Sunday, December 29, 2019

"Hong Kong's Not Right"

I assume that you are curious to know how things are going in Hong Kong. After all, the protests and demonstrations have been continuing for months now, and we are all curious to know what, if anything they have accomplished. 

At the least, they are killing Hong Kong. Xi Jinping has been fighting a war of attrition. He is not going to yield to protests, lest that set a bad example, and is not going to send in the army to suppress it. While it was possible to crush the Tiananmen protests outside of camera view, any repressive police action in Hong Kong would be instantly broadcast around the world. And would damage China’s image… of world leadership.

Besides, and most pertinent, the demonstrations in Hong Kong have not resonated throughout China. While a bright eyed idealist like Roger Cohen believes that liberal democracy is fighting against authoritarian despotism in Hong Kong, people around China seem not to agree. 

Cohen seems to have a hankering for world historical drama. With that in mind, allow him his on the ground description:

The confrontation will not end soon. To say the course of the 21st century hinges on this conflict’s outcome would be a stretch, but not an outlandish one. “This is the infinity war,” Joshua Wong, a prominent democracy activist, told me.

But the city is a special case; it’s dollars and oxygen. Hong Kong affords mainland tycoons the ability to move “red capital” in and out. The city, the world’s third-largest financial center, provides access to international capital markets. It even offers honest courts and judges. And so China is likely to play a waiting game.

And yet, we recall at the beginning of these demonstrations the analysis of Cornell professor Eswar Prasat. He pointed out that while China needed Hong Kong in 1997 China no longer needs Hong Kong in 2019.

Cohen echoes the point:

Hong Kong’s restiveness has many roots: rising inequality, unaffordable housing, diminishing prospects for young people, dithering governance, a sense of marginalization as China rose. The city represents 2.7 percent of Chinese gross domestic product today, compared with 18.4 percent in 1997. Shenzhen, just over the border, was a cow town three decades ago; now it glistens and gleams, a high-tech hub.

Hong Kong is shrinking into irrelevance. Perhaps this is reason for the locals to panic. Thus, Xi Jinping does not have to do anything. He can allow the locals to create conditions that will cause businesses to move to Shenzhen or Shanghai. 

And it is worthwhile noting that Hong Kong, a bastion of liberal values, is poorly governed, with housing prices that even worse than those in New York. Economic realities like this seriously damage future prospects for its young people. Consider the fact that Hong Kong, representing liberal values, is barely livable. Would a few elections render it more livable? It is a point worth considering.

But, Cohen seems to believe that the people of Hong Kong, the large majority of whom support the protests, are driven by their love of ideals. Or, what he calls values. The civilizational clash between idealism and pragmatism has been ongoing for centuries now. Cohen believes that the central government repression will naturally give rise to a revolutionary counterthrust. 

In truth, Cohen’s Times colleague Nicholas Kristof argued the same point thirty years ago after the repression of the Tienanmen protests. How did that bit of Hegelian prophecy work out? 

If people have to choose between good jobs and a good living against the promise of a vote in an election, they might well choose not to become as dysfunctional and unequal as Hong Kong.  If you think that the people are going to rise up to defend the Uighurs, you are smoking the wrong kinds of cigarettes. Keep in mind, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia visited China a few months back. About the detention of his co-religionists, he spoke nary a word.

I don’t think the issue is independence. The protests, largely leaderless, coordinated through social media, ranging from flash mobs in malls to massive marches, are the furious response of a frustrated population to Xi’s ominous repressive turn and Lam’s subservience to it. Hong Kong’s culture has changed. Once intensely pragmatic, it is now intensely values-driven. That could happen one day on the mainland, too. Millennials value values.

Bright-eyed idealist that he is, Cohen sees Hong Kong as the beginning of a world wide awakening. He is obviously naive and sees what he wants to see.

The city is the avant-garde of a world awakening, with a mixture of anxiety and dismay, to the full implications of Chinese ascendancy.

If he thinks that universal suffrage is going to solve the problem, he is even more naive than I thought when I was writing the last paragraph. Will universal suffrage solve the housing crisis in Hong Kong? The third alternative is that Hong Kong’s protest demonstrations will end, not with a band but with a whimper, as the poet said.

Universal suffrage for Hong Kong is the only endgame I can see to the “one country, two systems” impasse, short of the People’s Liberation Army marching into the city and all hell breaking loose.

To add to our understanding of what is going on in Hong Kong, I am happy to bring you some elements of a Wall Street Journal report, published this last Friday. 

The Journal does not wear ideological blinders. Thus, its reporters offer a more objective perspective. Living in a state of upheaval produces a yearning for order, for a return to normalcy:

Months of unrest have transformed the city beyond the tear gas, graffiti and disrupted commutes. There are deep changes in the lives of residents.

Protests have created an increasingly unpredictable state of upheaval, forcing anxious decisions among the city’s 7.5 million residents—the safest route for the kids to go to school, whether to cancel a wedding or to move away.

People are on edge and angry: some at violent protesters, most at the government for failing to resolve the crisis.

Across the city, ATMs are boarded up, traffic lights broken and once-reliable subways erratic. Social outings are curtailed, special events canceled and plans shelved. Some weeks, schools have closed. Shop and restaurant workers have lost jobs to a dying nightlife and slowing commerce. Political arguments darken family dinners. Conversations end, “Stay safe.”

Everyday life has been changed, and not for the better. “Hong Kong is not right,” the Journal reports. And that means, Xi’s war of attrition is wearing the city down:

Hong Kong used to buzz with crowds around the clock. Residents are accustomed to spending most waking hours outside cramped apartments, visiting all-night noodle shops and ubiquitous 7-Eleven convenience stores.

Now, nights are quieter, streets are emptier. Protest graffiti appears and is hastily covered over. Trash cans, used as barricades by protesters, have become a rare sight.

Bit by bit, the fallout of unrest has spread deep into the fabric of daily life. Each time the tear gas clears, the booming sky’s-the-limit city of skyscrapers and opportunity is a little less recognizable to residents.

And then there is the American Congress. Cohen concedes that the Trump administration has been playing the situation well. Trump is walking a tightrope, knowing that he cannot completely alienate President Xi and cannot completely turn his back on the protesters. Congress is all in with the protests, and seems blissfully unaware of the fact that the demonstrators are holding a losing hand. Then again, if Congress cannot virtue signal what good is it?


trigger warning said...

"The city is the avant-garde of a world awakening"

Hm. When have I heard this panty-wetting before?

Lech Walesa elected President of Poland
Berlin Wall falls
China admitted to WTO
Human genome mapped
Obama Brandenburg Gate speech
Arab Spring...

Area 51 Gathering (jus' kiddin', but at least they had a shot)

UbuMaccabee said...

“Across the city, ATMs are boarded up, traffic lights broken and once-reliable subways erratic. Social outings are curtailed, special events canceled and plans shelved. Some weeks, schools have closed. Shop and restaurant workers have lost jobs to a dying nightlife and slowing commerce. Political arguments darken family dinners. Conversations end, “Stay safe.”

My money is on the stomach. The students are very close to losing the support of their base.

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