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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Are Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Activists Endangering the Basic Law They Want to Defend? How Moral Conviction Destroys Federal Compromise

The news is now filled with denunciations of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for failing adequately to respect the "high degree of autonomy" ("高度自治权") guaranteed to the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Republic (HKSAR) by Article 12 of the Hong Kong's Basic Law(BL), the Chinese statute under which HKSAR is governed. The specific occasion for these denunciations is the proposal by the National People's Congress to enact a new National Security Law ("NSL") that would allow the PRC to crack down on anti-state subversion (An English translation from Jeremy Daum is available here). Some but not all of ̶T̶these denunciations ̶a̶l̶l̶ share a larger narrative: The PRC has been constantly plotting for the last two decades to undermine HKSAR’s independence, unprovoked by any behavior by Hong Kongers, and only the vigilance of Hong Kong protestors has deterred such nefarious and illegal schemes. (For examples of this narrative, see this New York Times’ story and this Vox Explainer). Lewis Yau Yiu-man has provided a succinct statement of this narrative in an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times: “‘One country, two systems’ was a ploy from the outset, a tactic for China to buy time, the better to absorb Hong Kong sooner or later,” he writes: “Preferably sooner, it seems.”

This narrative — PRC plotting to undermine the Basic Law, Hong Kongers’ vigilance in preserving it — is, I think confused and dangerous. If the PRC really wanted to “absorb Hong Kong,” then they sure are taking their good sweet time. Hong Kong has consistently been rated one of the top ten freest societies in the world by the Cato Institute, and even Freedom House, which gives Hong Kong only a partly free rating of 55, acknowledges that, in Hong Kong, “individuals [are] free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution.” Evidence that the Chinese Communists are not very energetic about destroying Hong Kong’s civil liberties is contained within Mr. Lau’s own op-ed, which he published while living in Hong Kong: Try publishing that sort of thing while living in Shanghai, and see how long you stay out of “residential surveillance.” If the PRC wanted to squelch this enclave of civil liberty, they could have rolled in the tanks in 1989 or 2003 or yesterday: They have no need of “ploys” where they have unquestioned power, given that they have shown a willingness to use power again and again, international public opinion and international law be damned.

The more accurate account of CCP leaders’ motives, therefore, is probably that (1) the PRC leadership would prefer to preserve Hong Kong as a liberal enclave, albeit not as unconstrained as critics like Mr. Lau would prefer but (2) Communist bigs and Hong Kongers simply have different conceptions of the regime that the Basic Law created, because the Basic Law is extraordinarily ambiguous. As I will argue after the jump, the PRC leaders could reasonably interpret the Basic Law as guaranteeing something like a “Finlandized” Hong Kong. By "Finlandization," I refer to the once-familiar and informal arrangement between Finland and the Soviet Union under which the Soviet Union would not interfere with the Finns' internal affairs so long as the Finns did not allow their territory to be used for denunciations of or organizing against the Soviet Union. The policy involved a significant amount of informal self-censorship by the Finns, not codified in any law but tacitly observed by book publishers, film-makers, and newspapers to avoid negative commentary on Soviet politics. It was not perfect freedom, but, compared to the fate suffered by, say, Czechoslovakia, Poland, or Hungary, “Finlandization” was, as Melvin Lasky put it in 1979, "not the worst fate." By contrast, Hong Kongers regard the Basic Law as guaranteeing them essentially the same raucously uncensored politics as, say, London’s or New York City’s.

The conflict between the PRC and the Hong Kongers is, in short, a reasonable disagreement about what exactly the Basic Law guarantees. How could the Basic Law produce so much misunderstanding? After the jump, I will provide some background on the Basic Law’s roots in British colonialism and Communist paranoia. Given that background and the ambiguous language it produced, PRC leaders could reasonably believe that Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have pressured the HKSAR into violating the Basic Law’s “Finlandized” letter and spirit by refusing to enact any anti-subversion law for seventeen years, despite their duty to do so under BL Article 23. The PRC’s responses to these perceived violations have provoked pro-democracy activists into escalating their protests against PRC’s alleged nefarious plot, which inspires yet more paranoid responses from the PRC, in a vicious cycle that endangers HKSAR’s fragile enclave of liberalism by provoking the Communists into saving face by marching the People’s Liberation Army into the Admiralty.

Hong Kong's predicament suggests a more general hypothesis to me: Federal bargains intended to promote jointly maximizing cooperation between constituent units of a federal system can end up exacerbating that conflict when the terms of the bargain are ambiguous and the value conflicts between those constituent units are deep.

1. The Basic Law as Codification of Colonial Capitalism and Leninist “Subversion Phobia”

To understand the spirit as well as the letter of the Basic Law, it is helpful to start with some sense of its basic purposes. The Basic Law was rooted in British colonialism and Leninist fear of subversion. Both of these purposes, I will suggest below, undergird the PRC’s plausible argument that pro-democracy activists have violated the letter and spirit of BL Article 23.

The Basic Law is the statute enacted by the National People's Congress (NPC) -- the PRC's legislative body -- in 1990 to implement the 1984 Joint Declaration between the PRC and the United Kingdom. The Joint Declaration, in turn, was the treaty governing the United Kingdom's handover of Hong Kong to the PRC, signed in 1984 by the two powers after two years of negotiations. (There are several accounts of those negotiations. Percy Cradock, the UK's ambassador to the PRC during the negotiations, provides a firsthand account from the UK's perspective, Robert Cottrell wrote a widely read history of the negotiations issued between the Joint Declaration and the 1997 handover, and Mark Roberti wrote an account, subtitled "China's Triumph & Britain's Betrayal," that, as the subtitle implies, is much more critical of the British. For a much less detailed read, Part IV of Steve Tsang's history of Hong Kong provides a good overview. My understanding of those negotiations is based on these four books, a few articles, as well as discussions with former British negotiators still living in Hong Kong).

Those negotiations were based on a nine-point statement of principles issued by Marshal Ye Jianying, the aging PRC military leader who wrote up the points as a basis for re-incorporating Taiwan into the PRC. The formula "one country, two systems" (一国两制)was a four-character slogan that, in typically pithy “成语“ style captured the deal with which the PRC hoped to lure the Taiwanese government into a federal partnership with China. The basic idea was that Taiwan would be able to keep its system of government just so long as Taiwan did not subvert Mainland China's Leninist system. This modus vivendi implied mutual non-interference in local affairs and a foreign and defense policy controlled by the PRC. Taiwan was not biting at this bait, so the same slogan was transposed to the negotiations over Hong Kong on the theory that successful implementation in Hong Kong of "一国两制" would make credible to Taiwan China's commitments of mutual non-interference. The Joint Declaration provided that the system of government required by this formula, whatever that system might be, would remain in place for fifty years after the 1997 handover -- i.e., until 2047.

The Joint Declaration is (like most treaties) maddeningly vague. Percy Cradock later acknowledged that "the Chinese government did not... wish to have a detailed agreement" in part because they did not really know what they wanted to preserve from the British colonial regime. Basically, the Chinese wanted to retain whatever made Hong Kong a successful capitalist economy so that the City could generate foreign investment and economic know-how for the PRC, which was then struggling to re-make their economy in the smoking ruins of Maoist devastation. The Communists, however, had no idea exactly which aspects of the British colonial system insured such economic success beyond some vague commitment to capitalist "rule of law." As Steve Tsang concluded, "the Chinese did not understand what made Hong Kong tick when they signed the agreement" so "they did not really know what they had committed to maintain unchanged for 50 years."

In particular, there was no provision in the Joint Declaration for any real democracy, mostly because PRC just wanted to preserve the system of British colonial rule, and the British colonial government was not democratic. Instead, the document guaranteed a bunch of rights and freedoms of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief. The only phrase gesturing towards democratic accountability was the assurance that the HKSAR's chief executive would be chosen “on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally.” "Consultations" referred to the British colonial practice of creating a council of local notables -- in Hong Kong's case, local tycoons, labor union leaders, lawyers, and the like -- with whom the colonial governor could consult.(The American Revolution had taught the British the lesson that popularly elected colonial assemblies caused nothing but grief to the imperialist power: After 1774 Quebec Act, the British dispensed with elected colonial assemblies for their non-white colonial possessions).

Undemocratic liberal rule of law is still better than Leninism. After the Joint Declaration was signed, however, the Chinese Communists developed new misgivings about liberal rule of law that led to the addition of BL Article 23. While the Basic Law was being considered by the National People's Congress, the protests of Tiananmen Square flared up and then were brutally repressed. Over a half-million Hong Kong residents demonstrated in support of the student-protestors at Tiananmen Square, and several of those protestors later found refuge in Hong Kong. The realization that Hong Kong residents would not automatically embrace the PRC's Leninist system out of pro-Chinese, anti-colonial patriotism was a big surprise to the PRC leadership, provoking them to re-write BL Article 23 by re-inserting language originally deleted by the Basic Law Drafting Committee that obliged the HKSAR to enact laws forbidding subversion of state power. Importantly, "subversion of state power" ("顛覆中央人民政府"), unlike "treason" ("叛國"), "secession" ("分裂國家") "sedition" ("煽動叛亂"), and "theft of state secrets" ("竊取國家機密的行為"), is not a British legal concept: It represents instead a bit of Leninism imported into the colonial Basic Law to address the deep fear that Hong Kong could be used as a beachhead for liberals or foreigners or both to undermine China's Leninist regime. As Hualing Fu and Richard Cullen note in an insightful analysis of Article 23, the Chinese Communist Party had "subversion phobia" (page 198) in the wake of the Tiananmen protests, and the anti-subversion language in BL Article 23 was a way to assuage this phobia.

The bargain of the Basic Law, in short, was the promise of colonial rule according to the “rule of law” principles of liberal capitalist society qualified by the anti-subversion constraint. Within the “Finlandized” constraints of the Basic Law, Hong Kongers were free to speak out, write, protest, etc. — so long as they did not threaten the Communist regime in the Mainland by lighting a spark of liberalism that could start a prairie fire of revolution in the PRC.

2. Did Hong Kong protestors and government violate BL Article 23 by refusing to enact any anti-subversion law whatsoever in 2003?

With this background in mind, it is easy to see why PRC leaders could reasonably believe that pro-democracy protestors pressured the HKSAR into violating the Basic Law’s paranoid Leninist spirit. Article 23 fairly plainly imposes some sort of duty on the HKSAR to enact some sort of anti-subversion law. Here is the official English translation of the Chinese:

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.

Whatever else this language might mean, it seems plainly to require the HKSAR itself ("自行") to enact a law prohibiting "subversion against the Central People's Government." In 2003, the HKSAR attempted to satisfy this apparent duty in a sort of surreptitious way by submitting a "blue bill" directly to LegCo (rather than a draft "white bill" that would have facilitated public comment). Pro-democracy critics pushed back, arguing that the bill was so ambiguously written that it would criminalize protected expression and political activity. Although repeatedly amended to address these criticisms, the bill could not win support from its critics, and, when over a half-million Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest the bill, the proposal was withdrawn. (The sequence of events is recounted in this 2018 Hong Kong Free Press article).

By refusing to enact an anti-subversion law, has the HKSAR violated its Article 23 duty to protect the PRC from subversion? The question is difficult and my answer, controversial, but there is a plausible argument that HKSAR has illegally side-stepped Article 23, the Basic Law’s most Leninist element, under pressure from pro-democracy activists.

Critics of this view like HKU's Professor Johannes Chan (admittedly, the leading authority on the Basic Law’s meaning) argue that HKSAR had already satisfied its Article 23 obligation with existing legislation. Aside from very broad British anti-sedition and anti-treason laws that continued in force after the handover, the colonial LegCo enacted an Official Secrets Law, and the transitional LegCo enacted a ban on associations with overseas ties right before the handover. Post-handover LegCo also enacted a controversial Anti-Terrorism law in 2002 to implement the United Nations' anti-terrorism resolution following the 9/11 attacks. Article 23 also has to be read in light of BL Article 39, which incorporates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Any anti-subversion law would have to be well-defined enough to satisfy the Basic Law's commitments to civil liberties and the rule of law. The space between Article 39 and Article 23, these critics urge, might be so small that it can be sufficiently filled by existing Hong Kong legislation without any further law banning “subversion.”

Against this position, however, is an application of the anti-redundancy canon to the plain language of Article 23. Laws banning terrorism, sedition, theft of state secrets, etc., cannot constitute a law banning subversion of state power, because the last is listed as a separate item alongside and distinct from those other items on the list. The 2002 anti-terrorism ordinance might possibly be an adequate substitute for some parts of an anti-subversion law, but, again, the plain text of "subversion" ("顛覆") is broader than "terrorism": It cannot plausibly be limited to the violent overturning of the government through terror as opposed to, say, illegal but non-terrorist civil disobedience, mass strikes, or coup d'etat.

Whatever the exact meaning of Article 23's obligation, in sum, it is easy for PRC leaders to believe that the HKSAR has, bowing to public pressure, disregarded that Article 23 duty. After all, the LegCo has not enacted any law whatsoever, even as a purely symbolic gesture, to assuage to Beijing's "subversion phobia." Perhaps LegCo's Article 23 duty might be merely a formal obligation to enact a measure prohibiting "subversion of state power" that defines such "subversion" as any activity that would already constitute illegal "sedition" or "treason." LegCo, however, has not made even this minimal gesture towards satisfying Article 23. Combined with massive protests against any sort of Article 23 legislation, this inaction can reasonably be construed by Beijing as studied defiance of specific language expressly added to Article 23 to counteract the use of Hong Kong's territory to overthrow the PRC's Leninist regime.

3. How PRC leaders’ paranoia might be stoked by pro-democracy protestors’ rejection of Article 23

The problem for PRC leaders is not merely that HKSAR has not enacted a law that would practically make little difference in any case. The “spirit” of this alleged illegality could reasonably suggest to PRC leaders that Hong Konger is a nest of subversives unwilling to make even the most pro forma gesture of respect for the PRC’s Leninist system. Refusing to tolerate any Article 23 legislation, from this perspective, is akin to throwing the PRC's flag into the harbor, mocking the PRC national anthem, or reciting the LegCo oath of office in an insulting way -- all gratuitous insults suggesting an enclave filled with people itching to overthrow the Mainland regime. To a Leninist already steeped in an ideology of being besieged by capitalist enemies, these sorts of gratuitous provocations trigger anxieties about subversion.

My Hong Kong friends tell me that only such stubborn intransigence can beat back the surreptitious take-over of Hong Kong by PRC leaders who dislike this enclave of liberty on their border but would not openly flout the Basic Law and their treaty obligations with the British. My reply is that one can just as easily provoke a violent take-over through over-reaction as through inattention. If there are costless ways to reassure the Chinese that you are not attempting to undermine the regime on the Mainland, then why not make the gesture? Even formally sovereign countries on China's border have to figure out some way to placate their giant neighbor through some mechanism not entirely dissimilar from Finlandization To reassure the PRC that it is not threatened by their independence. How much more so must little, non-sovereign Hong Kong make such an effort, with no legitimate claim to national independence and no realistic hope of any substantial protection from the United States or the international community if the PRC marched the PLA into the region?

4. Why PRC leaders (probably) don’t want to destroy Hong Kong liberalism

In response to my skepticism about pro-democracy tactics, my Hong Kong friends repeat the argument recited by Mr. Lau’s op-ed: Beijing secretly wants a total take-over of Hong Kong and are only biding their time for unspecified reasons. The problem with this reasoning is the evidence: Compared to the massive incursions on liberty that the PRC has been perfectly happy to impose in other parts of China despite international denunciations of repression, the politically motivated restrictions described by Mr. Lau seem really modest. Lau lists as examples of repression a politically motivated restriction on a public broadcaster’s program and a questions on the university exam as well as pro-Beijing takeover of committee leadership in LegCo, and a limit on public assembly ostensibly justified as a COVID19 prevention measure. In light of how the PRC usually operates, these sorts of restrictions look remarkably modest, suggesting uncharacteristic self-restraint on behalf of the PRC leadership.

Part of the reason for that self-restraint might be that CCP bigs do not want to destroy Hong Kong’s liberalize but instead “Finlandize” it. Keep in mind that Deng Xiaoping possibly did not want to take over Hong Kong at all when the British lease expired in 1997. After all, if the People’s Liberation Army really wanted to control this enclave, they could easily have done so in the 1950s, when the tiny British security force could have been overwhelmed by the PLA. Mao stopped the PLA at the border because a Hong Kong independent from the PRC was useful to the PRC for a variety of reasons. The question of Hong Kong’s return to China was not initially pressed by Deng at all but rather by Murray MacLehose, the British colonial governor who ignored the advice of Y.K. Man and T.S. Lo and raised the status of the New Territories lease with Deng Xiaoping at a 1979 meeting. Deng, apparently surprised by MacLehose’s clumsy overture, was forced to save anti-colonial face by declaring that Hong Kong had to be returned to China. Had T.S. Lo’s strategy been used instead — keep quiet, say nothing, and continue the British occupation without comment — Hong Kong might have remained a British colony to this day.

My Hong Kong friends assure me that the PRC leadership has to move stealthily out of fear of the bad press that would be generated abroad from the military suppression of Hong Kongers a la Tiananmen. Maybe — but have you seen much evidence that the PRC leadership is much deterred from repression by bad international press in other contexts? In Xinjiang, for instance, or anywhere else in China? If the bosses of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) really thought it was in their interest to get rid of all liberal dissent in Hong Kong, they could have done so long ago the old-fashioned Leninist way, irrespective of treaties, international law, or the Basic Law, with tanks and police “visits for a cup of tea.“ That’s how Leninists traditionally operate, from East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Wukan Village, and Xinjiang (2016-today).

The more likely explanation for the PRC’s relatively restrained behavior is that CCP leaders want to preserve a liberal Hong Kong to generate foreign currency, financial deals, decent universities, independent courts attractive to foreign and domestic investors, and an atmosphere of free expression attractive to intellectual talent. The CCP leadership, however, also wants Hong Kong liberalism to be “Finlandized” so that the PRC’s Leninist regime is not threatened by a spark of revolution flying out of Hong Kong and igniting prairie fire on the Mainland. This means that they want to insure that uncensored books in Hong Kong are not surreptitiously smuggled to Mainland China; public protest are free from deliberate insults to symbols of Chinese authority and patriotism (e.g., oath-mocking, anthem-mocking, etc.); and Mainland fugitives (with their money) cannot escape to Hong Kong to flaunt the CCP’s authority.

All of these aspects of “Finlandization” are admittedly serious incursions on freedom as it is enjoyed in, say, New York City or London. But they are magnitudes less serious than the limits imposed on freedom in any Mainland city. If pro-democracy protestors overplay their hand by insisting on a level of freedom that the PRC leadership will not tolerate, then everyone, Hong Kongers and CCP bosses alike, will be left worse off.

5. Ambiguous federal compacts versus passionate moral commitments: The analogy to antebellum United States

If my diagnosis is correct, then CCP leaders and pro-democracy protestors ought to cut a deal in which both sides credibly commit to a specific “Finlandized” mix of freedom and constraint that each is prepared to tolerate. Presumably, the pro-democracy side can extract concessions for civil liberties equal to the sum of (1) the economic value of a liberal enclave for China plus (2) the various costs (e.g., bad PR) of repressing Tiananmen-style mass protests directly with the PLA. Instead, the pro-democracy side is unconditionally rejecting any sort of restrictions (e.g., extradition of Mainland fugitives) necessary to reassure the CCP, in the process unleashing protestor violence that practically invites the NPC’s standing committee to declare an emergency under BL Article 18 to address “turmoil...which endangers national unity or security and is beyond the control of the government of the Region.”

Why cannot the two sides bargain more realistically in light of the actual cards that each side has to play and the stakes that each side is actually prepared to lose? I do not know. Here, however, are three hypotheses that together might add up to an explanation for the tragedy that seems to be unfolding in Hong Kong.

First, the Basic Law is hopelessly ambiguous about baselines, so it can mean all things to all people. HKSAR is entitled to a “high degree of autonomy” — but does that exclude the PRC’s imposing an extradition law to protect Mainland interests in preserving Leninism? HKSAR is supposed to enact an anti-subversion law — but how exactly does an anti-subversion law differ from an anti-sedition or anti-treason law? With so many ambiguities, the Basic Law invites each side to believe that the other is conspiring against the statutory bargain struck in 1990.

Second, the British colonial system on which the Basic Law is based does not create any institution within Hong Kong capable of bargaining effectively on behalf of the Hong Kongers. Having inherited a government without genuinely representative institutions, the CCP leaders now have no one on the other side of the table with whom to strike a deal. The tycoons and other “functional constituencies represent a small slice of the population and cannot speak persuasively for rank and file in the streets. The pro-democracy foot soldiers pride themselves on being “like water,” but this means that they are a headless opposition, incapable of sitting down at the bargaining table to work out a deal. The result is the dreary pas-de-deux of protest, repression, protest, repression, leading ultimately to the final repression in which both sides lose when the PLA ends the cycle and reduces Hong Kong to the status of just another Mainland city.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, it is extraordinarily difficult to contain passionate moral commitments with the cold legalism of federal bargains. Those bargains have to be neutral about the difference in values that divides the constituent parts of a federal union to enable cooperation that would otherwise be stymied by such disagreements. But the citizens of such a union will care much more deeply about those values than any federal compact that purports to set them aside. It might be emotionally impossible for them to carry out a federal bargain that requires each to violate their deepest convictions in the service of that compact.

Consider, as an analogy to Hong Kong’s situation, the conflict between northern anti-slavery and southern pro-slavery states in the 1850s. The federal compact required the northerners to return — or, at least, permit federal authorities to return — fugitive slaves pursued by Southerners. In return for this concession, northern states enjoyed a “high degree of autonomy” (to use the Basic Law’s phrase) to govern their own citizens, black and white, as they pleased. Like a “Finlandized” Basic Law, such a bargain left both sides better off than if North and South had never formed any union at all. Each side got the benefit of a more militarily powerful nation with the wealth of a continent-scaled free trade zone within which to do business without entrenching slavery in the South any more than it would otherwise have been entrenched had the United States been disunited into two independent nations, north and south.

The cold logic of the federal bargain, therefore, should have induced Northerners happily to return fugitive slaves to the South in exchange for safeguards against their own free black citizens’ being kidnapped and enslaved by Southern slave catchers. But such cold logic required the northerners to sit by and watch fugitive slaves be recaptured with in Northern Territory to be sent back to tyrannical servitude. Abolitionists in the North, like pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, simply could not emotionally tolerate such complicity with an immoral regime, where proximate and visible injustice was safeguarded by the federal compact. Denouncing that compact as a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” Abolitionist mobs freed fugitive slaves from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, enraging Southerners with this blatant defiance of the U.S. Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause contained in Article IV, section 2, clause 2, in much the same that CCP leaders are outraged by HKSAR’s failure to forbid subversion of state power as required by BL Article 23.

Daniel Webster, Senator from Massachusetts, played the role of a hapless Hong Kong tycoon in trying to broker a compromise. In his famous speech of March 7th, 1850, Webster tried to draw on the sense of nationality allegedly shared by American citizens North and South: “I wish to speak to-day, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American,” he declaimed. Admitting that his own Northern constituents had violated the constitutional compact out of their misplaced sense of justice, he proposed the Compromise of 1850 as a way for states to sidestep the issue of slavery by letting federal commissioners do the dirty work of assisting in the recapture of fugitive slaves.

But Webster’s effort failed, because the passionate abhorrence of slavery swept away his constituents’ sense of common citizenship with Southerners. Applauded outside of Massachusetts as an act of statesmanship, Webster’s speech was derided as a “vile catastrophe” by Massachusetts leaders like Horace Mann. Shortly after the speech, Webster resigned his seat, his political career in tatters.

If moral convictions had been a little less intense and shared identity, a little stronger, Congress might have created legalistic rules dividing up authority between North and South that could have averted a Civil War that left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead. But convictions about slavery destroyed any sense of shared citizenship in the same way that convictions about Leninism seem to foil any bargain between pro-democracy protestors and Beijing’s leadership. Any Hong Kong tycoon who tried to restrain the former by brokering some national security compromise would probably be swept aside by pro-democracy protestors just as summarily as Webster.

Webster’s failure paved the way for a Civil War in which the moral dispute over slavery was settled with cannons rather than protests. An analogous military intervention could end Hong Kong’s dispute with Beijing — but the outcome will not be as happy for human freedom. The North, after all, had better than even odds of winning a non-legalistic military fight with the South: Intransigently standing for justice over federal compromise made sense if you know you would ultimately win a victory for justice. Hong Kong, by contrast, obviously has no such hope of prevailing in a military contest with the PRC. If the PLA uses force to resolve the dispute between the liberals and Leninists, then the pro-democracy protestors’ uncompromising moral stance will have left liberalism worse off in Hong Kong and done nothing to help anyone on the Mainland.

Perhaps that prospect may yet induce some latter-day Webster in Hong Kong to broker a “Finlandization” bargain that will preserve what practically can be preserved of Hong Kong’s political culture —- but I am doubtful.

Posted by Rick Hills on May 23, 2020 at 03:49 PM | Permalink


Alvin writes: “ the notion that the existence of rights should be contingent on winning some sort of political beauty pageant is abhorrent.”

Abhorrent or not, Alvin, it is reality. Rights don’t fall from the sky like rain: They are products of politics. And you, of course know this well: You are a Hong Kong Civic Party veteran. So you well know that compromise on rights to win votes or to avoid being overwhelmed by power is an inevitable part of how rights are defended. In fact, I’d cast Ronny Tong, the former chair of the Civic Party, as someone who did not regard it as “abhorrent” to broker a political compromise to secure the best package of rights possible. I’m not sure whether such compromise counts as competing in a “political beauty pageant” by your lights, but, if it doesn’t, then I really have no idea what you mean by that evocative phrase.

I’d also add that I think the efforts of the Civic Party and the Article 23/45 Concern Groups to find some compromise position in Hong Kong’s polarized politics deserve heartfelt praise. So whatever else our disagreements might be, I hope you’ll accept my very sincere admiration and praise for what you have done to stave off what we both regard as a tragic and terrible outcome in Hong Kong — a takeover of this liberal enclave by Mainland authorities.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 28, 2020 6:10:07 PM

slimymed ist ein Produkt, das aus natürlichen Inhaltsstoffen besteht und als pflanzliches Kapselprodukt zur Gewichtsreduktion eingestuft werden kann. Es wurde speziell entwickelt, um Fette aus dem Körper zu verlieren und das Verlangen nach Appetit allmählich zu senken, um die tägliche Kalorienaufnahme zu kontrollieren und gesunde Ernährungsgewohnheiten zu fördern. Diese Kapseln wurden von einer Gruppe von Forschern aus Deutschland entwickelt und sind eine Mischung aus zwei Bio-Kräutern, die sich als fruchtbare Ergänzung zur Gewichtsreduktion erweisen.

Posted by: SlimyMed | May 26, 2020 3:09:36 AM

Quite apart from the straw man that Hills devises out of three stories from Western media, the notion that the existence of rights should be contingent on winning some sort of political beauty pageant is abhorrent.

Posted by: Alvin Cheung | May 25, 2020 8:08:25 PM

The reason that China hasn't eaten HK and Macau up till now: if they did, Taiwan would be so pissed it would declare independence, and they can't have that.

Posted by: NoLongerBreathedIn | May 24, 2020 11:35:59 AM

Just to the "CIA factbook" ( very recommended site by itself):


And here, titled:

"China Is Still Wary of Invading Taiwan"



Posted by: El roam | May 23, 2020 6:17:43 PM

Great post. Just some point or different angles:

First, you claim, that thanks to economic importance, the Chinese take it easy on Hong Kong. Yet, when dealing with numbers or figures, we get far greater better proportions:

According to the "CIA factbook" the GDP of Hong kong ( as for 2017 ) is no more than 341.4 billion USD (official exchange rate) While that one of China is actually: $12.01 trillion USD (2017 ). The gap is huge. In light of such numbers, one would doubt it. Although, the Hong Kong stock market is considered globally, as serious one. But, in terms of substantial economic contribution, very poor.

Then, you claim that I quote:

The CCP leadership, however, also wants Hong Kong liberalism to be “Finlandized” so that the PRC’s Leninist regime is not threatened by a spark of revolution flying out of Hong Kong and igniting prairie fire on the Mainland.

End of quotation:

So, according to you, it is possible, in the eyes of China, that Hong Kong, may cause such severe trouble, that can generate fire on the mainland. So, if such prospect is possible, why on the other hand, China would not oppress them, so hard, like in the mainland? ( like actually these day in Xinjiang indeed). It is logically flawed with all due respect.

Also, You forget Trump and his administration ( or the US generally speaking). The US, imposes sanctions swiftly and easily ( Including on China). This is not a game, for any state or entity, to lose the American markets. That is serious blow for every economy.

Further, the Chinese are far greater more occupied with Taiwan. Taiwan is far greater more severe and difficult issue for them. Maybe, they keep all cards, close to their chest, for the doomed day to come, when they will have to militarily, conquer Taiwan. So, they carefully, treat Hong Kong, for saving it to the real battle: Taiwan.

Finally, it seems that you have confused, ambiguity, with vagueness. Every law, every code, every provision almost, has that tendency to bear ambiguity. It is inherent phenomenon in law. Yet, vagueness is absolutely forbidden in western democracies. Constitutionally so. So, when it is stated that subverting is forbidden, one can't understand to what it does refer actually. What is the prohibited conduct, in more concrete terms. But, not to forget, free speech, meant first of all, to permit, protests and criticism against governments, by its citizens. So, when vague prohibition, like subverting is implied, let alone, naturally concerning governments, it does eliminate any sense or benefit in free speech. For, free speech, is based, mainly on it. Now, you may see it differently, why pro- democracy activists, would commit suicide on it.

Here to Trump, pissed off over Hong Kong, titled:

"US attempts to use outrage over China's Hong Kong law to rally support behind anti-Beijing efforts"




Posted by: El roam | May 23, 2020 6:10:02 PM

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