China Needs Imperial Realism on Hong Kong

Ira Straus

The protests in Hong Kong have become a revolution of the spirit. They have crystallized Hong Kong as a new kind of nation: one seeking not independence but security for its distinctive society and its traditional liberties.

It is a nation that would fit well within the multinational imperial systems of times past. Those empires had been realistic about their possessions. They did not incorporate them all into their home jurisdiction. Instead, they gerrymandered every imaginable form of autonomy, accommodating varying traditions, legalities, and modes of acquisition.

In the more ideological twentieth century, some empires found it hard to understand this tried and true method. They could not fit special accommodations into their ideology. They denied the very fact that they were empires. They tried to put everything under their domestic jurisdiction.

The old, pragmatic approach needs to be recovered today. Hong Kong can only be kept in the Chinese empire if accommodated as a distinctive society.

Hong Kong was declared in 1997 an autonomous “system” within China, but it was always more than that. A decade of threats from China since 2008 has driven the difference to grow further: from distinctive society into a distinctive nation.

The revolution of the last five months bears comparison—favorable comparison—to the American Revolution. The majority supporting it polls at 75 percent; the support for the American Revolution is usually estimated at 33 or 50 percent. America’s Revolution defined itself as a struggle to preserve ancient British-heritage liberties; Hong Kong’s is a struggle for those same inherited liberties, in the face of far more extreme attacks on them. 

Imperial Options to Avert Cataclysm: Lessons from Past Empires

In the 1770s, there were proposed federative compromises that could have accommodated the revolution already consummated in the American consciousness. Britain instead tried to hold onto America too tightly. This drove America into separation.

China is similarly failing to accommodate the revolution already consummated in Hong Kong consciousness. It is imposing an unwelcome panda hug, instead of implementing the compromises that could work—the agreements it made in 1997. It is losing Hong Kong.

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