A couple of weeks ago, a Hong Konger told me that although he had never thought he would hear himself say this, he would welcome the British back to his island. All was forgiven.
The context for his comment was, of course, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's crackdown on demonstrations against a proposed bill that would have allowed authorities to arrest and extradite to the mainland people wanted there for various nonpolitical crimes. The biggest protests drew, depending on who was keeping count, anywhere from several hundred thousand to 2 million people, and police used tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean-bag and pepper-ball rounds against the marchers. The demonstrators forced the government to first suspend and then withdraw the extradition bill, and no one was killed in the confrontations, but many people were beaten, and nine took their own lives for reasons related to the protests. There were other casualties too. The last time I visited Hong Kong, in early 2014, a civil servant told me with great pride how, since the 1970s, the police had gone from being corrupt and mistrusted to being the island's most respected institution. This summer, however, public trust in the police dropped to the lowest level since polls started in 2012.
Concern over mainland China's intentions has been mounting in Hong Kong since well before the 2014 "Umbrella Revolution," as it has in capitals around the world. One of the few issues that regularly receives bipartisan support in Washington is the need to confront China over its trade policies, and there is a growing sentiment that after becoming a valued contributor to the international system in the 1990s-2000s, China is now turning into a threat to it.
But is this correct? Should Hong Kongers really want the British back?
Conquest and Plunder
On the second question, at least, the answer is probably no. Compared with what other nations (including the British) have done in the course of extending their power, Chinese behavior has been mild indeed. Britain took Hong Kong away from China in 1842, as part of the settlement of the particularly squalid conflict now known as the First Opium War. The East India Company, which held a legal monopoly on all Sino-British trade, had earned vast fortunes during the 18th century exporting tea from Guangzhou to Britain. The only problem was that Chinese traders insisted on being paid in silver, which was draining the East India Company's bullion reserves. The company found an answer in the 1760s, though, after it conquered Bengal, which happened to produce the world's finest opium — a drug in high demand in China. By the 1820s, the company was earning as much silver from opium sales as it was spending on tea purchases, so everyone was happy.
Everyone except the Chinese government, that is. Opium was illegal in China, and in 1839, the emperor sent a new commissioner to Guangzhou with the task of waging war on drugs. He confiscated an astounding 1,542 metric tons of opium from Western (mostly British) merchants in Guangzhou and destroyed it. The British drug dealers, who had organized into a very efficient cartel, responded by lobbying their own government back in London to demand that Beijing repay them the full street value of the lost narcotics. When the emperor refused, a squadron of the United Kingdom's most up-to-date warships descended on Guangzhou in 1840, brushing aside the Celestial Empire's junks and blasting its coastal towns into ruins. The one-sided war dragged on until the United Kingdom threatened to cut off Beijing's rice supply; that move would have meant starvation for thousands. In addition to taking Hong Kong (at that point uninhabited except for a few fishermen), Britain also obtained access to mainland China's markets.
This is an ugly story, but no uglier than plenty of others about Britain's projection of power into Asia. The East India Company, which until 1813 monopolized Britain's trade with India as well as that with China, was at the heart of many of them. Right from its foundation in 1600, the company needed to hire its own soldiers and build its own forts to be able to trade in Asia at all, but across the 18th century, it morphed from a corporation with a security force to a military superpower with a trading division. To be sure, 18th century India was a violent place (as was 19th century China); when the company seized control of Bengal in 1757, greed was probably a secondary factor, behind avenging the Bengalis' murder of more than 100 British prisoners in the Black Hole of Calcutta and fear that the French would seize Bengal if the British didn't. However, the company then went on to plunder Bengal so thoroughly that in 1764 much of northern India took up arms against it. After defeating this threat, the company made 20 million Indians into its subjects and turned the monarch of the once-mighty Mughal Empire into its client — rather as if in 2019 Huawei were to invade Europe and put European Council President Donald Tusk on its payroll.
The British Empire was far harsher than anything Hong Kongers have seen since their return to China in 1997.
To the conservative British philosopher Edmund Burke, the East India Company had become "a state in the guise of a merchant"; to Adam Smith, this very notion was "a strange absurdity" — a trading outfit, bound by none of the laws of nations, taxing 20 million Bengali subjects, running their legal system and waging war on native princes until it ruled most of the subcontinent. So rapacious did the company become that in 1783 the British government impeached its governor-general, Warren Hastings, on charges of "gross injustice, cruelty and treachery against the faith of nations."
Burke led the charge. "I impeach him in the name of the English nation," he thundered, "whose ancient honor he has sullied. I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose rights he has trodden underfoot, and whose country he has turned into a desert. Lastly, in the name of human nature itself, in the name of both sexes, in the name of every age, in the name of every rank, I impeach the common enemy of all." And that was just the opening statement.
The East India Company did not go on like this indefinitely, of course. In 1858, the crown took India away from it, and within a century, the British Empire was mutating into a more benign commonwealth, with trade agreements, athletic competitions and cultural exchanges replacing conquest and plunder. But let there be no mistake: The British Empire — and the French, Spanish, Dutch, German, Portuguese and Russian empires, and all the non-European ones too — was far harsher than anything Hong Kongers have seen since their return to China in 1997.
China's Increasing Assertiveness
This is largely because the whole world is now less harsh than it used to be. Governments are much more cautious about using force than they were even a hundred years ago. When Greece could not pay its debts in 2009, no one considered sending gunboats to Piraeus to extract what was owed — unlike the situation in 1850, when that was exactly what Britain did. Similarly, when Scotland came within a half-million votes of deciding to leave the United Kingdom in 2014, the English did not threaten to invade; and when the United Kingdom decided to secede from the European Union in 2016, Brussels mobilized no troops. The international community has not assented to a single case of borders being changed by force since 1948, when most countries agreed to the new boundaries that Israel claimed after defeating its Arab neighbors. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it was almost universally condemned, even though most Crimeans seemed to approve of the change.
China's resurgence as a great power has taken place entirely within this violence-averse, American-dominated international order, and Chinese leaders have mostly played the game with consummate skill. The 1984 negotiations with Britain over the return of Hong Kong were an early example of this. Beijing committed itself to a "one country, two systems" principle, under which it would make no attempt to impose mainland laws and norms on Hong Kongers until at least 50 years after the 1997 handover. Even though one of Beijing's first acts after annexing Hong Kong was, in fact, to roll back last-minute British reforms to make elections significantly more democratic, the reunion with the mainland was generally very popular with islanders.
The change in Hong Kongers' attitudes in recent years seems to be part of a much broader response to China's increasing assertiveness since the 2008 global financial crisis. Western financiers and politicians initially joked: "After 1989 (the year of the Tiananmen Square crisis), capitalism saved China. After 2009, China saved capitalism." However, as China has strengthened its armed forces, built artificial islands, opened the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, announced its Belt and Road Initiative, and — of course — taken a tougher line in Hong Kong, this has seemed less funny.
It is tempting to dismiss Western outrage over Hong Kong as ignorant or hypocritical. But by 21st century standards, some of China's actions are aggressive.
Putting China's actions since 2008 into the historical context of how Europeans behaved in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is tempting to dismiss Western outrage over Hong Kong as ignorant or hypocritical (or both). We might conclude that China is standing up for itself more now because that is simply what great powers do. China is no different from any other great power, and its assertiveness is driven as much by fear of what it thinks its rivals are trying to do as by naked ambition or malicious intent. Seen from Beijing, it looks as if the United States has bound China with "island chains," designed to be able to choke off China's access to the world's oceans. Chinese strategists regularly speak of the need to break the chains or to outflank them by forging alliances across Central and South Asia and gaining access to the Indian Ocean; and, whether they are correct or not, plenty of mainland officials also seriously believe that opposition to their wishes on Hong Kong is being fueled by Western agitators.
Insofar as China is just doing what rising powers have always done, it would be foolish to expect it to change its behavior anytime soon. Rather, it would make the most sense for the West to adapt itself to China's growing might rather than confronting it, retreating gradually from the West Pacific and Southeast Asia as China advances, and aiming to incorporate China into the global order through timely concessions. As the then-presidential candidate George W. Bush put it in 1999, "Trade freely with China, and time is on our side."
But there is another way to see China's actions, judging them by the standards of the day rather than those of the past. In the peaceful new world of the 21st century, some of China's actions do qualify as aggressive, pushing the limits of normal behavior and even flouting international law. Looking back from 2047, the point at which Beijing will be free to change Hong Kong in whatever way it likes, historians might well see Western behavior in the 1980s-2010s not as an adaptation to China's strength but as appeasement. Perhaps in hindsight, Hong Kong in 2019 will look like Saarland, Germany, in 1935.
Our generation's greatest geostrategic questions are becoming increasingly clear. Should the West be adapting to China, which might benefit everyone? Or should it be confronting China, which might hurt everyone? Or has it in fact just been appeasing China — which might be the worst thing of all?