This is the fist of two posts (another will follow, tomorrow) about the situation in Hong Kong. Here are a couple of my, personal, thoughts:
First: Xi Jinping cannot lose.
The fact that he, his team, anyway, have backed into the wrong position is irrelevant. He is the Paramount Leader (最高領導人); the paramount leaders must never lose. It’s not just a Chinese thing; look at 18th century France and 17th century Britain: when paramount leaders lose they lose everything, including their heads …
… Xi Jinping will not lose because he must not lose. He cannot even give much ground because there is the ever-present issue of “face” which has many forms in Chinese (面, 臉, 顏 and variation os each word) all somewhat obscure to the Western mind. Xi Jinping’s authority, dignity, influence, honour, power and prestige are all tied to his success in whatever he decides is right and proper. He, his advisors, at any rate, have chosen what is, in my opinion, an impossible, “no-win” course of action. But having chosen a “no-win” course they are now in a position where they must not lose.
Second: the protests against individual acts of Chinese incursion into Hong Kong’s (temporary) “sovereignty” ~ the issue of the new rail station, last year and, now, the issue of the proposed extradition law ~ have morphed into something larger: a desire for real political reform. It’s a desire to be like Singapore … but that’s not going to happen. But many people, young and old, are afraid that Beijing wants to undermine the ‘one country, two systems‘ law. I’m afraid they are right, but that brings them into direct conflict with my first point. Some of the men, I think they are almost all men,* in the Zhongnanhai (the walled complex next to the Forbidden City in Beijing where Xi Jinping and his closest advisors live and work) see one country, two systems as something like an affront to China’s sovereignty and status and they want Hong Kong to be just another medium-sized Chinese city. The people of Hong Kong are, after twenty-five years of one country, two systems, accustomed to being different from China, they are proud of their different status and their achievements, they don’t want that to change.
Is it check and mate?
Possibly … but it needn’t be.
There is, I believe, a way out for both sides; but that “way” is hideously complex. I’m guessing that a two-step process might have a chance of working:
- First, the protests must change. There should be fewer of them and they should be larger. The Hong Kong Police force needs a few days to rest, recuperate, reorient their tactics and reconsider their responses. My sense is that most Hong Kong people want the police to be firm but fair and I suspect that many Hong Kong people understand that the police force is stretched nearly to, perhaps even beyond the breaking point. It has long been a radical tactic to provoke the “forces of order” into taking unreasonably harsh measures which, in turn, lead to greater public unrest. That’s what I think some of the Hong Kong protest leaders are trying to do because they think that if there is enough public outrage then Carrie Lam will step down. I doubt that will happen but see tomorrow’s post. If the Hong Kong Police are overstretched they have only one option: to ask the Chinese Army to help ~ that, I suspect, will be a disaster for everyone, as an article in the authoritative Financial Times explains very well.. But giving the police some respite must be a temporary thing. The people of Hong Kong need to tell their own government (the Executive Council), Beijing and the world that they want one country, two systems to work, HUGE demonstrations can help send that message: one million people on the streets on a Sunday can be more effective than having 150,000 on the streets every day. When one is fighting a propaganda war, in the grey zone, size does matter; and
- Second, someone in authority, preferably Vice Premier Han Zheng (left) who appears to be Beijing;’s “point-man” on Hong Kong, or, at the very least, Wang Zhimin (right) who is head of the Chinese ‘Liaison Office’ in Hong Kong, needs to speak out and say something like “One country, two systems is safe. Beijing does not want to interfere in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. In fact, Beijing wants all of China to become more like Hong Kong; part of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is designed to make Chinese institutions more like Hong Kong’s. The leadership in Beijing understands that good, honest, open institutions are the key to long-term prosperity and social harmony. We don’t want to make Hong Kong into a small-scale Shanghai, we want to make Shangai and Guangzhou, Wuhan and Chongqing more like Hong Kong.” Of course, that’s rubbish, many senior people in Beijing, possibly including Vice Premier Han himself, believe that China is doing just fine and it doesn’t need institutional reform. They believe that all that’s needed is a firm, fatherly hand to guide all the Chinese people, including the people of Hong Kong on to the “proper” path, the Party’s path. The anti-corruption campaign they know is as much about ridding Xi Jinping of opponents as it is about reform. But it doesn’t matter. IF the protestors will offer a concession then Beijing must match it.
Are either or both of those things, or something like them, likely to happen?
No, I guess not.
But I also guess that unless they, or something similar, do happen then things will go from bad to worse. An overextended, overstressed and overtired police force will need relief and that can only come from one source. The presence of mainland Chinese soldiers on the streets of Hong Kong will inflame passions, inciting riots and violence which will not go unpunished. That’s exactly what Hong Kong doesn’t need. That’s also exactly what Beijing doesn’t need. Both the protest leaders, in Hong Kong, and the Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing are in a “lose-lose” situation but the solution is going to be nearly impossible to reconcile with their wishes. In order to go from a pending disaster to a satisfactory conclusion, each side must give some ground without appearing to have given any at all. For the protesters that means fewer but larger demonstrations focused protecting one country, two systems, for Beijing, that means promising to obey the law, which ought not to be too controversial.
Tomorrow, to paraphrase Canadian Liberals: it’s time for a change.
* Currently I think all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China (the real centre of power) and nine of the ten members of the Executive Committee of the State Council (sort of like an inner cabinet) are men