Chinese Puzzles

I am still inclined to believe that what we are seeing in the president’s series of speeches is the beginning of a change of policy toward gradual withdrawal of a substantial number of U.S. troops from Iraq, although it is apparently not in this president’s makeup to admit mistakes or even to acknowledge changing course, except at a superficial rhetorical level. Since it seems to me that the fact of the speeches is more important than their wan substance, I’ll refrain for this week from trying to parse it. If you want a fairly solid critique, this one from Fred Kaplan at is substantive and worth reading.

If Iraq is fated to move at least slightly away from the center of U.S. foreign policy concerns, it may behoove us to pay attention to other potential crises. Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong earlier this week are a reminder that China, which was the preferred neocon bête noire during most of the 1990s when they were casting about for a plausible enemy after the collapse of the Soviet empire, still has the potential to roil waters.

There is little question that, given its remarkable economic growth over the last decade or so, its traditional attitude that the Middle Kingdom is the center of the earth, and the relative economic decline of Japan, China has at least regional and possibly global political ambitions. Its negotiation of free-trade agreements with other Asian countries is seen in some circles in Washington as a sign that China wants to push the United States as an effective power able to influence events significantly out of the region. That concern is one of the justifications for the U.S. Navy’s current plan to build more ships – great big ships.

It’s a mystery to me why any Americans would want their government to be the balance of power in Asia, and I suspect most Americans don’t care a bit. But plenty of articulate people worry about such things.

Into the Mother Ship

There’s also the matter of Taiwan, which was a U.S. client state during most of the Cold War and still has an emotional hold on generations of Cold War conservatives and neoconservatives. China, in the way of all too many nation-states and empires, loves territory and sees the loss of territory as tragic. It officially views Taiwan as still a province of the mainland and vows to reincorporate it into the mother ship at some point, occasionally rattling missiles and making threatening noises about doing so through military means. It also meddles in Taiwanese politics to discourage the murmurings about full independence the current regime in Taipei was uttering until a few years ago.

Hong Kong, which the British ceded back to the mainland government in 1997, pops up on the radar screens of the rulers in Beijing from time to time. Day to day, it is an asset, with its still-vibrant economy and its window on the West. But it gets attention most often when it is an irritant.

Almost a decade ago, when the central government in Beijing assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, it promised to respect the principle of "one country, two systems" and allow the economic freedom that had flourished under British control to continue. Most Hong Kong residents assumed that meant democratic reforms sooner rather than later.

Their experience under the British, where they had as much economic freedom as almost any place on earth and a fairly wide range of political freedom – even as all the essential officials were appointed in London rather than being subject to democratic processes – should perhaps have disabused them of the notion that there is a strong relationship between democracy, which is a process of choosing rulers, and freedom, which in my view is a different phenomenon and much more important. But people around the world have come to conflate democracy and freedom, to assume that the strong civil society that is essential to maintaining a reasonably democratic society is a result of rather than a precondition for democratic institutions. And there is the hankering for a modicum of local self-rule. So while most residents of Hong Kong may be primarily interested in making money, a substantial number are concerned that only half the legislature is elected directly and the chief executive is effectively appointed by Beijing

The demonstrations last weekend in Hong Kong may or may not lead to greater democracy and independence from the central government in Beijing. But they demonstrate the enduring attractiveness of liberty and democratic processes, aspirations that are unlikely to be bought off with mere economic prosperity.

Bigger Problems

When I had the opportunity a couple of months ago to meet with William Lampson, director of China studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, he emphasized to me that the honchos in Beijing have plenty of problems besides Hong Kong. Economic growth has been rapid but unequal, which means that a substantial portion of the huge population is chronically dissatisfied. Few are reported in the international press, but demonstrations, some verging on riots, happen fairly frequently. Recently, peasants in the southern village of Shangdeng ransacked a government building and battered an official in a protest over government interference in a tobacco-smuggling operation that led to the deaths of a couple of peasants.

Beijing’s rulers made a decision a couple of decades ago to liberalize economically to unleash the power of the market and create economic growth. While there are still too many state corporations and an abundance of corruption and cronyism, in some ways China is now more capitalistic than the United States. But the Communist Party has no intention of letting loose of its monopoly on political power. So the tendency is to worry about such incidents and on occasion to put them down rather brutally. With unrest throughout the huge country, it may well be that the government of Hu Jintao has not even gotten up to speed yet on the challenges it faces in Hong Kong.

The instinct for the government in Beijing is to be reluctant to grant more direct democracy in Hong Kong. Its leaders could be worried that more democracy in Hong Kong may lead to more aspirations and unrest in the rest of the country.

However, Beijing’s reluctance to grant more extensive democratic rule to Hong Kong may be due as much to inertia and ignorance as to hostility to democracy. Its response to continuing demands for more democracy in Hong Kong may suggest more of a tin ear than a sinister plan to impose more central rule on Hong Kong.

That clumsiness in Beijing, however, may be complicating progress (from Beijing’s perspective) on what Beijing considers a more important issue, according to Ted Carpenter, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and author of the forthcoming book, America’s War with China: A Collision Course With Taiwan.

When Beijing took over Hong Kong, it rather explicitly advised the Taiwanese to watch how they handled the "one country, two systems" idea there. The implicit promise was that once Taiwan saw how deftly Beijing handled the Hong Kong situation and allowed the city to flourish, the Taiwanese would feel much more comfortable about eventually being reincorporated into the mainland’s system. However, Carpenter told me, "The Taiwanese have been watching how Beijing handles Hong Kong, and most of them have not been pleased." Being obstinate about a little more democracy in Hong Kong could harm the chances for an eventual Beijing-Taiwanese reconciliation.

It’s ironic. Allowing a little democracy in Hong Kong is unlikely to upset relations with Beijing seriously, since most people on both sides want the relationship to work. So it should be in Beijing’s own interest to be generous about democracy in Hong Kong. That it is not demonstrates both how deeply entrenched and stubborn the still-totalitarian rulers on the mainland are, and how distracted they are by all the other problems they are facing as the economy grows and some people become more discontented while others are gradually building independence.

Eventually, more prosperity will lead to more individual independence and greater pressure on the Communists’ monopoly on power. The tight control exercised in Beijing will have to yield to a different system, whether through evolution or revolution. But the bureaucrats in Beijing probably view that eventuality in much the same way most American politicians view Social Security. They know the system is headed for collapse someday, but with any luck it won’t be until they’re gone from the scene, so they prefer not to think about it too much.

China is and will continue to be fascinating to watch, but it is difficult to see what great threat it poses to the core interests of the United States in the near future. In fact, U.S. core interests might be better served by deciding to give up the ambition to control political events in Asia – leaving those who live on the Korean peninsula to work things out for themselves, for example – and focusing on restoring itself as an example to the nations of what liberty can do for the health, wealth, and cultural aspirations of a free people.


Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).