The Chinese government’s actions in Hong Kong are not an event – they are a process

How long does it take to acknowledge that you have a problem? The steps being taken by the Chinese government to subvert Hong Kong’s institutions will be the moment of truth for a few more people.

It’s almost astonishing to recall the fullness of the pledges made by the Chinese government in the 1984 Sino-British treaty to respect Hong Kong’s autonomous institutions and the rule of law.

So perhaps a couple of belated cheers are due for the British politicians and diplomats who negotiated those dishonoured commitments, and some more for their current replacements who are talking about giving UK residency to those born in Hong Kong before the 1997 handover – no small commitment given pressures to reduce immigration numbers.

But if the first step is accepting you have problem, the second is understanding what kind it is.

And who better to cut through the noise, then our old friend Francis Fukuyama, the ‘End of History’ man, pondering in the American Interest on ‘What kind of regime does China have?’

Fukuyama is big on historical continuity. The Chinese polity was early in evolving a strong, impersonal bureaucratic state but did not develop balancing constraints, such as the rule of law or democratic accountability.  The Chinese government is in this tradition and it should not be too surprising if it applies power to Chinese national ends.

But he also argues that the current regime has gone well beyond this traditional authoritarianism in using modern technology to impose internal control and exercise external power.  Accordingly, we now face “ … a Chinese Communist Party that has shifted into high-totalitarian mode …” and which represents “ … a clear challenge to our democratic values.”

His suggested response sounds a lot like the containment strategy used against the Soviet Union: disengage economically; resist intellectual subversion; decide how much counterforce you might be prepared to use against force; while waiting for China’s internal politics to develop in a more hopeful direction.

But before you get overwhelmed by gloomy historical inevitability, try to recall the period from 1978 (with the ascent to power of Deng Xiaoping) to 2012 (when President Xi assumed paramountcy).  That Chinese regime – the one which signed the treaty guaranteeing Hong Kongers’ “rights and freedoms” – was more traditionally authoritarian and less ideological; more collective, more willing to accommodate differences and more able to share power.

So while it’s interesting, and perhaps even useful, to debate the extent to which current policy reflects Chinese history, the attractions of tyranny or Marxist ideology (and the history of communism does show a marked bias to centralised power unrestrained by ethical considerations), we should recognise that the current Chinese regime has made a choice – and a decisive one at that – to break with the policies of its reformist predecessor.

And while that poses a challenge for us, it may be an even bigger one for President Xi.

Yes, more central control and use of force can get things done in the short term. But they also conceal the erosion of popular support, which tends to emerge just when the regime gets into some rough going, perhaps in a foreign adventure.

Similarly, throttling back economic freedom seems remarkably easy when you start out.  But even intelligently-run totalitarian states have a rotten record in maintaining high growth rates and achieving economic leadership.

So if you are confident that creative invention is the source of productivity growth; that free-ish markets are the best engine for turning that into wealth; and that democracies tend to have better internal cohesion because we all get a chance to help politicians make and correct mistakes on our behalf, then the Western political model looks the more attractive and likely to generate economic power.

But this is all in-the-long-run-stuff, and reading Fukuyama’s analysis it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a sustained and potentially messy period of global competition between the US and Chinese governments has kicked off.

In economic terms, it’s hard to understate how much we have gained from the market-led integration of 1.4 billion Chinese in the world economy.   The question then is how much unwinding there will need to be, and how much this will cost us.

In political terms, the world has been a relatively quiet place in the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union.   With the US looking tired of carrying the weight, the rest of us might want to brace for some more forthright autocracy and an upsurge in opportunistic intimidation and violence in formerly-quiet regions. The 1930s is a case study of how frightening things can get when a bunch of major powers (Germany, the USSR, Italy, Spain and Japan in those days) don’t want to play by the rules.

On the positive side, it will make American hegemony look much more attractive.  And we can console ourselves that we are on the side with the best record and the best chances – in the long run.

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