China signals that the “one country two systems” agreement is no longer acceptable and it is time for Hong Kong to lose the privileges it has been enjoying since its handover by the British in 1985
There are periods of great change in history; periods of realignment of human affairs when the new winners and new losers are chosen. Who chooses them? They themselves do, of course. There are cultures, nations, countries, ethnicities, and religions that choose to win and those that choose to lose. The choice to win is by far the harder one because it requires both tremendous sacrifice and relentless ruthlessness. Losing is always the default choice. It is also the ultimate self-indulgence because the loser generation takes it upon itself to be the last in a glorious line on winning ones, often dating back many centuries. The loser generation abdicates the responsibility handed down to it by its predecessors, brings to naught their achievements, and scorns at their sacrifice of both blood and treasure.
We have been living in a period of change since the fall of the USSR in 1991. The generation of Russians who ran that country back then was the first loser generation of the new realignment period, the one that is now rapidly approaching its crescendo. That generation surrendered a powerful country built upon the incredible sacrifice of their grandfathers and grandmothers to kleptomaniacs and mountebanks for no reason whatsoever. The vacuum left behind by the Russian losers created an opportunity for the generation of Americans then at their prime to seize the day and complete the victory that their own grandfathers and grandmothers fought so valiantly for in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Alas, that generation of Americans never stepped up to the plate. Unwilling to make even a small fraction of the sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation, they sat back in the Lazy Boys and tuned into a show about nothing on their boob tubes. Surprising themselves by having been handed a victory in the Cold War, they refused to press their advantage, choosing instead to harvest the “peace dividend”, decimate America’s military might, sink into ever deepening cesspools of moral depravity, and leave the battlefield for global dominance open to whomever wished to vie for it.
Truth be told, the world today is such a mess, the problems it is facing so unprecedented in scope that not many credible contestants are stepping up to the ring. On the margins, a new generation of ethno-states is emerging in places like Eastern Europe and Israel. Brazil and India of BRIC fame are trying to advance their respective fortunes in the newly fluid arena of world affairs. Russia is making a bid to recapture the glory days of its long gone empire, but the blow it dealt itself in 1917 when it annihilated its own elites with extreme prejudice is likely to prove a fatal one. Pan-national Islam led by the Iranian mullahs is attempting to lead the world into an age of neo-theocratic rule, but that effort is bound for failure. This leaves only one country, one nation, one political entity with any credibility for the job: China.
Regardless of its vast size and even bigger population, China is far from the obvious choice for world leadership. Early in the 15th century, a large Chinese fleet under the able command of admiral Zeng He explored the Indian Ocean past India and all the way to Africa. Apparently, the Chinese mandarins were unimpressed by the world outside of the Middle Kingdom, since they discontinued these voyages of discovery just as Europe was getting started on their own. This was a classic loser move and it led directly to China being drugged and carved up by Europeans four centuries later. Today, but one “souvenir” remains of that loser past and its name is Hong Kong.
While since the British handover in 1985 Hong Kong is more part of China than Taiwan, the two provinces cannot be put in the same category. Taiwan was an island of little importance populated primarily by native Polynesian people until it became the final refuge of the defeated armies of General Chang Kai Shek in the late 1940’s. As far as China is concerned, Taiwan is a rebellious province, but it had never been colonized by Europeans (though the Portuguese had an early presence there giving it the name Formosa) and as such its fate is an internal Chinese affair. Hong Kong is a totally different matter. A strategically important island and peninsula, it was extracted by the British at gunpoint from weak and feckless imperial China in the 1840’s, placing it under British rule for over 140 years. Even Chairman Mao demurred from taking the territory by force of arms, though he undoubtedly could have, preferring to use it as the one place where communist China and the West could do business.
Having been to Hong Kong many times on business, I grew to know it quite well. It is a unique place with a unique culture that is mainly Chinese, but also part British. Most prestigious high schools and nearly all universities use English as the language of instruction rather than the native Cantonese or the official Mandarin. People are given English middle names, of which they seem to be quite proud. I could enter Hong Kong with my American passport without a visa, while the same could not be said about China proper. The air in Hong Kong often strays far from its name of Fragrant Harbor, which dates back to its fame as a manufacturer of sandalwood products, but it is always free.
Through its Belt and Road initiative, through its massive military build-up, through its foreign “aid” with multiple strings attached, even through the massive outpouring of Chinese emigrants to all quarters of the world, China is signaling that it is not about to repeat its 15th century error and sit out this rare opportunity to seize global leadership. But it cannot do so, it cannot present itself as a credible contestant, until the last blemish of colonialism is removed and the special status granted Hong Kong during the negotiations with Great Britain is eliminated. This is the background to the recent move by China to force the extradition of felons including people charged with political crimes who have fled to Hong Kong back to mainland China. The Chinese leadership is signaling that they will no longer abide by the fundamental terms of their agreement with Britain, with its “one country two systems” motto. A world leader, a great superpower cannot accept any part of its territory enjoying special privileges that derive from its colonization by another superpower, especially one that has long since departed the world stage except as a German vassal state within the confines of the European Union.
There will be, needless to say, demonstrations, marches, protestations, diplomatic hand-wringing, but to no avail. President Xi has recently informed his people that they are about to embark on a new Long March, a new odyssey of hardship and sacrifice, one that Xi firmly believes is absolutely required to solidify the hard-won independence and financial gains that were secured by the original Long March in 1935. Chinese have long interpreted the fall of the USSR, once their mentor and leader in the communist world as the result of weakness, as being wobbly at the knees, unwilling to demonstrate the ruthlessness that is required from superpowers contending for global dominance. This is a mistake China is not about to emulate.
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