Full disclosure: I worked in Hong Kong, as a senior official of the Hong Kong Government and then after its formation on 1.04.1993 the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, for 4 years 1992-96.
In the corner of my study at home, there is a small flag of Hong Kong. Not the red bauhinia flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), but the flag of the British Colony of Hong Kong, which ended on 30 June 1997. It is the sort of thing many tourists would have bought and taken home after a visit to Britain’s last Far Eastern possession, though for me it is slightly more than just another souvenir – it is a memento of the Territory I lived in and the Administration I was proud to be a member of for 4 years in the 1990s.
So far, so unexceptional. I have, in truth, not thought very much about the flag over the last 20 years, and the people of Hong Kong have thought almost nothing of it at all, or their colonial history. They have been getting on with their life as part of the Hong Kong SAR, part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the “One Country, two Systems” arrangement, and I do not think the colonial flag was seen on the streets of Hong Kong once in the first 20 or so years of the SAR.
Until last year, when the SAR Government introduced a controversial and bitterly opposed extradition law. Such was the strength of feeling against the law that it led to weeks and months of demonstrations and increasingly violent riots. An extraordinary and unprecedented display of dissent from the Hong Kong population, which even included people waving the aforementioned colonial flag, and the SAR Government was eventually forced to withdraw the proposed bill.
The whole episode showed clearly two features of modern Hong Kong: firstly, despite now over 20 years of being part of the PRC, and despite in many cases being proud to be part of it (not least during the 2008 Beijing Olympics), the people of the SAR have not moved any closer to accepting the (mainland) Chinese way of life and norms of social existence. They value their freedoms and wish to preserve them. And secondly, the SAR Government is finding it increasingly difficult to negotiate this divide between the people it represents and governs, and the authorities in Beijing it answers to, and is increasingly deciding to side with the central government and do their bidding. The introduction of the extradition law was clearly under direct instruction from Beijing.
But beyond these two, the disturbances, and even more the response from Beijing, which was to introduce their own much more sweeping and much more authoritarian security law, brought into effect earlier this month to widespread disapproval abroad and despair in Hong Kong, demonstrate a third feature of modern China: its growing impatience with dissent, and its increasing desire to remodel the world in its own image and to its own interests. Where China was once prepared to accept other points of view, it is now less open to listening to others; where it was willing to wait, it now wants to act.
And this leads to one overriding question : why has China abandoned its modus operandi of the 25 years 1990-2015? The leitmotifs of this period were China’s firmly held principles, honest differences of view and above all patience, whether it be over Hong Kong and Taiwan or more internal things like the contradictions of the opening economy.
Taiwan was the most obvious case: it has been clear for many years that China’s view of the status of Taiwan is not shared by many in the rest of the international community (or by the Taiwanese themselves), but until 2015 Beijing was largely content to state its case and then leave it there: Taiwan was left in a Schrödinger’s Cat position of neither fully part of the PRC nor fully independent.
Ditto Hong Kong: the first attempt to introduce a security law was in 2003, only 6 years after the PRC resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong. Then the people of Hong Kong rejected it, as was their right, and the attempt was shelved. Again, the Schrödinger’s Cat position, with a resolution of genuine differences of opinion postponed not brought to a head.
One could go on: the idea of the Chinese economy and society as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is inherently full of contradictions, but previous administrations in China were happy to let the contradictions co-exist, and the economy was left in its own Schrödinger’s Cat position, part communist and part capitalist, part very effective and part hopelessly corrupt, not fully either but very successful.
I must say I was full of admiration for this policy. Difficult differences of opinion were postponed rather than brought to a head, and for fully 25 years China managed to live in harmony with the international community, while not conceding at all on its principles. The challenge of rebuilding diplomatic relationships after the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 was met, China was re‑integrated into international society, and had gone so far as to be seen as a valuable partner by many western countries: the UK under the Cameron government made trade and relationships with China one of its main priorities, and George Osborne, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, spoke glowingly of the potential for Sino-British co-operation.
But under President Xi, all this has changed. So what has encouraged China to “open the box”, as in the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment, and see if the Cat is alive or dead? On Hong Kong, on the economy, increasingly on Taiwan, the current administration is mostly characterised by impatience: impatience with unanswered problems, and with those that disagree (internally and externally) with their proposed solutions.
Part of the answer must lie with President Xi himself. Xi is a man in a hurry, with neither the subtlety and guile nor the patience of his predecessors, and an ego which will not accept being merely “a president of the PRC” but wants to be “the president that cemented the PRC’s superpower status”.
But another part of the answer is the arrival at the White House of President Trump. Through a mixture of ignorance and naked personal self-interest seldom seen in an elected leader of a major nation, Trump has undermined and weakened the unity of the Western Alliance more than any US president before him, and allowed China to operate with much more freedom and much less fear of a concerted response.
Which of these two has been more influential – the “push” of Xi’s urgent ambition or the “open door” of Western disunity and disarray – is not in the end important; it is the combination of the two that matters. But the outcome is clear, as the wisdom and long game of earlier administrations in Beijing (“a problem shelved is an argument not held, an enemy not made”) has given way to a more aggressive and for-us-or-against-us approach (“agree with me or be treated as my enemy”). From the streets of Hong Kong to the Nine Dash Line in the South China Sea, the iron fist is well out of the velvet glove.
And the result is also both entirely predictable and clear: China has not after all solved its problems – in the case of Taiwan in particular, a peaceful reunion with the Mainland looks ever less likely as the Taiwanese observe China’s treatment of Hong Kong – but it has in the process created more enemies, it has less respect from international partners and less harmonious international relationships, it is trusted less, it is welcomed in international economic circles less, it is finding its companies increasingly shunned and its opponents increasingly joining forces to resist them. It is striking that hostility to China is about the only thing that President Trump and Joe Biden, his challenger in November’s US presidential election, agree on.
In short, China is feared more and liked less. Now it is not wrong for a Great Power to pursue its own objectives. And it is not unusual for a Great Power to be feared. But it is puzzling why China under President Xi has rejected the successful approach of successive administrations over 25 years and chosen instead to pursue a more confrontational stance.