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Hong Kong: What Went Wrong

“We are the meat on the chopping board,” said Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party. “They have set a precedent for Beijing to legislate on Hong Kong’s behalf.” Or as Dennis Kwok put it, former member of the Legislative Council, put it rather more succinctly: “This is the end of Hong Kong.”

It’s a premature death. The ‘joint declaration’ of 1997 by which Britain handed over its wealthy colony on China’s south coast to the Communist regime in Beijing promised that Hong Kong could keep free speech, the rule of law and a high degree of autonomy for fifty years. Twenty-three years later, it’s over.

Those characteristics, so different from the Party dictatorship, contempt for human rights and lawlessness that rule in the rest of China, were precisely the qualities that made Hong Kong Asia’s financial capital. That was to Beijing’s advantage in 1997, so it agreed to live with ‘one country, two systems’. China would be reunited, but Hong Kong would remain different.

That served China’s purposes at the time, because it still needed a capitalist ‘window on the world’. It’s not very relevant today, when the country has the world’s second-biggest economy and companies that want to trade with China are much likelier to set up in Shanghai or Beijing. Hong Kong retains a residual value for Beijing, but it shouldn’t push its luck.

Most people in senior political, business and media positions in Hong Kong understood that and acted accordingly. They walked a tightrope, defending the territory’s essentially ‘democratic’ values, but they never, ever suggested that Hong Kong should have full democracy, because that would be intolerable to the Party in Beijing.

So the modus vivendi between Beijing and Hong Kong rattled along year after year, until eventually a new leader came to power in Beijing who dreamed of standardising, centralising and controlling everything. Last year, Xi Jinping started trying to whip Hong Kong into line.

Beijing pressured Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong’s government, to pass legislation that would let Beijing bring criminal charges against Hong Kongers, extradite them to China, and try them in Communist Party-controlled mainland courts (which have a 99% conviction rate). It would have ended Hong Kong’s autonomy and put every one of its residents at the mercy of the Party.

Lam reluctantly put the new law on the legislative agenda, and the people of Hong Kong, led by the students, predictably began demonstrating against it. This is a ritual dance that has been staged before, and when the citizens had adequately expressed their dislike of the proposed legislation, it was withdrawn.

It was never certain that this would work again, for Xi is very determined and Hong Kong’s importance to China has dwindled. But it might have worked, and won Hong Kong another five or ten years of autonomy. Indeed, Lam did withdraw the offending legislation (by slow steps, so as not to embarrass Beijing) – but the protesters did not stop.

The demos continued and grew more violent, and the demands escalated. By the end of 2019 the protesters were demanding full democracy, which was politically suicidal in the Chinese context. Then the coronavirus emergency shut everything down for a few months, and it looked like the political crisis had subsided. But of course it had not.

This week the Chinese People’s Congress in Beijing, the regime’s rubber-stamp parliament, will pass a special law banning subversion, separatism, acts of foreign interference and ‘terrorism’ in Hong Kong. The demonstrators are already back out on the streets, and the new law allows ‘security forces’ from the mainland to operate in the city. The stage is being set for the final act.

I don’t usually point out that I called things right (and I NEVER point out when I got things wrong), but it was blindingly obvious where this was all heading by mid-summer of last year.

On 31 July I wrote: “(The protesters) 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.”

On 2 October I wrote: “The protesters have won what they originally came out for: the withdrawal of the extradition law. Their other demands will never be granted, because they imperil the ultimate authority of the Communist Party. It’s time to collect their winnings and step away from the table.”

On 24 November I wrote: “If they go on demanding free elections under universal suffrage for the Chief Executive and the Legislative Assembly, sooner or later Beijing will feel compelled to intervene and crush them regardless of the financial and reputational damage it would suffer. So it could go the distance, and end in tragedy. That would be a great pity.”

And then I stopped writing about it, because I couldn’t stand what comes next. I still can’t.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 14. (“Most…Beijing”; and “On 2 October…table”)

Time for Fauci to Quit?

Is it time for Dr Anthony Fauci to quit?

Brazil’s health minister, Luiz Mandetta, was fired last Friday for criticising the country’s mini-Trump, Jair Bolsonaro. Like Trump, President Bolsonaro needs a booming economy in order to be re-elected, and denies the threat from coronavirus because shutdowns hurt the economy.

Mandetta did what he could to control the berserker president, but eventually called Bolsonaro out on his attempts to force Brazilian state governments to end their shutdowns prematurely. He was duly fired, but it does raise the question: should Dr Fauci do the same thing?

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the past quarter-century, has served six US administrations loyally through various health crises, starting with the AIDS epidemic. He’s done his best to keep Donald Trump from doing the wrong thing. Sometimes he succeeds – but sometimes the most useful thing an adviser can do is resign.

Fauci has become a familiar figure standing beside Donald Trump at media briefings, never openly contradicting him but subtly trying to steer him away from his worst ideas. It’s a humiliating position to be in, but he has probably saved at least a few tens of thousands of American lives, and many people admire him for patiently, even humbly doing the best he can in impossible circumstances.

There comes a time, however, when staying on the inside and trying to limit the damage by staying on good terms with the author of the disaster shades into complicity in letting the disaster happen. Dr Fauci undoubtedly examines his conscience on this question every single day, and fully understands how tricky his position is.

There was a revealing moment recently when Science Magazine asked him why he hadn’t challenged Trump’s claims to have saved millions of American lives by banning flights from China. “Let’s get real,” Fauci replied. “What do you want me to do?…I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down.”

Well, he could, obviously, but that would be the end of any positive influence he has on Trump. He’s 79, so he’s not worried about saving his job. He’s ignoring Trump’s exaggerations and lies so he can preserve his influence for some more important occasion. We now know what it is.

Trump bangs on obsessively about his ‘China ban’ decision on 31 January because it’s the only thing he did about the coronavirus for the next six weeks, even as the pandemic silently spread among the US population. Last week he even claimed that “It could have been billions of people (who died) if we had not done what we did.”

Around 2,000 Americans are now dying from Covid-19 every day, so Trump clings desperately to his China story. Fauci lets the lie pass because it’s just history and can’t be changed. He’s focussed on the decisions being made now that will determine how many Americans die in the future.

Trump is now frantically trying to end the lockdowns and get Americans back to work because he believes the economic damage is sabotaging his re-election prospects in November. He’s even urging his base to demonstrate against (Democratic) state governors who take a more cautious line, texting “LIBERATE MINNESOTA”, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA”.

Maybe this is the hill that Fauci should choose to die on, because ending the lockdowns early could needlessly kill an extra hundred thousand Americans. The United States now has one-third of all the Covid-19 cases in the world (with only 4% of the world’s population), and the number is still going up fast.

‘Liberating’ Americans from lockdown before the number of new infections is clearly in decline will just add fuel to the flames.

The rule is: never lift a lockdown until you are able to test huge numbers of people for the disease. The virus will inevitably start to spread again when you turn everybody loose, but if you test enough people, isolate the infected ones, and trace all of their recent contacts and isolate them too, then you can avoid a new spike in cases.

You will need tens of millions of test kits and hundreds of thousands of trained contact-tracers to do that. Those facilities are currently scarce or non-existent in most of the United States, and so far there is little visible effort to expand them. Ending the lockdowns without them will cause a new peak of cases and deaths by mid-summer, necessitating a new round of lockdowns.

If Fauci’s resignation could prevent this carnage, he surely would not hesitate, but Trump is not as stupid as Bolsonaro. If Fauci hangs in there and stresses the inevitability of a second wave of deaths closer to election time if the lockdowns end prematurely, he might just manage to steer Trump away from this cliff.

So his long martyrdom must continue.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Trump bangs…future”)

Lives vs. Livelihoods

Wuhan, the Chinese city where it all started, was locked down for 79 days before the restrictions on movement were finally lifted last week. A bit over-cautious, perhaps, but in China the coronavirus does really seem to be under control – not totally eradicated, but controllable without extreme measures.

If Donald Trump “reopens” the United States at the end of this month, then California and a few other states will have been under lockdown for only half that many days, and some states for much less time or even none. Far from being under control, the Covid-19 virus is killing huge numbers of Americans (2,405 on Tuesday), and the number is still rising.

These two giants define the extremes of the ‘lives vs. livelihoods’ debate, but almost every other country is having it too. Everybody knows that you can’t shut the economy down indefinitely, but nobody wants to risk a second wave of infections by moving too soon.

Well, almost nobody. The toddler-in-chief in the White House is frantic to reopen the economy because he has an election coming up in six months, and he will lose it if the economy has not recovered by then.

Dr Anthony Fauci has doubtless explained that lifting the restrictions on movement on 1 May will cause a second wave of deaths and a second lockdown before November, but Trump doesn’t retain that sort of information for long. His attention span is not only short but selective: he forgets unwelcome information very quickly.

Trump might actually order the country to reopen on 1 May, as he believes that “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.” But most states wouldn’t obey his command: as New York governor Andrew Cuomo said: “We have a constitution … we don’t have a king … the president doesn’t have total authority.”

Elsewhere, some countries are cautiously reopening their economies a bit at a time, but they either had a very high death rate early and have now wrestled it down again – China, Italy and Spain – or responded hard and early and never had a high infection rate, like Germany, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic, and New Zealand.

We should also note two countries that never closed their economies down at all, because they could test, identify the infected, and trace their contacts fast enough to break the chains of infection and keep deaths low: Taiwan and South Korea. All three of these groups have one vital thing in common.

They have the ability to “test, test, test”, as the World Health Organisation’s Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, put it a month ago, warning countries that they “cannot fight a fire blindfolded.” And they can follow up the tests with contact-tracing teams and apps so that not just the individual who tested positive but the whole cluster of other people who had contact with him or her can be isolated.

Any countries that have their infection rate down AND have their testing and tracing teams ready can start reopening their economies, although there will be a continuing low but steady toll of deaths until a vaccine is found. France, Canada and Australia can probably do it next month.

Countries like Turkey, Russia and South Africa are more debatable, because they gave the virus a head start, but their medical infrastructure is strong enough that they could think about letting their citizens go back to work by July. However, the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and India are very worrisome.

India is doing the right things, but it started late, its medical resources are limited, and the sheer numbers of victims may overwhelm the system. Brazil has a complete fool in charge, Jair Bolsonaro, and the many sensible people in the healthcare system may be unable to overcome his malign influence.

As for the US and the UK, they both reacted very late to the threat, which guarantees that their casualties would be considerably above the rich-country average. Worse, they do not have the testing and tracking resources in place that would make reopening the economy a relatively safe proposition.

On 3 April the British Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, pledged 100,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of the month. Half the month is gone, and the maximum number of tests carried out on a single day has been under 15,000.

The US situation is harder to judge, since there is not a unified healthcare system but a highly fragmented ‘healthcare sector’. However, nobody has spotted evidence of nationwide preparations for extensive testing and tracking once everybody goes back to work, so a second wave of deaths later in the year is practically guaranteed.

Finis Trump, perhaps, but at a high price.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12 (“Countries…influence”)

Lives vs. Livelihoods

Wuhan, the Chinese city where it all started, was locked down for 79 days before the restrictions on movement were finally lifted last week. A bit over-cautious, perhaps, but in China the coronavirus does really seem to be under control – not totally eradicated, but controllable without extreme measures.

If Donald Trump “reopens” the United States at the end of this month, then California and a few other states will have been under lockdown for only half that many days, and some states for much less time or even none. Far from being under control, the Covid-19 virus is killing huge numbers of Americans (2,405 on Tuesday), and the number is still rising.

These two giants define the extremes of the ‘lives vs. livelihoods’ debate, but almost every other country is having it too. Everybody knows that you can’t shut the economy down indefinitely, but nobody wants to risk a second wave of infections by moving too soon.

Well, almost nobody. The toddler-in-chief in the White House is frantic to reopen the economy because he has an election coming up in six months, and he will lose it if the economy has not recovered by then.

Dr Anthony Fauci has doubtless explained that lifting the restrictions on movement on 1 May will cause a second wave of deaths and a second lockdown before November, but Trump doesn’t retain that sort of information for long. His attention span is not only short but selective: he forgets unwelcome information very quickly.

Trump might actually order the country to reopen on 1 May, as he believes that “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.” But most states wouldn’t obey his command: as New York governor Andrew Cuomo said: “We have a constitution … we don’t have a king … the president doesn’t have total authority.”

Elsewhere, some countries are cautiously reopening their economies a bit at a time, but they either had a very high death rate early and have now wrestled it down again – China, Italy and Spain – or responded hard and early and never had a high infection rate, like Germany, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic, and New Zealand.

We should also note two countries that never closed their economies down at all, because they could test, identify the infected, and trace their contacts fast enough to break the chains of infection and keep deaths low: Taiwan and South Korea. All three of these groups have one vital thing in common.

They have the ability to “test, test, test”, as the World Health Organisation’s Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, put it a month ago, warning countries that they “cannot fight a fire blindfolded.” And they can follow up the tests with contact-tracing teams and apps so that not just the individual who tested positive but the whole cluster of other people who had contact with him or her can be isolated.

Any countries that have their infection rate down AND have their testing and tracing teams ready can start reopening their economies, although there will be a continuing low but steady toll of deaths until a vaccine is found. France, Canada and Australia can probably do it next month.

Countries like Turkey, Russia and South Africa are more debatable, because they gave the virus a head start, but their medical infrastructure is strong enough that they could think about letting their citizens go back to work by July. However, the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and India are very worrisome.

India is doing the right things, but it started late, its medical resources are limited, and the sheer numbers of victims may overwhelm the system. Brazil has a complete fool in charge, Jair Bolsonaro, and the many sensible people in the healthcare system may be unable to overcome his malign influence.

As for the US and the UK, they both reacted very late to the threat, which guarantees that their casualties would be considerably above the rich-country average. Worse, they do not have the testing and tracking resources in place that would make reopening the economy a relatively safe proposition.

On 3 April the British Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, pledged 100,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of the month. Half the month is gone, and the maximum number of tests carried out on a single day has been under 15,000.

The US situation is harder to judge, since there is not a unified healthcare system but a highly fragmented ‘healthcare sector’. However, nobody has spotted evidence of nationwide preparations for extensive testing and tracking once everybody goes back to work, so a second wave of deaths later in the year is practically guaranteed.

Finis Trump, perhaps, but at a high price.
_____________________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12 (“Countries…influence”)