“The oppositions in Hong Kong should understand and accept that Hong Kong is not an independent country. They should not think that they have the ability to turn Hong Kong into Ukraine or Thailand,” warned the Global Times, the most aggressively nationalistic of China’s state-run newspapers. Clearly, some important people in the Communist regime are very unhappy about the “civil referendum” on democracy that has just ended in Hong Kong.
In Ukraine, a democratic revolution was followed by foreign annexation of part of the country (Crimea), a mini-civil war in the east, and the threat of a Russian invasion. In Thailand, the voters’ persistence in voting for the “wrong” party led to a military coup. It’s ridiculous to suggest that Hong Kong’s referendum might lead to anything like that, but they are very frightened of democracy in Beijing.
The referendum, which has no official standing, was organised by pro-democracy activists in response to a “white paper” published by the Chinese government in mid-June that made it clear there could be no full democracy in Hong Kong. News about the referendum was completely censored in China, but almost 800,000 people in Hong Kong voted in it. They all said “yes” to democracy.
The referendum was really a tactical move by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp in a long-running tug-of-war with Beijing over how the “Special Administrative Region” should be governed. The voters were asked to choose between three different options for choosing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive – and all of those methods involved popular participation. That is to say, democracy.
That’s not how the Chief Executive is chosen now. He is “elected” by a 1,200-person “Election Committee”, most of whose members are directly or indirectly chosen by the Chinese Communist authorities in Beijing and their local representatives. That’s hardly democratic, but it is written into the “Basic Law” that was negotiated between London and Beijing before Britain handed the colony back in 1997.
The whole negotiation was a series of compromises between the British view that Hong Kong’s inhabitants should enjoy democratic rights, and the Chinese regime’s determination to have ultimate control of the city. One of those compromises was a promise that by 2017, twenty years after the hand-over, the Chief Executive would be chosen by direct elections.
So democracy was raising its ugly head again, and Beijing sought to head off the danger by publishing its recent white paper. There would indeed by direct elections in 2017, it said, but all the candidates would be selected by a “nominating committee” whose members would still be chosen, directly or indirectly, by Beijing – and all the candidates would have to be “patriotic”. In China, as in most dictatorships, “patriotic” means “loyal to the regime.”
The instant response in Hong Kong was the “civil referendum”, in which about 800,000 of Hong Kong’s 3.5 million registered voters have cast a vote in polling stations, online, or on a phone app.
Every one of those voters was voting for full democracy, since the referendum asked them to choose between three proposed methods for nominating candidates for Chief Executive, ALL of which involved direct public participation. And while 800,000 people is only a quarter of the adult population, it is almost half the number of people (1.8 million) who actually voted in the last elections for Hong Kong’s legislature.
The Global Times has denounced the referendum as an “illegal farce” and “a joke”. Hong Kong’s current chief Executive, Leung Chun-Ying, has loyally echoed Beijing’s view that “Nobody should place Hong Kong people in confrontation with mainland Chinese citizens.” After all, “mainland Chinese citizens” have no democratic rights at all, and the Communist regime wants to keep it that way.
But it doesn’t have to be a confrontation. As part of the “one country, two systems” deal that was negotiated with Britain 20 years ago, Beijing has already accepted that Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” for the next 50 years. That includes the rule of law and civil rights like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, free media and so on.
Mainland Chinese citizens do not have those rights, and the example of Hong Kong has not so far incited them to demand them. So why should a democratically elected Chief Executive in Hong Kong drive those 1.3 billion mainland Chinese citizens to demand democracy either?
Maybe the Chinese people will demand democracy eventually, but that is far likelier to come about as a result of a severe recession that destroys the Communist regime’s reputation for fostering high-speed economic growth, which is its sole remaining claim on their loyalty. It won’t come from some desire to emulate Hong Kong. So there is room for a deal between Beijing and Hong Kong that gives the latter more freedom, if everybody stays calm.
There are probably even people inside the Communist regime in Beijing who would welcome a demonstration in Hong Kong that a little more democracy for Chinese people does not necessarily lead to chaos, civil war and secession. (Which is, of course, what their hard-line rivals constantly predict would be the inevitable result of diluting the dictatorship.)
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 10. (“In Ukraine…Beijing”; and “The Global…way”)
If you were running China, and you wanted to distract your own population from economic woes at home by pushing one of your many territorial disputes with your neighbours into open conflict, which one would you choose?
Not Japan, even though most Chinese people really dislike and distrust Japan: it’s allied to the United States, and China is not yet ready for a military confrontation with the US Navy. Not the Philippines, either, for the same reason. But Vietnam, a Communist state, is all alone with no allies. It’s perfect for the role, and it will play its part well.
Early this month, China moved its Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil-drilling rig into a part of the South China Sea where Vietnam also claims the seabed rights. Vietnam sent ships to protest the move, China sent more ships to protect the rig – Hanoi accuses accused China of massing 80 vessels in the area, including warships – and the fun and games began: rammings, battles with water cannon, and a great deal of self-righteous indignation on both sides.
The Vietnamese regime has never been afraid to defy China: it even fought a border war with its giant neighbour to the north in 1979. This year, for the first time, Hanoi publicly commemorated a 1974 clash in which Chinese forces seized the Paracel Islands and killed forty sailors of the old South Vietnamese navy. By last week, there were anti-Chinese demonstrations in Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).
Those were undoubtedly authorised by the Vietnamese regime, which keeps a tight hold on its population. What happened in Binh Duong province in southern Vietnam on Tuesday was probably not. Official reports speak of three factories housing Chinese-owned businesses being set on fire on an industrial estate, but local reports talk of 19,000 workers rampaging through the estate and burning fifteen factories.
Hanoi doesn’t want this sort of thing to happen, of course – it scares off much-needed foreign investment – but when you press on the nationalist button, you can never be sure what will come out. Beijing should also be wary of this, if indeed it is really using its border disputes to stoke nationalist fervour in China. Nationalism is not a precision tool.
We can’t be sure that this is Beijing’s main motive, of course. Maybe it’s just a premature outburst of great-power arrogance that is driving China to push so hard on all its territorial disputes this year. But it’s certainly doing it.
Since January China has declared an “Air Defence Identification Zone” over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands which are also claimed by Japan. It has outraged the Philippines by starting to build an airstrip and/or naval base on Johnson Reef (ownership also in dispute) in the Spratly Islands. It has even provoked Indonesia into openly challenging Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea for the first time.
It is talking about establishing a similar Air Defence Identification Zone over almost all of the South China Sea, a maritime thoroughfare for more than half of the world’s merchant trade. Since the beginning of this year it has been requiring that foreign fishing vessels ask permission to enter the area it claims as its exclusive economic zone – again, almost all of the South China Sea – although it has not yet tried to enforce this rule very vigorously.
The area China claims, on the basis of its alleged sovereignty over the many uninhabited islands, islets, shoals and reefs scattered across the South China Sea, extends more than 750 km from its south coast. According to the “nine-dash line” drawn on Chinese maps which is the only graphic (but very imprecise) guide to Beijing’s claim, its control extends to around 50-75 km of the coasts of all the other littoral states.
This huge U-shaped claim, taking in more than 90 percent of the whole South China Sea, is as unsustainable in fact as it is hard to defend in international law. Nor does China seek to prove it by legal means. Last month, when the Philippines submitted a 4,000-page “memorial” to the judicial body that arbitrates maritime disputes under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, China refused to file a counter-claim or respond in any way.
China’s position would appear to be that you don’t need to prove your claim in the courts if you can enforce it on the ground (or rather, on the water). And indeed, the sheer number and range of unilateral Chinese initiatives in recent months suggest that the policy of the new ruling team in Beijing (which will be in power for the next ten years) is driven by full-spectrum bloody-mindedness.
However, the desirability of a foreign confrontation to distract the Chinese population from the recession that will probably soon hit the country’s economy cannot be far from the minds of the regime either. In either case, if there is shooting, it will probably start off the Vietnamese coast, simply because Vietnam has no defence treaty with the United States.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“It…vigorously”; and “This huge…way”)
26 June 2013
The Nicaraguan Canal
By Gwynne Dyer
On 11 June, the Nicaraguan parliament voted in favour of building a $40 billion canal across the country connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Since the country is dirt poor, the money would have to come from international investors. It would be raised by a Hong Kong-based firm, HKDN Group, which in return would get the right to build and run the canal for 50 years. But nobody outside Nicaragua took the plan very seriously.
On 15 June, Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, and Wang Jing, the owner of HKDN, signed a contract that gives the Central American nation 51 percent of the company’s shares. Wang said the capital could easily be raised from Chinese companies and international banks – but since his only business experience has been in running telecommunications firm Xinwei Telecom, again nobody took much notice.
So on 25 June, Wang went public. Speaking in Beijing, he said that he had already attracted global investors. Work on the canal would start in 2014, and it would be open by 2020. “We don’t want it to become an international joke, and we don’t want it to turn into an example of Chinese investment failures,” he said, adding that returns on the project were “sure to make every investor smile broadly.”
Promoters always talk like that, and there would still not be much reason to take Wang and Ortega seriously if it were not for one fact: Chinese businessmen do not launch projects of this scale without the support of the Chinese government. The risk of embarrassment is just too high.
Wang denies that he has official support, of course: “I am a very normal Chinese citizen. I couldn’t be more normal.” But if Beijing really is behind the project, then it may actually happen. So what would be the implications of a 286-km. (178-mile) waterway connecting the Caribbean with the Pacific via Lake Nicaragua.
For Nicaragua, they would be huge. The Nicaraguan government claims that work on the Great Interoceanic Canal and associated projects – a “dry canal” freight railway, an airport and two duty-free zones – could double Nicaragua’s GDP and triple employment by 2018. In a country that still does not have a proper highway connecting its two coasts, that would change everything.
For Panama, whose existing canal has been the mainstay of the country’s economy for a century, the competition would be very serious. A $5 billion project to double the Panama Canal’s capacity by building a third chain of locks across the isthmus is nearing completion, but it will still be restricted to taking ships of 65,000 tons or less.
The rival canal in Nicaragua would be able to accommodate the new generation of ships ranging up to 250,000 tons, but there will not be enough shipping to keep both canals in business unless world trade continues to expand rapidly. In any case competition in transit rates would be fierce, and it might well come to pass that neither canal was very profitable.
Then there is the environmental question. The new route would cross Lake Nicaragua, the region’s largest fresh-water lake, bringing with it not only pollution but the risk of introducing salt-water species that could disrupt the lake’s ecology. But if it is forced to choose between economic growth and environmental purity, there is no doubt that Nicaragua’s government would choose growth.
The biggest question, however, is strategic. The United States built the Panama Canal and ran it for many years. Two-thirds of the cargo that goes through the Canal comes from or is going to US ports, and American warships still have the right to jump the queue of ships waiting to go through.
As a country with coasts on both the Atlantic and the Pacific, the United States sees control of the fastest way between the two oceans as a high strategic priority. Despite the hand-over of the existing canal to the Panamanian government in 1999, at the moment the US still has that control. It would have far less control over a Nicaraguan canal, and will doubtless do its best to derail the project.
That’s an inevitable strategic reflex, but it is not necessarily the case that a Nicaraguan canal would really lessen the US Navy’s strategic dominance in the region. Nothing is more vulnerable than a canal in wartime, and even in confrontations where force is not yet being used canals are easily blockaded. And although the Chinese navy no doubt enthusiastically backs the Nicaraguan project, it’s hard to see what real strategic advantage it would gain.
The new canal is certainly feasible from an engineering point of view. It may be viable economically, depending on cost factors that have not yet been calculated and on the rate of expansion of world trade. But its fate will probably be decided by the Chinese government’s willingness to back what is, for China, a vanity project.
And that, in turn, will depend on whether China’s economy remains strong enough to afford such an indulgence. At the moment, I wouldn’t bet on it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“On 15…notice”; and “Then…growth”)
15 January 2012
Taiwan: Waiting for China
By Gwynne Dyer
The most important thing in Taiwanese politics is always left unsaid. When I interviewed Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, just before he won the presidency for the first time, he was happy to talk about the details of his plans for better relations with the People’s Republic of China: direct flights, more trade, and the like. But ask him about the long-term future, and all you got was platitudes.
Ma has just been re-elected for a second term as president (14 January). “We’ve won,” he told jubilant supporters. “In the next four years, ties with China will be more harmonious and there will be more mutual trust and the chance of conflict is slimmer.” All true, but it still does not address the question of where all this harmony is taking Taiwan.
In his first term, Ma did everything he promised. Direct flights to the PRC resumed in late 2008, a 2009 agreement between Taipei and Beijing facilitated investment flows between the two countries, and a comprehensive trade deal was signed in June 2010.
Ma’s victory this time was smaller than in 2008: then he had a lead of seventeen percentage points; now he’s down to six. But that’s probably due mostly to the country’s slow economic growth and the widening income gap between rich and poor in recent years. There is no evidence to suggest that he lost votes because he was getting too close to China.
So here’s the question. If Ma, like almost everybody else in Taiwan, has no desire to live under Communist rule, then why is there majority support for closer ties with a giant neighbour (about 65 times as many people) that refuses to recognise the legitimacy of Taiwan’s government? Beijing even threatens to attack Taiwan if it ever declares independence from China. What can the Taiwanese be thinking?
This is where it all goes silent, except for the platitudes. But with a little thought you can figure out the logic behind the position of Ma and his supporters in the Kuomintang Party.
They know that Beijing could do terrible damage to Taiwan if it attacked, but they also know that it won’t actually do that unless Taiwan formally declares independence from China. Beijing is willing to live with the present ambiguous relationship for a long time to come, if necessary.
Meanwhile, Taiwan has to make a living, and it has been losing market share to China’s cheaper exports for two decades now. The favoured solution is to invest in mainland industries and subsidise Taiwan’s much higher living standard with the profits. Mainland Chinese investment in Taiwan’s hi-tech sector would not hurt, either. Time for better relations with the mainland, then – but what about the future?
The thinking goes like this. We can cozy up to China now because it serves the interests of a great many people on both sides, and it doesn’t really endanger our de facto independence. Taiwan is not disarming, and China still can’t move an army across the 180-km (110-mile) Strait of Taiwan; its navy isn’t strong enough. As for the long run, it will take care of itself, because the Communist regime in Beijing will not last forever.
Nobody knows when it will end, but most politicians in Taiwan have a fair idea of how it will end. Sooner or later the Chinese economy will stumble into a recession – the enormous housing bubble in China is currently the most likely cause – and unemployment will soar. People’s mortgages will be underwater, banks will fail, and the regime’s credit will run out.
Ideology is dead in the People’s Republic. The regime insists that it gives the people “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” but in fact it gives them “unbridled capitalism with Chinese characteristics” – including a plague of corruption that mainly benefits Communist Party members. All this is tolerable while everybody’s income is rising; it is no longer acceptable when incomes are falling.
China is a capitalist country, and it has not been granted some special exemption from the business cycle. Every once in a while, in capitalist economies, a major recession comes along. This is hard enough to manage in a democracy. It is potentially lethal for a dictatorial regime whose only remaining credibility is its reputation as an economic miracle-maker.
So Taiwan’s best strategy is just to wait. Make deals on trade and investment, keep talking to Beijing to reduce the risk that some hothead will launch missiles at Taiwan, but don’t get into talks about reunification with a Communist-ruled China. It’s not hard to avoid such talks, since Beijing doesn’t recognise the Taipei government as a legitimate negotiating partner.
And wait. The wheel will turn, and eventually there will be a different, democratic China that Taiwan can safely rejoin (though it will certainly still insist on retaining a lot of autonomy). Meanwhile keep the mainland regime sweet, and make some money.
The United States government, by the way, completely agrees with this unspoken strategy. The last thing Washington wants is to be dragged into a war with China by its defence guarantee to Taiwan, and it was quietly delighted to see Ma win the election. So was Beijing. No crisis here.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 10 and 15. (“In his…2010”; “Nobody…out”; and “The United…here”).