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Reading the tea-leaves in Hong Kong.

In 1995 in a little remembered event Li Ruthuan, a member of the Chinese Politiburo (containing the top seven in the government), made a speech likening the Chinese take-over of Hong Kong to the case of a lady who had agreed to sell a 100-year-old Yi-Xiang teapot that was famous for the taste of the tea it poured. Unbeknown to her, its quality derived from the residue that had accumulated on the inside of the pot. In her eagerness to prepare the pot for sale she cleaned and polished it. When the purchaser came to try using the pot the tea was dreadful and he demanded his money back.

In this way Li Ruthuan made his point that the majority of the Chinese leadership didn’t have a proper understanding of what were the important factors that enabled Hong Kong to be such a successful commercial centre. It also should remind us today that the leadership of the Communist Party is probably not a monolithic hard line group. Li was liberally minded. So was General-Secretary Zhao Ziyang who opposed the Tiananmen crackdown and went to visit the protesting students in an effort to calm things down. Tragically, he was overruled by Deng Xiaoping who ordered the tanks in, even though a majority of the Politburo supported Zhao, according to Bao Tong who was Zhao’s chief of staff. If such divisions went right to the top of the Communist party in the not too distant past we can be pretty sure they exist today.

I suspect that today among parts of the current leadership there is an appreciation that to tamper too much with Hong Kong could be counterproductive. Indeed, caution over what to do about Hong Kong goes right back to the time of Mao Zedong when the victorious Communist armies stopped short at the Hong Kong border in October, 1949. Stalin was pressing Mao to advance but Mao refused, convinced that Hong Kong would be useful to China as a base for foreign trade and as a political bridge to the West.

Some of them may well be lobbying Xi, pointing out that it’s not in China’s interest to intervene if it precipitates a flight of capital, a collapse of the property market (which undermines the super billionaires of Hong Kong who largely support Beijing) and a large exodus of the professionals and the elite. A mainland intervention, some could well be saying in Politburo meetings, would definitely affect the Chinese growth rate which is already falling. This, they would add, might lead to large scale labour unrest and an alienation of those (a big majority of the people) who have mentally traded away more freedom in return for good economic growth and the reinforcing of the welfare state.)

This above is an optimistic reading of current Chinese debates. But we know that the official public voice of China has made it more than clear its visceral hatred of all things democratic, combined with paranoia over British intentions. This goes back to Deng Xiaoping, who as an economic reformist led China into the capitalist age and who presided over the early negotiations on the return of Hong Kong. He said, “Watch the British, lest they might abscond with the capital”. Today the government is telling the British to keep well away.

Many of us always hoped that once the British had gone that the Chinese, having seen that the British were honourable and hadn’t absconded with the silver, would come to terms with Hong Kong’s liberal and open society. They haven’t.

Regrettably, the British leant over too far backwards to give China a good deal in accepting limits on Hong Kong’s democracy. If they had done what they did to other colonies like India and Nigeria- and introduced full democracy in internal affairs years before independence- all this would never happened. The students wouldn’t have had to fight as they are today to get China to honour its pledge to the departing British to move step by step towards democracy. One can blame successive British governments for this, but not Chris Patten, the last governor, who did his best to play a bad hand well. (This is not to sanctify Patten- he didn’t do enough to rid Hong Kong of its gross differentials in income distribution and to eliminate the appalling slums where hundreds of thousands still live in almost animal-like conditions without satisfactory medical care.)

Xi has risen to the top of Chinese society without blood on his hands. He was a small child at the time of the Revolution and he has never cut off any heads as he climbed up the pole to the top leadership position. He’s accumulated a lot of power and cut back on the growing sense of liberty in China, but he’s no Mao, Stalin or Hitler. He’s not even another Deng Xiaoping.

I’m sure he’s struggling in his mind as to how to end this confrontation without blood on the streets. The two sides must meet each other half way. Xi must set out a timetable promising full democracy in Hong Kong, even if it’s 15 years away. (Deng once said he expected China to become democratic by the year 2035.) The demonstrators must unambiguously undertake to give more respect to the mainland and to promise a moratorium on demonstrations once it becomes clear that Beijing is committed to implementing such a promise.

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