British control (except when ousted by the Japanese for four years) remained even through the decades of revolutionary turmoil in China and the consolidation of power by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. However, when the lease on the “New Territories” expired in 1997, a much-reduced British Empire faced facts and ceded the island back to China under a complex arrangement that promised the maintenance of Hong Kong’s quasi-democracy for fifty years. (I’ve always been slightly amused that the British Imperial government was a champion of democracy for a colony.)
Now, China is cracking down on the small components of democracy preserved under the deal with the UK in 1997. Given British global power, and Chinese aggressiveness in a variety of international contexts, the limiting factor is not the threat of Prince Charles and the Royal Navy bombarding Shanghai, but rather the risk of undermining the important role Hong Kong capital markets have played in financing Chinese domestic growth, international trade, and investments outside of China; in other words, international capital markets. A second significant concern for the Chinese is reinforcing those in Taiwan who will insist that China would never peaceably re-integrate that island, thus leaving China with few non-military options for re-asserting formal control over that erstwhile province.
We will hear a robust lip-service favoring democracy from banks, investors, and their entourages, but they remain focused on preserving the access to the giant profit potential controlled by the China. So, it falls to the “Western powers,” various NGOs and the commentariat to defend democratic ideals and practices and it’s not clear how high up their priority list Hong Kong lies. Brexit has ensured that, history notwithstanding, Britain can’t be any more effective than Poland in altering Beijing’s behavior. As a result, there’s little reason to be optimistic about Hong Kong’s fate.
China may continue to move aggressively to enforce its recent “Security Law,” restricting eligibility for democratic groups on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council or cracking down further on dissidents and protestors. Hong Kong’s status as a “Special Administrative Region” may remain, but become increasingly superficial and nominal.
In contemplating this likelihood, I was reminded of another political implication of Chinese history: the impact on US domestic politics of the triumph of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. At that time, in the height of the early Cold War paranoia, the issue of “Who Lost China?” was a fearsome cudgel used to attack the Truman Administration and other designated targets who were “soft on communism.”
This episode was a typical manifestation of the right-wing delusion that America controls the world and our power and will are sufficient to determine the fates of other nations (i.e., that we could have prevented the Chinese Communists from winning). Rather than face the limits of American power, it’s much easier to blame domestic political opponents for adverse geopolitical results.
I expect we will see a similar situation once Hong Kong is returned to its pre-1843 status as a normal part of China. Since there is a good chance this will happen while we have a Democratic administration, I rather suspect Biden/Harris/Blinken et al. will be blamed for “losing” Hong Kong.
* As if the US had sufficient power and political will to prevent it from happening.
* As if the Trump administration’s
o Gratuitous trade war with China didn’t make it harder for us to press China on other issues (including Hong Kong).
o undermining of American international standing and alliances did not make it much easier for China to extend its influence and power in the region.
o mishandling of COVID didn’t weaken the US economy and global stature.
None of this will prevent Trump and Trumpians from blaming Democrats, Socialists, (did I hear the word “pinkos’?). Hell, Kevin McCarthy may reconvene a Congressional Committee on Un-American Activities.
As I have noted elsewhere in this blog, the rise of China is a long-term phenomenon with a lot of momentum behind it. Hong Kong, as the British recognized in 1997, is too small to stand alone next to such a giant neighbor. So, the fifty-year promise of autonomy that the British negotiated at that time was always aspirational rather than likely.
Still, history is full of surprises and it would have been interesting to see a more robust/irritating Hong Kong political culture for a few more decades. It might have made a real difference, especially if China were to change in surprising ways in the future.
As it is, we can only watch and wait (with pro forma protestations). Dominoes are falling; Taiwan may be next, but don’t blame Joe (or Barack).