Lessons from Hong Kong

Twenty years ago, Great Britain handed over Hong Kong, with its 6 million residents, to Red China. Keith Richburg of the Washington Post recalls the prevailing wisdom among Western reporters who covered the region at the time — acquiring Hong Kong would transform China:

Beijing desperately wanted — needed — what Hong Kong had: wealth, stability, good relations with the world. What did Beijing have that Hong Kong wanted? Nothing. China was not about to change Hong Kong; Hong Kong was going to change China.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times suggested that China was inheriting “a colossal Trojan horse” that in time could undermine the entire communist regime.

The optimistic view of the takeover was consistent with the notion, popular at the time including among conservatives, that we were reaching “the end of history.” In other words, liberal democracy was on the verge of carrying the day worldwide.

Fortune Magazine rejected this view, fundamentally non-conservative in my view, at least as applied to China. In a story called “The Death of Hong Kong,” it predicted that once business-friendly Hong Kong became infected with China’s culture of corruption and patronage, this glittering international finance hub would become just another typical mainland city. “In fact,” the article declared, “the naked truth about Hong Kong’s future can be summed up in two words: It’s over.”

This wasn’t the kind of “end” Francis Fukuyama had contemplated. However, it was a reasonable prediction, especially given the show of intent China had forcefully made in Tiananmen Square not that long ago.

Fortune Magazine was right, as Richburg now acknowledges. China has not become more free and democratic:

China. . .now, under President Xi Jinping, is arguably in one of its most politically restrictive periods since the Mao Zedong era, and certainly since the crackdown that followed the Tiananmen massacre. Human rights lawyers and activists have been rounded up and jailed ; some have been sentenced to long prison terms after closed trials, while others have simply disappeared . China’s nascent civil-society movement has been quashed. Websites and blogs deemed critical of the government have been shut down and bloggers and journalists arrested.

As for Hong Kong:

Hong Kong’s 20th-century role as the entrepot, or connector, between China and the West has long since vanished, as foreign firms are able to base offices in China and sell directly to Chinese consumers. Dozens of Chinese companies, such as the e-commerce giant Alibaba, chose to skip Hong Kong and list on the New York Stock Exchange. Ships now bypass Hong Kong’s harbor to sail to mainland ports. Hong Kong in 1997 accounted for some 16 percent of China’s GDP; that figure has now shrunk to 3 percent. China is also outpacing Hong Kong in digital innovation, including e-commerce, social-media start-ups and particularly fintech — proprietary software used in the financial industry. . . .

What we are seeing now is. . .the slow erosion of the separate culture and norms that have set [Hong Kong] apart. And it’s the incremental marginalization of Hong Kong in the Chinese economy.

Since the Occupy protests, China has shown an increasing propensity to meddle directly in Hong Kong’s affairs. Chinese security agents operating in Hong Kong have abducted book publishers, as well as a reclusive Chinese billionaire secluded in a five-star hotel, and spirited them back over the border for secretive interrogations. China’s rubber-stamp assembly has short-circuited the local judicial process by making rulings on Hong Kong laws — in one case banning two elected members of the legislature from retaking their oaths.

China drove home the point during a visit to Hong Kong by President Xi Jinping. He warned Hong Kong residents that any activities seen as threatening China’s sovereignty and stability would be “absolutely impermissible.” He also warned that that Hong Kong had to do more to shore up security and boost patriotic education.

In response to calls for more freedom from Hong Kong, which have been backed by protests, Xi’s response was the typical totalitarian one. He decried the “carry[ing] out [of] infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland.” “Making everything political or deliberately creating differences and provoking confrontations will not resolve the problems,” Xi said, adding that Hong Kong “cannot afford to be torn apart by reckless moves or internal rifts.”

Hong Kong’s ordeal under Red China is an object lesson for those who blithely assume that Communism and other forms of brutal dictatorship can be tamed by exposure to Western values. This, of course, is the assumption many liberals make when it comes to Cuba. Cuba’s Communist regime is considerably weaker than Red China’s, but appears to be more immune to liberalization, for the time being at least, than many had thought.

Just as one can be too optimistic about history, it’s possible to be too pessimistic about. it The fact that the Soviet Union and its empire fell didn’t mean that Red China would enjoy a similar fate. It didn’t even mean that Russia wouldn’t begin to resemble, in some important ways, the Soviet Union.

But just because Red China is still Communist doesn’t mean that the Castroite regime in Cuba won’t collapse fairly soon, or that mainland China will always be Red.

The two lessons I draw from the Hong Kong experience are: (1) we shouldn’t underestimate the ability of determined totalitarian regimes not only to maintain their power but to extend it and (2) we should never be highly confident in our predictions about the future.

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