It is rare to see analysis in conventional news sources that actually have something interesting to say (rather than being outlets for the opinion management directed by states, or other actors with the power to wield these media tools). That is especially the case in the context of the situation in Hong Kong. The ultimate tragedy that has been unfolding in its current form in Hong Kong since June 2019 is connected to larger trends that are becoming clearer now. It suggests the growing pains that accompany the contemporary (great) transitions of political-economic models that started in earnest after the shock of events between 2001 and 2008 as these models emerge from the status quo ante of the post 1945 settlement of the (more or less unitary) global order (finalized after 1989). What the transition produces remains to be seen, but its character is already being felt in the movement toward the post-global merchant empires of the Belt and Road Initiative and the America First model.
Within those broad macro change trajectories one encounters an almost endless series of micro points of explosions--the way that earthquakes evidence specific nodes of motion along much larger tectonic plates. Each of these micro explosion points produce great disruption, but they are not self contained. Each is a contribution to larger movements and changes along the fault lines in which they exist. The situation in Hong Kong is one of those micro explosions; the US-China trade realignments (and the inevitable decoupling that they represent) is another. The tragedy of these micro explosions is that while they follow their own logic--in the case of Hong Kong, those of the emerging internationalist cultural expectations built into the rhetoric of protestors, against that of the central authorities--they are inevitably trapped within the confines of the tectonic plates of longer term trends against which the possibilities of local events are constrained. For Hong Kong that means, as it has since the 1840s, that the city-not-exactly-a-state remains trapped between imperial systems whose evolution both fuels the narrative of the actors, and constrains the scope of potential outcomes.
This post considers the nature of these changes, and Hong Kong's place within them from the perspective of a refreshingly honest, but likely overlooked, Opinion Essay recently published in the South China Morning Post: China would rather see Hong Kong lose its role as a financial gateway than ever cede political control. Dr Shirley Ze Yu is senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and a former Chinese national television (CCTV) news anchor.
The Opinion Essay and brief Analysis by the Coalition for Peace & Ethics Working Group on Empire follow.
China's post-Global empire is being built around the Belt and Road Initiative. It is grounded on core political principles of core-collective which serves as the basic framework for organizing political and economic relations and also in the construction of institutions developed for its operation. The core-collective framework is both compatible with the emerging theory of Leninist political organization and is duplicated throughout Chinese political and economic life, both within institutions and among them. For the Belt and Road Initiative, China serves as the core of a coordinated economic-political system around which are increasingly distant collectives that extend from near to far periphery. These are the modern manifestation of tributary states, the relations with which produce the win-win solutions at the heart of Chinese foreign policy. But the emerging imperial system is also marked by the ability both to control its internal operations between core and collectives, and to defend itself against rival imperial projects, principally those of the U.S. and its nascent (though remarkably contested) America First project. To that end, it is necessary to ensure the construction of am internationalized currency (the yuan), and to manage territory through which trade and production can be operated for the win-win strategy.
Within this construction, Hong Kong has always served as a transitional outer territory of the imperial core. It was necessary as a convergence points pf empires, in this case between the emerging new Chinese Leninist model, and the old discredited 19th century model (with its inherently now rejected core organizational notions of racism, ethnocentrism and direct territorial control). It served as a vital point in the Reform and Opening Up strategy and, like it, represented a necessary transitional plan to move China from its post-Revolutionary to its "New Era" stage of historical development. Technology transfer, know how, intelligence, righting historical grievances and 19th century humiliations (though like all core empires without any sense of the humiliation core prerogatives might produce in peripheral regions) and the like were essential features of that arrangement. And the One Country Two systems, one with a sunset provision, was meant to drive home the point. The West, of course, was clueless as it read these movements from the perspectives of its own inter-cultural battles and its own historical contradictions. Thus distracted, they could only be themselves but with little by way of equally forward looking strategies acknowledging the inevitability of changes that even leaders in peripheral states saw fairly clearly.
But Hong Kong also served as a distraction for rising competing Empires, and a source of false reassurance for fading empires (among which there had been an almost successful effort to universalize their political-economic model now recast as grounded in markets, human rights, and multiple variations of exculpatory measures for the consequences of the now discredited effects of the old imperial model). It was certainly in that sense that Hong Kong served its highest purpose geo-politically as a way to buy time while China prepared for its "New Era" by successfully managing its transitional aspects of its long term political line through "Reform and Opening Up." That was sufficiently appealing for the fading European (now international) norms-making imperial model. It was partially satisfying to the merchant empire model of what would emerge as America First. The later model, of course, was only one of the two choices for a deeply divided American political-economic elite torn between the rupture from its earlier post 1945 model, and the more transitionally satisfying (and old model preserving) alternative that reached its most developed form under the Obama administration (see, Conflating Economics and Politics, Security and Prosperity--President Obama Addresses the United Nations;Mr. Obama Speaks in Egypt: "Islam is a Part of America"--The Ummah Wahida, and the State in Two Distinct World Orders).
But the central authorities appear always to have selected Hong Kong for absorption into a greater Pearl River Delta economic grouping. China has made no secret of this, though one has to be sensitive to the meanings of words and actions to see it clearly. It was not for nothing that the Reform and Opening Up period has always focused in part on the old imperial borderland with the ancient imperial rival. Over the long term it could not have escaped notice that Shenzhen was built to dwarf and then absorb Hong Kong. But Hong Kong was also built as the space through which a critical element of Chinese imperial organization could take shape--the development and operation of an imperial currency that eventually could be used to solidify the coordinated operation of its collective arrangements within its land, maritime and space "roads." Hong Kong could serve in that respect the same function (pointed outward from empire) that Shenzhen served in the area of manufacturing and supply chain "roads" internally. Many of the lessons learned were then transferred to other cities within the core--notably Shanghai--or outward to internal periphery states, notably Singapore. While it served that purpose, Hong Kong could continue to operate as a global "open city."
But the Belt and Road system is now substantially framed and its operationalization is no longer risky. The Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank has now reached a quick maturity as an imperial disciplinary financial force (the way that the old IFIs serve that role first for the post 1945 settlement order, and thereafter for emerging competitive imperial models). The inner periphery states now serve the core in a more disciplined manner, especially against the outer territories of competing imperial orders (see, e.g., It’s time India stopped seeing China’s border moves as ‘salami slicing’). And as the old imperial orders sink into peripheral roles, there are better bases for situating the imperial financial machinery--China has been (with a delicious sense of irony and revenge) eyeing its old nemesis the UK, as the space form which it will operate its global financial machinery.
And what of Hong Kong then? Likely before June 2019, the idea was a planned slow decline and absorption into a Greater Pearl River Delta area, perhaps with the same status as Singapore within the political-economic model, adjusted for history and context. Hong Kong's monied interests no doubt have been adjusting their positions--and hedging based on that--for years. Though of course that is conjecture. At the same time, China managed to realize the risk of this strategy--just as its plans for Hong Kong's evolution to a new historical stage were being carefully developed, Hong Kong's masses were inheriting some of the conceptual manifestations of the One Country Two Systems model, but in a global rather than a Chinese direction. That was the contradiction that erupted in Hne 2019. And that is the contradiction that will eventually be settled to China's satisfaction, eventually. But that is also one whose resolution will also require payment of a price that might well benefit China's imperial rival.
These are some of the ideas deeply embedded within the Opinion Essay published by Shirley Ze Yu. It ought to be taken seriously. It likely represents some strongly held views of elements of the central authorities. And it reinforces the notions that whatever the immediate resolution of the situation in Hong Kong, it is really only a prelude to, and another step in the construction of, the post global world order.
China would rather see Hong Kong lose its role as a financial gateway than ever cede political control
- Under China’s control, Hong Kong’s DNA is changing and there’s no going back. Beijing may be looking to replace the city with London as a offshore financial hub
- In China’s long history, the Hong Kong unrest will be but a minor blip in the country’s progress; the question is whether Beijing needs to wield soft or hard power
China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, faced off with BBC Newsnight a few hours after the
face-mask ban was declared in Hong Kong. He repeated that Hong Kong’s situation is “under control”. And, contrary to the anarchy and chaos the rest of the world observes, he is correct.
Hong Kong has been under China’s control, territorially and administratively. In fact, Hong Kong has also increasingly fallen into China’s economic orbit. It is only a matter of time before Hong Kong’s political system follows.
The transitory promise to Hong Kong of “one country, two systems” is good for 50 years only, a blink of an eye in historical terms. To take a fatalistic view, all the liberal rights Hong Kong protesters are fighting for were handed over when Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997.
Hong Kong is under China’s full control. It is virtually impossible to conceive of an alternative future for the city, come 2047, or even 2097, other than a collective future.
In 100 years, mainland China and Hong Kong will both have fundamentally transformed themselves. Given that China has transformed at a speed and on a scale beyond the world’s imagination, there is no telling where it will be in a century’s time. But one thing is certain: Hong Kong’s destiny lies with China.
The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was one of the 20th century’s most skilled statesmen. He employed pragmatic remedies in every policy domain in China for the deep wounds left by the Cultural Revolution. He was the chief architect of China’s economic reform and opening up, and the maxim associated with his approach is “crossing the river by feeling the stones”. The framework for Hong Kong’s return was another of Deng’s ingenuous experiments.
The beginning of the end for China’s Communist Party rule?
Events have proved her to be right in prediction, but wrong about the direction. Ominously, the “Iron Lady” tumbled down the steps of the Great Hall of the People during her visit to Beijing for talks with Deng. He might have been the wiser of the two.
A pragmatist and an authoritarian, Deng delivered market reform under communist rule; he fiercely put an end to the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests in 1989. Were he still alive, he would not have brooked the unrest in Hong Kong.
He believed that “development is the only hard truth”. Forty years ago, he knew Hong Kong’s open market and liberal economy would be good for China’s development. Without Hong Kong, there would not have been a prototype for China’s market reform in the 1980s.
China’s first capitalist gateway was Hong Kong. The first few mainland Chinese to strike it rich, or become “10,000 yuan people”, were all connected to trade in Hong Kong.
But, in the years to come, Hong Kong is more likely to resemble a modern Chinese metropolis than a Western city.
Back in 1997, Hong Kong’s gross domestic product was 18 per cent of China’s. Today, the figure is a mere 3 per cent. In the development plan unveiled for China’s Greater Bay Area, Hong Kong is not the centre, but one of four metropolitan centres. Not only is the Greater Bay Area envisioned as a competitor to Silicon Valley, it also integrates Hong Kong into China’s economic network.
Tragically, the painful choice of jeopardizing Hong Kong’s status as the most open and liberal financial market in Asia seems to be the last and only option left to Beijing, because the alternative of losing political control of Hong Kong is simply inconceivable.
My People, My Country: jingoistic vignettes of ChinaChina is not likely to grant Hong Kong liberal democracy under its model of universal suffrage. Nor will China allow Hong Kong to break free, not under Xi Jinping’s leadership nor anyone else’s. To Xi, Hong Kong is indubitably under China’s control; it is only a question of wielding hard power or soft power.
Chinese state-owned enterprises have been asked to play a bigger role in Hong Kong since September. The message is clear: only state-owned companies can be fully trusted. To secure control of Hong Kong’s political future, the business sector must follow the Communist Party – all businesses, domestic or foreign.
Slowly, Hong Kong’s DNA will start to change. Beijing’s soft power will firmly implant itself into Hong Kong.
Xi’s Chinese dream is the narrative of a strong China, predicated on a unified national identity and the collective memory of a century of humiliation. Hong Kong is a quintessential part of this narrative, and of the Chinese dream.
It’s not only the Chinese ambassador to Britain who has assured the world the Hong Kong situation is under control; Beijing has also started exploring strategic alternatives beyond Hong Kong.
Why China will wait until 2030 to retake Taiwan
Hong Kong’s shoes could perhaps be filled by London. The recent takeover bid for the London Stock Exchange Group was clearly an attempt to turn London into another financial hub for China.
If Hong Kong were to lose its special status in its trade with the United States, neither Tokyo, nor Singapore nor Sydney could replace it as a premiere financial marketplace. Only London could meet China’s growing demand for a deep and wide offshore financial centre, as China continues to amass economic influence in Europe and the rest of the world.
Increasingly, all signs point to more bloodshed in Hong Kong, deeper distrust between Hong Kong and mainland China, and Beijing’s tighter political grip. Whether Beijing decides to end the protests with boots on the ground has become a secondary determinant of the city’s future.
For all societies and civilizations, history has always moved towards progress, though not always in a linear fashion. In China’s long history, the unrest in Hong Kong will be only a minor scar. The outcome will be against the wishes of many hoping for a free and democratic fragrant harbour. Hong Kong will no longer be the same.
Dr Shirley Ze Yu is senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and a former Chinese national television (CCTV) news anchor