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.