Goodbye, Hong Kong
The demonstrations in Hong Kong to protest the proposed extradition law have turned violent. This past week, a group of hardcore protesters laid siege to Hong Kong's legislature, trashed the place, and said they were willing to die for their cause. And what is their cause? It is basically to maintain the One State, Two System relationship that was established between Hong Kong and the mainland from the time Great Britain turned its colony over the China in 1997 to the present.
And why have the protests turned violent? Have some anarchists come to town to stir up trouble? Doubtful. Or perhaps it was a false flag operation perpetrated by Beijing to justify a crackdown? That's more likely. But the most likely explanation is that a segment of Hong Kong's young people are desperate and are venting their frustration as Red China tightens its grip on the city.
Whatever is behind the protests — and more have been promised — it will not end well for Hong Kong. Yes, Hong Kong might win a skirmish here and there, but in the long run, it loses.
China simply cannot allow Hong Kong to have the degree of independence the former British colony wants. Hong Kong's economic importance to the mainland was once critical, but as China proper has grown, Hong Kong's value has diminished in relative terms. The problem with Hong Kong is not a matter of money for China. Rather it's that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has two imperatives. One is to keep its grip on power, and the other is to hold China together as a unified nation. A relatively independent Hong Kong is an affront to both.
As for holding China together, this is not a given. Peter Zeihan writes, "Chinese history is a tale of warlords and collapse imperial systems that just couldn't make it stick." Zeihan blames this on China's geography.
China is mammoth in size but it lacks the sort of internal riverine transport network that would enable pre-industrial Chinese authorities to reliable project power to its own periphery. Combine poor transport options with high population densities and China suffers from a center that cannot impose its will on its outlands on its worse days, and outlands that cannot become strong enough to full[y] resist central control on its best days. The whole place spins apart and crashes together with regularity.
Adding stress to this fragile geopolitical situation are mega-forces currently hammering China. Again relying on Zeihan, they include the following.
First, the Chinese export-led system is maxing out because global demographics have turned negative. Global consumption can no longer absorb the amount of exports China needs to maintain growth and provide jobs for its population. Second, China's financial system is a hot mess. It's a house of cards waiting to fall. China has a mountain of unsustainable debt, and corruption is everywhere. Third, China's demographics have peaked. Its population is rapidly aging. Therefore, there will be no domestic consumption-led growth to pick up the slack in declining exports. Fourth, the U.S. is finally targeting China's predatory trade practices and intellectual theft, both of which fueled China's rapid growth in the past. The free ride is ending. The Chinese are now going to have to work for innovations instead of just taking them free and easy from the West. This will be a jarring change, one that Chinese society might not be able to navigate.
Given all this, it is little wonder that President Xi Jinping fears for the future of the unified Chinese state. Economic growth is needed to keep the country stable. When that goes, only brute power will remain. This is why Xi cannot tolerate Hong Kong asserting its independence in any way. In the mind of the CCP, the Hong Kong protests are viewed as a threat to both China's unity and the party's power. Hong Kong is a loose string that can unwind the whole cloth.
Everyone loves an underdog. But Hong Kong cannot prevail in this fight. China's population is 1.4 billion. Hong Kong's is 7.4 million. Hong Kong is a small herbivore. Communist China is a large, ravenous carnivore. It's that simple.
The CCP is being pushed into a corner by both the protests and the forces mentioned above. When that happens, a Tiananmen Square (1989)–type mentality takes over, at which time communists do what communists naturally do. Zeihan has a dark view — albeit an accurate one — of what the future of Hong Kong is apt to be.
It's about to become an absolutely horrible place to be. The degree of Chinese ... reconstruction of the island will be on par with the cultural genocide already being imposed upon the Uyghurs of China's western Xinjiang region. It won't last a week or month or a year. We're looking at something that will last at least a decade.
As an Irish poet might write at some point in the future: "Ah, Hong Kong, we hardly knew ye."