Misunderstood China, from a Chinese-Canadian contrarian

Diplomacy is dead—between China and the US. When US agents broke down the doors of the Chinese consulate in Houston, all pretences of diplomatic nicety vanished.

These days, when America opens its mouth, it is to insult, vilify and lash out at China. In the good old days, America used to adopt a “stick and carrot” approach to China. Now, it is all stick.

What exactly has China done to deserve this fire and fury?

Frankly, the world is getting sanctions fatigue, trade war fatigue and China-bashing fatigue. In fact, China-scapegoating is becoming a game of diminishing returns; it is just red meat for Trump’s base
While America is busy making trouble everywhere, China has been busy making money, and the US suddenly gets spooked by the size of the China Dream.

The US wants the world to believe China’s dream is the world’s nightmare, that it is the free world against communist China.

The depth of America’s willful ignorance is frightening. Today’s China is not the China of the Cultural Revolution or even of 1989. Yes, China has made its share of mistakes (which country hasn’t ?). But after 40 years of economic open-door policy, China is an utterly transformed country. China is not Cuba or North Korea or even socialist Venezuela. It is governed collectively and rationally like a giant corporation where efficiency prevails.

If you judge by the results, China is better run than many Western democracies—just look at divided America and directionless Britain. In fact, Trump has so thoroughly discredited democracy with his boasts about grabbing women’s genitalia and clocking up lies at the rate of over 20 per day in office, that we have the right to wonder: where are the checks and balances promised in the system?

America is making a fatal miscalculation. If you want to take on your enemy, you should at least take his measure. They are treating China and the Chinese government as one entity, minus its people. But if you live in China, you will see that there are no cracks in national unity. After all, 750 million of them have been lifted out of poverty by their government.

These days, the Chinese are shoppers, buyers of Mercedes Benz, lovers of LV and globe-trotting, cash-splashing travellers. They are no longer the gun-toting, book-burning revolutionaries of old. It shows you how dangerously outdated America’s knowledge of the country is.

I often marvel at the economic energies of the Chinese people. They are pure economic animals. They want respect, not domination. They flaunt their economic clout, but seldom flex their military muscle. China’s wars are wars of defence; her intentions in the South China Sea are to protect its freedom of navigation in this region for its vital commerce. Unlike America, China doesn’t do regime change.

There is one fact the Americans cannot ignore: The Chinese have never had it so good. It is producing billionaires faster than anywhere else in the world. Zhou Qin-Fei is a female entrepreneur from a dirt-poor family and left school at 15 to work at a factory where she remained on the assembly line for 8 years until she struck out to start her own business. After 30 years of blood, sweat and tears, she is today the founder and CEO of a tech company. Her net worth is estimated at $9.5 billion US. Behind every Chinese business success story is a flesh-and-blood human being, not a faceless government establishment. And do you think they will betray a government that has given them opportunities to succeed? By contrast, there are no such rags-to-riches stories in Cuba or North Korea.

When it comes to the outside world, the Chinese people are at one with their government. America is a divided country, China is not. If you demonize China, you demonize its people.

With each eye-poking provocation, the two world powers inch closer to war.

There are three things the US must know about its enemy.

First, China is the birthplace of Sun Tzu, the world’s most famous military strategist. China fought the US to a standstill at the Korean War when it was dirt-poor. Today, it is prosperous and nuclear-armed. Unlike Iraq, China does have weapons of mass destruction. If the US intends to bomb China back to the Stone Age, China is likely to return the favour. The US limped out of Vietnam not knowing its foe. It will do so again when the fight with China is finished.

Second, China is a country burdened by history, with the Hundred Years of Humiliation hovering over them. Peaceful rise, yes, but it is determined never to be humiliated again, over Taiwan or Hong Kong.

Third, if the war is purely economic, remember that China is so large and populous that it will thrive on domestic consumption alone. There are signs that China is now being turned economically inwards. China has kept the cost of living low for America and the rest of the world. Expect hyperinflation when Chinese manufactured goods no longer reach Western markets. Besides, who’s going to buy America’s pork, corn or soya beans?

Trump’s all-out war against China is doing it a big domestic favour, by uniting the people solidly behind their government. What does America gain by taking on one-sixth of the planet’s human population?

I am not saying that China is a perfect country. No country is. China is accused of human rights violations in Xinjiang. I don’t know enough about the situation there to comment intelligently on it. But I do know two things: One, Chinese cities have been spared terrorist attacks in recent years, unlike Boston, New York, Paris or London. And two, if you accuse China of genocide, then you must first explain why this ethnic minority is exempted from China’s strict one-child policy, to allow its population to reproduce quickly.

As for the US, why doesn’t it close its Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp where suspects are detained indefinitely and subjected to torture? Why detain children of illegal immigrants? They are dying or sick and separated from their parents at the border. What’s happened to their human rights? And what about America’s use of waterboarding as a torture technique? Before you work up your righteous indignation, please clean up your own act, in your own backyard.

If there is one issue that unites the West against China, it is over its enactment of National Security Law for Hong Kong. This partly speaks to Hong Kong’s popularity as a world city. But this Hollywood nostalgia disguises a dark fact. The place has been misgoverned for 23 years. City officials are living in a bubble, protected by perks, privileges and the world’s most generous pensions, with ridiculous education allowances that let them send their kids to Britain or other overseas destinations for education at public expense, with each family enjoying 5 air-tickets per year. Officials have completely deserted the public school system. They did nothing to prepare the young for the handover of sovereignty to China, teaching them no Chinese history, such that China remains a total stranger to those born after 1997.

In short, Hong Kong has never been successfully decolonized, unlike Macau which is enjoying peace and prosperity without officials spoiled by ridiculous special privileges. City officials are just marking time while collecting their largess. It is downright criminal.

There are some disturbing statistics. Of the nearly 9000 arrested in the past year during the street riots, over 30% are students, more than half of them high school students and even primary school pupils. If you ask them what the so-called five demands they are fighting for, they can’t tell you. Yet they have gone on the rampage, terrorizing non-protestors, trashing universities, shops and even Beijing’s office in the city. The burning and violence went on for nine months. Beijing stood by and did nothing.

Would Washington or London have shown the same restraint? Trump would have sent in the federal troops on the first sign of trouble.

The West has never willingly recognized China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong. They embrace two systems, but they forget there is one country. Beijing gave Hong Kong 23 years to enact its own national security law, but unlike Macau, it never did. In the meantime, someone must explain why the US consulate in Hong Kong has a staff of well over a thousand. What do they do in the city? I think you know what the answer is.

Throughout, Hong Kong people are free to take to the streets and call for the downfall of the communist party. On average, there are 19 protests a day. It is a city in chaos. A city of little hope for the young, despite its glittering skyscrapers. There is no universal pension. No unemployment insurance, no inheritance tax for the rich, no rent control for the poor. It has become the world’s most unaffordable city, thanks to property prices artificially driven sky-high by developer-favouring policies. It is a totally misgoverned city, but poor Beijing is getting the blame. People outside know little other than what the biased Western press has fed them.

There is a quick solution to the Hong Kong mess: revoke all the special perks and privileges enjoyed by officials whose family members all hold foreign passports. They lack commitment and empathy. They are unfit to govern. This is the root of Hong Kong’s problem. Beijing’s fault is in giving them too long a leash, religiously respecting the two-systems concept and allowing incompetent and heartless locals to run the place. As Sir David Aker-Jones, the former number two in the colonial government said before he died: “I wish Beijing would simply send someone able to run Hong Kong, just like Britain did before 1997.”

There is no doubt Beijing is losing the propaganda war. Does it have a global image problem ? I guess it does. This is because its spokespersons are often tied to a script, and have never learned to speak the language of the West. Telling America or Britain to stop meddling in China’s “internal affairs” over Hong Kong falls on deaf ears. They should learn to use humor, irony or other subtle forms of rebuttal. They should learn from Chester Ronning, Canada’s China-born ambassador to China. When his political opponent accused him of growing up on the milk of a Chinese milk mother, implying that he had Chinese blood in his veins, Ronning retorted, “but my opponent grew up on cow milk.” And when an Iraqi reporter threw two shoes in succession at George W Bush, missing both times, the US President deadpanned: “I think it’s a size 10.”
China needs professional assistance of lobbyists to argue its case, instead of relying on its citizens to do the job, leaving them open to the charge of espionage, as recently happened in Australia.

China’s misfortune is that the world will not let it forget its past. They have never outgrown their preconceptions. Forty years after its economic opening up, China is still seen as an old-fashioned communist country. China may have learned to trade with the West or talk technology with it, but it has yet to learn to speak English persuasively or authentically. A global power needs three things: hard military power, economic clout plus the soft power of diplomacy and communication. In the information age, words may matter just as much as guns and dollars.

China has failed to argue its case over Hong Kong, and the West has chosen to see this misgoverned city as an underdog bullied by Beijing. The truth is that America has brilliantly leveraged the Hong Kong mess to help the Taiwan separatist president win re-election and tarnish China’s global reputation. America has successfully parlayed the twin story of a misunderstood country and a misgoverned city into a false narrative that has found legs around the world.

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Philip Yeung is a former speech-writer to the president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and currently a freelance speech-writer and ghostwriter to local civic and government leaders. He is a guest lecturer at various tertiary institutions in Hong Kong and mainland China on public speaking and academic writing. He was educated at the University of Toronto.

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