THE suzerainty ESCAPE: how beijing can make Hong Kong happy again

TOM PLATE WRITES – One of the most significant political events in years and potentially one of the most historic will be known as the Battle for Hong Kong. And it is anything but played out.

Beijing achingly wanted Hong Kong and decades ago got what it wanted. But is it that happy with its prize today? As the saying goes: Be careful what you wish for in life, because you just might actually get it.

The complex passions that ignited the political fireworks of recent weeks didn’t flame up overnight and tomorrow won’t blow out of existence. Whatever the true head-count of Hong Kongers streaming onto the streets (whether anti-Beijing or pro-, whether anti-police or pro, whether pro-Carrie Lam or go-Carrie) the scenes are searing themselves onto smart phones and computer and TV screens across the globe.

We need to ask what next steps need to be taken after all that has happened since July 1997. We note, not without sympathy, that Beijing has to work the future of Hong Kong question against the backdrop of the current domestic reality that relatively few people on the mainland love Hong Kong remotely as much as Hong Kong loves itself. Unfair statement? I don’t think so. The utter gut resentment over the perceived ‘entitlement’ mentality of ‘snooty’ Hong Kongers is no secret: There may be more love in Kansas for New Yorkers. Beijing could remind everyone that little Hong Kong contributes to China a world of established cosmopolitanism – not to mention major sector utility in banking and finance. But governing Hong Kong was never going to be a simple matter.

This is where, long ago, a touch of political genius came in handy. Not enough observers in the West ever fully appreciated the evolutionary political thought behind Deng Xiaoping’s ‘one country/two systems” instinct. Worse yet is whether his current successors really get it. The innovation was striking in the simplicity of its sophistication, not to mention in its pragmatism. Even in its cogency, it offered a plan; and in its direction begged for central self-discipline. It was not complicated, and was anything but un-savvy. The hitch was always in the implementation. Avoid the routine style of mainland governance or it would blow up in your face- it was designed for finesse, you either got that, or you missed the whole point.

This is not to bash the Communist Party of China. On the contrary, the outside world generally underestimates how creative today’s CPC has become, certainly compared to many of its hysterically rigid earlier incarnations. This is a survivalist organization: Not for the CPC to shrink in relevance as once the Soviet CP. But even a smug smidgen of hubris can becloud vision. The CPC must not overestimate its ability to harness all the forces within contemporary China – even all those in Hong Kong.

Although far from directly elected of course, without the people more or less behind it, the Party would find it lonely and even scary at the top. “The CPC in this era needs the people more than the people need it,” asserts Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, in his insight-filled book ‘China’s Dream’, adding: “The depth and extent of its repressive powers … are circumscribed and limited in ways which grow more complicated by the day…. The CPC is increasingly seeking to get the people’s emotional engagement….”

But – again – Hong Kong is so emotionally attached to itself, especially within its youthful sectors (i.e., the future), that the Party will have to live with HK, as very annoying as it is. And so the need to derive additional mileage out of the one-country/two systems is more urgent than ever. Rather than seek to impose more discipline on Hong Kong, emphasizing the ‘one’ over the ‘two’, if it wants to be successful, the CPC needs to develop more intellectual discipline and self-control over itself.

I do believe the Party is cognitively deep enough to handle a stiff measure of non-binary complexity. It should be able to come to understand that to insist on a strict dictionary-definition sovereignty – as if, say, HK were no more than another Fujian province – would be to push prodigal SAR into the streets, making it a political runaway, and inspiring every anti-unification soul in Taiwan with reason for further steely resistance.

Better the PRC/CPC resign itself to the fuzzy logic of suzerainty (a word not often used by normal people but the only one that fits here) than insist on the iron clamp of classical sovereignty. Suzerainty, in a word or two, is sovereignty lite: as the dictionary definition puts it: “…any relationship in which one region or nation controls the foreign policy and relations of a tributary state, while allowing the tributary nation to have internal autonomy.” This is the only way out, and as fate would have it Mother China has a far, far longer-standing understanding of the practice of suzerainty than, for the sake of comparison, does America of the practice of democracy.

Suzerainty in this content might well evolve into political modernity at its bespoke best. More and more these days, real thinking people think of their citizenship less in singularity than multiplicity. “One can be a citizen of the world, a citizen of one’s country, and of one’s city all at the same time,” emphatically insists the American intellectual and Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz. You can see now the potential triangle of a bespoke one-country, two-systems on the relatively small canvas of Hong Kong. But what is happening now reflects a major undercurrent in global politics, from Spain to Syria and beyond. Fear it, but also savor it for its profound relevance.

Tom Plate, Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, is the author of ‘Yo-Yo Diplomacy, on US-China relations. An earlier version of this column appeared in the world-famous South China Morning Post of Hong Kong, where Prof Tom is a regular Opinion contributor. Editorial cartoon courtesy of the great Craig Stephens.

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