Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 1 October 2019


Hong Kong
Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China from a podium overlooking Tiananmen Square 70 years ago. This year’s celebrations, including in Hong Kong, were meant to pay tribute to Mao’s successor Xi Jinping.
But the people of Hong Kong have stood up. Millions have marched in protest of Beijing’s undemocratic control. As a media man I understand that the coverage of events will disproportionately focus on acts of violence. Please don’t let the acts of a desperate few blind the world to the violence and oppression that sustains the regime in Beijing—and the fundamentally peaceable nature of the Hong Kong people. All we see from our government is a coldblooded campaign of arrests, greater control of private companies such as Cathay Pacificand HSBC, and interference in the teaching at our high schools. 
We are fighting for what was promised us. Universal suffrage is a right to which we’re entitled in our Basic Law, the miniconstitution that took effect when the U.K. handed over the territory in 1997. Mr. Xi abrogated it in 2014 by imposing limits on elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive and members of the Legislative Council, and our rights have been denied to us. 
Some find it inconceivable that Beijing would ever give us universal suffrage, but we must persist. We’re prepared to make short-term sacrifice to pursue long-term freedom. We believe that if we persist, we may win. China is not as strong as it pretends. What the Communist Party calls its “socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics” has run its course. For the past 40 years, China’s high-growth economy has been fueled by exports based on cheap labor and Western technology, some borrowed and transferred, in sync with the manipulation of its currency to gain an export advantage. All the while, the West appeased China for the sake of doing more business. The hope was that open trade would encourage an open society. Under Mr. Xi’s rule that hope has died. 
Individual liberty is what distinguishes both Hong Kong and the West from China. The hustle and bustle of the free market is built on liberty and the rule of law. Without those values, how can China be a trusted member of the world community or a reliable partner of the global business community? 
That’s why we insist on our values and the importance of basic human rights when we do business with China. We mustn’t appease. Failure to confront China on its abuses means we will forever have an unstable, conflict-based global market. If only because of its sheer size—1.4 billion people, and what we have to admit is an impressive economic engine—the world can’t expect peace and prosperity if China doesn’t change its ways of the past 40 years. 
As Hong Kong highlights the moral failings of China, the markets may be seeing the failings of China’s economic model. China’s labor is no longer cheap, nor can it forcibly transfer technology or steal it as easily as in the past. It can still subsidize state enterprises and manipulate its currency, but with greater difficulties. An added challenge and cost is China’s environment. So polluted is the water and so unwelcome the trash incinerators that even in the tightly controlled tyranny that is Mr. Xi’s China they fear riots. 
Moving into a modern economy is not possible under China’s current legal structure, which lacks the rule of law that is a vital feature of Hong Kong life. That lawlessness has always left businesses unprotected. Companies paid bribes as a form of insurance, so that they could complete projects and transactions. Mr. Xi has rooted out much corruption but offered no alternative means for getting things done.
On this 70th anniversary of communism’s ascendance in China, the irony is that the only legitimacy the Party has left comes from a growing economy. If China’s economy implodes, so does the regime’s legitimacy. Even if communist China doesn’t fall, Xi Jinping’s empire will. When dictatorship competes with democracy, it always comes up short, because it has to divert a great part of its resources to controlling its people. That suffocates society’s energy and creativity by impeding the flow of information and ideas.
In 2019, Mr. Xi is arguably the most absolute dictator in human history. Certainly more absolute than Mao, because of his artificial-intelligence-enabled electronic controlling devices, such as facial recognition and “social credit.” 
The trouble is that while Mr. Xi has been happy to use this new innovation of AI-enabled electronic control, he is doing so with Mao’s old security apparatus. That requires a vast police force. Outside North Korea, almost no population is under such absolute control. Does anyone imagine an economy can grow in North Korea?
All this control is fueling unprecedented resentment and resistance—and not only in Hong Kong. Though it is now suppressed in China, there is every chance it will explode when triggered by a serious economic downturn. 
The China-U.S. trade war is an epochal event that can push China to the brink of collapse, especially if the U.S. links its values and human rights to its dealings with China. If China agrees to the structural changes America demands in this trade war, it will greatly increase China’s cost of doing business. And if Mr. Xi doesn’t agree to these structural changes and a deal with America is killed, the flow of foreign currency into China will slow, delivering a potentially fatal blow to an already weakened economy. 
The costs and hardships of the trade war to America are real, but they are also short-term. If the U.S. reverts to appeasement, in 20 years China will be not only the biggest economy in the world but the most belligerent. In such a world constant conflict with the U.S. and the West would be inevitable, and likely to be decided on terms favorable to China. The question is whether America is willing to endure short-term sacrifice for long-term peace. 
My American friends, we are realists. We are not asking you to send the Seventh Fleet to take on China. The American flags you can see at our rallies are our way of saying that we share your values and we look to you for hope. We in Hong Kong are few in number. But we know that the world will never know genuine peace until the people of China are free. On this National Day of the People’s Republic of China, all we ask is that in all your dealings with China, you remember we are fighting your battle.

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