The events of the past three weeks in Hong Kong have underlined two major points. First, Beijing’s policy has not changed. Second, China’s attempt to reintegrate Taiwan with the mainland has been postponed indefinitely—perhaps forever. Beijing’s preeminent leader, Xi Jinping, has refused to allow Hong Kongers to participate in the nomination process that is the first step in the selection of the next leader of the province. This does not surprise anyone in Taipei. Even though Beijing formally accepts the one country-two systems formula, it does not want an autonomous Hong Kong, politically or legally speaking. Nor does it want an independent Taiwan.
One can see the reasons. An independent-minded Hong Kong would be a beacon to democrats all over China, to say nothing of Southeast Asia. Movements in Guangdong toward democracy would be strengthened, and local elections might be used to settle economic disputes. Disputants in Xinjiang and Tibet could take heart that their appeals for autonomy might still be heard. But the real audience for the Hong Kong protests is Taipei. Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou has said: “We fully understand and support the Hong Kong residents’ demand for universal suffrage.” The Wall Street Journal reported on October 12 that “one of the most significant outcomes of the policies in Hong Kong over the past weeks has been to further diminish what was left of Beijing’s hope of bringing Taiwan into the fold.” Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, an expert on China, recently commented: “[T]o lose Taiwan would mean political delegitimization and a form of civilizational sacrilege” [for China]. Brandishing umbrellas to weather tear gas assaults, the Hong Kong protestors ridiculed the police and Leung Chun-ying (who came into office as administrator with a mere 689 votes.) The protestors sang “Happy Birthday” in English to the police and the agitators in Mongkok charged with breaking up the demonstrations. They sported Yellow ribbons and attire not unlike the yellow sunflowers Taiwanese protestors proudly held up in their demonstrations against the Taiwanese Parliament when, last March, it considered and then rejected legislation that would have opened up Taipei to an invasion by China’s service industry. Though they are now moving barricades to facilitate traffic in the financial district, Hong Kong’s protestors will not go away.
What does this mean for relations between America and China? Repression in Hong Kong will be very gradual, if it occurs at all, and in many ways there are grounds for a Chinese long-term “waiting strategy.” Rising countries don’t have to do anything to gain influence; they just watch their shares mount on the exchanges and their militaries gain strength. When America was rising at the beginning of the century, it didn’t need to do anything except recite Wilsonian mantras to garner attention. China would be well-advised not to mount any Tiananmen-like massacre of the students in Hong Kong: such an act would be broadcast around the globe, tweeted throughout China, and gobbled up by a U.S. Congress whose anti-Chinese government sentiment is growing stronger by the day. China’s relations with Europe will be cut back, and her clout in the developing world will be further weakened. As China grows econimically stronger, her soft power—the power of example—has become attenuated. Policies against Vietnam in the South China Sea or against Japan in the East China Sea have not gained admiration or respect for Beijing, rather the reverse. Deng Xiaoping understood this in counseling his colleagues to adopt a low profile in world politics. Now Beijing is proposing an Asian (Chinese-led) investment bank, but so far only appeasement-minded Singapore has volunteered to sign up, as the new instrumentality would conflict with the existing Asian Development Bank and other arrangements already in place.
For its part, the United States is seeking gently to surround China with Gulliver-like strings of influence that will inhibit its actions without directly controlling them. In response, China can try a charm offensive with India or Russia, but that will not sever these ties; nor will China’s economy be able to sustain its fortunes on Russian or Indian demand for its export goods. Economically, China needs the West more than the West needs China, for Beijing’s exports (fabricated in Guangdong or Dalian) are ultimately sold to Western and Japanese markets to gain the foreign exchange that Beijing has invested in the U.S., Europe, and other countries. Chinese capitalism is powerful, but it is also very dependent.
The United States can at least briefly rejoice in the notion that China, in the words of Joseph Nye, is its own worst enemy. Its conflicts with the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and even innocent Indonesia—based on its claiming of all territory within the arc shaped by the nine-dashed line (which includes huge stretches of the coastal Pacific)—has thrown one after another of these countries into the ample and welcoming arms of the United States.
America’s longer-term strategy, however, should not be to “balance” China but rather to enlist it in supporting the rise of other countries in Africa and Asia and even Eastern Europe. As one thinks about precedents, the rise of the United States is a horrible example to follow. After 1920 and with the exception of the New York money market, the United States essentially took no responsibility for world politics. It could of course have done a Marshall Plan in the 1920s that would have mitigated the downturn in 1921 and hopefully prevented onset of the depression in 1929. But it did not do so. China is much more responsive than Washington was; it’s investing in Italy, Eastern Europe, and Africa. It’s buying investment properties in the United States. All this means is that China is acting as a de facto provider of goods, even if it is not the official hegemonic leader of the system.
These actions fit well into a “waiting strategy”, but they do not solve the problems of either Hong Kong or Taiwan, which are now inseparably tied. If Taiwan is ever to join the mainland, Beijing will have to become a much more federalist polity, where regional differences are accommodated. Guangdong already operates partly on its own. Hong Kong should be given its freedom. In the long run this is more likely to attract Taiwan than the current centralist policy. In fact it can be flatly stated that Taiwan will never come back if Beijing persists with its current obtuse policy in Hong Kong.