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Hong Kong: Purely Symbolic

The anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong are now eight weeks old and still going strong, but the level of violence is rising.

A lot of the violence is down to the police and to triad gangs who were hired to attack the demonstrators, of course, but now the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, is demanding that the Hong Kong government “punish lawbreakers regardless of whether they hold up the banner of ‘freedom and democracy’.”

Nobody expects a replay of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre, but weekend after weekend the confrontation grows more tense. Last week China’s Defense Ministry even warned that it might use troops to quell the unrest, saying the protests were “intolerable” and that the army would mobilize troops to restore public order if requested by the Hong Kong government.

Yang Guang, spokesman for Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, followed the paranoid official line on Monday, blaming “irresponsible people” in the West for stirring up trouble in a bid to “contain China’s development.” But when asked if Beijing would send troops in to stop the protests, he only repeated that the Hong Kong government could ask for help if it needed it.

This is a major crisis in the only part of mainland China that is not ruled directly by the Communist Party, but Beijing clearly does not want to go nuclear if it can avoid it. Which it probably can, because at this point the whole confrontation has become purely symbolic.

It started out in early June as a real struggle over an important issue. The Hong Kong government introduced a bill that would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to China and face trial in Communist Party-controlled mainland courts (which have a 99% conviction rate). Everybody assumed that it was acting on orders from Beijing.

The protesters were out in the streets at once. The rule of law still exists in Hong Kong, but nobody would be safe if they could be extradited to the People’s Republic at Beijing’s whim.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, backed down very quickly. She “suspended” the draft extradition bill, and various people close to her reminded the media that it would automatically die when the current session of the legislature ends next July. But she did not formally withdraw the bill, presumably because that would involve too grave a loss of face for the regime in Beijing.

Since then, the demos have been purely symbolic. The extradition bill is not going to happen, but the protesters want Lam to kill it officially and publicly. Even if she complied, she could always bring it back in the next session of the legislature (whose members have to be approved by Beijing). So even if they win, they have no guarantees for the future. Why bother?

Hong Kong was not a democracy under British rule before 1997, and it is not one now. But it was and still is a place where the rule of law prevails, the media are free, and individual rights are respected. However, this special status within China, which was supposed to last for fifty years after the hand-over, has been under growing pressure from Beijing since the rise of President Xi Jinping.

Xi, who has abolished term limits on the presidency, is relentlessly centralising power in China, presumably in the belief that this is the only way to preserve Communist rule in the long run.

He has turned the heavily Muslim province of Xinjiang into an enormous open-air prison, and he is building an online system of ‘social credit’ that will score citizens on their degree of compliance with the regime’s goals and norms. People with low scores will have a hard time in life. And he is nibbling away at Hong Kong’s civil rights, because they set a bad example for other Chinese.

The demonstrators in Hong Kong have carried on because they are trying to make a point: that interfering with Hong Kong’s freedoms is more trouble than it’s worth. So long as Hong Kong remains economically important to the People’s Republic, they have a chance of succeeding, but they can never expect a decisive victory.

Seven and a half million people in Hong Kong are never going to force the Beijing regime to do anything. With the right tactics, however, they can probably preserve their own freedoms, and continue to serve as living proof that an ethnic Chinese society does not have to be a tyranny.

It’s a balancing act. They must never challenge the Communist regime’s ultimate control, but from time to time they have to demonstrate to Beijing that tolerating a local aberration like civil rights in Hong Kong is less costly politically than ending it by force.

They have done enough to achieve that for now, and it’s probably time to stop.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 14. (“A lot…democracy”; and “Seven…tyranny”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The People’s Republic of Amnesia

Another of the five-yearly anniversaries has rolled around, and it’s time to write another think-piece about the long-term meaning of the massacre on Beijing’s Tienanmen Square on 4 June 1989. But 30 years later, what is there left to say?

Great changes were already underway in the Communist-ruled parts of Europe in 1989. Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Soviet leader, visited Beijing after the students had taken over the square in late April, and he obviously thought that the same process was underway in China. Maybe it was, but it was violently aborted – and it has still not recovered.

That’s not what people thought at the time. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of students
were killed on the square – the soldiers burned the bodies in a massive pyre right on the square, so there was never an accurate count. Hundreds or thousands more died elsewhere, because similar demonstrations were put down in every major Chinese city. And we all thought: this will never be forgotten.

The students weren’t counter-revolutionaries. Their hero, the man whose death they were honouring when they occupied the square, was Hu Yaobang, a lifelong Communist, a veteran of the Long March, who simply believed that it was high time to ease up on the controls four decades after the Communists took power in China.

For that Hu, then General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, had been forced into retirement by the Party’s hard-liners in 1987. But everybody knew what he wanted, and when he died two years later the students came out to demand it again: government accountability, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and free trade unions.

The dominant conservative faction in the Chinese Communist Party responded by killing them, and then set out to erase all popular memory of what had happened. It can’t be done, said all the journalists outside China: they will never be forgiven. The crowds will be back on the streets one of these days, and there will be a great reckoning and radical change.

Well, not. Thirty years later, most Chinese millennials are ignorant of exactly what happened in 1989. The older generation remember, but they dare not mention it in public and they are a dwindling minority. Journalist Louisa Lim has accurately described contemporary China as the ‘People’s Republic of Amnesia’.

Why did this happen, and has the notion of a freer future really gone down the memory hole in China? Start with the fact that the Soviet Union was 72 years old in 1989, whereas the Chinese People’s Republic was only 40.

That extra generation meant that there was nobody still in power in Russia who had actually ordered the deaths of thousands of people. Not only the revolutionary generation but also the Stalinist generation were gone, and by the 1980s the career Communists who had climbed the greasy pole of power were mere bureaucrats.

They thought they were hard men too, but in fact they weren’t anything of the sort. A few of them tried to carry out a coup and restore Communist rule in 1991, but they were actually trembling with fear as they spoke on TV, and they were seen off in a couple of days. Whereas China’s rulers in 1989 still had lots of hands-on experience with killing people.

Some of them, like Hu Yaobang and his successor Zhao Ziyang, were genuine idealists who felt that the Party’s controls must be loosened now that the revolution was an accomplished fact. Zhao actually went to the square at dawn on 19 May and addressed the students, urging them to hold fast to their demands.

“We are already old, we do not matter anymore,” he told them – but Zhao already knew that he had lost the argument, and that the Communist Party leadership had decided to clear the square by force. He had also been stripped of his own position, and would live the last 15 years of his life under house-arrest.

The actual massacre was delayed for a further two weeks because the soldiers in Beijing had been fraternising with the students and could no longer be trusted to kill them. It took two weeks to replace them with fresh troops who knew nothing about what was happening in Beijing and would obediently kill the ‘counter-revolutionaries.’

So Communist dictatorship survived in China while it peacefully expired in Russia. It still looks solid today: the current leader, Xi Jinping, has just effectively declared himself president-for-life. But Communist rule in China has now reached the magic age of 70. Is it immortal? Probably not.

Communist rule in the Soviet Union would probably have survived if the economy had been growing strongly. What brought it down was the insolence of absolute power combined with an abject failure to deliver the goods economically. The Chinese Communist regime is very insolent, but it will probably survive as long as it delivers the goods .

However, China has a market economy now, and market economies have recessions. The official Chinese growth rate is still 6%, but the real rate of growth has already fallen to somewhere between 3% and zero. The next five or ten years should be quite interesting.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13. (“Some…counter-revolutionaries”)

Target: Taiwan

3 January 2019

“Independence for Taiwan would only bring profound disaster to Taiwan,” said China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Wednesday, and he ought to know. He is the one who would make sure the disaster happened.

Speaking on the 40th anniversary of US diplomatic recognition of the Chinese People’s Republic, Xi said that Taiwan was “sacred territory” for Beijing. He would never tolerate “separatist activities” there: “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.”

Well now, that would be exciting, wouldn’t it? Start with Chinese air and missile strikes on Taiwan, presumably reciprocated by the Taiwanese forces. Probably no nukes, although China does have them, but the first major sea battle since the Second World War, followed by a Chinese assault landing on Taiwan involving several hundred thousand troops. Quite a lot of death and destruction, in fact.

No? That’s not what he meant? Okay, then, what did Xi mean by “all necessary means”? Harsh words and a trade embargo? Then why not say so? Is the Trump thing catching?

There is a peculiar ambiguity to Beijing’s official statements on Taiwan. On the one hand, nobody in the Communist regime is in a great rush to gather Taiwan back into the fold. It will happen eventually, they believe, and they can wait.

On the other hand, the regime’s credibility (such as it is) comes from only two sources: its nationalist posturing, and its ability to deliver rising living standards. With the latter asset rapidly depreciating – the Chinese economy is heading south – the nationalism becomes more important, so a bit of chest-beating is inevitable.

Many people will therefore discount Xi’s words as mere rhetoric that the Chinese Communist leader was obliged to use on a significant anniversary, but not a real threat to invade. After all, the deal made 40 years ago pretty much ruled out the use of force.

The US agreed in 1979 that there is only one China, and that it includes Taiwan. There just happened to be two rival Chinese governments at the time: the Communist one in Beijing that won the civil war in 1949 and has controlled mainland China ever since, and the previous Nationalist government that retreated to the island of Taiwan when it lost the war.

Both of these governments agree that there is only one China. In practice, the one in Taipei can never regain control of the mainland, but it claims to be the legitimate government of China, not of Taiwan. Almost everybody else, including the United States, agrees that there is only ‘one China’ and recognises the Communist regime in Beijing as legitimate.

The 1979 deal assumed that this conflict would be resolved peacefully at some unspecified future time, and Beijing made some helpful comments about how Taiwan could enjoy a special status if it reunited with the motherland: democracy, a free press, the rule of law – the same promises made to Hong Kong when Britain returned it to China in 1997. Then everybody settled down to wait for time to pass and the generations to roll over.

Beijing assumed that the Taiwanese would eventually see the light and rejoin the mainland. The Taiwanese assumed that Communist rule on the mainland would eventually either mellow or just collapse. Either way, we’ll all just get on with our lives in the meantime. It was a very sensible, moderate deal – but those assumptions proved to be wrong.

Communist rule in China has not collapsed, and Xi is the most powerful and authoritarian leader since Mao. Taiwan has not grown resigned to reunion with the ‘motherland’; on the contrary, a separatist Taiwanese nationalism has grown stronger with the years. At the moment, in fact, the party in power in Taipei is separatist, though it is careful not to say so explicitly.

It can never happen: China has 1.3 billion people, Taiwan has 23 million. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen takes positions that appeal to the local nationalist/separatists, but she’s never going to declare independence. Xi Jin-ping threatens bloody murder if she declares independence, but he knows that she will never actually do that.

What Xi is really trying to do with his fierce talk is to reinforce the anxiety many Taiwan voters feel about defying China too openly. They don’t want reunification, but they do want a quiet life. And his strategy is working: Tsai’s party lost badly in the recent local elections, and may be voted out of power in the national elections next year.

It’s just a game, most of the time, and each player plays his or her allotted role safe in the knowledge that the script has not changed for decades. The status quo is more secure than it looks. But let just one player deviate from the script, and everybody would suddenly be in a new and very frightening world.

It probably won’t happen, but it could.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Well…catching”)

America’s Trade War with China

The United States could probably extract major concessions from China in a carefully managed confrontation on trading issues, because the Chinese don’t want a trade war with their best export customer. But the US can’t win the trade war that Donald Trump is planning to wage, and it kicks off on Friday.

That’s when the first chunk of Trump’s new tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States – a 25% import tax on $50 billion of Chinese goods – actually goes into effect, and Beijing retaliates with similar tariffs on $50 billion of American exports to China. That’s just a drop in the bucket in terms of the size of either economy, but it’s also just the opening salvo in the war.

Trump has already said that Chinese retaliation would be ‘unfair’, and that if China goes ahead he will slap a 10% levy on an additional $200bn of Chinese goods. (He subsequently reduced that amount to $100 billion, but who knows?) And China has already said that it would respond with measures of a “corresponding number and quality” if the US goes ahead with that.

This is where the real tit-for-tat escalation starts, and it’s hard to see how it can be stopped. Trump is trapped by his own pugnacious rhetoric, and China’s President Xi Jinping is trapped in two ways.

One is that Trump has already imposed big new tariffs on exports to the United States by the European Union and by America’s closest neighbours, Canada and Mexico. They have all responded by imposing similar tariffs on American exports of equal value.

Xi can hardly do less, even if China’s real interests might be better served by not responding in kind to the new US tariffs. He would not wish to be seen as weaker than Justin Trudeau.

On 21 June in Beijing, according to the Wall Street Journal, President Xi Jinping met a group of chief executives of American and European multinationals and assured them that China would definitely strike back at US trade tariffs. “In the West, you have the notion that if somebody hits you on the left cheek, you turn the other cheek,” Xi reportedly said. “In our culture, we push back.”

The other factor weighing on Xi’s decisions is that Beijing is starting to see American trade policy as part of a deliberate attempt to stop China’s emergence as a great industrial and technological power and a real peer rival to the United States. After all, there are undoubtedly people in Washington who would like to do exactly that.

Trump himself does not think in geo-strategic terms, but the Chinese may well see his actions on trade as inspired by those who do. If they come to that conclusion, their willingness to go all the way in a trade war may be greater than the financial experts think it is.

China’s exports to the United States amount to about 40% of its total exports, whereas only 5 percent of US exports go to China, so an all-out trade war between the two countries would obviously hurt China more. President Xi, however, is far more able to ignore the resultant job losses and higher prices than Trump is – especially because the Americans who were hurting worst would be his own political ‘base’.

Or, alternatively, China’s heavily indebted economy may turn out to be even more fragile than it looks – in which case a trade war could drive the country into a deep recession (with unpredictable political consequences at home), and drag the whole world economy down with it. That wouldn’t be much fun either.

There’s a reason that trade wars went out of fashion after the Second World War, and it wasn’t just because international trade tends to enhance prosperity overall. Back when trade wars were the normal way of doing business internationally, in the 16th-19th centuries, the European powers spent almost half their time at war.

The first great era of free trade, ca. 1870-1914, was also the ‘Long Peace’, when no European great power fought any other for almost half a century. That peace was destroyed by the First World War (so free trade does not prevent all wars), but the trade wars of the 1930s certainly deepened the Great Depression and facilitated the rise of fascism and a second world war.

And then came the Second Long Peace, from 1945 to the present, when once again free trade (or at least free-ish trade) reigns and the great powers never fight one another directly.

I’m not saying that Trump’s assault on free trade is going to lead us back down the path to great-power war again. Many other factors go into making such a catastrophe possible. But he may be putting one of the key factors back into place.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“On 21…back”)