Beijing has little motivation to honor its pledges if they no longer serve its interests, and there is little other countries can do about it, aside from banding together to resist.
About a month ago, the US was in the process of negotiating a major trade deal with China. It was billed as a breakthrough that would help rebalance the world economy and curb what many saw as China’s unfair business practices. Analysts were confident a deal would be reached soon, and markets were buoyed by the prospect, but that was before US negotiators received a draft of the agreement back from their Chinese counterparts … and saw that their core demands – many of which had been under discussion for almost a year – had been altered or deleted. Some of those demands addressed the very issues that had initiated the trade war, such as theft of American intellectual property/trade secrets, foreign companies being forced to transfer technology to China, restricted access to financial services, and currency manipulation. Basically, after all the time and effort put in trying to work out a deal, Beijing did an about-face and torpedoed the whole thing.
While the Chinese government referred to the changes simply as a ‘process of negotiation’, US negotiators (US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin) were reportedly stunned by the alterations, and – perhaps predictably – US president Donald Trump was angry. But maybe in this case his feelings were justified. After all, if you’d been negotiating with somebody for a year and they suddenly pulled the rug out from under you with the generic explanation that they didn’t want to “give up power and humiliate the country,” you might be upset too. Granted, no sovereign nation wishes to be ‘humiliated’ by another, but not wanting to concede any power seems a bit highfalutin, as it’s impossible to achieve a compromise without both sides giving up something.
In Chinese, Beijing’s reneging on the deal is known as “huiqi (悔棋),” which is when a chess player wants to take back a move he’s already made. Trump’s response was to increase tariffs – his favorite geopolitical weapon – on US$200 billion worth of Chinese goods, from 10% to 25%, and threaten to levy even more if no deal were reached at the G20 summit later this month.
But China’s behavior during the US trade negotiations leads to a bigger question: Can it be relied on to keep its word? Because otherwise, diplomatic discussions with Beijing are futile. And another question is: Why would China even enter into the negotiation process if it didn’t plan to follow through? For this one at, least, there are obvious answers: to gain international approval; to appear just and civilized to its own people; to delay the matter at hand.
In some ways, Beijing’s actions are reminiscent of its attitude towards the ‘one country, two systems’ of government supposedly implemented in Hong Kong. In the Joint Declaration of 1997 – which is registered at the UN – in which the UK handed over the colony to it, China promised to let Hong Kongers maintain their way of life (i.e., by respecting the rule of law, human rights, and freedom of speech) – one very different from that of the mainland – for the next 50 years.
However, if we examine what’s happened since, we can see that Beijing has not wholly honored its commitments. From little things like introducing compulsory education about the People’s Republic of China at schools, to more disturbing acts such as abducting book publishers off the streets of Hong Kong and the lack of transparency in the selection of the city’s prime minster – which inspired the massive protest known as the Umbrella Movement in 2014 – the policies of Beijing’s authoritative regime have been slowly creeping into the Special Administrative Region. Even now – just this weekend – millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest the extradition law being proposed by the pro-Beijing local government, which would have essentially allowed them to ship off whoever offended the Party to the mainland to undergo ‘rehabilitation’ in a black jail somewhere in Sichuan. All told, these examples – along with others – paint a fairly clear picture that China isn’t really that interested in keeping up its end of the bargain on Hong Kong’s autonomy.
As to why China does these things, it’s important to keep in mind that: (1) the Communist Party is beholden to no one but itself (i.e., there are no Chinese voters to hold it accountable); and (2) its main objective – like that of many totalitarian regimes – is to maintain and increase its own power by any viable means. In other words, Beijing has little motivation to honor its pledges if they no longer serve its interests, and – as one of the most powerful nations on Earth – there is little other countries can do about it, aside from banding together to resist.
And that brings us back to Taiwan. Because there, Beijing also ‘promises’ to implement a ‘one country, two systems’ form of government if the de facto independent country is ever – God forbid – reintegrated into the mainland. As we have seen, however, the commitments China makes often need to be taken with a grain of salt, as, once it gets what it wants (in this case, Taiwan returned to its dominion), everything is prone to change – just like it has in Hong Kong. That’s certainly something Taiwanese voters should keep in mind heading into the 2020 presidential election, especially in regard to any candidate who takes Beijing’s so-called promises at face value.
Author / Cathy Lin