In the last post, I argued that the ”Don’t Be Gorbachev” model doesn’t work well in context to Beijing’s Hong Kong decision. I argue here that the better model might be “Don’t be Late Qing.” What we’re seeing from Beijing today on the international stage is a reaction against the ‘Century of Humiliation.’ China fought and lost several small wars inside of its own territory. With each loss, it lost land, policy discretion, trading preferences, and pride. It is a reaction to an era with Europeans could burn down the Summer Palace and force the Qing state to acknowledge Chinese territory as colonial holdings. Where the Anti-Gorbachev model suggests we look to domestic policy examples to explain what happened in Hong Kong, this model says the better analogies are found in foreign policy.
What China seeks on the world stage today might be called ‘anti-Humiliation,’ which is to create a political environment that is the opposite of the Century of Humiliation. I believe that Chinese leaders both seek and construct situations where there are risks of humiliation, where they then unify and galvanize an opposition, who can then have a de facto defeat scored against them. It is only through defeat of an opponent that the CCP can find the political victories necessary to produce anti-Humiliation. This is to say that they generate opposition and enemies by design, an opponent to defeat so that a victory can be extracted. If the Spratly Islands didn’t exist, it would be necessary for Xi’s CCP to invent them.
They accumulate these victories by way of making highly contentious claims for the purposes of being challenged. They have move from drawing maps showing the entire South China Sea as their own territory, to occupying the islands, to building runways on them, to moving oil survey ships close to their neighbors shores. In the case of the Philippines, they often scramble their motley Navy and quickly retreat. The mixture contentious claims and belligerent behavior produce a series of small victories.
The more contentious and contested something is, the more potential opposition it generates, and the more China’s ability to dominate over adversaries can be set in sharp relief. The argument, then, is that Chinese leaders follow a behavioral pattern similar to a kleptomaniac teenager: acts must become more brazen with time to generate the same feeling and effect. It is not an unintended consequence, then, that the Philippines is for the first time in its history arming to ward off a foreign aggressor. Indeed, the larger their AFP Navy and Air Force, the larger the potential defeat.
In Hong Kong, they took what was a fairly straightforward pre-existing agreement on universal suffrage, widely agreed to be referenced to international standards, and interpreted in a way that no CCP ally would have. As I wrote on the day it happened, Beijing’s Hong Kong decision was a “crude, uncompromising display of power.” What I am arguing here is that this was intentional. They made no attempt to make even a modicum of concession to more moderate allies. Their decision was designed to generate the largest possible response from Occupy.
They did this, I believe, so that they could fight the pan-democrats in Hong Kong and deliver defeat. By kicking down the doors of One Country, Two Systems, Beijing has made this a domestic issue and given the issue a far wider domestic audience than it otherwise would have. They want a show. They want the firewall taken down. No one, right now, knows how this show is going to unfold, but I will offer two scenarios of defeat.
The first is that Occupy fails to gather any steam because of extremely effective policing. I was in central today and noted police on every corner. They are in force. With the right tactics and timing, they could arrest all of the leaders and ‘hard-liners’ and quickly suck the wind out of whatever movement was waiting in the buds. I am also certain Occupy is dealing with the constant danger of a ‘fifth column,’ people who have joined the movement either as spies or to subvert their acts. This would lead to the effect of Occupy failing to occupy anything for any length of time. The public would not see this policing strategy, as it doesn’t make good news print of TV. Occupy would have effectively turned into ‘all talk.’ Beijing would have confronted them as directly as possible, conceding not an inch of policy space, and turned their failure into public humiliation and defeat.
In the second scenario, the police do the opposite strategy. They let it build. Perhaps they encourage it to get out of hand. Perhaps the bus in fengqin and start fights. They would air this luan to their domestic audiences – and then they would crush it. In the best case scenario, Ferguson comes to Central. In the worst case scenario, the PLA gets a chance to show how they would handle 1989 today. As militarized as Ferguson was, the best and worst case scenario might not be far apart. But the ultimate goal is a defeat for pan-democrats and OLPC. Institutions can have power without much overt struggle, but they can not have victories. To have a victory, someone must have been defeated
This interpretation means that Beijing wasn’t against democratization in Hong Kong because it would have been a real or tangible threat. That autocratic single-party states are inherently opposed to free and fair elections would be only part of the story. The larger meaning of the August 31st decision was that it was a symbolic act meant to provoke anger and opposition. They wanted anti-Beijing citizens and politicians to unite around a single idea, to come out for a single cause, so that they could collectively meet defeat. Like the kleptomaniac teenager, they will one day go too far. There will, eventually, be a stopping point to ‘Anti-Humiliation’ where Xi & Co. don’t win a victory and instead find humiliation. Whether that day is now or sometime in the future is anyone’s guess.