“Facts don’t care about your feelings,” as Ben Shapiro is wont to say. Indeed, John Adams admonishes us: “facts are very stubborn things.” In the midst of all the virtual ink spillage, and pundit and politico posturing, the inconvenient truth is that Hong Kong is a city in communist China. This unfeeling and stubborn fact fundamentally limits what the United States, any other nation, and people inside Hong Kong can do to affect conditions on the ground. Yet, there may be a move, within the larger Chinese puzzle, that President Trump can play now that might slow Hong Kong’s descent into normal Chinese city status.
Cautionary Tales of Careless Words:
We hear conservatives and constitutionalists argue against “do something” as a reaction to mass shootings. Yet, we hear from some of the same sources that the president of the most powerful nation in the world must “do something,” where “do something” is just “say something.” Educated and wise counselors and leaders may be charged with knowing our own history with presidents “saying something.”
Ask the Hungarians, the Kurds, and the Marsh Arabs how it worked out when Republican presidents offered strong words of support for resistance and condemnation of oppressors. Perhaps our learned class learned nothing because they lost no one. If we really care, we should be careful to first do no harm, especially where the results of miscalculation are demonstrably bloody. The best advise to President Trump, whether on Iran or Hong Kong, is “don’t say you want a revolution.”
So, what should every analyst, every talking head, and, most importantly, the President of the United States, learn from Hungary 1956 and Iraq 1991? How about not throwing around “regime change” unless you are ready to go all the way with military support, even if you only think that will be through the air and on water?
A Word on Puzzles:
On hearing of the latest Hong Kong protests, in the context of the North Korean nuclear issue and the conflict across all forms of national power with China, the image of a sliding block puzzle and the phrase “Chinese puzzle” came to mind. Did you grow up with physical media games you could carry with you, while traveling? If so, perhaps you recall a puzzle, locked in a frame, like the one above.
I knew them by the nomenclature “Chinese puzzles,” yet it turns out that this form of sliding block puzzle may have independently arisen in America and in China. The American variant initially had numbers on each block, with one block missing, allowing the player to always move only side-to-side or up and down into the blank space. With a four-by-four matrix, if you leave out one cell you get fifteen puzzle pieces, hence the “15 puzzle.”
The 15 puzzle was invented by a postmaster named Noyes Chapman in Canastota, New York and was distributed by the Embossing Company around 1868. However, the puzzle rose to prominence in 1878 when a prominent American puzzle enthusiast named Sam Lloyd claimed that he had developed a new puzzle which was a modified version of the 15 puzzle.
It turns out that Chinese children were playing a game with unequal sized paper blocks, with a similar objective of setting the game pieces in a particular order. The Chinese game was based on a semi-mythical story of a general fleeing with a remnant of troops through a pass, seeking to live to fight another day. This was the Haurong Pass game:
Huarong Pass (Huarong dao 华容道) is a sliding block puzzle that’s popular throughout China. Its story is based on a well known encounter during the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220) between Cao Cao, the shrewd and clever strategist for the Wei Kingdom, and Guan Yu, a commander in the Shu Kingdom army who had once served under Cao Cao.
In 1938, when the Anti-Japanese War began, Professor Lin Dekuan of Northwestern Industrial University left his home in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province, and moved to the countryside in Chenggu county to avoid the Japanese air raids. There he saw children playing with sliding block puzzles made of paper.
You will note from the language that this Berkeley, California, based puzzle website is sympathetic or submissive to the Chinese communist narrative of history. Take it as another dot in the collection that may form a picture of communist Chinese information operations in America. Set that to one side and consider that this puzzle is well known to Chinese leaders. In that context, consider the analogy of international relations.
You are not free to pick up and move pieces for an easy solution. Indeed, each move you make both limits and opens possibilities for the next set of moves. Hong Kong, if we care to “do something,” or if we do nothing, is interconnected with the whole China puzzle, and the pieces of this puzzle keep changing in numbers and shapes, so that more complex three dimensional Chinese puzzles may now be more apt analogies to the geopolitical situation in 2019.
Early Moves in this Chinese Puzzle:
Hong Kong is a Chinese City. It was taken from a Chinese emperor by the British Empire after the first Opium War. It was taken to protect British commercial interests against both inland threats and rival European imperial powers who had commercial interests in China. Yet that first move was followed by a fateful second move.
The sliver of land taken, all nice and legal, with properly signed papers, was not self-sustaining. More land was needed, but the British did not wish to provoke the Chinese population or give occasion for conflict in the local elites. So, they took out a 99 year lease on a much bigger chunk of land, a lease no one thought would run out:
The ailing Qing Dynasty leased the New Territories to Britain for 99 years, starting 1 July 1898. The new additions were to make up 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s land mass. The term of 99 years was fixed almost casually. Both sides believed the new lands would remain British for ever, along with the original colonial possession of Hong Kong island, acquired in 1842. The British empire would never die.
The lease was signed in the midst of a flurry of European colonial expansion in China. Britain did not want to be left out, but it was prepared to let China’s rulers save face by not insisting the territory should be ceded in perpetuity.
Then the wooden wall of the empire on which the sun never set was burnt down by the air, land, and sea forces of the land of the Rising Sun. After World War II, Britain was no longer so great, and it was in absolutely no position to enforce control of far flung possessions. The day that Generalissimo Chiang Ki-shek and his forces escaped to Taiwan, the path was open for red banners to advance through the streets of Hong Kong. Yet, the communists were wily and did not consider killing the golden goose until they could raise their own productive flock of fowls.
Today, there is quite a gaggle of productive geese in China, and citizens of each of these cities might ask why Hong Kong residents think they are so special. They are likely to resent the reported behavior, and the freedom, of Hong Kong. It is delusional to think that protests by Hong Kong Millennials will prompt wider civil disruptions across China.
Oh, but surely great and good leaders must protest vigorously! If only we had a Reagan, or a Thatcher. Oh, wait, never mind. Many readers here are old enough to remember 1984. Youth is no excuse, as we are assured that Gen X and following are all tech savvy, and wise in the ways of the Internet. So, let us take a quick trip down memory lane, with a BBC report from Beijing on 19 December 1984:
The British colony of Hong Kong is to be returned to China in 1997 after an historic agreement was signed in Peking today.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Joint Sino-British Declaration with her Chinese counterpart Zhao Ziyang.
It formally seals the future of Hong Kong, transferring it from a British colony of six million people to communist China in 13 years.
Years later, Dame Margaret Thatcher revealed that the communist Chinese leader threatened to simply take Hong Kong in a day. Thatcher had regrets over Hong Kong, but could only reply with appeals to his self-interest:
“One country, two systems was developed some years earlier as an approach to the issue of Taiwan,” says Lady Thatcher. “It doesn’t look any more appropriate in that context now than it did then. Nor did it at first seem to me the way ahead for Hong Kong.”
However, she goes on to share one of the bargaining tactics she employed during her time in office. “In fact, I complimented [Deng Xiaoping] on his brilliance. It’s often a good idea to tell people with whom you negotiate that they were right all along.”
Prime Minister Thatcher signed Hong Kong back over to China only two years after fighting a naval campaign to hold onto a few rocky islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean. There, the British could still overmatch a corrupt South American state. The geography of Hong Kong led to a far colder calculus, expressed at Thatcher’s 1984 Hong Kong press conference:
[Prime Minister Thatcher]
The first point I wish to make about this Agreement is that it assures the continuation of Hong Kong as a free trading capitalist society for a very long time to come—into the middle of the next century. This means that Hong Kong can plan long-term with confidence. I believe Deng Xiaoping Chairman Deng intends his bold concept of “one country-two systems” to last. [end p1]
My second point is that you have my absolute assurance that Britain will administer Hong Kong wisely and well between now and 1997. We shall honour our obligations to the full.
My third point is that Britain will not merely do all in its power to work for Hong Kong’s steady development and a smooth transition; we shall also seek to win the widest possible acceptance of the Agreement in the rest of the world.
Yes, now I come to the question. Mrs. Prime Minister, our common aim is to maintain the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong. Will Mrs. Thatcher and the British Government ever consider helping Hong Kong people to establish and to promote this fund, and may I just remind you, Mrs. Prime Minister, during the Falklands War, in which your Government decided to protect a remote dependent territory. On behalf of the Hong Kong people, the Hong Kong Government act responsibly to donate 20 million Hong Kong dollars to the South Pacific Fund in order to help the British people to fight for their reputation and to maintain Britain’s prosperity and stability. In return, will the British Government …
I am sorry. Please! Could we have slightly shorter questions please!
Prime Minister [Thatcher]
I am not quite sure what the question was going to be, but our duty is to implement the Agreement into which we have entered and to implement it to the full—and we shall do that.
There you have the cold calculus, the hard facts that do not care about your feelings. A desperate man pled for the British military to protect Hong Kong from the Beijing government, invoking the Falklands War. Prime Minister Thatcher declined to give an embarrassing direct answer, rightly, responsibly so.
So What Moves Are Left? Can Trump Solve the Chinese Puzzle?
Consider how the British left Hong Kong, while President Reagan defeated the Soviet Union, President George H.W. Bush had a short glorious war in the Middle East, as part of realizing his vision of a “new world order,” and President Clinton edged towards bombing the Serbs, while taking campaign cash from the Chinese. Consider the documents and the conditions on the ground.
You will not get far in reading about the period between Prime Minister Thatcher’s signature and the 1997 hand-over without running into Chris Patton, the final British administrator. He set about trying to change the local government rules so that the population could elect its city leaders.
Think about that. For over a century, the British were quite happy to run the city without the locals getting all chirpy about how things were run. Then, when the documents were already signed, the transfer under way, a British civil servant decides to introduce a little democracy. This did not go over well and led to the current arrangement, in which only a portion of the local government seats are determined by popular vote. A controlling block is determined by the interests of associations, representing the business and financial bosses, who have a strong interest in stability, in not rocking the dragon boat.
The British and Chinese governments take different views of the Joint Declaration [emphasis added]:
The agreement entered into force on 27 May 1985 and was registered at the United Nations by the Chinese and British Governments on 12 June 1985.
The UK Government is clear that “the Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty, registered with the United Nations, which continues to remain in force. It remains as valid today as it did when it was signed over thirty years ago”.
China challenges the status of the Joint Declaration
Chinese officials have, in recent years, challenged the status of the Joint Declaration.
The Foreign Affairs Committee noted comments by Chinese Foreign Ministry officials in 2017 suggesting the arrangements under the Joint Declaration are “now history” and described it as “ridiculous for the UK to pose itself as a supervisor… on Hong Kong affairs”.
Consider for yourself the strength of the document, and what it actually asserts, by reading the full text below. What is central to the words and actions of British governments, starting with the Thatcher government, is an attempt to tie Chinese self-interest to being especially decent to the residents of Hong Kong. President Trump may find a move here that advances the larger puzzle’s resolution.
President Trump seeks trade agreements, with binding force, between a whole series of countries, including China. He can point out to domestic and foreign audiences that having a reputation for keeping deals is important to getting a good deal in the first place. People who are known for breaking their word get less generous terms than those known for keeping up their end of a bargain.
So, it is arguably in the interest of China to scrupulously enforce the agreement they signed, as written. After all, the goose is still laying golden eggs and the deal, as written, terminates in 28 years. The neoconservatives were wrong, the horse is not going to sing. The Chinese dragon will not turn into a capitalist or a republican. The young protesters are eventually going to live by the same rules as their peers in Shanghai, by the terms agreed to in 1984.
The question that matters now is can China communist bosses be trusted to take the long term win as scheduled, or will they bust the agreement as inconvenient. Hong Kong will be a signal to U.S. government trade negotiators and military planners, concerned about freedom of navigation in the region. That is what President Trump should say, what he responsibly can say.
Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong
The Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China have reviewed with satisfaction the friendly relations existing between the two Governments and peoples in recent years and agreed that a proper negotiated settlement of the question of Hong Kong, which is left over from the past, is conducive to the maintenance of the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and to the further strengthening and development of the relations between the two countries on a new basis. To this end, they have, after talks between the delegations of the two Governments, agreed to declare as follows:
1. The Government of the People’s Republic of China declares that to recover the Hong Kong area (including Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories, hereinafter referred to as Hong Kong) is the common aspiration of the entire Chinese people, and that it has decided to resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong with effect from 1 July 1997.
2. The Government of the United Kingdom declares that it will restore Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China with effect from 1 July 1997.
3. The Government of the People’s Republic of China declares that the basic policies of the
People’s Republic of China regarding Hong Kong are as follows:
(1) Upholding national unity and territorial integrity and taking account of the history of Hong Kong and its realities, the People’s Republic of China has decided to establish, in accordance with the provisions of Article 31 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region upon resuming the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong.(2) The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be directly under the authority of the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs which are the responsibilities of the Central People’s Government.
(3) The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication. The laws currently in force in Hong Kong will remain basically unchanged.
(4) The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be composed of local inhabitants. The chief executive will be appointed by the Central People’s Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally. Principal officials will be nominated by the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for appointment by the Central People’s Government. Chinese and foreign nationals previously working in the public and police services in the government departments of Hong Kong may remain in employment. British and other foreign nationals may also be employed to serve as advisers or hold certain public posts in government departments of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
(5) The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Private property, ownership of enterprises, legitimate right of inheritance and foreign investment will be protected by law.
(6) The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will retain the status of a free port and a separate customs territory.
(7) The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will retain the status of an international financial centre, and its markets for foreign exchange, gold, securities and futures will continue. There will be free flow of capital. The Hong Kong dollar will continue to circulate and remain freely convertible.
(8) The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will have independent finances. The Central People’s Government will not levy taxes on the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
(9) The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may establish mutually beneficial economic relations with the United Kingdom and other countries, whose economic interests in Hong Kong will be given due regard.
(10) Using the name of ‘Hong Kong, China’, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may on its own maintain and develop economic and cultural relations and conclude relevant agreements with states, regions and relevant international organisations.
The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may on its own issue travel documents for entry into and exit from Hong Kong.
(11) The maintenance of public order in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be the responsibility of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
(12) The above-stated basic policies of the People’s Republic of China regarding Hong Kong and the elaboration of them in Annex I to this Joint Declaration will be stipulated, in a Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, by the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, and they will remain unchanged for 50 years.
4. The Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the People’s Republic of China declare that, during the transitional period between the date of the entry into force of this Joint Declaration and 30 June 1997, the Government of the United Kingdom will be responsible for the administration of Hong Kong with the object of maintaining and preserving its economic prosperity and social stability; and that the Government of the People’s Republic of China will give its cooperation in this connection.
5. The Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the People’s Republic of China declare that, in order to ensure a smooth transfer of government in 1997, and with a view to the effective implementation of this Joint Declaration, a Sino-British Joint Liaison Group will be set up when this Joint Declaration enters into force; and that it will be established and will function in accordance with the provisions of Annex II to this Joint Declaration.
6. The Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the People’s Republic of China declare that land leases in Hong Kong and other related matters will be dealt with in accordance with the provisions of Annex III to this Joint Declaration.
7. The Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the People’s Republic of China agree to implement the preceding declarations and the Annexes to this Joint Declaration.
8. This Joint Declaration is subject to ratification and shall enter into force on the date of the exchange of instruments of ratification, which shall take place in Beijing before 30 June 1985. This Joint Declaration and its Annexes shall be equally binding.
Done in duplicate at Beijing on 19 December 1984 in the English and Chinese languages, both texts being equally authentic.
For the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
For the Government of the People’s Republic of China