Hong Kong was always going to be China’s acid test. Thatcher, Britain’s last conviction PM, was never keen on returning it to China. She never trusted Beijing to abide by its commitments further than to interpret the Anglo-Chinese Joint Declaration whichever way suited it best. Originally inclined to hold onto the colony, she relented only because the Chinese were prepared and able to starve and dehydrate Hong Kong into submission.
Hong Kongers knew what they could expect. Some, such as Carrie Lam and Jackie Chan, sold their souls to the Party. Both have done well out of it. Carrie Lam, for all her uselessness and incompetence, was appointed Chief Executive of the territory. Jackie Chan is the CCP’s poster boy. He is the model that Beijing wants all Hong Kongers to emulate. Speak Cantonese if you wish, be a Hong Konger if you must, but never forget that Xi Dada is your lord and master and that you must bow to Beijing’s whims without complaint or question.
Of course, much of Hong Kong’s business elite have taken this position. So, frankly, has the greater portion of Hong Kong-based criminal syndicates. When there were protests, frequently heated, a singular, obvious fact was pointed out by many advocates of a liberal Hong Kong. The vast majority of thugs and troublemakers could not speak or understand Cantonese. They were Mandarin-speaking. That is, they were brought in from the Mainland to do the Triads’ and Chief Executive’s dirty work for them. The odds of someone recognising a Hong Konger would be too great.
By taking this approach, Beijing ensured that the movement would be crushed without having to use the People’s Liberation Army. The consequences within Hong Kong, however, have been profound. The Hong Kong Police, until recently a well-respected institution, are now hated and seen as an extension of Beijing rather than a community-based institution. By effectively banning the pro-democracy bloc from the LegCo (legislative council), Beijing via the LegCo and HK Chief Executive has effectively rendered Hong Kong elections moot. They will, of course, proceed but they will be no different than East German elections. In theory there will be multiple parties, in theory elections will be contested but in reality, it will be a Hobson’s choice.
This leads one to wonder if it was truly worth it to have the uprising to begin with. After all, the ultimate consequence was that Beijing simply cracked down even harder on Hong Kong than it did on neighbouring Macau. Macau, never particularly attached to Portugal and the Macanese, never particularly nostalgic about Portuguese rule, have had an easier go of it. Portugal permitted all Macanese adults to retain Portuguese citizenship. Those who made use of it generally settled in the UK, Ireland, Sweden or elsewhere in the EU. Some, of course, did settle in Portugal as well. Domestically, Beijing has never perceived Macau as a threat or disloyal. But this would miss a simple detail. Whatever laws Beijing imposed on its two SARs, the moderate version would be given to Macau, the more severe to Hong Kong. Whatever criticism Beijing had of Macau would be tempered and discreet. Whatever criticism Beijing had of Hong Kong would be shrill and malicious.
Hong Kongers, in short, knew that they were doomed. Those who could obtained full British citizenship prior to 1997. A singer I rather like, Alfred Hui, is British by citizenship despite never having lived in the United Kingdom. Not even a year younger than I, his case is far from unique. This situation was made possible by a simple legal quirk. Hong Kong residence was based on having a residence permit. Prior to 1 July 1997, Hong Kongers were British Nationals Overseas. After 1 July 1997, they were Chinese citizens with Hong Kong residence permits and no right of abode on the mainland. Their unique status was further enhanced by having the prerogative to hold special Chinese passports reserved for Hong Kong residents and/or British BNO passports. Both could be used until recently for travel as the residence permit was more important than the passport itself.
Others left. My Cantonese teacher has Hong Kong parents and has spent a significant amount of time in Hong Kong, but she is Canadian by birth, citizenship and residence. There are large populations of Hong Kongers in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. The United States similarly has a large population of Hong Kong émigrés. Not all had this option. Most had to make due and hope for the best and hold out as long as possible. Once it was clear that the writing was on the wall, they did what they could to tear the veil. Hong Kong was doomed from the moment the Anglo-Chinese Joint Declaration was made. If Britain could do nothing for Hong Kong, then Macau was in an even weaker position. What could a poor Portugal, utterly reliant on Chinese largesse, hope to do? No… The one place that could still be saved was Taiwan.
Taiwan, of the three territories that China coveted, was destined to be the toughest one to obtain. Lisbon had wanted to wash its hands of Macau since 1975. Britain’s lease on the New Territories was running up and China was in no mood to renew it. Once London and Beijing had hammered out a framework for Hong Kong, Lisbon and Beijing simply had to agree on a few cosmetic changes and copy-paste a few details into it and call it well enough for Macau. Taiwan, on the other hand, was in effect its own country. Once Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek died, control was passed into the hands of native Taiwanese. Li Teng-hui started the “Taiwanisation” process. Taiwan’s language, culture and education would become localised. It was fitting that Li, himself a member of Chiang’s KMT, never learnt to speak Mandarin with full proficiency. He spoke his native Taiwanese and fluent Japanese, a product of his upbringing in Japanese Taiwan.
After Chen Shui-bian was elected president in 2000, he further moved Taiwan away from China’s sphere. Although not a particularly brilliant president, he did leave Taiwan one great and lasting gift. Taiwan’s fate cannot be decided by Taiwan’s politicians. Taiwan’s fate can only be decided by Taiwan’s people. By rising up, Hong Kongers knowingly hastened Hong Kong’s inevitable demise. There was only going to be one outcome and they knew it. By rising up, however, they showed exactly what “one country, two systems” really meant: one county, one system and a bit of garnish. The international business class and diplomatic establishment had hoped that Taiwan would, gradually, become a third Special Administrative Region. After all, for some years it seemed to work okay for Hong Kong and Macau — at least from the outside looking in. Even in Taiwan, a significant minority of the business elite were inclined to at least consider throwing their weight behind that. Now, no serious person in Taiwan can even countenance that and hope to be taken seriously. Global businesses have been forced to hedge their bets. China, for all its sweetheart deals, is not the promised land they thought it was even 5 years ago. Most importantly, the liberal world has been forced to face up to what China really is. Between Hong Kong’s ultimate sacrifice and the recent pandemic, China has come out far more badly damaged than anyone expected.
Hong Kong might not have only saved Taiwan, but it might have saved us, too. We have been forced to pay attention at long last to Beijing’s pernicious influence in universities, in investments and in business deals. Do we really want to be another Sri Lanka, Portugal or New Zealand? Especially after China showed its hand in its dealings with Sweden and Australia (fortunately possessing rather more significant a spine outside of Comrade Kim Jong-Dan’s People’s Republic of Victoria) this isn’t anything we can risk.
9 thoughts on “Farewell, Hong Kong.”
Many thanks for this very thoughtful commentary, Christopher.
I know you read, study and analyse a great deal more than most of us do.
I think you are quite right that China’s very swift re-interpretation of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ in Hong Kong alerted many to the fact that China’s ‘Friendly Image’ was a mere illusion. If the people of Hong Kong rebelled to alert the rest of the world – I have even more respect for them than I already had.
China’s rapid and over-the-top reaction to Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the origin of the Covid-19 virus has certainly alerted us, here, that we need to re-evaluate our relationship with that country. I think, or is it hope (!) that other countries around the world are doing the same.
I have a question that I hope you might be able to answer – or at least comment on.
For some years China seemed to be relaxing its stringent Communist protocols – allowing its people to become multi-millionaires – or even billionaires, entrepreneurs, accepted a growing middle-class and almost, dare I say, seemed to embrace a somewhat westernised system – while still taking care of its poorest. And I’m one of those who think that some Western Countries do not care too much about their poor.
It seemed to have become a country that had no desire to offend the rest of the world – but wanted to work with us.
And then – wham! bang! Under the present regime it has become an aggressive, militant country that seems to want the rest of the world to bow down to its every demand and refuses to co-operate.
My question is quite simple: was the ‘friendliness ‘ of China real or merely a ruse to lull us in the West into believing that we could could ‘trust’ China whilst allowing it to build up its military strength?
Boadicea: There has been a lot of discussion about just that. The People’s Republic is hardly unprecedented. Mao was a radical leader, but even he looked to Chinese history for precedent. In his case, it was Qin Shi Huang. Chinese statecraft has been largely consistent, although different dynasties and rulers had different personalities, tones and approaches. China, to its credit, avoids bloody conflicts abroad. It sees them as costly, wasteful and self-defeating in the long term. It also sees them as having very little real net benefit. Look at the Seppos. They invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, spent trillions of dollars, maimed and destroyed the lives of millions and achieved what, exactly? The USA has an awful reputation. Especially under its current regime, it is seen as highly unreliable. Not for the first time, the only thing saving the USA is that fact that the alternative is even worse.
To understand China’s approach, Australia and New Zealand are perfect examples. New Zealand is meek and compliant to China’s wished. New Zealand does not seriously criticise or question China. There might, on occasion, be a weak, half-hearted effort to look independent but it’s not exactly convincing. In exchange, China pumps large sums of money into New Zealand’s economy and gives New Zealand favourable market access. New Zealand lamp, New Zealand milk, New Zealand fruits and vegetables and New Zealand fish are quickly processed by Chinese customs and distributed seamlessly in China. China sends New Zealand students to keep NZ’s universities solvent. Australia, which questioned China and did not toe China’s line, has seen its coal exports linger for months in Chinese harbours. China has waged economic and diplomatic war on Australia. China has gone so far as to create rifts in the Australia-New Zealand alliance, using diplomatic and economic pressure on Wellington to try to isolate Australia. Bit by bit, China has been buying up the Pacific Island nations and used them to put pressure on Australia. For example, the threat by some Pacific Island nations to withhold agriculture labour from Queensland has Beijing’s fingerprints all over it.
This is normal for China, this is what can be expected from China. China’s leadership might play different mood music, but the substance has always been the same. Deng Xiaoping was a technocrat and a pragmatist. He understood full well how weak China was, how far China had to go before it could be accepted as a serious power. He focused on economic reform and growth, stabilising China’s social problems and making China a desirable investment destination. He also hand-picked two successors: Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Both largely continued Deng’s policies. It was easier for the West to overlook, usually willingly, what was being done very openly in China during the 1990s. China was too poor, too weak, too backwards and the United States was by-and-large behaving itself globally. China started growing more aggressive under Xi only because Xi sensed that the United States, badly hit by the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the Afghan-Iraqi debacles, had lost much of its lustre. Xi also recognised that Obama was a weak leader. Take, for example, the China-Philippines dispute over China’s seizure of disputed shoals. Obama wagged his finger at Beijing, but tacitly accepted China’s seizure of the shoals. This left the Philippines humiliated and weakened diplomatically. After all, the cornerstone of their defence and diplomatic policy was their close alliance with the Seppos. China would “make examples” of country after country — Norway, Sweden, the Philippines, Japan, so on, so on. Each time they saw they could get away with it, they went after another, bigger target.
Under Trump, China was more reluctant to push its boundaries too far simply because they recognised that Trump would fight them fiercely. Trump, for all his lack of finesse, possesses an innate understanding of the Asia-Pacific region simply because he has done so much business there. He knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak. When the United States descended into toxic, partisan infighting during the impeachment proceedings and the pandemic, the Chinese took full advantage of the USA’s internal problems. After all, you might not always “like” China, but you have to admit that Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Tianjin and Shenzhen are more safer and pleasanter places to live than Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, St Louis and New York City — especially when they were going up in flames. You couldn’t imagine mobs firebombing courthouses in Xiamen the way you saw in Portland. You wouldn’t see Harbin resembling a war zone the way Chicago does and you certainly wouldn’t see student union revolutionaries take over parts of Hangzhou the way they did in Seattle.
Right now, China is behaving the way it is simply because they see it as their best opportunity. The United States is discredited and Seppos simply can’t be taken seriously. The “president” is a corrupt, sleazy, incompetent old fool with dementia who makes a mess of everything he touches. Congress is deadlocked and the USA is almost certain to be in complete political paralysis after next year’s midterm election, the Republicans looking set to gain at least 50 seats in the House and 5 seats in the Senate. Being in the USA, I see its decline. The country is falling apart, cracking up. All I have to do is leave this rural county to see a third world country. At the same time, India is not yet prepared to fill the void that the USA’s decline is leaving. They will in 5-10 years, but China’s moment is now.
On the domestic front, China is also “making a point”. Icons of Chinese business like Jack Ma are “disappeared” for months at a time to show that the Party is in charge, not the private sector. The tennis star who “disappeared” is symbolic of something else: an intra-party power struggle. It isn’t only Seppoland that has been badly hit. China’s crown is also tarnished. Xi’s rivals are keen on returning to power. Even though their goals are the same, they are pointing out that Xi mismanaged the economy and mishandled China’s diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. They would have done exactly the same, but they would have waited for a few more years and played more pleasant mood music.
Christopher – once again thanks for your insight!
I thought that China had let its ‘good guy’ image drop and is now employing opportunist policies – because it can. I’m a firm believer that leopards do not change their spots – and that wolves can wear sheep’s clothing… but I lacked the data to back-up my opinion. Many thanks for supplying me with those.
Shame that Mao’s legacy did not meet the fate of the Qin dynasty!
I’m going through your comment as you write it – so this might end up somewhat disjointed. Your comment re China’s aversion to overseas conflicts reminds me of the number of times I was told in India that it had never, ever begun an overseas conflict on its own behalf… what two eminently sensible countries!
However, I’m sure that China will invade Taiwan based on the age-old dogma that it once ‘owned’ Taiwan – unless we, the rest of the world, make it quite clear that we will not tolerate that. But we have people, like Keating, telling us that it none of our business. I wonder what the next demand will be should the world let China take Taiwan. Has no one studied history?
Your comment re which city I would prefer to live in made me smile… having been to a number of cities in China that you mention – I cannot but agree with you that I would definitely take Shanghai, Lijang and Hangzhou above any of the U.S. cities you mention.
Unfortunately, and with all due respect to the Chariot’s members from Over the Pond, your comments re the U.S.A. are quite accurate – it is seen as a very unreliable ally but is still the best of an incredibly bad alternative. The U.S. needs to lift its game – and remember that we in Oz are their front-line defence. Without Australia’s eyes and ears they will have no knowledge of what is happening this side of the world. I don’t think too many Americans realise this – i just hope that the U.S. Government (whoever they really are) do.
An aside: you may have seen the unrest in the Solomon Islands in response to their Government moving for closer ties to China?
Another aside: for your record some of us here are not too worried about the lack of over-seas labour for our farmers. Using every loophole under the very stringent labour laws here, the conditions most foreign agricultural labourers work under are pretty appalling. Sure, we know that prices will increase if labour costs increase – but, at the end of the day, consumers will control prices. It is time that our producers, supermarkets etc looked at their ‘profit margins’ and learn that it is often better to sell more at a lower profit than less at a high profit.
I am very interested in your comment that Xi has political rivals. Any more information?
Boadicea: I often butt heads with Seppos. For example, the old canard of Uncle Sam coming to the rescue of Europe lest we all speak German. Didn’t quite work out for me, now did it? Britain, with the support of the Commonwealth and Polish soldiers managed to hold out on its own. If anything, Britain was in the unfortunate position of having to deal with an American “ally” whose ambassador in the person of Joseph Kennedy was far too sympathetic to Adolf. The Americans were only roused to enter the war in a meaningful way after Pearl Harbour and Germany and Italy declaring war on the US. The Soviet contribution to the war remains underappreciated. Stalin grew terribly cross because the British Commonwealth and US kept dragging their feet on opening up a western front against Hitler leaving the Soviets to take the losses effectively on their own. Even now, American unreliability is leading many countries in the Asia-Pacific Region to form alliances independent of the US.If the Americans want to be taken seriously, they have to be reliable. They cannot have weak leaders and they cannot continue to exact a high price for their support when countries cannot rely on it. As you rightly point out, the US relies heavily on friendly countries in the region for its own security as well. If Japan could manage a surprise attack on Hawai’i some 80-odd years ago, China can inflict much more harm to the US West Coast.
Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Manila, Jakarta, Hanoi, Bangkok and New Delhi understand just how precarious the balance of power is. Taiwan is more than merely a small island. It’s the key to control of the South China Sea and the first island chain. If Taiwan falls, China can extend its control of the waters to the east of Japan and the Philippines. When the US has a president who is serious and means business, the risk is minimal. Any war with the US would be costly and would drag in China’s neighbours. There is no guarantee that China would win such a conflict and even if it did, the cost would come at a very high price. Taiwan is a difficult island to invade. There are few places that an amphibious invasion can take place and those are easy to defend. Keating is one o
Yes, I heard about what happened in the Solomon Islands. Something similar happened in Samoa. The former government was far too friendly with China and a lot of Samoans did not like how much power China was starting to exert over the country. The situation in New Caledonia is worth watching. Independence from France, yes, but the way it’s being pursued would only lead to dependence on China.
I do not doubt that many in Australia wouldn’t miss the end of that exploitative system of labour. It is, however, something that many firms have grown reliant on. Holding Australia ransom via a third party is typically Chinese: “using Barbarians to control Barbarians” as the old Chinese adage goes. Disrupt, destabilise, upend.
As for Mao… His legacy to a large extent went out with him. Hua Guofeng (rumoured by some to be Mao’s son) stabilised China and immediately ended Mao’s reign of mad terror. Deng reversed the damage — Jiang and Hu continued that. Xi is only resurrecting elements of Mao for narrow political purposes.
As a Chinese émigrée once observed on British radio, the West has multiple parties that are very similar whereas China has one party with very different factions. Currently, there are two main factions. There is the currently dominant Beijing Faction which is de facto led by Xi Jinping. Then there is the formerly dominant, but still powerful, Shanghai Faction which is de facto led by Jiang Zemin. The Shanghai faction is a bit more relaxed in its approach to foreign policy and more willing to accept a laissez-faire approach to domestic matters (so long as no group or trend is perceived of as a threat) than the Beijing Faction. The Shanghai faction were weakened by their approach to Falun Gong. Their crackdown was, even within the CCP itself, seen as overkill. Although they can’t officially admit it openly, many in the party have come to accept that whilst it might have been wise to keep a close eye on the group, persecuting it so severely created powerful and globally influential enemies. It also hurt China’s image badly. Xi Jinping used this to hurt his rivals. The problem is, his policies towards Hong Kong, Taiwan, the economy and the pandemic have caused even more harm to China and given China’s rivals something substantial to work with. For the first time in generations India is seen by many as a wiser investment than China and India attracts key investments and partnerships that in the recent past would have gone to China as a matter of course.
This is how it works in China. The dominant faction appoints its supporters to key positions. That might be friends and/or family taking leading positions in major enterprises, or it might be appointments to the police and military. Xi, in his “anti-corruption” drive removed many key Jiang and even Hu appointees and replaced them with his loyalists in the police and military. The Shanghai faction, however, is in nearly complete control over China’s intelligence services. They plant stories on each other, feed scandals and exploit errors that the other side made. The whole fracas about that Chinese tennis player who accused a senior official of sexual assault is mostly about seeing how powerful the Shanghai faction is. The accused is a member of it and a close ally of Jiang Zemin. Chinese intelligence is doing what it can to undermine Xi as he is approaching the end of his term. Either he will have to make a lot of concessions to the Shanghai faction, out for his head, or he’ll lose his bid if they get their way.
Greetings Christopher. Thanks again for another interesting post. I do not know that part of the world at all well. While I have travelled to Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Japan, they were all business trips so I cannot really say that I got to understand the natives in any way. Having said that, my correspondent in Seoul did once ask me, as we were driving through the city, whether or not I could tell, from their appearance, the difference between Japanese, Chinese and Korean people. After a bit of embarrassed stuttering, I had to admit that I could not. He laughed and assured me that nor could he. But that does lead me to ask whether there is any similarity in the spoken and or written languages of those countries. I mean do they share a commonality like the Romance languages do? I do recall that when I was in Seoul I read a bit about some ruler who in the 17th century, I think, had greatly simplified the character set that had been inherited from China. (Cantonese or Mandarin?)
Some years ago, President Xi came to visit Zimbabwe to meet with Robert Mugabe who then proceeded to sell what was left of this country to the devil. We have since been invaded by hordes of Chinese who do what they please with respect to commerce, agriculture and mining without paying any regard to the environment, the people or even the law. The British colonisers at least built institutions that were aimed to improve the welfare of all inhabitants, even if there were some disparities in distribution. The Chinese act like locusts. They take and give nothing in return.
Shortly before Xi was due to depart, he went to visit a wildlife sanctuary which is run by some people I know and is close to the airport. He took time out to have a one to one conversation with the owner. I am not sure that there was much my friend could have done, but with hungry lions lurking around I can’t help feeling he could have at least tried to bring about the grisly demise of the monster.
In 1994 I was living in the US. Even then I could sense a growing unrest and divisions based on racial, ethnic, religious and political differences. I told my girlfriend at the time that the demise of the country was inevitable and that it would eventually, within a couple of decades, split into 3 or more countries. OK I was wrong on the timing, but I still think that the US will soon be, if it is not already, a spent force.
One might wonder what has been the cause or causes of this collapse. Was it inevitable, simply the nature of man made institutions to degrade, or is there something more sinister afoot? I recently read this passage, written by a fellow named Charles Berckheim in 1813. I am not pointing fingers at the Illuminés as I very much doubt that they still exist, if they ever did, but the methods he accuses them of employing seem to coincide very closely with those that we are seeing in modern academic and other institutions, especially those in the US and UK.
“As the principal force of the Illuminés lies in the power of opinions, they have set themselves out
from the beginning to make proselytes amongst the men who through their profession exercise a direct
influence on minds, such as literateurs, savants and above all professors. The latter in their chairs, the former
in their writings, propagate the principles of the sect by disguising the poison that they circulate under a
thousand different forms. These germs, often imperceptible to the eyes of the vulgar, are afterwards
developed by the adepts of the Societies they frequent, and the most obscure wording is thus brought to the
understanding of the least discerning. It is above all in the universities that Illuminism has always found and always will
find numerous recruits; Those professors who belong to the Association set out from the first to study the character of their pupils.
If a student gives evidence of a vigorous mind, an ardent imagination, the sectaries at once get hold of him;
they sound in his ears the words Despotism, Tyranny, Rights of the People, etc., etc. Before he can even
attach any meaning to these words, as he advances in age, reading works chosen for him, conversations
skilfully arranged, develop the germ deposited in his youthful brain. Soon, his imagination ferments . . . At
last, when he has been completely captivated, when several years of testing guarantee to the society inviolable
secrecy and absolute devotion, it is made known to him that millions of individuals distributed in all the
States of Europe share his sentiments and his hopes, that a secret link binds firmly all the scattered members
of this immense family, and that the reforms he desires so ardently must sooner or later come about. This
propaganda is rendered the easier by the existing associations of students, who meet together for the study of
literature, for fencing, gaming or even mere debauchery. The Illuminés insinuate themselves into all these
circles and turn them into hotbeds for the propagation of their principles. Such then is the Association’s
continual mode of progression from its origins until the present moment; it is by convening from childhood
the germ of poison into the highest classes of society, in feeding the minds of students on ideas diametrically
opposed to that order of things under which they have to live, in breaking the ties that bind them to
sovereigns, that Illuminism has recruited the largest number of adepts . . .”
Boadicea, the 20 year old son of some friends of mine has been working on a mine in WA. Although an Australian by ancestry, he is to all intents and purposes a foreigner. From what I gather, the job is fairly strenuous but not exactly intellectually demanding. However, the salary he earns appears to me to be eyewatering, especially given his age and lack of experience. Good for him, I say, but I am surprised that competition from other would be local employees anxious for a good income would not enable the employers to negotiate a lower wage. Maybe true blue Aussies would demand more rather than accept the same or less. I am sure that if I was permitted, even at my ripe old age, I would be out there like a shot.
My view of the alleged chaos in the UK following Brexit and the shortage of foreign labour, is that people will adapt and the market will find a way. If there is a shortage of lorry drivers, it will soon be socially acceptable to become one and less acceptable to work in non jobs such as social media and the likes. So like you, I agree that the market, whether economic or social, will sort out matters.
“Kim Jong-Dan”. Excellent!
Sipu: The king you are referring to is the 15th century Sejong the Great. Traditionally China, Korea and Japan shared written Chinese because they shared the same language of scholarship: Classical Chinese. This allowed for smooth communication between the various peoples throughout the region. In the absence of a common spoken language, something which difficulty in travel and remoteness made hard to overcome, a common written language had to suffice. This applies as much to Japan as it does to China. It applies to an extent to Korea, but far less than to China and Japan simply because Korea was better organised and more effectively governed than Japan and far smaller than China. To this day, if someone from Tokyo were to speak with someone from Kagoshima or Aomori without the benefit of standard spoken Japanese, they might as well be speaking to a Martian.
Japan and Korea were in a bit of a bind. They had Classical Chinese, but that is much like a Finn and a Turk having to avail themselves of Latin. Neither Japanese nor Korean are related to Chinese. Although there are still some proponents of the Altaic theory floating around, few accept that Japanese and Korean are related to each other though they did influence each other and both share a number of cognates due to their shared tradition of borrowing from Chinese. Until the 18th century, virtually all Japanese literature written by men was in Classical Chinese and virtually all literature written by women was in Japanese. The Japanese developed two scripts: katakana and hiragana. Katakana mostly uses particles of Chinese characters for their sound value. On occasion, an extremely simple Chinese character is used for a sound value independent of meaning. Hiragana comprises simple, stylised Chinese characters for their sound value.
King Sejong took a different approach. The Korean script, Hangul, is entirely indigenous. Although designed to be compatible with and work in conjunction with Chinese characters, it was designed to be uniquely Korean. When reading Japanese, few texts, even the simplest ones, don’t have Chinese characters. When reading written Korean, you rarely see Chinese characters. On occasion they’re used in newspapers to provide clarity in meaning. They are also used in legal texts and laws to establish precise meanings and interpretations. In daily life, few use them and the only time most people write them is when signing their names on formal documents as South Korean law requires all people to have a set of Chinese characters for their names. Classical Chinese has largely faded into the background. Students in Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau continue to learn Classical Chinese as a required subject for a few years. It is impossible to fully understand or appreciate any East Asian language without understanding Classical Chinese. Think of it like Latin and Greek in Europe.
As for China… Vernacular Chinese languages didn’t become a major literary force until the 20th century. Classical Chinese was it. This is where things start to get complicated. When you study a Chinese language, unless you are really stubborn and insistent you will almost always be taught Mandarin. There is an assumption by the semi-educated in the West that as the meaning of a Chinese character is independent of sound, those who can read Mandarin can also read vernacular Cantonese. That isn’t the case. I asked a couple of Chinese friends to translate some Hong Kong song lyrics. They looked at it, read through it quickly and said “This is Cantonese. I can’t understand it”. Different characters are used, different words and expressions are used. Although there is an “official” written Cantonese which is pronounced the Cantonese way but uses standard written Mandarin as its base, this has little to do with spoken Cantonese. The differences between simplified and traditional scripts also complicate things. Whilst in Texas, I was given a menu in Chinese. It was simplified Chinese. I had to ask for an English menu because I couldn’t understand it. I can manage to get at least the gist when reading menus written using traditional Chinese characters. With my education in East Asian languages largely being in Japanese and Cantonese, simplified characters aren’t of any real use or interest to me. Some issues do arise with Cantonese because I understand a word, but in the Japanese sense. “Mondai”, for example, means a problem (in both sense of the word) in Japanese, but means question in Cantonese. “Yes” is the same in both languages — “hai”, but it gets confusing when “mo” means “no” in Cantonese, but “mou” means “as well” in Japanese. It is much the same in the written language. When reading texts in Cantonese, I sometimes misunderstand it because I interpret the characters the way they are used in Japanese and that can be very, very different. (As an aside, the Chinese man I was with at that Chinese restaurant in Texas couldn’t miss the chance to get a dig in at me, pointing out that I should just stick with Mandarin and simplified characters “for my benefit”. I spent the rest of the even cursing at him in Cantonese)
The United States has always been a factional, fractious country. The lost sense of unity and common purpose that some allude to, like in Britain, is an anomaly. It emerged during the World Wars, especially the Second World War. It held for a few generations, but the USA’s inherent contradictions couldn’t merely be glossed over. The conformity of the 1950s never extended to visible minorities and did nothing to address the blatant inequity that women faced. If anything, it made it worse than it was before. The rot really began to set in during the 1990s. The Clintons practised the dark politics of personal destruction, constrained only because Dick Morris checked their worst instincts. Other Democrats, especially Dictator Dementia, were just as willing to wage wars of personal destruction for political gain. The Bork and Thomas confirmation hearings were marred by Dictator Dementia’s cheap, destructive tactics to try to ensure that Supreme Court nominees were more favourable to his party. Of course, the Republicans could get quite nasty, too. The way Ann Richards was treated in 1994 Texas gubernatorial election was a foretaste of what the younger generation of Bushes were willing to do to regain their family’s political power. Still, they were rank amateurs compared to the Democrats. Since Obama, it has become truly toxic. In 2006 and 2008, the Democrats rose to power because of the ever deeper unpopularity of George W Bush and mounting Republican scandals. After over a decade in control of both houses of Congress, the GOP desperately needed a spell in opposition to get their house back in order. At the same time, the formerly highly influential religious right saw its power wane. Younger generations of Americans were a lot less concerned about “traditional morality”, especially when they saw so many of its “defenders” caught up in scandal after scandal, facing shortcoming after shortcoming. What “sanctity” has marriage that prevents John and Tom from marrying when Bob and Mary are themselves thrice divorced? What right does the Catholic Church have go condemn gay people when they have been protecting paedophile priests for generations? Pastor Mike preaches sobriety and morality, but got caught drunk in bed with a couple prostitutes — one male, one female whilst his wife and children were sitting at home editing his sermon.
That’s all well and good. But the Democrats misunderstood that. They assumed that the collapse of the GOP in 2006 and 2008 was a symbol that the United States itself had transformed from a centre-to-centre-right country into a larger version of Canada. They were in the ascendency and those who stood in their way were “bitter clingers” who were mere relics with no real place in the future United States they were set on constructing. When internal divisions and the deep unpopularity of many of Obama’s policies caused the Democrats to lose the House and most of the Senate majority in 2010, it wasn’t seen for what it was intended to be: a popular warning that the United States as a whole was not interested in being another Canada. Obama was duly re-elected with a reduced majority in 2012, but Obama failed to see past his own personal success and kept pushing the same agenda that had no real hope of passing with the GOP in control of the House. After 2014, when the Republicans regained control of the Senate, Obama resigned himself to fighting a media war with the GOP to get as much through as possible. Rather than negotiate with the opposition in the way that Reagan or Clinton post-1994 had, it was about a “war on women”, the “spectre of racism”, etc. The Democrats also failed to learn an important lesson. Hillary was rejected by Democratic voters in 2008 because Democrats were as sick of the same cabal that had been running the US into the ground for years as Republicans were. They wanted someone new, someone else and that is what Obama promised to be. When all he managed to do was antagonise the right and disappoint the left, many Democrats plumbed for Bernie Sanders. Although much further to the left than Obama had ever been, he spoke to people and seemed to understand that growing economic inequality and the decline of regional America needed to be reversed. The Democratic Party made sure that he would have no chance in 2016. All that achieved was to help Trump rise to power.
The Democrats spent fours years coming up with ever shriller, ever more fantastic plots and fantasies about Trump. By extension, their media and academic allies went after many of those who appreciated Trump’s generally successful and popular policies, even if they did not like the man or his style themselves. Of course, it’s all been discredited. After pulling out all stops, after waging a near-lockstep media campaign, after changing election laws and policies, often in direct violation of state constitutions, to benefit Dictator Dementia, they won a very narrow election that was so poorly fought and handled that many Americans do not accept its results to this day. Instead of trying to take a middle course and cool the national political temperature, Dictator Dementia has run well to the left of what brought the Democrats to ruin under Obama.
Thanks Christopher for your very comprehensive replies to my questions.
With respect to US politics and the tactics of the left, I found this article in the Spectator quite interesting. There is a paywall, but you may be able to read it as one of 3 free articles per month.
Sipu: The New York Times made the same mistake that many other legacy outlets made. They forgot what made them a success to begin with. At one point, it was a great newspaper. Even if there was a certain editorial slant, one could simply overlook it and read the worthier parts of the paper. For example, their cultural and literary reporting was at one time world-class. It appealed to a large audience because there was something for most people to read.
In the last years, however, their editorial standards have declined precipitously. It’s one thing to have a certain slant. I know fair-minded people of the left who enjoy reading the Spectator, for example. They might not agree with its politics, but they appreciate the scope of its coverage and think that its discussion of books, films, music, theatre, etc. is worth a read. The New York Times has decayed to the point that even fair-minded people on the left no longer wish to read it. The quality of the writing declined, the quality of the stories declined. They went after the Buzzfeed market. The problem with that approach is that Buzzfeed appeals to the lowest common denominator, the adolescent activist, the first year uni student.
If anything, they have done worse as Buzzfeed, however biased its writing, at least attempts to do some verification of stories prior to publishing. The NYT no longer do this, hence their routinely retracting parts of, if not entire, stories due to severe lapses.Papers in general are dying, but not because of the internet. Much like retail, they forgot what people went into shops to begin with. When they were no longer selling what people wanted to buy, when they were no longer providing the quality people expected, consumers turned elsewhere.
Christopher: I have been reading a number of reports on ‘opposition’ to Jinping… However, I’ll accept your analysis above theirs! Here’s hoping that they keep that aggressive ‘gentleman’ under control.
Sipu: you need to remember that mining organisations make big, fat profits and export their products – whereas our farmers have to sell to us here in Oz. They, and, most especially, the super-markets they sell to are used to big-fat profits!
As an example of how we, the consumers, have ultimate control let me tell you about avocadoes. For some time, we were told that avocadoes will be extremely expensive: drought / lack of foreign workers / etc / etc… and sure enough they went on sale at $5… within a very short time the price was reduced to $1… the same with my favourite fruit, raspberries – and I’ve noticed that with other commodities.