China Versus China


The question implicit in the demand that China has made regarding American involvement with the Hong Kong demonstrators is whether or not Beijing is really willing to forego a substantial trade deal with Washington. Unless the PRC (People’s Republic of China) leadership is willing to sacrifice their much-desired trade relationship with the United States, they must not continue with their threats.

To deny the American Navy access to Hong Kong’s port facilities may seem to be a strong action, but in reality, it’s not – although the loss of shore leave for American sailors may be a hardship. As convenient as Hong Kong may be in technical naval support terms, the truth is that other ports can fill in quite well, even if the entertainment is less attractive. Of course, the entire issue of gaining full political control of HK may be deemed so important that Beijing could choose to “cut off its nose to spite its face.”

The fact is that the agreement to leave Hong Kong to control its own administration for 50 years actually could be a “face saver” for Xi Jinping’s government and Xi personally. If the PRC leadership sees the propaganda price for crushing Hong Kong’s resistance is too great, the ability to fall back on the legality issue of the 1997 accord lets them off the hook, at least for the moment. That is what is key – taking the tough stance and sticking to it at the right time! S o, the question arises what would be the right time?

The basic problem facing Xi Jinping is how to appear successful even while having to give up on matters of important domestic political circumstance. This would seem to be an impossible task as current affairs (economically and politically) are structured. There clearly are compromises possible, but it has to be accepted that both sides will have to lose something. These issues are being studied now, but the PRC finds itself in a disadvantageous position because they already have thrown down the gauntlet of military action.

As has occurred in many similar situations, the aggressive use of force has an alternative character by simply agreeing to cease (or curtail) military action. As a chess move, the serious reduction (to say nothing of elimination) of police and military intervention allows the Hong Kong dissidents in turn to take ameliorative steps on their side of the confrontation. Once a peaceful – or approximately peaceful – first step is taken, the overt first movement toward a serious solution can begin. It all depends on how much each side is willing to compromise.

The most obvious area of a new understanding would seem to be the fifty-year term of “self-rule” previously agreed upon. A rewriting of the initial accord to allow for a shorter transition period would be a bitter pill to swallow for Hong Kong, but it could provide for the necessary cessation of conflict. Clearly, this would be considered a major defeat by the HK side, so it would be essential to balance this action with a new agreement toward some form of future independence of action. Ultimately, Hong Kong would have to accept its role as subsidiary to the PRC. Painful, but true!

As most things in world affairs – especially in Asia – are driven by economic advantages, the same situation is the only route to a peaceful path in the China/HK dispute. In other words (perhaps crassly but accurately put) it all adds up to who gets how much from whom. While the naval facilities of Hong Kong are very useful to the U.S. Navy, they clearly are not an essential in military terms.

As much as the United States wishes to maintain good relations with China, Washington’s commitment to the original agreement is an essential part of American and UK foreign policy. The power of Xi Jinping’s rivals in the Politburo is tested by this serious internationalized conflict. Contrary to the way it may seem to some observers, the strongest cards are in the hands of the United Kingdom and the United States, along with their allies. It all comes down to how painful the situation is – and is growing – for China. Meanwhile the real danger as perceived by the PRC hierarchy is, “Will the lesson of Hong Kong’s dissidence spread elsewhere in China?”