What Kind of Periphery Does China Want?
I contributed the following to China File on Hong Kong’s recent protests and its relationship with China. The full discussion can be found here
What defines China? This month’s massive protests in Hong Kong, whose triumphant return from colonial rule to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 only put off the ultimate question of what happens in 2047 after the expiry of the “one country, two systems” promise, brings that question into stark focus.
With a quarter of Hong Kong’s population in the street displaying pure distrust of China’s legal system and rampant antipathy to the Communist Party and its rule, it must be clear to Beijing that there simply won’t be a smooth slide from “a high degree of autonomy” into being just a second- or third-tier Chinese city. Something will eventually have to be clarified.
Beijing politically, doctrinally, and emotionally can’t and won’t look at geographically peripheral areas like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang as anything but inseparable parts of China. But what does that mean in terms of practical and pragmatic policies?
The Xinjiang answer, where authority is stamped on a people and a place with the draconian force of surveillance, repression, mass detention, and fear, is one model. It has been effective for China; its authority is clear, there’s a fearful calm, and the international community is largely muted. But Beijing must know the confluence of forces that has allowed it to have its way in its far west—the potent “anti-terrorism card,” the remoteness, the lack of regular international media scrutiny, and the ugly Islamophobia shared at least on some levels by many other governments—won’t be replicated in Hong Kong or Taiwan.
Its need for continued economic growth through Western trade and investment is also far more dependent on Hong Kong and to a lesser extent Taiwan than Xinjiang. That very need for growth sets up the conundrum, however. China’s dream of a powerful “Greater Bay Area,” with Hong Kong as one key shining star in a glittering south China conurbation of 70 million people depends on further and greater integration—integration that Hong Kong’s people showed with their passion, prayers, tears, and unity is not a dream shared on both sides of the border.
The most positive result from Beijing’s point of view is to continue the various forms of compromise that have served it well so far. In Xinjiang, the world community will fudge its principles of human rights. In Taiwan, some form of the “let’s agree to disagree on what being part of one China means” fudge will serve the pragmatists on the island and on the mainland well, even if many of the Taiwanese themselves and hawks within China’s military and Party each push for more clarity (though, of course, demanding very different results).
And in Hong Kong, the powerful push for stability, financial clarity, and freedom from bother and tumult which has motivated the territory’s elites for many decades will win out again, until the 2047 deadline for clarifying and changing the status comes too close to ignore.
But by that time, perhaps China, and the world too, will be very different.