Communist China, which over the last 20 years became a wealthy global economy without the Communist Party yielding an inch of political power, has decided it is time to reabsorb Hong Kong. This is the former British colony that 1980s Foreign Office negotiators foolishly decided had to be returned entirely to China, meanwhile deceiving Margaret Thatcher. In fact, only the “New Territories”, on a 99-year lease, had to be returned to China by treaty. However, Britain’s FCO mandarins (that word might suggest who they identified with) felt this was “unrealistic”, so offered the whole colony, claiming China would honour Hong Kong’s quasi-independence as a “differently-run society.
Now the People’s Republic of China (PRC), fresh from its recent (probably accidental) triumph of wrecking economies worldwide with a (possibly lab-tweaked) bat virus, is getting increasingly heavy-handed. Yesterday (May 26th) Chinese troops scuffled with Indian soldiers. There were a couple of small wars on this frontier in the 1960s but small wars between large nations are not trivial.
China has been buying up bits of Australia, and an anti-Chinese activist was threatened with expulsion from the University of Queensland for criticising the mighty PRC, benign provider of research funding.
US security agencies are reporting vast systematic Chinese thieving of industrial, scientific, and computing secrets from US universities.
In step with all this, a clearly long-planned re-absorption of the infuriatingly successful non-Chinese-ruled bit of China, Hong Kong, is now under way. Under British governance it went from sleepy fishing port to one of the world’s great trading cities.
A ‘Security Law’ is being passed to make Hong Kong no longer a “separate society”, but one firmly subservient to Peking’s Central Committee. People in Hong Kong estimate 2 months before the former colony’s independent lifestyle is snuffed out – probably mid-2020, around late July.
It’s hard to exaggerate Peking’s rage at the one mainland city with something resembling free speech. Five people who worked at a bookseller in Hong Kong which stocked books criticising communist China vanished during 2015. Two resurfaced in mainland PRC, having seemingly crossed the border without documents, strongly suggesting abduction by some PRC secret-police group. One later said he was kidnapped by the ‘Central Case Examination Group’: a secretive agency reporting to the communist party Politburo. They trace opponents of China’s government since the 1966 Cultural Revolution.
What can be done? Strangely enough, all is not lost. At least – not yet.
China’s military now has a powerful navy, world-class electronic & cryptographic skills, an enormous army, bio-weapons expertise, and lots of money. Britain is down to one aircraft carrier so direct confrontation with the behemoth, however fragile, is out. As it happens, the PRC is fragile, hence the recent rush to throw its weight around while the rest of the world is distracted. Nonetheless, the predictable collapse of the PRC economy (another discussion) might be years away, and cannot be counted on to save Hong Kong.
Peking’s vulnerability is its extreme prickliness about independent Taiwan (full name Republic of China).
This is a separate state founded by Mao’s major opponent in the 1940s, Chiang Kai-shek. Once ruler of China, Chiang made the mistake of exhausting his military strength fighting Japanese occupiers during World War 2, only to find that Mao, during his famous Long March, had built up a massive army. The Long March was a brilliant ruse straight out of Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’, a handbook of military strategy from the 6th century BC. Mao made his troops visible in remote areas, creating the appearance of resistance to Japan by permanently touring his force province to province. He assiduously avoided battle with Japanese occupiers, built its popularity in distant regions of the vast country, and left Chiang the burdensome task of actually fighting Japan’s well-equipped modern army. Sun Tzu’s military intelligence shines across the gap of 2,500 years through such Maoist remarks as “when the enemy retreats, we attack, when the enemy attacks, we retreat.” Shrewdly, Mao created a big army that most Chinese identified with (in much of the country, Mao’s was the only force the locals ever saw), avoided fighting the Japanese occupiers, avoided fighting Chiang Kai-Shek, yet with repeated attack-then-retreat tactics sapped energy from the other two armies.
When the dust cleared in 1945, Japan suddenly surrendered to the US after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic devices were dropped. Chiang found himself outgunned by Mao. Only by leaving the mainland and occupying the island of Formosa (now Taiwan) could his government survive. Since Richard Nixon and Edward Heath began rapprochement with Peking in the 1970s, Taiwan has been losing a quiet diplomatic struggle. Ever-fewer countries recognise it as a separate country – despite it having a more sophisticated economy than the PRC, and something closer to a functioning democracy. Peking demands that any of its trading partners de-recognise Taiwan, recognise only the PRC – otherwise trade with the mercantilist giant of mainland China gets obstructed.
Hopeless as this might sound, what’s important to grasp is that this really really matters to the Chinese Communist Party.
They want the whole world’s agreement that Taiwan is not (despite appearances) a state, but a “rebel province”. They have spent decades whittling away at the list of countries that still recognise Taiwan, the ROC, as a sovereign nation.
This tells us two things. This topic is hugely important to Peking. And yet the PRC has still not chanced US anger by invading the ROC. Taiwan might last only hours in conflict, or perhaps a few days, but the outcome is not in doubt. So why have they not tried already?
In the South China Sea Spratly Islands, Peking is building up coral reefs, even building new islands from concrete, to lay claim to an important stretch of international (but not-for-long) waters. A typical slow, incremental creep to control its near-abroad – yet still no outright attack on the ROC.
Were one major country to recognise Taiwan alone, there would of course be anger at once from Peking. However, were two countries to merely talk about recognising the ROC, the PRC would be in a bind. Just imagine that Britain and India both decide to conduct some low-level diplomatic talks with Taiwan. Dire threats from Peking follow: Britain and India must come to heel. Like the recent bullying words when Britain pressed pause on Huawei (a mainland Chinese firm close to the communist military) building the UK’s 5G communications network.
Our response to such threats? Gently upgrade talks with Taipei, capital of the “rebel province” Taiwan.
Which is where things get interesting. Two countries simply discussing recognising the ROC would give Peking indigestion. Link that indigestion to China honouring those promises over Hong Kong it’s breaking now.
Once in discussion, the notion of Taiwanese sovereignty would travel round the world for other worried nations to ponder.
Sly, salami-style power grabs like those of China, stretching over decades, need to happen in the darkness, while the world looks elsewhere. Peking’s obsession with Taiwan will switch on the spotlight.
Mark Griffith is a financial trader whose weblog http://www.otherlanguages.org follows news on artificial intelligence, economics, and other subjects. He is researching a book on how AI will change the way people live.