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Hong Kong, China and the "Pander Tendency"

Gerald Segal

(From The World Today, March 1997)



Let us learn to speak the truth about Hong Kong. The transfer of Hong Kong and its six million inhabitants to China on 1 July 1997 is a tragedy of historic proportions. How else can one think of transferring so many people to a poorer and far less free country? There is no doubt that if the people of Hong Kong were given a free choice, they would not choose to be part of the country governed by one of the world’s most authoritarian rulers. This is nothing like the final stage of Britain’s "end of empire", because in all previous cases, sovereignty was transferred to the formerly colonised people.

These harsh truths about Hong Kong are rarely spoken. What we most often hear is tales of British perfidy or the justice of China finally righting the wrongs of history. These tales, while containing a grain of truth, are insignificant in comparison to the larger and more tragic story of a wealthy and dynamic population being forced to step back in time. The optimism we hear about the surrender of Hong Kong is best described as making the best of a lousy situation. The people of Hong Kong are no doubt learning to make the best of this tragic situation, but there is no doubt that they would have preferred another outcome. The British government is also learning to put the bravest face on its nasty deed, for it knows that it had no choice—China controls the water, power and food supplies to Hong Kong. Because Hong Kong is not where Taiwan is, there could be no Berlin Airlift for Hong Kong and the colony could not be given the right of self-determination. It is true that the people could have been given more freedom much earlier, and they could still be given more rights of abode in the UK should they wish to flee, but these British injustices are nothing compared to one the big one that is derived from China’s determination to regain Hong Kong.

It is essential to speak the truth about Hong Kong not only because of the obvious injustice being done to six million people, but also because the fate of Hong Kong holds many pointers to the far more important fate of China. As push comes to shove in these final months before the handover of Hong Kong, the chant is beginning to be heard in various capitals—"the whole world is watching, the whole world is watching". We are watching to see how China handles Hong Kong as vital evidence for how much a rising China is willing to accept the constraints of interdependence with the outside world. The world is watching not just human rights issues, but also the broader question of whether China will accept the logic of interdependence and recognise that it must play by the rules of the international system and accept limits on its own sovereignty.

Sadly, just as truth is not being spoken about Hong Kong, so there is little plain speaking about China and its policies. The explanations for both forms of mealy mouthedness have their roots in a persistent and widespread failure to understand modern China.

Consider the current poverty of the debate about the single most important change in the international balance of power—the rise of China. The dominant discourse is that of "engagement" with China, but the phrase is so trite as to be without meaning. Of course we should engage China, but engagement in trade, security and culture is a necessary but far from sufficient condition for a decent relationship with a self-declared non-status quo power. Those who suggest that unwanted Chinese action such as violation of trade accords egregious violations of human rights or the use of force against neighbours should be met by deterrence and constraint, are dismissed as nasty supporters of "containment". When it is so obvious that a sensible attitude towards China should include both elements of engagement and constraint, and that the debate should be about the proper mix at the proper time, it is clear that we are not thinking straight about China. Some of the most worrying signs of this lack of straight thinking comes in discussions with Asian officials. Talk to a Japanese or even an Indonesian official in private, and they will be quite frank about their worries about China. But in public we hear only coded language about "uncertainties in the international environment". In open, democratic political systems, whether in the Atlantic or Pacific worlds, such self-censorship makes it impossible to have a serious debate about how to handle China.

These problems are especially worrying because they are not of recent vintage. Unfortunately, there is a long and disturbing history of being unable to have a serious discussion about China. The track record of most analysts of China is lamentable.(1) The last time China experts were right about a big change in China was when most of them told the world that the Communists were likely to win power in the late 1940s. American policymakers were then in such a lather about the cold war that the pundits were first ignored and then attacked as bearers of bad tidings.

Since then, most of these experts, whether sympathetic to the Chinese communists or not, have persistently failed to predict the course of Chinese events and policies. Legendary specialists told us that China was neither consulted about nor supported the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950; but the latest documents from the Soviet archives in Moscow make plain that China was not only consulted, it was in fact the most ardent advocate of the invasion. The Moscow files also show that China fabricated key documents about its role in the war and they were used uncritically by prominent but gullible China specialists.

The Soviet files also make plain that the guiding analytical orthodoxy of the modern China studies field--that there are readily identifiable and contending factions in the leadership--is clearly far too simplistic. The confusion and stupidities in the Chinese (and Soviet) decision-making process suggest that China watchers have been wrong about the fundamentals as well as-many of the details of their subject. For example, the famously smooth and wise Zhou Enlai (foreign minister and later Prime Minister) is now revealed as incompetent and unreliable.

Not surprising, China specialists also misread the "Great Leap Forward" of 1958--when Mao Zedong thought that China could catch up with the advanced world by building furnaces in backyards. The idea was ludicrous, but as late as 1980, illustrious China specialists failed to talk about the lethal idiocy of Beijing's policies. Even scholars writing in 1995 are far less willing to stress the horrors of Chinese policy than were Kremlinologists about Joseph Stalin's excesses. And this despite the fact that it is now known that at least 30m Chinese died in the famines of the early 1960s that followed the economic failures of the "Great Leap"'.

In the early 1960s most China experts did not realise how much Mao was in disgrace. They were unable, therefore, to see that the next crazy upheaval, the "'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution", mainly represented a bid by Mao to regain power. Mao's slogans supporting permanent revolution were taken far too seriously in the West, both by those in the anti-war movement and by those going "all the way with LBJ". Mao only favoured revolution when and if it suited him. The once staple work on Mao is now known to be ludicrously sympathetic to one of the 20th century's most ruthless and capricious dictators. When Mao called an end to the most radical phases of the "Cultural Revolution" and in the early 1970s tried to undermine his chosen successor, Lin Biao, few China specialists foresaw the power struggle that was to follow.

In the Deng era, now drawing to a close, China watchers have consistently misunderstood his agenda and China’s great power potential. A leading analyst of Chinese foreign policy wrote in 1984 that China was, at best "a dubious candidate for major power status". It also took China watchers years to understand that Deng really believed in market reforms. Then they became so caught up in the euphoria of the reforms that they failed to see how ruthless Deng would be in ordering his henchmen to kill demonstrators on the streets of Beijing in June 1989. Few observers of China predicted the bloody crackdown. Nor did they foresee that Deng would respond to the collapse of communist regimes in Europe by speeding, not slowing, his drive for economic reform in China.

Now that China stands on the brink of the post-Deng era, the experts shelter behind the slogan of "cautious optimism". This cosy conventional wisdom that somehow China will "muddle through" infuses nearly every study by the specialist community. Given their record, it is not surprising that they are so cautious, but at a time when China is undergoing massive and rapid social change they are only too likely to be proved wrong again.

They are, for instance, assuring the world that Deng's chosen successor, Jiang Zemin, is already in charge. When sceptics note the scale of the challenges, the many fractures at the top levels of the Chinese Communist Party, the country's bumpy past and the fate of Hua Guofeng, they retort with some bit of arcane Beijing gossip or quote from their latest "interviews" with a "key decision-maker". It is worth recalling that even on historical issues such as the Korean war, such Chinese informants have seen readily gullible Westerners swallow so much disinformation and foolish simplistic analysis of leadership factions.

What is perhaps most strikingly absent from current discussions about China is whether the 1949 revolution was necessary at all. It was non-specialist observers of the Taiwanese Presidential elections in 1996, not the specialist community, that made much of the fact that the vote was the first free election for a head of state in Chinese history. While the Guomindang rulers of China in the 1940s had clearly failed and deserved to be defeated, they learned their lesson and have made far more of a success of Taiwan than the Communists made of China. It was only when the Chinese Communist Party abandoned its ideology and became a market-oriented authoritarian government like that which ruled Taiwan for 35 years from 1949, that China began to achieve real prosperity. The Chinese Communist revolution is still seen by most specialists as a triumph, when it was in fact far more a tragedy. Few people would now say that the Russian revolution in 1917 was a triumph, but China watchers have yet to have their revelation.

There are many explanations for the pundits poor performance. The most charitable explanation is that they are still on the nursery slopes of a precipitous learning curve. Universities and think-tanks only started in the 1970s to train a large cohort of specialised China-watchers. Their predecessors were mainly historians or linguists.

But the biggest problem is one well known among Arabists, Africanists and others specialising in area studies: the tendency to go native. In the Chinese case, what has been termed "the Pander Complex", means specialists who believe they are encountering a cuddly Panda bear (actually the animal is quite vicious), tend to pander to current official Chinese policies. The Chinese languages is so hard to learn, and Chinese culture is so rich, that China specialists are especially inclined to believe that China is unique in all respects. They become adept at telling others what the Chinese are saying now, but terrible at understanding how they are likely to change.

This helps explain why the China-watchers with the best records are those who have come to the subject from the study of comparative politics, and especially comparative communist politics. A recently declassified RAND Corporation study by Richard Solomon of the United States’ record in dealing with China noted that much of the misunderstanding of China was due to China playing on Western myths of China’s uniqueness.

As China has opened up to the outside world, most China watchers have become ever-narrower specialists. They know about industrial reform in a rustbelt steel plant, but they have little idea whether the loss-making operations of state industry will be privatised, let alone how other communist states managed privatisation. They know what the scholars in the official think tanks in Beijing are saying, but they are largely unaware of the ways wily entrepreneurs in townships are striking their deals with foreigners. They are mostly Beijing-watchers, sometimes Shanghai-watchers, but rarely China-watchers.

Because the experts are so dependent on access to the bureaucrats in Beijing, they are also vulnerable to pressure. Officials make it clear that those who are highly critical of China are unlikely to get a visa for their next field trip. All too often the pressure works. Most decide not to stray too far from the official line.

Journalists are cowed less often, perhaps because they are rotated much more often. Far more of them are banned from China than academics, and perhaps their rebellious spirit helps explain why journalists tend to have a better record in reading Chinese tea leaves.

Improving the eyesight of China watchers is difficult but not impossible, and the solutions hold lessons for watchers of Hong Kong’s tea leaves. As the United States Department of State learnt with its Arabists, it is vital to broaden the horizons of specialists. Pundits about China would benefit from regular spells in other Asian countries, and especially in Taiwan, Japan or Korea. They would also benefit from a tour of former communist states in Europe. They need to learn to ask the bigger, comparative questions that others ask about countries that are poor peasant societies, rapidly modernising economies, or frustrated great powers. Until China watchers learn that although China has special features, much of what it does is understandable in a wider context, there is no point in asking a China specialist what to do about China. On 19 occasions out of 20 you will be told what is in the interest of China’s elite, not what is in your own interest.

The lessons of this sad story of myopia about China for those watching Hong Kong, are obvious enough. China specialists will tend to tell us what Beijing thinks about Hong Kong. They will tend not to tell us about the view from Guangdong or Fujian. They will tend not to tell us the view of Chinese entrepreneurs or even the "red princelings" who are making money in Hong Kong. They will certainly not tell us about the deepening cesspool of corruption or the webs of patronage that are suffocating Hong Kong’s reputation for a reliable rule of law.

The Hong Kong media still tells us much of these hard truths, but under understandable pressure to conform to the demands of the new rulers, they too are growing more willing to accept self-censorship. The shutting down of information and debate is part of the process of transition in Hong Kong, and even more worryingly it is increasingly evident in the relationship between the international media and China. Beijing seems to think that it can muzzle foreign news media and there are disturbing signs that some are prepared to play along. Everyone wants an office in Beijing or an interview with senior officials, and China is adept at making access dependent on "friendly reporting".

The main test of accurate analysis of the Hong Kong transition is whether China’s actions are understood primarily in terms of the interests of the people of Hong Kong and the outside world, or in terms of the interests of Beijing. The initial evidence suggests we are already making major mistakes in being too ready to take the "Beijing Version". Consider for instance the Chinese determination to undo the democratic reforms of recent years. China is obviously snagged on the hook of its previous duplicity. Beijing promised Hong Kong that it would be part of "one country, two systems" and most observers of China bought this obviously non-sensical notion. China had the chance to prove the cynics wrong by genuinely giving Hong Kong the right to determine all but its foreign policy. But by undoing the democratic reforms necessary to rule a vibrant, open civil society, China has demonstrated that all along they were thinking of "one country, one system". Chinese officials admit as much when they tell foreigners that they cannot criticise actions undoing the reforms because these are "internal affairs". Indeed they are, but they are the internal affairs of a separate Hong Kong system—or at least that is precisely what was supposed to have been safe-guarded under the slogan of "one country, two systems".

Apart from voices in London and Washington (and of course Hong Kong), few people are speaking out in opposition to Chinese action. Continental Europeans, like most Asians, prefer not to risk business contacts with China. They speak in an even-handed way about British rashness in pushing through democratic reforms that many of these countries take for granted for their own people. This sorry tale of narrow self-interest and spinelessness bodes very ill for our ability to encourage China to accept the virtues and constraints of interdependence.

If China is to be genuinely integrated as a cooperative player in the international system, then it needs to learn that sovereignty is constrained. This is especially so when China has already promised the virtues of such constraint to the people of Hong Kong. The outside world accepted those pledges and therefore agreed to hundreds of international agreements that give Hong Kong all sorts of trade and legal privileges as a separate international territory. The key test for the outside world is whether, given such blatant undermining of the notion of Hong Kong’s separate status, these privileges should not be withdrawn. To do so would damage Hong Kong as well as China, but in the long term to not do so would damage our ability to help China learn the need to accept the constraints of interdependence. The fate of Hong Kong is not only a test for China, it is also a test for those who would manage the rise of China. The whole world is not only watching China, but it is also watching itself. Are we up to the challenge of China? 


  1. Of course, nothing in the analysis that follows should obscure the fact that there are some China specialists who have had a fine record in assessing modern China.


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