Celebrating Hong Kong’s Return: Xi Jinping’s Speech

Big celebrations this weekend in Hong Kong, with the 20-year anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China. For some strange reason, corporate media is not making much of the important speech by Xi Jinping, who today is wrapping up a three day visit. The full speech can be found here, but I would like to highlight a few features.

First, the story of Hong Kong is very much part of the story of modern China, moving from the humiliation at the hands of European colonialism to the overcoming of humiliation under the leadership of the CPC. As Xi puts it:

The destiny of Hong Kong has always been intricately bound with that of the motherland. After modern times, with a weak China under corrupt and incompetent feudal rule, the Chinese nation was plunged into deep suffering. In the early 1840s, Britain sent an expeditionary force of a mere 10,000 troops to invade China and got its way in forcing the Qing government, which had an 800,000-strong army, to pay reparations and cede the island of Hong Kong to it. After the Opium War, China was repeatedly defeated by countries which were far smaller in size and population. Kowloon and “New Territories” were forcibly taken away. That page of Chinese history was one of humiliation and sorrow. It was not until the Communist Party of China led the Chinese people to victory in a dauntless and tenacious struggle for national independence and liberation and founded New China that the Chinese people truly stood up and blazed a bright path of socialism with distinctive Chinese features. Thanks to close to four decades of dedicated efforts since the launch of the reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s, we have entered a new era in the development of the Chinese nation.

Further, the role of Deng Xiaoping is crucial, not merely with the reform and opening up (gaige kaifang) from 1978, with its emphasis on the central Marxist feature of unleashing the forces of production under socialism, but also the policy of ‘one country, two systems’.

It was against the historical backdrop of reform and opening-up that Mr. Deng Xiaoping put forward the great vision of “One Country, Two Systems”, which guided China’s diplomatic negotiations with the United Kingdom that led to the successful resolution of the Hong Kong question, an issue that was left over from the past. Twenty years ago today, Hong Kong returned to the embrace of the motherland. This ended past humiliation and marked a major step forward toward the complete reunification of China. Hong Kong’s return to the motherland has gone down as a monumental achievement in the history of the Chinese nation. Hong Kong has since then embarked on a journey of unity and common development with the motherland.

In case you wanted to know about the exact status of Hong Kong in relation to the rest of China, Xi lays it out very clearly:

As a special administrative region directly under the Central Government, Hong Kong has been re-integrated into China’s national governance system since the very day of its return. The Central Government exercises jurisdiction over Hong Hong in accordance with China’s Constitution and the Basic Law of the HKSAR, and corresponding systems and institutions have been set up for the special administrative region. Hong Kong’s ties with the mainland have grown increasingly close, so have its interactions and cooperation with the mainland.

In short, one country, two systems, means that Hong Kong can remain capitalist while the rest of China is socialist. This is also a model for global cooperation.

But they say of Xi Jinping that he is ’round on the outside and square on the inside’ In other words, he is very gentle and understanding in dealing with people, but very tough inside. For example:

To uphold and implement the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” meets the interests of the Hong Kong people, responds to the needs of maintaining Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, serves the fundamental interests of the nation, and meets the shared aspiration of all Chinese. That is why I have made it clear that the Central Government will unswervingly implement the policy of “One Country, Two Systems” and make sure that it is fully applied in Hong Kong without being bent or distorted.

Indeed, as is common in the tradition of leaders of socialist states, a speech also engages in criticism and self-criticism. Of course, there are problems that need to be addressed, such as distorted images among some of Chinese history and culture, public consensus of key political and legal issues, the challenges as Hong Kong loses its economic edge, the pressure on housing and opportunities for young people, and so on.

Let me emphasise these points:

First, in line with the nationalities policy from the 1990s, China’s sovereignty is not negotiable:

“One Country” is like the roots of a tree. For a tree to grow tall and luxuriant, its roots must run deep and strong. The concept of “One Country, Two Systems” was advanced, first and foremost, to realize and uphold national unity. That is why in the negotiations with the United Kingdom, we made it categorically clear that sovereignty is not for negotiation. Now that Hong Kong has returned to China, it is all the more important for us to firmly uphold China’s sovereignty, security and development interests.

Dialectically, this enables the diversity of the ‘two systems’, as embodied in the Constitution:

We must both adhere to the “One Country” principle and respect the differences of the “Two Systems”, both uphold the power of the Central Government and ensure a high degree of autonomy in the HKSAR, both give play to the role of the mainland as a staunch supporter of Hong Kong and enhance Hong Kong’s own competitiveness.

Another aspect of Chinese (and indeed socialist) culture is the simultaneous desire for peace and harmony, as well as the constant process of criticism. At times, this relationship can suffer by focusing on one or the other side too much:

So it comes as no surprise that there are different views and even major differences on some specific issues. However, making everything political or deliberately creating differences and provoking confrontation will not resolve the problems. On the contrary, it can only severely hinder Hong Kong’s economic and social development.

In other words:

Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the Central Government and the authority of the Basic Law of the HKSAR or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible.

As Mao would put it, contradictions are to be expected, but antagonistic contradictions are not acceptable. Or as Xi puts it, invoking a traditional concept: ‘Harmony brings good fortune, while discord leads to misfortune’.

Xi wraps up his speech by invoking key features of CPC policy:

China is now in a decisive phase to finish building a moderately prosperous society in all respects. People of all ethnic groups across the country are engaged in a joint endeavor to realize the Two Centenary Goals and fulfill the Chinese Dream of national renewal. Ensuring the continued success of the practice of “One Country, Two Systems” in Hong Kong is part and parcel of the Chinese Dream.

All the key ideas are here (which I have written about extensively elsewhere). The ‘moderately prosperous society’ (xiaokang shehui) is a key element of Chinese socialism, drawing on a Confucian term, xiaokang. This is expressed in Xi’s signature ‘Chinese Dream’, which has the concrete elements of the two centenary goals. The first is the centenary of the CPC in 2021 and the second is the centenary of the People’s Republic in 2049. During this period the moderately prosperous society through ‘socialist modernisation’, will be achieved, which really means the second stage of socialism. How? Through lifting the remaining people, mostly in western China, out of poverty (700 million have so far been lifted out of poverty since 1978), through gradually bringing about a socialist welfare state (an original invention of socialism), through the Belt and Road Initiative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Asia Infrastructure Development Bank, and – with specific reference to Hong Kong – the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.

So what is Hong Kong to do in light of this? Xi quotes a local saying:

After leaving Suzhou, a traveler will find it hard to get a ride on a boat, meaning an opportunity missed is an opportunity lost.

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United States interference in Hong Kong?

So it seems as though the ‘hybrid Color Revolution-Arab Spring’ template is now at work in Hong Kong. No surprises there. Serbia, Ukraine, Venezuela, Egypt, and so on – they have seen variations on the template, in which Washington outsources its interference and attempted ‘regime change’ to NGOs.

As the People’s Daily astutely points out:

According to media reports, Louisa Greve, a director of the National Endowment for Democracy of the US (NED), was already meeting with the key people from “Occupy Central” several months ago, to talk about the movement. Louisa Greve is the vice-president of NED who is responsible for its Asia, Middle East and North Africa programs. For many years, her name has frequently appeared on reports about “Tibetan independence”, “eastern Turkistan”, “democracy movement” and other forces destabilizing Chinese affairs and interfering with the Chinese government. She also hosted or participated in conferences about the “Arab spring” and the “Color Revolutions” of other regions.

It is hardly likely that the US will admit to manipulating the “Occupy Central” movement, just as it will not admit to manipulating other anti-China forces … The US purports to be promoting the “universal values” of “democracy”, “freedom” and “human rights”, but in reality the US is simply defending its own strategic interests and undermining governments it considers to be “insubordinate”. In US logic, a”democratic” country is one that conducts its affairs in line with American interests.

The results of America’s “Color Revolutions” have hardly been a success. The “Arab spring” turned to be an “Arab winter” and Ukraine’s “street politics” have resulted in secession and conflict. There is little evidence of any real democracy in these countries, but the US turns a blind eye.

I must admit, I am in agreement with that. And just to make matters clear:

The US may enjoy the sweet taste of interfering in other countries’ internal affairs, but on the issue of Hong Kong it stands little chance of overcoming the determination of the Chinese government to maintain stability and prosperity.

Hong Kong: British imperialism by other means

In his ‘Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy’, Losurdo makes an insightful observation on the policy of ex-colonial powers in relation to their former colonies. Hong Kong was, of course, forcefully stolen from China after the first opium war (1839-42), and then ‘returned’ with much reluctance in 1999. Losurdo writes:

Secessionist tendencies of every kind are once again lying in wait, regularly fed by the ex-colonial powers. When it wrested Hong Kong from China, Great Britain certainly did not conceive of self-determination, and it did not remember it [or bourgeois democracy for that matter] even during the long years during which it exercised its dominion. But, suddenly, on the eve of Hong Kong’s return to China, to the motherland, the governor sent by London, Chris Patten, a conservative, had a species of illumination and improvised conversion: he appealed to the inhabitants of Hong Kong to claim their right to “self-determination” against the motherland, thus remaining within the orbit of the British Empire (Lenin Reloaded, p. 249).

You can lay a certain bet that English, and indeed US, influences are at work in Hong Kong at the moment. That said, people in the rest of China say that Hong Kong has become much more Chinese over the last decade or more. That process continues.

Crossing the stream by feeling each stone with one’s feet

How does a socialist state negotiate its way within global capitalism? It feels each stone on the bed of the stream with its feet before proceeding (as Deng Xiaoping out it). Let me give a few examples, drawn from Adrian Chan’s Chinese Marxism. Each of them provides a partial answer as to why China did not suffer any great pain with the Asian Economic Crisis of the late 1990s and now the Atlantic Economic Crisis that began in 2008. (Another part of the answer is, of course, the massive integration of the economy and the government in what some may call a planned economy, but what is perhaps better called a ‘focus-field’ system.)

An indication may be found already back in the early 90s. In 1993, inflation was running at 25%; by 1997 it was 2%. At the same time the economy ‘grew’ by that steady average of 8-9%. How was this managed? Instead of ‘opening’ the economy up to international speculation and competition, China retained control of its currency and the exchange rate, thereby protecting itself from the ravages of the international money market. Even now, the government refuses to make the currency fully convertible – much to the fury of regimes such as the USA. The result is that the state retains fiscal control and yet encourages enterprises, both local and international, to prosper and survive and thereby reduce inflationary pressure.

A similar level of control over the currency took place during the Asian Economic Crisis of the late 1990s. Despite the fact that most of the other currencies in South-East Asia did plummet, and despite the threat of Moody’s to downgrade the credit ratings of China and Hong Kong, the government refused to devalue. Why? One reason put forward was that China was thereby helping the struggling Asian economies to get back on their feet, since their exports were now considerable cheaper. Another reason is that the government was keen to block currency traders and manipulators from attacking its own banks.

Here the successful defence of Hong Kong and China shows how such a policy works. Many Asian countries were attacked by manipulators, forcing the central banks to use their reserves, usually in US dollars, and when they were depleted, to devalue and then be forced to follow the infamous harsh measures of the World Bank and IMF. In August 1997, Hong Kong itself was attacked. China immediately pledged its then considerable reserves of $140 billion (now much higher) to resist. Hong Kong threw in its own $98 billion. The result: after six weeks the attack was called off. The Monetary Authority of Hong Kong, in coalition with the Chinese central bank, had used about $30 billion to defend the Hong Kong dollar. Since that dollar had risen by $0.02, the gain was about $600 million.

Chan concludes: ‘This ability of China’s new socialists to take advantage of the contradictions of the capitalists would probably have been cheered on by Mao’ (p. 200).

Lenin for today: on liberty, bourgeois democracy and colonialism

I have come across a magnificent piece by Domenico Losurdo, called ‘Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy’. Here Losurdo deploys Lenin’s critique of colonialism and Western’ democracy’ to devastating effect. Let me pick out some of the more salient points.

To begin with, in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, we find that ‘despotism is a legitimate mode of dealing with barbarians’, for liberty is only for ‘those in the maturity of their faculties’. As for the rest, they are little superior to the animals. (This is precisely the sentiment of Aristotle in relation to ethics and democracy.) In other words, liberal ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are inseparable from oppression and dispossession; one relies on the other to function.

Losurdo moves on to consider a paradox in the heart of today’s beacon of ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’: liberal democracy developed in the white community in direct relation to the enslaving of blacks and deportation of indigenous peoples. ‘For thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of the United States’ life, slave-owners held the presidency, and they were the ones who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’. Indeed, one cannot understand ‘American liberty’ without slavery and dispossession, for they grew together, one sustaining the other. As a further example, during the so-called ‘Progressive Age’, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous ‘democratic’ reforms took place: direct election to the Senate, secret vote, primaries, referenda etc. They all took place during a rise in ferocity of the Ku Klux Klan terrorist squads and a push to deprive indigenous people of their residual lands and assimilate them. So also with the treatment of ‘rogues’ or ‘pariahs’ outside the USA (‘rogue’ was originally a term used for slaves, and when one had white semi-slaves, they were branded with an ‘R’ to signify their status): once declared a ‘rogue’ or ‘pariah’ state, the ‘world’s oldest democracy’ (Clinton) and ‘model for the world’ (Bush) can crush these ‘barbarians’ (Mill) in order to bolster ‘freedom and democracy’.

One might also compare Israel, suggests Losurdo, supposedly the only ‘true democracy’ in the Middle East, where ‘freedom of expression and association’ exist. But that can be maintained only by ignoring a macroscopic detail: ‘government by law and democratic guarantees are valid only for the master race, while Palestinians can have their lands expropriated, be arrested and imprisoned without process, tortured, killed, and, in any case under a regime of military occupation, have their human dignity downtrodden and humiliated daily’.

And then in a new twist, when fading colonial powers are losing their grip, they suddenly happen upon self-determination for valuable sections of the former colony (which have themselves been ethnically, culturally and religiously engineered). Thus, when England finally had to give Hong Kong back to China, the last governer, Chris Patten, ‘had a species of illumination and improvised conversion: he appealed to the inhabitants of Hong Kong to claim their right to “self-determination” against the motherland, thereby remaining within the orbit of the British Empire’. One might say the same about claims for Tibet’s independence.

Finally, to what do the oft-repeated and much-vaunted claims for ‘human rights’, ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ amount? Losurdo deploys Cecil Rhodes’s formula for the British Empire, which is still perfectly valid today: ‘philanthropy + 5 per cent’, where ‘philanthropy’ is synomous with ‘human rights’ and 5 per cent the profits to be made by waving the flag of ‘human rights’.

Many of these details are reasonably well-known, but the argument is usually one of hypocrisy: they don’t live up to their ideals. But Losurdo, developing Lenin, has a much sharper point. The very possibility of bourgeois ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ is directly dependent upon, and thereby unthinkable and unworkable without, systemic dispossession of the majority – and vice versa.