In celebration of the sixth plenum of the 19th central committee earlier this month, the Chinese Communist party published yet another history of its own glorious achievements. Many pages were devoted to the wise, indeed infallible leadership of the present incumbent, Xi Jinping. Chairman Xi sets considerable store by both territorial integrity and, as he might put it, the righting of past wrongs. In that catalogue, the unequal treaty by which Britain acquired what was seen in the 19th century as an unpromisingly barren rock just off the south coast of China loomed large.
The unappealing rock, lacking in almost every natural resource beyond a deep and safe harbour, was to grow into one of the world’s most dynamic and prosperous societies. That Hong Kong flourished as much as it did under British colonial rule was in no small measure thanks to China: proximity, of course, allowed Hong Kong to play its critical role as intermediary between China and the world of global trading, finance and investment. But proximity also allowed Hong Kong to benefit from the talent and energy of the millions of people who fled China, beginning in 1949, when the CCP’s victory in China’s civil war triggered the exodus of some 100,000 people a day. When, in 1950, numbers reached 3 million, the Hong Kong government reluctantly closed the border. The refugee flow continued through the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward in the late 50s and of the Cultural Revolution in the 60s, despite the best efforts of Beijing to persuade its citizens that life was better in the People’s Republic.
That particular CCP contribution to Hong Kong’s success is unlikely to figure in the party’s official histories, but it did figure, as Michael Sheridan relates in his compendious new history of this unique colony, in the formation of Deng Xiaoping’s strategy to revive China’s desperate fortunes after 30 years of Maoist revolution. In a telling episode, Sheridan details the first visit of Chinese officials to Hong Kong in 1977, from then poverty-stricken China. What they learned there, which included the startling contrast between Hong Kong’s US$19.6bn in trade and the US$14.8bn for all of China, informed Deng’s policy of opening to the world, beginning with the first “special economic zone” in Shenzhen, just over the border.
The lure of Hong Kong for China’s impoverished citizens also made a deep impression on Xi Zhongxun, then party secretary of Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong. In 1978, on a tour of inspection that took him to the border area, he came face to face with a startling phenomenon: the fields on the Chinese side were neglected as people tried desperately to cross a border that was also a poverty line. Rather than punish the would-be fugitives, he concluded, the party needed to attend to their poverty.
By the time his son, Xi, achieved supreme power in China in 2012, the party could claim, with justice, to have addressed that problem. The contrast then between a Hong Kong formally returned to China but still enjoying relative autonomy under the terms of the agreement negotiated between Margaret Thatcher and Deng was less the difference in wealth and, rather, the political, personal and cultural freedoms that Hong Kong enjoyed. Its young people wanted more. Xi’s response to that has been played out in full view over the past two years.
Hong Kong’s story is full of drama, politics and personalities and Sheridan tells it well, drawing from a wide variety of Chinese and British sources. There are lessons for today in his account of the negotiations between the UK and China on Hong Kong’s future: a strategic approach on the Chinese side facing warring factions on the British side. The last governor, Chris Patten, tried to lock in a wider franchise before the 1997 handover. Hong Kong’s business elite was hostile, as indeed, as Sheridan describes, was Percy Cradock, former ambassador to Beijng and later Margaret Thatcher’s national security adviser. Cradock had written what he called Cradock’s first law of diplomacy, which said that “it is not the other side you need to worry about, but your own”. He became the embodiment of his aphorism in 1993, when he privately briefed the Chinese side on the British negotiating position in order to undermine Patten.
Deng transformed the material fortunes of the PRC, but China’s new middle-class aspirations for a more open society became a casualty of Xi’s formula of a firmer party grip on this complex society. An intense, grievance-fuelled nationalism is the party’s preferred narrative for a new era of strategic confrontation. In Hong Kong, that struggle did take place, as Sheridan puts it, over “political power, wealth, identity, data, freedom and conformity”. It was enacted on the streets of Hong Kong over the best part of a decade, as China’s leaders sought a de facto revision of the promise of the joint agreement and Hong Kong’s citizens pushed for its full enactment.
One consequence of China’s actions in Hong Kong, as well as its repression in Xinjiang and its hostility to closer scrutiny of the origins of the global pandemic, is that polling returns show unprecedented levels of mistrust and disapproval of China in liberal democracies. What, then, counts as success for Xi’s diplomacy and what lessons can we find in Elizabeth C Economy’s new book on China’s global posture and intentions?
Economy is a veteran China watcher and had been engaged in constructive dialogue and cooperation with China for decades. Today, however, as she details, new battle lines have been drawn and they are not reassuring: China has leveraged the pandemic to advance its own interests through vaccine diplomacy and strategic exploitation of its near monopoly of essential medical supplies. While Xi’s repressive policies at home have triggered coordinated international economic sanctions and the failure of a key economic agreement with the EU, China’s largest trading partner, the country seems ready to bear the cost.
China increasingly uses the coercive power of its economic power to impose censorship in other countries of views of its history and politics that do not chime with the party’s own accounts. At home, this is called “guiding public opinion”. Abroad, it is a bold attempt at discourse control, the effort to impose a single narrative on the world about China’s politics, personalities and the exercise of its power and to reshape global institutions to fit that narrative and buttress China’s influence.
Economy details China’s efforts to place its candidates in key international positions, a process that involves unabashed lobbying, threats to block export contracts or promises of debt cancellation to win votes. China’s efforts to reshape multilateral institutions are broad and systematic and have been assisted by the neglect or hostility of recent US administrations to the UN and all its works.
Instead of a US-dominated world order, Economy argues that China now sees a resurgent nation spreading its values, trade and technologies through its “belt and road initiative”; the dominant power in an Asia from which the US has been forced, in the near future, to retreat.
She does not argue that success is inevitable, seeing the competition between the US and China as one of the norms that should underpin the prosperous and peaceful world that both powers desire. Today, it is not hard to find people in Hong Kong who will argue that stability and prosperity have been restored by the draconian imposition of the national security law, assigning no worth to what has been lost. The wider global challenge, as Economy frames it, is not dissimilar. One lesson from both these books is that without a consistent and sometimes costly commitment to the values that liberal democracies proclaim, the game will not go well.
Isabel Hilton is founder and senior adviser at chinadialogue.net
The Gate to China: A New History of the People’s Republic and Hong Kong by Michael Sheridan is published by William Collins (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply