I really don’t understand …

… what Xi Jinping and the small handful of men and women who surround him are thinking. I cannot make any strategic sense out of their handling of the Hong Kong situation. It seems to me, and I would be very grateful if someone would tell me why and how I am wrong, that a significant part of Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” proposal was to demonstrate to Taiwan that a modern, sophisticated, “free” society could be integrated into (the badly misnamed) Communist China and that both parties would benefit. Hong Kong (and it was to hoped Taiwan) would benefit from China’s astounding growth and China would learn from Hong Kong (and Taiwan) how to build and maintain better institutions. One country, two systems was intended, I believe, in some large measure, to entice Taiwan towards the peaceful reunification of China ~ and it was Deng Xiaoping’s idea, it was NOT something the British forced on China, it was NOT just another of the “unequal treaties.” If one country, two systems cannot be managed in (relatively) small Hong Kong (only 7.5 million people, which is pretty small by Chinese standards) which never had a democratic government, then how can anyone hope to make reunification work for Taiwan (population 23+ million, almost the size of Australia) which is a functioning democracy? One of China’s main strategic goals (arguably the second most important) has always been “national unity which means bringing Taiwan back into the federation.

I have no doubt that left alone, China can invade Taiwan and secure it militarily … but doing so would make China an international pariah, a military aggressor, guilty of crimes against Screen Shot 2019-09-02 at 08.06.38world peace, and worse. And it is certainly not clear to me that the rest of the world would stand by and watch that happen.  While I do not believe that America, and not even the American led West, can defeat China in a land war on the Asian mainland, I also do not believe China could invade and conquer Taiwan if the US opposes it militarily. China is too great a military power to be defeated on its home ground; America is the greatest naval power the world has ever seen, greater than 19th-century Britain, and it could destroy China’s navy and push its invading armies back into the sea. It is the dilemma of the shark vs the dragon.

US policy has been, since 1972, to recognize that Taiwan is part of China but to insist that reunification MUST be accomplished peacefully, with the consent of the people of Taiwan. President Trump has cast aside many US policies; perhaps China thinks that he will put this one aside, too. I wouldn’t count on it. Neither President Trump nor the people around him are that predictable. America has the strategic power to prevent the forced takeover of Taiwan. If reunification matters, and I believe it does, then the only thing that makes any real strategic sense, for China, is to reunify peacefully … or am I missing something?

If I was part of the Chinese leadership I also would not count on the next American administration, Democratic or Republican, backing away from President Trump’s explicitly anti-China policies. The whole of the West seems to be increasingly concerned about the direction in which China seems to be heading.

I have tried, but I cannot make any strategic case for destroying one country, two systems. I have been told and I can understand that some senior Chinese officials regard one country, two systems as being an affront to China’s sovereignty and, especially, to the core strategic object of maintaining the centrality of the Chinese Communist Party in all aspects of China’s governance. I guess I can see the emotional appeal of one country, one system, but it doesn’t seem to me to obviate the goal of first achieving and then maintaining national unity.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who is a noted China scholar in his own right, said (link above) that Xi Jinping’s strategy can be seen as a “set of seven concentric circles of interests, starting with the centrality of the party and expanding out to the unity of the country; the importance of sustainable economic growth balanced against environmental concerns; keeping China’s 14 border states under benign control; projecting its regional maritime power; leveraging its economic power across its continental periphery; and slowly reforming parts, but by no means all, of the postwar international rules-based order over time to better suit its interests.” I explained that each circle should be seen as being protected by a wall: high, thick stone walls at the centre and looses, even porous, lattice walls at the outer edges. But all the walls, even the strongest, have gates to allow the interests they protect to mingle with those surrounding them. The notion of the centrality of the Party does not mean that maintaining national unity and strong economic growth do not matter and cannot influence how the Party’s central position is maintained … except that it appears that national unity, even the reunification of Taiwan must give way to every whim that the powers in Beijing might have about Hong Kong.

Now I see a very recent (30 August) Reuters article which says that “Earlier this summer, Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, submitted a report to Beijing that assessed protesters’ five key demands and found that withdrawing a contentious extradition bill could help defuse the mounting political crisis in the territory … [but] … The Chinese central government rejected Lam’s proposal to withdraw the extradition bill and ordered her not to yield to any of the protesters’ other demands at that time, three individuals with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Screen Shot 2019-08-11 at 13.04.23Four of the five demands are simple and easy to meet and no one needs to lose any face at all. As a reminder, the five demands are:

  • Completely withdraw the extradition bill;
  • Dop the charges against arrested people;
  • Withdraw the charge that protests were riots;
  • Conduct an independent investigation of police methods and conduct; and
  • Implement universal suffrage.

Hong Kong is, in many ways, like Canada. A new law or regulation must be published in the Gazette ~ the Canada Gazette or the Hong Kong Gazette. If something is not “gazetted” it is not official. Carrie Lam has said that the extradition bill is “dead,” but now it seems that Beijing wants it kept on life support. It would cost no one anything to, very quietly, remove the bill from the Gazette thus, effectively, killing it, at least for now and in its current form. I don’t think anyone in Hong Kong really wants to create a safe haven for criminals from mainland China, Macau and Taiwan and it should be fairly easy to craft an extradition bill that goes after real criminals and preserves the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong. If it is done without any fanfare, without any public comment by Carrie Lam (or by anyone else) the protesters will notice and their leaders will be willing to cooperate in scaling back the protests and keeping then peaceful.

Again, as in Canada, Hong Kong prosecutors are bound to go to court only when they have a reasonable prospect of securing a conviction. Judges in Hong Kong are a lot like judges in Canada: they hold the law in high regard; they oppose trying to convict the innocent and they do not like having their time wasted. Many of those arrested will never see the inside of a courtroom because prosecutors will decide that they have no real prospect of getting a conviction and they will fear that bringing a weak case to court and having it dismissed might leave them open to charges of malicious prosecution. Other cases will come to court but on lesser charges ~ especially as regards to “rioting.” Thus, some of demands two and three will solve themselves ~ likely enough to satisfy the protesters because even they agree that a few people, those who threw Molotov cocktails, for example, did break the law and do deserve to answer for it.

An inquiry into police methods is inevitable. The head of Hong Kong’s Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) has already said that the official inquiry ~ which he assumes will take place ~ “should not delve Screen Shot 2019-09-01 at 13.05.33into individual police officers’ culpability, as that would mean them being “disciplined twice.”” My expectation is that Stephen Lo Wai Chung, Hong Kong’s very professional Commissioner of Police, will want a fairly urgent inquiry into methods and tactics. He is due to retire soon and he may decide that the inquiry, his final “gift” to the force in which he served for most of his  adult life, should aim to improve things and he may well decide to ask a judge to head it and perhaps he will ask a recently retired senior officer form, say, Singapore or Sydney, Australia to serve as an independent member. His aim will very likely be to use the inquiry to restore good relations with the community, to earn back the city’s trust, and to ensure that good lessons are learned from often bitter experience.

There, that’s four of the five demands already dealt with ~ not all fully, some only maybe half of what the protesters want. But four out of five is still pretty good.

Four out of five: that wasn’t so hard, was it?

The fifth, the demand, “universal suffrage,” is already in the Basic Law, it’s in §45 and, again, in §68, but it has never happened, yet and it may be difficult to sell to Beijing.

But Beijing should be really interested in “universal suffrage” because the most senior officials in Beijing know that free and fair elections are one of the signposts of good, solid, political and legal institutions and those institutions are, almost universally, regarded as being a key to maintaining long term prosperity, which is one of Xi Jinping’s main goals for his term as China’s paramount leader. Beijing should be using Hong Kong as a “testbed” to determine how to select candidates that are acceptable to the Party for elections which should, over the next 25 years become more and more common in mainland China. There have been direct elections in China. In the 1980s and ’90s many village chiefs were elected in what appeared to be (relatively) free and fair local elections, but, as far as I know, the experiments ~ that’s what they were, I guess ~ never went above village level. They need to become the norm. Even huge cities like Beijing and Shanghai should have elected councils. The “trick” is how to balance openness and honesty with the objective of maintaining the centrality of the Party in all aspects of governance. It’s difficult but not, I think, anything like impossible. But if that cannot be managed then, I believe, China will never develop the good, solid institutions that it needs to sustain economic growth and it will, sooner rather than later, devolve into a big version of Russia: a massive failed state. That’s not what Xi Jinping has in mind for his legacy, is it?

My personal sense is that Xi Jinping is trying to refurbish the Chinese Communist Party. I know for a fact that in the 1990s and 2000s some people stopped competing for Party memberships and I know a few people who turned down offers to join the Party because they did not think that Party membership was a key stepping stone on the path to security and prosperity as it very certainly had been in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The Party lost some of its lustre in the 1980s. I think that Xi wants to bring it back to the status that it enjoyed under Mao when everyone wanted to be allowed into the Pary and it was the only way to achieve a high level of personal security and prosperity.

But I also think that he wants to “Make China Great Again” and while refurbishing the Party is not incompatible with that aim, making China “Great” requires a lot more than just a strong Party. It will require the sorts of institutions that Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong already have. China needs to become more like Hong Kong; no one benefits from submerging Hong Kong into present-day China. That’s why I really don’t understand what animates the thinking in Beijing today.

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