End of Hong Kong means 3 systems, not 2

In a 1992 speech in Fulton, Missouri, Mikhail Gorbachev stated ‘Humanity is at the major turning point. We live in a watershed era. One epoch has ended, and a second one is

commencing and no one yet knows how concrete it will be’. He was right then, and if the speech were given today, these words would also ring true.

The fall of communism was the key event in catalyzing globalization. It was the bookend that opened up new trends that saw the flow of people, money, commerce and importantly, of ideas and cultures. In particular, the fall of communism led to a sharp rise in the creation of new countries (some 34 have been created since 1990), and in the spread of democracy (between 1988 and 2005 the proportion of countries classified as Free rose from 36 to 46% globally according to Freedom House).

Since the fall of communism, the ripple of globalization through the world has lifted billions out of poverty and spawned new technologies. This great period in world history is now at an end, decisively crashed by the coronavirus crisis, having already atrophied in the face of rising indebtedness, trade wars and the vandalization of international institutions by populist leaders. Now, with deadly and decisive timing, the bookend that closes the period of globalization is the subsuming of Hong Kong.

The introduction of new, harsh security laws in contravention of the process of the Basic Law, will severely curb the identity and livelihood of one of the world’s unique cities. Hong Kong played a role in the first wave of globalization in the 19th century and has been prominent in the recent one.

The import of the likely end of Hong Kong’s ‘two systems’ is that at a much greater level it marks the arrival of ‘three systems’, or what I call a multipolar world dominated by the US, China and Europe.

China has acted to hush Hong Kong because of the threat that protests pose to the Communist Party in China (and the position of Xi Jinping), and also because, with the West in disarray, China is in a relatively powerful position. The potential significance of China risking Hong Kong’s role as an international financial portal is that it has decided that the time is come for Shanghai, Shenzen and the Greater Bay Area to become China’s financial hub. This is bad news for those in Hong Kong who think that the economy will continue to thrive in the light of the new security laws.

As such this may mark a move away from an approach that seeks to integrate China with international financial markets, and toward one that deepens China’s markets in the Chinese ‘way’, so that they are overseen by Chinese rather than Western corporate governance rules. China has notably already made this transition in its treatment of the internet.

China’s effective ending of ‘two systems’ in Hong Kong also comes at a time when friction is rising in its interaction with democracies – especially India and Australia (both of whom are members of the QUAD defense grouping with the US and Japan).

Elsewhere China’s assertiveness means that the US and the EU will have to become more singular. Europe (EU) will in my view, soon force its member states to adhere more consistently to its values (Hungary and less so Poland here) and is beginning to make a move towards a greater fiscal role for Brussels.

It is also worth noting that the exit of Britain from the EU is consistent with the end of common law in Hong Kong in that both events underline the decline of Britain’s role in the world and the degeneration of political leadership in England.

That leaves the US. If Gorbachev saw the US today he would likely not be surprised that it has so far retained its military and financial dominance, but by the same token, not astounded that it has failed to harness the benefits of globalization for all Americans.

With the benefit of a few years in the Kremlin, Gorbachev might even remark that the coronavirus has hit the US in all of its weak points – the labour market, inequality and healthcare. To that end the American response to what is happening in Asia, and to the rise of the Chinese ‘Leviathan’ like model, must be to strengthen its own economy, society and institutions, and not to weaken them as President Trump is doing. Leaving the World Health Organization is a strange way for America to help the people of Hong Kong.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

A World of Patriots and Dreamers

China marching on, obstacles ahead

Last week’s UN General Assembly reflected a number of emerging trends – the miring of public life in older democracies (US and the UK) in banality and controversy, and the flourishing of climate change as a mainstream political issue, are just two.

These trends are part of the fracturing of the old-world order, and pointers as to where the new order may lie. Underlying each of them is the contentious issue of how political debate is conducted.

One striking statement at the UN was President Trump’s remark that ‘The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots’. Practically, coming from the leader of the world’s superpower it is another nail in the coffin of globalization, in addition to being an embarrassing conflation of the meaning of nationalism with patriotism.

One of the ironies in Trump’s many grand statements is the way they echo in China. In fact, China is well ahead of Trump in conceiving of how to put the ‘country ahead of the global’. A memorable example was the 2017 World Economic Forum when the Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a speech that claimed the mantle of globalization for China (from the USA).

The curious aspect of this is that while China is a large spigot in the world economy, it is one of the least globalized countries in the world (it ranks in the bottom quarter of nations according to my own measure of globalization). In his own way, Trump is reacting to this, but his crude view of China does not do justice to its history nor the amplitude of its ambition.

Well before MAGA (Make America Great Again) Xi Jinping coined the term ‘China Dream’ in a speech when visiting the National Museum of China in November 2012, having taken the office of general secretary of the Communist Party. The 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic which occurs next Tuesday 1st October, will bring this into sharper focus.

China’s view of itself in the future, or the Chinese Dream, is colored by past generations of economic and cultural greatness. Recall that at the time of the Founding Fathers, the United States was but an emerging, even frontier economy and that at that time China accounted for nearly 40 percent of the world economy. By 1950, 150 years later, America made up a third of world economy, and China’s share had shrunk to 10 percent.

Given this backdrop China wants to elevate itself to a position of economic power (perhaps regional dominance) and of policy power in Asia with its own regionally relevant rule-based order so that it is, at the very least, not subject to the domination of Western countries and institutions (the film Amazing China, to be found on Youtube,gives a sense of this and of what is ahead).

China’s rise over the past thirty years has not been given enough credit by commentators and politicians in the West. Few of them are really curious about Chinese history and the Chinese approach to economics, politics and society. Mike Pence’s speech to the Hudson Institute last October was a sign of this, and one of the great challenges China will face in coming years is the realization in Washington and Brussels that China is pulling level with them in some domains.

Looking ahead, the great risk for China is that the ‘Dream’ runs out of momentum, economically in that growth slows, and politically in that people in China question a model that exchanges liberty for stability. The underlying risk is that not having experienced a formal recession in close to twenty years there is a great deal of inefficient capacity built up in China and that a downturn will expose this. If it does, rising unemployment will create a new political challenge for the all-powerful Xi Jinping.

In this respect, the manner in which China manages the protests in Hong Kong will provide a clue as to how the Communist Party will manage emerging political challenges. A physical, confrontational approach will open up many risks – political contagion, sanctions on the Hong Kong economy and a loss of soft power. A more drawn out approach that contests the legitimacy of the ‘two systems’ and that penalizes locals in Hong Kong by slowing the local economy may well dampen the crisis from a Chinese perspective. It must then confront the tenor of elections in Taiwan in early 2020.

Political volatility is thought to be the preserve of the West. One of the great surprises of the early 2020’s may be the way it spreads across emerging countries, with China as no exception.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike