Dead ends for China -- and the US


SCMP October 5, 2014


Both China and the US seem determined to pursue policy dead ends, driven by reaction to events rather than long-term thinking.

First, let us step aside for a moment from the specifics of the Hong Kong constitutional issue and look at the confusion which appears to be in the mind of leaders in Beijing as to what sort of system and society they are trying to advance on the mainland.

The very day that protests began in Hong Kong, it was reported that President Xi Jinping was urging a return to the "spirit" of Mao Zedong to enable a united party to deliver an even greater and more prosperous China. What does this mean? Is it just a sop to the leftists who still lurk in the party? Or does it imply support for continued class warfare, and, if so, who are now the class enemies? Or does it imply a preference for the singular leadership of the party, as practised by the likes of Mao and Stalin rather than the collective leadership style of, for example, Jiang Zemin's era, when a hundred flowers really did bloom in China?

Is the anti-corruption campaign a way of cleansing both party and state to enable more space for the private sector? Or is it really a leftist throwback with rhetoric similar to that of the now disgraced Bo Xilai ?

Not helping answer these questions was a subsequent reference by Xi to the importance of Confucius, the very idealist seen by Mao as the embodiment of hierarchy and a feudal society. For sure, Confucian ideas have a foundation in ethical behaviour, and are suitably secular. Buddhism, which has been as influential as Confucianism in the propagation of ethical ideas in China, did not get a mention.

Is its problem that the Buddha, unlike Confucius, a near contemporary, was not Chinese? Or is it just that order and hierarchy are now the overriding need? Strengthening the power of the party may sustain order, but how can the private sector now lead China's economy?

Further muddying the waters, just before the Hong Kong protests began, Xi was giving face to a group of the richest people in Hong Kong, using them to criticise the pro-democracy movement. Does it not matter to the president that many of these inherited their vast wealth, and that, in most cases, that wealth was accumulated through land and property at the expense of small business and households? For Mao, oppressive landlords were the target for revolutionary execution. Other Hong Kong fortunes came from gambling, a vice condemned by both Mao and Confucius, and now also a means of capital flight and money laundering for mainlanders.

Almost none of these mega rich made their money through major innovation or globe-spanning enterprise but from a domestic market noted for oligopoly. Is Xi so ill-informed about the fact Hong Kong discontent relates to these issues, not just political arrangements?

Then we had the border incursion into India at the time Xi was visiting India. Did this show Xi was not fully in charge? Or that, for all the talk of closer ties with Delhi, China was not going to forget its border claims in this remote bit of the Himalayas?

And then the very moderate Uygur writer Ilham Tohti was given a life sentence for "inciting separatism". What did that tell Hong Kong people about Beijing's tolerance of diversity?

Large empires usually don't survive long if they don't admit the need for diversity. Just 10 days of such news items - and many more before - help explain why thousands of people who may be lukewarm about constitutional issues have been on the streets of Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, the US is back on its dead-end road in the Middle East. Perhaps it had no alternative but bombing to prevent Islamic State from reaching the outskirts of Baghdad and Kirkuk. But having inherited the mess from the 2003 invasion of Iraq (and, before that, interventions in Afghanistan and indirectly in the Iran-Iraq war, both of which backfired disastrously), President Barack Obama has since been hemmed in by a Congress composed of the wilfully obstructive and woefully ignorant.

The last illusion (of Obama's critics) was that more help for the secular opposition to the Syrian regime would have toppled Bashar al-Assad before the Islamists gained momentum. The impossibility of being for long on the side of righteousness in such a confused situation has been shown a dozen times, not least by welcoming the Arab spring which overthrew Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and now allying with a new military president.

The latest illusion is that Sunni militants can be tamed without leaning much harder on Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In fact, the less the US commits to singular goals in such a region of multiple ethnic, religious and linguistic conflicts, the more likely that Turkey, Iran and the Saudis will be forced to realise that without mutual cooperation, the mess cannot be contained - threatening the Saudis, above all.

Obama is hamstrung by not being allowed to treat Iran with the respect it deserves as the oldest and fundamentally most stable state (though not government) in the region, or punish a race-based Israel for expansion of Jewish settlements.

Dead-end roads end in frustration which spawns new irrationalities.



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