Let's Talk About Hong Kong For A Second

One of the best classes I took as an undergraduate was a course on Chinese Foreign Policy taught by Professor Read- he was one of those Professors who really knew the subject matter of the course at an expert level and his enthusiasm for it was infectious. I appreciate Professors who know their shit and aren't just phoning it in- I think a lot of students can probably sense the difference as well, but as a result, I think I absorbed a ton of information about China and really had I been a little more focused in my career planning might have (and probably should have) doubled down on China as one of my serious areas of study for my Master's Degree.

But, c'est la vie- here I am, armchair political scientist and dabbler in the world of international relations and occasionally I follow news stories down rabbit holes and have to unload some of this excess knowledge I've accumulated over the years into a digestible form.

So, let's talk about Hong Kong for a second.

The TL;DR of it all is that the Hong Kong Government (democratically elected with candidates approved by Beijing- China's move to ensure that only sufficient pro-China candidates could get into HK Government also sparked protests back in 2014) wanted to pass a bill that would allow extradition to the mainland for crimes committed in Hong Kong. Civil society pretty much rose up as one and has been protesting ever since. The bill has since been 'suspended' but protestors aren't buying that. As of today, they've taken over the airport and are continuing to face off with police. (There are some interesting live streams at this link and if you do a little internet digging you can find plenty more.)

So what happens now? How is this all going to end?

Well, it could still end badly. Like Tiananmen Square in 1989 type of badly.  I don't think that's inevitable yet- but it could still happen. I think right now, the big, unspoken story in the American media is the amount of economic pressure China is facing under this trade war we're in. I'm not sure, but I'm going to guess that it's hurting them far, far more than it's hurting us-- and it's probably hurting them more than they're going to let on in public. There's an interesting post from Strategy Page that's worth reading- but this little nugget jumped out at me. Hong Kong represents 2.6% of its GDP with only .5% of the population of China. It's essentially Singapore, but without the weird hang-ups about chewing gum and littering. You don't just roll tanks in and fuck up a place that represents 2.6% of your GDP unless you think you have absolutely no other choice to do so. Especially if you're in the middle of a trade war that involves the United States repeatedly whacking you in the balls with a 2x4.

If you're Beijing, you probably don't want folks on the mainland getting ideas either. So, you use Hong Kong as a foil. 'See', you say, 'look at them, they're rioting and wrecking up the joint.' You can do this to prepare the population for if you have to send in the tanks, but it's also a useful distraction from any economic headwinds the mainland is dealing with at the present time. But distractions only go so far.

You also, if you're Beijing, might be a little hesitant to crush this whole Hong Kong business, because at some point, you'd like Taiwan to come home to Mama. This whole 'one China, two systems' thing isn't going to mean much if you crush Hong Kong like a bug because they'd prefer not to be extradited back to the mainland if they commit a crime. It makes the long game on Taiwan that much harder. You can't crush Hong Kong and then try and sweet talk Taiwan into coming home to Mama- you can bet your sweet boots that Taipei is watching this situation like a hawk. So the last thing you want is to do something that says to Taiwan, 'hey, maybe independence isn't such a bad idea after all.' Because that might start a war you're not ready to fight quite yet.

But also, crushing Hong Kong would be massively more complicated than what happened in 1989 and probably bloodier- which is probably why Beijing hasn't done it yet. Even if they try and bring the Great Chinese Firewall/censorship tools in to cut off the internet, the footage is going to get out. Probably a lot of footage and it's going to lead to international blowback that might well include sanctions that they're not in a position to deal with just yet either.

So what happens? For now, I think they wait it out and use Hong Kong as a foil to push propaganda on the mainland. But word has to be getting out, little by little and you have to wonder what might happen if protests start cropping in other cities that aren't Hong Kong. I don't know if you'd ever see Xi Jinping pushed out of power, but it's not without precedent in Chinese history since 1949 either.

My admittedly limited understanding of the Chinese social contract- such as it is, is that Deng pretty much said everyone could get as rich as they wanted too but the Communist Party stays in power and remains in charge. When times were good, that was a relatively easy sell. What I've always thought was going to be interesting is what happens when economic times aren't so good-- so far, China has resisted the historical arc of other countries in the region. Taiwan and South Korea were both fairly authoritarian for decades and when their economy had grown their middle class to a certain point, the people said, 'hey wait a minute, you guys aren't that good at this' and you saw democratic change come to both countries. I don't know if China is going to go down that path or not- and it could be that they can hang on until our election next year and if a Democrat is elected that wants a path out of this mess of a trade war, then maybe, they'll have more options to deal with Hong Kong.

Because right now, none of the options they seem to have right now are that good.


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