It has been said that Xi Jinping is a rational actor — they said that of Vladimir Putin too. The incursions and the unprovoked standoff on India’s borders do not authenticate the perception of Xi Jinping being a rational actor.
For the first time in 29 months, China’s President Xi Jinping stepped out of mainland China this week. His destination: Hong Kong. The occasion: the 25th Anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China. It was a victory lap, a celebration of conquest. Addressing the orchestrated ceremonies Xi Jinping said “Hong Kong has been reborn from the ashes”.
The observation carries the ring of truth. The Hong Kong of the yester years is virtually dead. Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, put it bluntly. “China has catastrophically and comprehensively broken its word on Hong Kong”. In the quarter of a century, every promise has been dismantled brick by brick. Democracy in Hong Kong has been decapitated.
The people of the city were promised that Hong Kong would enjoy autonomy and be governed under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ for 50 years till 2047. In 2019 China enacted a law enabling the extradition of activists from Hong Kong to the mainland. In 2021 it amended election laws compelling contestants to pass the filter of the ‘patriots’ law. In 2022, under Xi Jinping, China has already inducted the 2047 template.
The harsh truth is the guarantees of the guarantors simply didn’t add up to much. In 1992 Mitch McConnell, the Senator from Kentucky, moved the US Hong Kong Policy Act 1992. It “Authorises the President” to suspend the special status conferred on Hong Kong if it was not privileged with a “sufficiently autonomous” administration. The law couldn’t quite deliver in the new millennium.
The threats and sanctions issued by the Trump Administration under the Hong Kong Autonomy Act of 2020 had little effect on China. The United Kingdom, signatory of the Sino-British Treaty of 1984 could at best offer rhetoric and refuge — a five-year visa leading to citizenship to those with British National Overseas status. The bitter reality is that in 1997 China’s GDP was around $ 950 billion. In 2020 it had touched $15 trillion. The leverage presumed in 1997 was simply not there.
In the summer of 1992, McConnell, promoting the virtues of the Hong Kong Policy Act, observed that ‘Economic development undermines central political control, which will bring about the social and political reforms we all want to see in China.’ This articulation symbolises the wishful thinking the West harboured about China for decades. The Chinese view this very expectation of the US, of a change in the political system, as the single biggest threat.
The timing of Xi Jinping’s first outing to Hong Kong merits geopolitical attention. It comes just months before the Chinese President makes his pitch for an indefinite tenure in power. The context is critical. The world, particularly the West, is preoccupied with battling the consequences of the energy and food shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The choice of words — ‘reborn from the ashes’ — is ominous, suggesting the lengths that China may be willing to go to achieve its next goal — the ‘reunification’ of Taiwan.
The certification of Hong Kong reveals the marking of a milestone. Does it signal the pathway to Taiwan? It has been said that Xi Jinping is a rational actor — they said that of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin too before the invasion of Ukraine. The incursions, the unprovoked attacks and the standoff on India’s borders certainly do not authenticate the perception of Xi Jinping being a rational actor.
The hypothesis that China would be cautioned by the global response to the invasion is fragile and countered by the argument that the pre-occupation of the West on one front could be viewed as an opportune moment. The slowdown in China’s economy could preclude the acceleration of plans. Equally, there is the conventional theory that angst at home is best addressed with a greater nationalistic cause. Questions and answers are mired in a minefield of competing compulsions.
Critical to the conflict is the stance of the United States. Its strategic ambiguity rests on neither denying Taiwan is an independent entity nor supporting Taiwan’s independence. US President Joe Biden has compounded confusion with his recent remarks on militarily defending Taiwan if China attacks it. While the White House walked back the remarks saying its position remains unchanged, Biden has moved the needle more than once.
At the recent G7 and NATO meetings on the Ukraine-Russia war, President Biden repeatedly invoked the cliché ‘whatever it takes’ for however long it takes. What is ‘whatever’ when it comes to dealing with China. The QUAD it is still in the making. The freshly minted Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is more an idea and less of a plan with guardrails and guarantees. The potency of sanctions is on test and seemingly inadequate. The global supply chain is effectively the Chinese supply chain. Imports from China play a big role in subduing inflation and propelling growth in G7 economies.
The question the world must find time to address is what it will take to deter China — if and when it moves on Taiwan. Clearly, the presence of Korea and Japan in Madrid underlines the concern about rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region. The cost of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being paid by the poorest in the world. The price of inattention will be humongous. A conflict will split the world order wider than it is now and traumatise billions.
Shankkar Aiyar, political economy analyst, is author of ‘Accidental India’, ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution’ and ‘The Gated Republic –India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions’. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ShankkarAiyar. His previous columns can be found here. This column was first published here.