Lesson for Trump in HK: try to bounce China at your peril

14-Dec-2016 Intellasia | FT | 6:00 AM Print This Post

CY Leung’s bitter experience illustrates diplomatic difficulties facing US president-elect

CY Leung’s decision not to seek a second term as Hong Kong’s chief executive is a disappointing denouement for a man who once seemed uniquely qualified to bridge the divide between his free, open city and China’s Communist rulers.

His failure to be that bridge also highlights an important lesson for Donald Trump as the US president-elect threatens to turn diplomatic precedent with Beijing upside down. Just nine days after accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ying-wen, Trump has publicly mulled whether he should be bound by the “One China” policy that has been a decades-long feature of the Sino-US relationship.

The lesson for Trump is this: you try to push Beijing across its own “red lines” at your peril.

Years before he became chief executive in 2012, Leung would tell international visitors that if they wanted to see the real Hong Kong, they needed to stray far beyond the territory’s globally famous business and tourist districts.

He advised them to ride a tram eastward along King’s Road to Shau Kei Wan. Only that way could they begin to understand the cramped conditions in which most people lived in what is ostensibly one of the world’s richest cities, at least as measured by per capita gross domestic product.

Leung could rattle off the income disparity statistics that made a nonsense of Hong Kong’s impressive per capita GDP and was fully versed in the monopoly dynamics that belied perennial assertions that the territory was the world’s “freest economy”.

In addition to his understanding of the socio-economic divisions fuelling Hong Kong’s increasingly divisive and paralysed political scene, the chief executive-in-waiting was a long-time Beijing loyalist with unique insight into the inner workings of the Communist party.

According to people close to him, Leung would in private conversations emphasize the Communist party’s preference for “zero risk” outcomes. Convincing Beijing to accept more risk than it was comfortable with was always his biggest challenge, especially in the context of Hong Kong’s political development.

Leung and his two predecessors were selected by a 1,200-member “election committee” dominated by pro-Beijing figures. The Chinese government agreed to a plan for Hong Kong’s chief executive to be popularly elected in 2017, while insisting that the final candidates first be approved by the committee.

It was a remarkable gift from Leung to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, which had long distrusted him because of his close ties to Beijing. Leung was offering Hong Kong’s registered voters the power to sack him.

But the landmark reform was vetoed by pro-democracy legislators who objected to the election committee vetting mechanism. They essentially said: “If Beijing does not give us everything we want right now, we will reject a compromise that moves us much closer to our final objective.”

Hong Kong’s democrats are, in short, well intentioned men and women of principle, but also tactically inept. Beijing refused their ultimatum and the reform died, meaning that Leung’s successor will be chosen by the election committee as well. The stalemate also sparked the “Occupy Central” protests of 2014 that marked the beginning of the end of Leung’s political career.

Trump seems to believe that he can succeed where Hong Kong’s democrats did not, by forcing Beijing to cross a red line it has said it will never cross. It is true that the US has a lot more leverage over Beijing than Hong Kong does, but recovering Taiwan is also a far more important priority for the Communist party than Hong Kong’s constitutional development.

The US president-elect has indicated that Beijing’s One China policy is a bluff that he can call in return for concessions on other fronts, from trade policy to containment of nuclear North Korea. If Trump needs a second opinion on just how wrong he is, he need only pick up the phone and ring Leung.



Category: Hong Kong

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