Saturday, August 17, 2019

Hong Kong: China's regret?

I’ve been of the view for some time now that if multiparty democracy comes to China, it’ll be because it was first decided that allowing it in Hong Kong would be the least costly option following which Beijing couldn’t keep it quarantined to the HK Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).  This isn’t based on some grand China collapse theory but on my personal experience of both Hong Kongers on the one side and “mainlanders” on the other.  I’ve been to China more times than I can count, adding up by this time to a couple years’ worth of time in the country, and the impression I get of the prospects for political freedom there remind me of a phrase by SNL producer-writer James Downey: “It’s like being a rock climber looking up at a thousand-foot-high face of solid obsidian, polished and oiled.”  It’s very hard to see where democracy could find its purchase.

Another analogy that comes to mind is that of a nuclear containment building.  Within it are multiple barriers to prevent contamination of what Chinese state media calls the “political ecology” and the system is finely engineered to allow controlled releases within the barriers to preclude pressures from building up to uncontrollable levels.  It really does feel that it would take a tsunami to break the system down.  I recall a Harbin local who would voice a few criticisms from time to time but then, when the topic of the party’s founding anniversary celebrations came up, nonchalantly referred to “our party”.  The idea that the nation is the party and the party is the nation was been very successfully propagated.  That the military and armed police forces are not structurally loyal to or accountable to China but solely to the Party seems of little popular concern.

The mentality in the SAR, at least with young people who were born in HK, is far more familiar to westerners.  In fact, I’d say the typical HK youth takes a dimmer view of the society on the north side of the Shenzhen border (commonly called the "mainland", especially by those who don't want to call it a Hong Kong - China border) than the typical western expat living on the mainland side.  When I was at Wikimania 2013 I stayed in Hong Kong Baptist University residences and when I was talking to the students about where to get the bus to the border (I was living in Chengdu at the time) it was like I had asked about going outside the wall that kept out the living dead.

Polls say that the extent to which HKers identify as Chinese has been declining since the 1997 handover, paralleling a trend seen in Taiwan, with 90% of 18 to 29 year olds recently telling a pollster they were not proud to be Chinese nationals.  This, more than anything in my view, blunts the effectiveness of the central government’s public opinion tools in Hong Kong, which are already weakened by the fact that social media in particular isn’t blocked in the SAR like it is in the mainland.  This while GDP per capita, an increase in which Beijing trots out as the solution to almost every instance of popular dissatisfaction whether at home or abroad, has been rising with Hong Kong exceeding US GDP per capita on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis (never mind Canada) and even exceeding Norway according to the World Bank’s 2018 calculations.  It’s in fact more plausible that what we’ve been seeing in HK is because of the presence of prosperity than the lack of it.  While Hong Kong has the world’s most expensive real estate on a square meter basis that’s been the case for a long time and comes with the territory when a location is desirable.

I would not be surprised were we to learn that the powers that be in Zhongnanhai secretly regret gaining control of HK from the British on the “one country, two systems” (1C2S) basis that they did, a basis that I believe was set out by the Sino-British Joint-Declaration of 1984.  It arguably just postpones the problem of how Beijing is to take control of HK civil society.  The bet presumably was that the mainland would be more similar in 2047 than 1997, and economically it’s certainly the case that the mainland will have made enormous progress in catching up economically (indeed it already has).  But what if the ease of integration on that count isn't the count that matters?  When it comes to political freedom the mainland has been moving further away from HK (and Taiwan) since Xi took over in 2012.  When thinking about the end game for HK, I find myself returning to the fact that if HK were still British at this time, Beijing wouldn’t have the problem it currently does. 

The Party’s calculation may be that it's best to concede and let HKers elect their own leadership, which right now is deemed unacceptable because it could mean an unfriendly stance towards Beijing at the very top of local Hong Kong government, and then contain the democratic reform to the SAR by indefinitely maintaining, and even strengthening where necessary, the separation with the mainland that currently exists.  But the Party could alternatively conclude that such a concession would be at odds with everything they purport to stand for and that the writing is on the wall that there is no way of asserting central authority over HK that isn’t what they’d recognize as colossally messy, such they might as well definitively assert that authority now when they can push the line that dealing with the political “terrorists” and the “riots” is beyond the capacity of the HK government.  The calculation would be that it's going to just be more difficult when those 20-somethings are 28 years older.  I don't see a middle way between these two routes that “pacifies” HK on a sustainable basis.  One would think that intervention would be a violation of the Basic Law and/or 1C2S such that there would be a huge cost to the Party’s credibility when Beijing has been continually pushing the line that the root problem in HK is a failure on the part of protestors to respect the Basic Law and 1C2S but the Party could surely dress it up as answering a request for assistance coming from autonomous HK authorities.  Asking said authorities to call for what would surely be the end of HK as we know it would of course be a big ask, but the Party seems to do quite well at getting what they want out of people who are in the positions they are in because the Party put them there.   

No doubt Beijing will want to put off having to go one way or the other as long as possible.  A military, or more precisely People's Armed Police, intervention could provoke a powerful reaction in the U.S. in particular, which could block US corporate investment in China, place heavy pressure on Chinese firms listed on US stock exchanges, and even cut China off from the SWIFT international payments channel.  Indeed, it's more likely that we'd instead see, at least at first, a shut down of HK’s internet and social media by subsuming it behind the Great Firewall.  The outrage this would provoke within HK would be immense, it directly hitting perhaps the most valuable freedom and hitting everyone, not just the few who would be impacted by kicking in some doors in a police state round up, but would have the virtue of being a non-violent government action.  If HK subsequently explodes in rebellion, which it might very well, it’d be then, and only then in my expectation, that the APCs roll.  Seizing control of the internet and complete control of the media would be part of a longer term move to transform education, curriculum reform in HK being something that Beijing has tried its hand at before in HK and found difficult without popular support.

The most likely short term scenario nonetheless remains the protests dying off as the Umbrella Movement of 2014 did.  The problem for Beijing is that they will most certainly be coming back unless they take one of the two routes I've described, the only question being when.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Alberta Election 2019

Why haven't I blogged since 2014?  Short answer is that I got married and have a little girl who turns 3 this summer. For those of you who have several kids under age 5, if you have have time for anything besides work and family matters I'm impressed!  It's one thing to find 5 minutes to tweet and another to find an hour to blog.

So we have a provincial election a week from this coming Tuesday (on April 16).  When I was heavily involved in the Wildrose Party a decade ago I ended up running in Edmonton Beverly-Clareview for the 2008 election as the Wildrose Alliance candidate.  At the time I was only nominally living in the constituency and was planning to buy a home in Edmonton's southwest.  In the end, though, I couldn't justify paying a lot more for the same property but in the southwest instead of the northeast, and ended up buying a new townhouse right in the middle of Beverly-Clareview (although on the east side of Victoria Trail).  

This riding would be considered a safe NDP seat, especially if the NDP has inherited the Liberal vote, but nonetheless has enough curving residential roads that a centrist suburbanite could conceivably be elected in the right circumstances.

Which brings me to the question of who to vote for.  If the NDP's apparent view of the election is the correct one, then it's a referendum on whether to persecute LGBTQ2S+ people or not.  If homosexual acts were being criminalized I'd be inclined to think they are quite right to be taking the lead in giving more people their liberty.  

But of course that's not what's going on.  We've instead got what Licia Corbella calls out here.  If every Albertan read Corbella's piece, it would drive BIG turnout against the NDP at the polls.  It's one thing to threaten religious schools with a loss of funding, and quite another to go after them saying expressing a belief in the "unchangeable and infallible truth of the Word of God" is violation of provincial law.  

We have to give religious communities some space.  That doesn't mean tolerating Branch Davidians in the province where the group leader takes 12 year olds as wives.  It means stopping somewhere short, and I suggest well short, of basically declaring their belief system illegal.  Trudeau-appointed Senator Paula Simons (who isn't doing a very convincing job of rebutting the Notley-Trudeau nexus allegation when she's acting as de facto NDP spokesperson in Ottawa) at least has acknowledged a conflict of rights:

The only problem with this (besides the strawman that deciding not to criminalize an action is akin to "wanting" that action) is that there's no Charter right to never be let go by a private sector employer.  There's a good reason for this, of course, and that's the general principle that government stays out of interactions between citizens unless there is a sound reason to meddle.  So it is that a religious organization's right to take an action for religious reasons without government interference isn't on the same level as the right of citizen to call on the government to get involved and exercise its coercion.  There's a balance that has to be struck here between freedom of religion and other considerations and it ought to lean against bringing in the power of the state.

With public opinion having moved as far as it has it terms of normalizing LGBTQ2S+ self-identification or behaviour (however one looks at the question of whether it's a dispute over behaviour as opposed to identity, I disagree with those who contend it's just behaviour), the NDP inevitably has to keep reaching further and further if it's to maintain outrage levels and, by extension, political turn-out.  Eventually it gets to the point where the majority of citizens ask if the Education Minister is making the most productive of use of his time.

I'll nonetheless say this for the NDP: Notley is genuinely trying to get a pipeline and it's really not fair to contend otherwise.  But if Albertans trust the Conservatives more on that, well, what goes around comes around.  The NDP has gone too hard for too long on the idea that Conservatives are not to be trusted on social issues to complain about how unfair it is to be perceived as anti- the energy business.

This isn't to say that I stand four-square behind the social policies of Kenney's UCP.  It's rather to say that if one party is going to one extreme and another party to the other, the NDP is the more motivated to push the envelope and not admit that there's another side to the issue.

Which brings me to the question of whether I'm voting UCP.  I must be right?  I mean, I'm a former Wildroser and the Wildrose has been softened by its merger with the more centrist Progressive Conservatives such that if I have any objections to the UCP, it's that they are not right wing enough, no?

Here's the thing about that mis-perception of that Wildrose-PC merger: it's in fact Wildrose that was "softer" when it came to what matters, not with respect to the Prentice and earlier PCs so much as with respect to the Harper/Kenney crowd who represent current Conservatism in Alberta as surely as Trump = Republicanism south of the border.  It was the political hardball practices and general Machiavellianism of the federal Conservative types moving into the Alberta conservative space that drove me out of provincial politics.  Some might say I'm exaggerating the menace they represented and the issue was more my simply not liking populism and the international trend in right-of-centre politics to move downscale.  But this is kind of like calling the Trump movement populist and leaving it at that.  It is, but it's also nasty and most nasty for me is the epidemic of lying that's come with it.  So, yeah, I do apply a value judgment to it that, for me, transcends ideology.  I got into politics for what you might call ideological fiscal policy reasons, namely trying to call attention to the issues that Brooks DeCillia calls attention to here (early 2008, when I quixotically stood for office, would have been prime time to control spending) but after some time on the inside realized that policy doesn't matter as much as the typical outside voter thinks it does.

So of course I am not surprised in the least that the Kenney crowd cheated their way to control of the merged party.  I would have been surprised if they didn't.  When I was with Wildrose I'd heard about what was going on at federal Conservative nomination meetings and was thankful they are not happening at the provincial level.  I then saw the writing on the wall saying it was just a matter of time.

So where does that leave me on the 16th?  There are circumstances under which I might conceivably vote Liberal at the federal level.  Some might consider that disloyalty to conservatism but my experience as a political activist taught me that a common ideology isn't enough to support affiliating with the unintelligent and unscrupulous.  It won't happen with Trudeau and it would depend a lot on the other options but it's theoretically possible.  Provincially, though, no, not since Kevin Taft was succeeded by David Swann anyway.  There's a reason why the Liberal vote has largely gone to the NDP since then.

I understand the argument that marking one's X for the Alberta Party is throwing away your vote or splitting the vote.  But when I ran myself in 2008 I had no hope at all of even getting a tenth of the vote never mind winning, so that argument doesn't go far with me.  The AB Party has come up with a good marketing line and that's that the NDP and UCP are the vote splitters taking support from the centre.  You can see this phenomenon clearly developing in the U.S. The fact is that if you vote for Kenney or vote for Trump, they're just going to double down on whatever they did to get as far as they have.  Why wouldn't they?  It doesn't mean never voting for the Conservative or the Republicans again, it means trying to stop a particular group from taking total control of the party or movement.  The point isn't just to put a particular party in power but to make a political statement.

Here in my particular riding, the Alberta Party candidate, Jeff Walters, isn't just a name on the ballot.  He's running a serious campaign.  He also doesn't seem to have been sniffing around for an NDP nomination in the city where that would be the thing to do if you just want to get elected.  He seems to have soured on a Kenney party he might have otherwise run for over the social issues hubbub which happens to be the one point on which I think the UCP may be unfairly perceived, but I'll nonetheless endorse him, not least because I've spent most of this post arguing that personal character matters and however much the riding's incumbent may be a nice guy with reasonable policy preferences (for an NDP man), we could use an upgrade and I think Jeff Walters will deliver it.  I haven't met Mr Walters so will grant that I'm just guessing to an extent but I do think that for the first time ever this is the provincial election for me look past a party with "conservative" (or "Wildrose") in the name and to the party with Alberta in the name.