By making too many concessions to China, the West has given ‘wings to a tiger’
Robert Boxwell says Western investment has helped strengthen a China that seems less interested in human rights than ever
In his 2011 book, On China, Henry Kissinger recounted a discussion between US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) in 1978 as the US and China sought to normalise relations, a rapprochement driven largely by both sides’ desires to check the Soviet Union. Deng chided Brzezinski about US negotiations with the Soviets: “To be candid with you, whenever you are about to conclude an agreement with the Soviet Union it is the product of [a] concession on the US side to please the Soviet side.” It was, according to Kissinger, “a mocking assessment”.
The same could be said for practically every negotiation the West has had with Beijing since; non-stop, predictable concessions, usually in return for promises that don’t arrive. Since Tiananmen Square, Western business interests, drooling over China’s billion people, have hijacked politics, ignoring inconveniences like human rights with a greed-driven insouciance. A few months after taking office in 1993, Bill Clinton pledged to tie the annual renewal of China’s most-favoured-nation trading designation to improvements in human rights. “The core of this policy will be a resolute insistence upon significant progress on human rights in China,” he said to an audience that included student leaders from China alongside business leaders from the US. “Whether I extend MFN next year, however, will depend upon whether China makes significant progress in improving its human rights record.”
Clinton’s “resolute insistence” didn’t last a year. The students left and the business leaders stayed. Human rights became just one of “the full range of US interests in China”, demoted by the money to be made trading with the Tiananmen crowd and their friends. They called it “engagement”. At least back then China’s leaders played along, making vague promises about trying to improve human rights. Today they tell the West to shut up and mind its own business. Two decades of a cheap yuan and millions of migrant workers ballooned both China’s trade surplus and billionaire count. Meanwhile, migrant workers jump off the roofs of factory dormitories. It’s socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Thanks to Western investment and markets, China now has the world’s second-largest economy and largest military, yet doesn’t seem to quite like the rules that got it there. The West helped transform a China that is massively stronger than a generation ago and appears to be less interested in human rights than ever. Watching Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg humiliate himself sucking up to Beijing is watching a rich guy give away something money can’t buy. It’s entertaining, but it’s also a reminder that fools with money and short-term views continue to drive the West’s politics. If you run a tech business in Silicon Valley, you can have a state dinner with Barack Obama and Xi Jinping (習近平). If you run a bookstore in Hong Kong, you can have a state dinner with the guards.
During Brzezinski’s meeting with Deng, foreign minister Huang Hua (黃華) summed up the situation by invoking an old Chinese proverb: “Appeasement of Moscow,” he said, was “like giving wings to a tiger to strengthen it”. Through decades of doing just that with China, Western leaders have given plenty of wings to the tigers in Beijing.
Perhaps no promise was more hopefully accepted than that of “one country, two systems”. When Margaret Thatcher, meeting Deng for the first time, indicated Britain would like to stick around in Hong Kong, the old man set the tone for negotiations by threatening to invade. “I could walk in and take the whole lot this afternoon,” he told her bluntly. “There is nothing I could do to stop you,” she replied, “but the eyes of the world would now know what China is like.”
If Deng had invaded Hong Kong, or simply turned off its water, he would have made China a pariah in the West, weakened his hand with the Soviets and aborted China’s gestating era of economic transformation. Yet Britain blinked rather than call his bluff, like the rest of the West since.
It’s hard to imagine today that Beijing could have ever intended to honour the Sino-British Joint Declaration. There’s no way they could ever turn on democracy in Hong Kong because there is no way they would be able to turn it off in 2047. Imagine: decades of democracy, books, media, speech – freedom – all gone one day without a peep? Not likely. Beijing was never going to put itself in that position.
But if the democracy waffle weren’t proof enough that Beijing will do as it wishes with Hong Kong, the saga of the booksellers punctuates the fruitlessness of hoping for the best. The bookseller story could have turned out just the opposite. If mainland authorities had sent the booksellers home and made a statement that taking them was wrong, the guys who did it will be reprimanded, it won’t happen again, and the mainland respects Hong Kong’s rights, they could have scored a major propaganda victory. But they didn’t. And the story just keeps growing stranger, as if someone in Beijing were having fun concocting events that will generate the biggest laugh at a humiliated West. A smiling Lee Po, reassuring all that he is fine and, by the way, renouncing his British passport. Gui Minhai, sneaking into China from a Pattaya condo to report to prison for an old drink-driving offence. Sure. Then Lee and two of the others slipping back into Hong Kong just to tell the police they’re not missing before returning to the mainland.
I don’t know about you, but if I were under arrest on the mainland and got one foot over the border, I’d make like Usain Bolt for the nearest US embassy and try out my story on the receptionist.
But five booksellers are easy to ignore, even the two with Western passports, especially, as in Britain’s case, when government plans to fix an ailing economy include investment from new BFF China. Less easy to ignore, and coming to a refugee camp near you, will be the tens of thousands of Hongkongers who don’t want to live under Beijing’s oppression after 2047 and want to get out before mainland agents start taking names, or worse.
The US should extend its hand to these Hongkongers. This will annoy Beijing, but who cares? The Communist Party’s propaganda machine is already in overdrive on Donald Trump, calling him a racist, among other things. He could confound them, and many of his detractors at home, by announcing he’ll make a path to US citizenship, now, for pre-handover Hongkongers who want to emigrate. Hillary Clinton could announce the same and begin to wind back the human rights sell-out in which her husband participated. Bernie Sanders needs no announcement – he’s the type who will let the persecuted bunk in his living room if they need temporary accommodation.
As for the rest of the relationship with Beijing, the only thing more fatuous than hoping Beijing would change a generation ago is hoping it will now. In 20 years in Asia, I’ve never heard as much talk about rethinking China as I do today. It’s overdue. Though China needs all the economic help it can get, Beijing isn’t interested in playing by the West’s rules, despite those rules lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. That’s their choice. The West’s choice is to snap out of the combination of naivety, wilful ignorance and short-term greed called engagement, or continue the appeasement, giving wings to the tiger. And we all know where appeasement leads.
Robert Boxwell is director of the consultancy Opera Advisors