly violent, like now at HK Polytechnic University, as months went by, opposing two sides that could no longer relate to each other.

Premier Xi Jinping likely looks at the HK situation with incredulity so much he has been focused on restoring power and dignity to his country as if it had been held under servitude since the Boxers’ revolt of 1900 (the restoration of national pride is in effect very similar to what has happened in Russia under Putin). To Xi, HK is a spanner thrown in all his good works and a very untimely one too. It is clear that the hopes that HK would have a gradual liberal impact on the mainland ahead of the 2047 full integration is as justified as the belief that economic liberalism would bring personal freedom to the mainland Chinese. If anything it shows that the seven years of Xi have been a focus on world power rise and national economic improvement combined with an increased dose of unsurprising authoritarianism in line with the early credos of Mao’s Little Red Book.

It is clear that Xi and his team are lost and do not know how to manage the HK crisis as the Chinese leadership was never faced with such a massive series of events if we exclude Tiananmen Square in 1989 at a time when news travelled less fast and fluidly. They believe in “One China” and do not know to deal with the singular Hong Kong leadership whom they find inefficient while not being sure how to quell the riots, mostly in terms of image impact globally and the likely cost to the Belt and Road Initiative. China reiterated that it would use military force if it needed to so as to assist local police forces and restore order in HK, a division of the PLA being already on site and using the old Gurkhas’s barracks.    

We got used to the demonstrations and the tear gas as a daily dose of news on the major media outlets but see not much reaction from the West, especially its leading governments beyond the mild protests from some, the UK in the lead for obvious historical  reasons. The European Commission stressed that the response to the protest had to be “strictly proportionate” and that violence was “unacceptable” all with good intent and little weight (again stressing the power void of EU foreign policy beyond trade and why Macron is right in wanting to change it). As for the US, it has kept relatively silent on the whole matter, being busy trying hard to disentangle itself from an ill-fated trade war with potential electoral consequences. 

The West experiences a very strong conundrum. Human rights and freedoms of all sorts, that are part and parcel (in theory at times) of our Western existence are not a daily feature of Chinese life, including now in once differentiated HK that gets daily reminders that it is de facto part of the Popular Republic of China. The West does not know yet how to express views on what is happening in what it also sees as a sovereign country entitled to manage its own affairs without interference, which is another respected Western tenet called sovereignty. 

Values face realpolitik for the West with HK today. The problem obviously is that Hong Kong is not ruled ultimately by a non-relevant country in world affairs but by a rising world power if not already by many standards the leading world power. There is a pervasive and unsaid Dantzig feeling (like in the “not wanting to die for Dantzig” of 80 years ago)  about the HK events as many in the West would not want to upset a key trading partner (already destabilised by trade wars with America) not least going to war so Hong Kongers could feel more free. We see every day a descent into more serious and ultimately lethal confrontations between the HK police and demonstrators with no end in sight as Beijing will never soften its approach to ruling its people, all the more in HK whose value to the mainland is far less than it used to be in today’s economic context and given its ability borne out of sheer power not to bother with how the West would perceive its ruling ways. 

While Xi is unlikely to display “humility, open-mindedness and tolerance” in thriving to find a peaceful and well-balanced resolution to the HK “conflict”, the West should press more forcefully Beijing, though in a cooperative manner, focusing on mutual interests, on finding ways to find a way forward to go back to a peaceful environment. Hong Kongers should also realise that their protests have indirectly endangered the high status enjoyed by HK as a business and financial center the world over, with one of the most desirable environments to do business, itself a factor of prosperity and a barrier to authoritarianism from the mainland. There is a point when protests will create chaos that will only bring in the PLA and condemn HK to economic oblivion, with possibly an earlier and more challenging full integration into the mainland.

We cannot – the West – go and fight with China on a matter that may be close to our values but which is also deeply “Chinese”. It is not as if China invaded Japan or indeed Taiwan (which they would if the latter declared independence). We need to soberly engage with China (as we need to engage with Russia) making them make progress on fronts we deem important, including HK, but we need to be realistic and cautious in doing so as we first and foremost need them to be a key part of the community of leading nations. 

Warmest regards, 

Serge       

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