Before the Cold War had formally come to an end and tanks were moving in on Tiannamen Square, it seemed like democracy, pure and free were prerequisites for economic success. Yet China has clearly disputed that belief by creating a model previously unknown to the world: consumer capitalism combined with autocratic government, Pinochet by the Pacific. Under Xi Jinping’s rule, China’s continued growth means the people now enjoy near-western living standards along coastal cities as a rising affluent middle class form. So long as it does not question the legitimacy of its leaders of course.
The power of the Chinese model has presented difficulty for western governments: how to deal with a country that does not believe in human rights and yet nevertheless offers lucrative opportunities for investors. So far, western leaders have followed the money while putting up almost no defence of freedom and democracy. Theresa May did not even bother to do this, when she visited Beijing last year to encourage what she described as a ‘golden era’ in British–China relations, Chinese state media noted she had now given up discussing human rights with much enthusiasm.
Over a million Uyghurs might have been herded into “re-education” camps and China continues to offer lucrative contracts too lucrative for people, and governments, to ignore, so the West looked the other way. However the awkward compromise between economic interest and concern for human rights is suddenly under strain again, partly on account of the trade war which Donald Trump is waging (despite being told only a week ago was “over”) — and partly because of the increasing unrest in Hong Kong. The protests which have taken place recently show that, unlike the British government, the citizens of Britain’s former colony are no longer prepared to ignore China’s various human rights abuses and in many ways out-British the British with there sheer determination not to take no for an answer.
Hong Kong’s industrious people should have been given the right to settle in Britain before the handover, they have always been naturally pro-Unionist with many waving flags upon Margeret Thatchers vists back in 1982, years later she spoke of her profound regret in handing Hong Kong over to China — albeit with the promise that they would enjoy special privileges. In theory, Hong Kong citizens — unlike their counterparts on the mainland — have the right to protest against the Chinese Communist party. But some who exercised this supposed freedom have found themselves spirited away and sent to mainland China for detention, some for just selling obscure books that noone had even heard of. The trigger for the current protests, which nearly two weeks ago included an invasion of the Hong Kong legislature, was an initiative brought in by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to create powers for felons to be extradited directly from Hong Kong to China.
Lam says this was her doing, and was not inspired by Beijing. But it fits a of emboldened Chinese officials who think a new chapter in history has opened. The Chinese believe the West will look the other way, and see notions of democracy, liberty and human rights as cultural issues relevant to the West but a lot less relevant to Asia. The citizens of Hong Kong do not agree, the citizens of Hong Kong still maintain old British values of justice, liberty and defiance.
For some time now, Xi has been making misjudgment after misjudgment when it comes to relations with the West. In particular, he has not understood that American patience has snapped under Trump. China’s economic model of bribing foreign business or being involved in the poorly disguised theft of western industrial secrets refusing access to its own markets was the last straw. The ongoing trade war — which reached a temporary ceasfire — was wrongly seen in Beijing as a Trump hissy fit. It was thought that, if this strange president was thrown a bone, he’d go away and China could go on as before. But American opinion is on the turn. Listen to any of the would-be Democrat contenders, and you can hear exactly the same concerns about China.
Xi has over-reached and the politburo is concerned. They will be asking if his recent decision to become “eternal President” is turning out to be wise. His Belt and Road Initiative, a $90 billion attempt to create a high-tech equivalent of the Silk Road, is already looking like the kind of legacy of a leader whose ego far outgrew his position. Various other innovations — like the app containing the thoughts of Chairman Xi — are worryingly reminiscent of the Mao era. But Britain has been woefully absent from this debate leaving Hong Kong to effectively represent what all should feel against a rinse-washed tyranny, it is as if all our would-be leaders are only interested in lucrative contracts and ignoring inconveniences about Beijing.
There is a clear path for China’s eventual dominance, one based on co-operation and mutual respect. In the rush to offer the hand of friendship, western leaders have looked weak, which has further emboldened Beijing; the most eloquent rebuke has come not from the White House or No. 10, but the streets of Hong Kong. They are one of the few colony’s that openly side with Britian, prefer Britsh rule and endorse british values – we should be supporting them.