MINXIN PEI – An interview on China and Hong Kong (Project Syndicate 26-8-2019)

Sep 4, 2019

Many Chinese are deeply conflicted:they may not like the CPC, but they are proud of their country and resent outside criticisms.

Project Syndicate: In your latest PS commentary, you argue that a Tiananmen-style crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong would only make matters worse, rendering the city instantly ungovernable and demolishing a vital bridge between China and the global economy. China’s government would thus be far better off making some concessions. What concessions would be palatable to China’s government and yet succeed in appeasing the people of Hong Kong?

Minxin Pei: Protesters in Hong Kong have made five key demands: withdrawal of the extradition bill (which Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has declared “dead,” but has refused to withdraw formally); an independent investigation of police misconduct; the release of arrested protesters and dismissal of all charges against them; Lam’s resignation; and renewed political reform (leading to direct elections in Hong Kong).

Of these, the first three should be easy to accept because they do not directly challenge the Chinese government’s authority. Lam’s resignation might be less attractive to China, but it is still feasible; someone has to be the fall guy, and she has lost credibility. Political reforms might be too much for China’s government to swallow, but accepting four of the five demands would probably stabilize the situation in Hong Kong almost instantly.

PS: One of the reasons China’s government is loath to succumb to popular pressure in Hong Kong is that it fears that any concessions there would only harden the sentiments of Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has been governing the island since 2016. How might a crackdown in Hong Kong influence events in Taiwan, which is scheduled to hold a presidential election in January?

MP: Major concessions by China’s government to the people in Hong Kong would help to win many hearts and minds in Taiwan, whereas a hardline position gives the DPP more credibility, by exposing the “one country, two systems” model as unreliable. Indeed, a crackdown would help the DPP enormously in the forthcoming elections, by enabling it to turn the election into a referendum on relations with China.

PS: You recently called for a credible public debate in the US on President Donald Trump’s confrontational China policy, which has raised the specter of a decoupling of the world’s two largest economies and even increased the risk of armed conflict. Such a debate, you argued, requires, first and foremost, clarification by the Trump administration of its policy’s ultimate objectives. What should America’s long-term goals be with respect to China, and how should it go about trying to achieve them?

MP: One of the most worrying aspects of the Trump administration’s China policy is that it is not clear what it is designed to accomplish. Some want to “contain” China. But what does that mean? So far, it seems to entail an open-ended conflict, with no measurable indicators of progress. In any case, with China’s growth now driven primarily by domestic factors, achieving that goal would require China to make some serious policy blunders.

In an ideal world, the ultimate goal might be a China that looks more like the West; but that is not realistic. A far more viable long-term objective would be peaceful co-existence and rules-based competition.

The Chinese are realists: they respect strength and know what is in their interests. This means that, while they won’t intentionally escalate a conflict with the US, if they feel that they are under attack, they will defend themselves fiercely. The West would thus do well not to be overly aggressive, even if it means allowing China’s continued rise.

Although a powerful China would pose a significant challenge, a united West – underpinned by a broad-based alliance – would be strong enough to handle it. But that does not mean it would be easy: maintaining such a state of peaceful co-existence would require leaders to sustain a tricky balancing act.

PS: Last year, you observed that the Communist Party of China (CPC) has been repeating two major mistakes that helped to bring down the Soviet Union: an arms race with the US and imperial overreach. More recently, you described how growing intolerance for internal policy disagreements has led to significant missteps by China’s government. Do you anticipate a serious challenge to China’s one-party rule in the foreseeable future? Has President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power made such an outcome more or less likely?

MP: If I had to bet, I would put China on a downward trajectory, because in recent years, most of its successful economic and foreign policies have been replaced with potentially disastrous alternatives. If there is a challenge to China’s one-party rule, it is likely to happen in the second half of the next decade, when the consequences of these policy mistakes become apparent, damaging – even decimating – the CPC’s legitimacy.

In all likelihood, it would be a two-pronged process. First, within the CPC, there would be a challenge to Xi’s authority either at the conclusion of his third term or the beginning of his fourth. This aligns with historical experience: strongmen often start to lose their grip after a decade in power. Second, the Chinese public – fed up by poor economic performance and, more broadly, by the failures and repressions of the one-party regime – would begin to call for change, causing pressure on the weakened regime to build.

PS: China’s spectacular economic growth has made it the envy of developing countries worldwide. Can any of them replicate its success?

MP: In a word, no. China’s economic development was the result of a broad set of factors, including the legacy of the Cultural Revolution (which thoroughly discredited Maoism and forced the CPC to change direction), a millennia-old bureaucratic system, and a one-party regime that can mobilize enormous resources to achieve its goals.

China also benefited from an entrepreneurial and hard-working people eager to create wealth, and from external circumstances – such as rapid globalization and regional economic dynamism (in East Asia) – that would be difficult to replicate elsewhere. Vietnam is the only country I can think of that could have even a small chance of replicating China’s success.

PS: Is there a work of Chinese literature that, in your view, offers insight into the challenges that China is confronting today, and how its leaders are likely to respond to them?

MP: I don’t know of any literature that can help us understand the challenges facing China today. But I would recommend The True Story of Ah Q, by Lu Xun – an episodic novella written in the 1920s that sheds lights on some of China’s enduring cultural characteristics.

PS: What is one thing most outsiders don’t realize about China?

MP: That many Chinese are deeply conflicted: they may not like the CPC, but they are proud of their country and resent outside criticisms.

PS: When it comes to China’s sources of soft power, many would probably point to its cuisine. Are there others?

MP: The Chinese people and their cultural achievements, in art, music, literature, and science.

This article was published by Project Syndicate.

Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of China’s Crony Capitalism

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