Hong Kong: Like frogs in a boiling pot

Hong Kong: Like frogs in a boiling pot. By Greg Sheridan.

Originally the protests were about a plan by the Hong Kong government to introduce a law that would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China to face the legal system there. The problem is that everyone in the world knows the Chinese legal system is no good. With its conviction rate of more than 99 per cent, the Chinese legal system has no credibility with anyone. To routinely expose Hong Kong citizens to its vagaries would have been a severe blow to the rule of law and to their legal rights.

Hong Kong is an amazing place. It is often rated the most economically free jurisdiction in the world, yet it sits as part of the sovereign territory of the biggest socialist nation in the world, ruled by the biggest Communist Party in the world. …

China has steadily reduced freedoms since taking over:

Three separate dynamics have collided like billiard balls in this Hong Kong controversy.

The first is the growing sense of the Hong Kong people that they are the metaphorical frog in the slowly boiling pot of water. They realised the temperature was getting too hot. The extradition treaty made them understand that. … Extradition treaties have been a central tactic by Beijing in recent years to increase its leverage over the Chinese diaspora. In any event, the extradition treaty convinced a lot of Hong Kongers that they had to take a stand now for the rule of law and for the preservation of some level of democracy. …

China recently changed, big time:

Which brings us to the second big dynamic at work in Hong Kong, and that is the personality and leadership style of Xi. At a recent Australia America Leadership dialogue, Kim Beazley shattered the silly, lazy rhetorical equivalence some commentators engage in. Trump’s departure from the American strategic mainstream, he rightly said, was as nothing compared with Xi’s utter demolition of the old Chinese model, characterised by Deng Xiaoping’s famous formulation “hide your strength, bide your time”.

Under Xi, China … has become instead a one-man dictatorship with soaring power ambitions, resting on three pillars — strongman leadership, economic growth and virulent nationalism.

It is impossible now to sell to anyone, least of all the people of Hong Kong, the idea that the People’s Republic of China will gradually become a kinder and gentler nation, that it is on a long, slow road to a more liberal and representative future. …

One of these ambitions is to subjugate all of what it considers to be the Chinese universe — mainland China including Tibet and Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and the vast Chinese diaspora, into one multinational entity called China and ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.

Enter Trump:

Which brings us to the third powerful dynamic at work in Hong Kong, and that is Trump. …

His language, perhaps governed by his deep prudence in a situation of real danger …, was consistently low-key and, as Scott Morrison would say, “de-escalatory”. But Trump also urged Xi to meet the Hong Kong demonstrators personally and expressed confidence that Xi could sort the matter out humanely.

This was a kind of humiliation for Xi, as if he needs advice from Trump on an internal Chinese matter. But also, the fact Xi never could take such an initiative points up a weakness for a dictator compared with a democratic ruler. Trump went further and suggested the two leaders — Trump and Xi — meet personally to sort the Hong Kong situation out.

Again, this is a kind of intense, polite humiliation of Xi. It’s polite, but it implies Xi cannot handle his own country. It injects Trump into the middle of the psychodrama. Yet Xi can hardly spit in Trump’s face over the suggestion. I think Trump drives the Chinese half crazy.

Trump’s on-again off-again tariffs on China are disruptive to international business. But Trump’s complaints about Beijing’s trade practices, cyber thefts and security attacks under the guise of free trade are completely justified. It is certainly maddening for international business that Trump announces tariffs on China, then partly relents, post­pones some of them, cancels others, goes ahead and implements some. But the hard-headed net assessment must be that Trump has so far had huge success in his trade war with Beijing.

Trump’s actions and words have already resulted in a significant diversion of supply chains away from China, especially in hi-tech areas. They have also resulted in significant diversion of foreign investment and manufacturing facilities to other destinations such as Vietnam. Trump has also produced a pretty much global consensus, even among his enemies and critics, that Beijing’s actions in trade, cyber theft, etc are unacceptable. He has comprehensively convinced the American public and his political opponents, the Democrats, of this.

As unpopular as Trump is, he has therefore been much more effective in mobilising strategic public opinion on China than Barack Obama ever was.

It is also the case that Chinese economic growth has slowed markedly in the face of Trump’s actions. Trump has imposed a price on Beijing for its behaviour, again in a way that Obama never did.