North Korea at the Table: Trump follows Nixon’s lead with foray into the unknown

In February 1972 Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC), meeting Chairman Mao Zedong in addition to a slew of other political figures within the notoriously secretive communist regime.

Nixon meets Mao

Nixon called it the ‘week that changed the world’ and whilst one might attribute some hubris to this statement it is probably an accurate portrayal of a monumental turning point in history.

Ravaged by a fervent personality cult surrounding Chairman Mao – which blinded followers to his destructive policies such as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ – China found itself in isolation. Nixon’s visit opened up the possibility of a rapprochement with the Western world and the economic benefits this would ultimately bring to a country with a massive population and a burgeoning industrial base.

Brainwashed students attacked ‘capitalist roaders’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ during Mao’s Cultural Revolution

Since the Communists had won the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang to flee the mainland for Taiwan, the USA and its allies had refused to recognise the PRC. Instead, it was the Republic of China (ROC) that was acknowledged by Washington as the rightful ruler over the mainland, a stance formalised by President Dwight Eisenhower’s visit to Taipei in 1960.

Eisenhower and Chiang Kai-shek in 1960

The shock prompted by Nixon’s visit a dozen years later – announced live on television the previous year – was therefore understandable. However, the machinations of Henry Kissinger and the PRC’s Premier Zhou Enlai had laid the foundations for the trip, which would serve to drive a further wedge between the PRC and its disappointed former patron, the Soviet Union.

How much of an impact the meeting had on the West’s ultimate victory in the Cold War is debatable but no doubt Nixon’s ‘opening up’ of China – in a diplomatic sense – reduced tensions with a potential enemy. By subsequently officially recognising the PRC as the legitimate and sole rulers of China, the USA sowed the seeds for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the years after Mao’s death.

The impact of Deng’s policies are less debatable, for they enabled China to become the world’s second largest economy, strengthened the mandate of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – now under the firm control of Xi Jinping – and made the PRC a major geopolitical player across the globe. A world without a US-Chinese bilateral relationship is now unthinkable, not to mention undesirable.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping

Don’t expect President Donald Trump’s slated meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to have such a positive impact. Indeed, will it have any major impact? Though the announcement of the summit was equally, if not more surprising, than the revelation of Nixon’s China jaunt, neither Trump nor Kim act with a level of subtlety or concession that allow for meaningful engagement.

Perhaps the level of bellicosity and brutal honesty at which these two ‘madmen’ operate is the only reason the meeting is happening in the first place. One would hope that senior diplomats and military figures within each administration will be present to temper their leaders’ excessive tendencies, for the opportunities abounding are unprecedented.

Alas, Trump listens and answers to nobody but himself, whilst the Kim dynasty has fostered a personality cult comparable to the darkest days of Mao. To challenge Kim’s instincts goes against a human’s natural tendency for self-preservation.

Realistically, the harsher sanctions being imposed on North Korea are taking hold. Yet as long as the upper echelons of the regime remain ensconced in luxury, and the military that girdles it stays onside, significant change is unlikely. The Kims have shown their willingness to allow their people to starve, confident that any popular uprising would either be suppressed by the military or, if necessary, by China, which has no desire to see chaos on its borderlands.

China fears that the collapse of the Kim regime will lead to a flood of civilians crossing its border from North Korea

A nuclear arsenal remains the only effective means to ensure the security and longevity of the Kim dynasty. Nothing President Trump says or does – and we wait with bated breath to see what on earth he will decide to do at the summit – is likely to change matters for the better. North Korea does not have the same potential to break out of its shell as the PRC had at the time of Nixon’s visit, nor does it have the inclination.

Sadly, the chance to destroy the nascent nuclear regime of North Korea has been missed by previous administrations. Trump can’t be blamed for that. Conned by the machinations of Kim Jong-Il in the 1990s, undermined by Chinese companies and banks that continue to siphon resources to the hermit state, and unable to break the failsafe that Beijing offers the North Korean regime, nuclear tensions in Northeast Asia are here to stay.

Advertisements

From Desolate Backwater to Economic Powerhouse: Hong Kong, the thorn in Beijing’s side

If there is to be a challenge to the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, it would be a good bet to suggest that its origin will be in Hong Kong.

Since being returned to Beijing in 1997, the vibrant economy at China’s southern periphery has seen its relative freedoms stifled by an increasingly interfering party apparatus, with political appointments now being vetted directly from the capital.

The erosion of Hong Kong’s political rights culminated in the Umbrella Movement in 2014, in which Joshua Wong became the face of hope for democracy in China.

Thousands poured onto the streets of Hong Kong in 2014 as part of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement

With a GDP per capita ranked at an impressive 8th in the world, coupled with a proactive civil society fostered under British rule, it is little wonder that Hong Kong at times seems destined to pursue a development separate from the mainland.

In theory, this is exactly what should happen. When the British ceded sovereignty to China just over 20 years ago, Beijing agreed to a ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle which would leave untouched Hong Kong’s capitalist economy and way of life for at least half-a-century. That the reality has been somewhat different only heightens the chances of serious unrest in the ‘autonomous territory’, unrest that could spread far and wide given the right political and economic climate.

All of this is a far cry from when Hong Kong was subsumed into the British imperial fold, after the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842. At the time, Hong Kong was nothing but a ‘desolate, rocky region, frequented by pirates and a few fishermen’. (Woodhead, 1945)

This 1846 Ordnance Survey map – shortly after the British takeover – depicts the stark desolation of Kowloon, now home to the Hong Kong metropolis

Quickly becoming an important port and trading station, Hong Kong was formally leased to Britain for 99 years in 1898. This proved a propitious move for it meant that Hong Kong was freed from, to quote Sun Yat-Sen, ‘a rule of unequivocal seclusion and tyranny’ that defined the dying years of the Qing Dynasty.

The famed Chinese nationalist Sun claimed to have gained his revolutionary ideas from Hong Kong, an ‘intellectual birthplace’ separate from the ‘oppressed’ government of the mainland.

Sun Yat-Sen, often seen as the Father of modern China

Certainly the ‘rule of law, the maintenance of peace and order, and the absence of a customs tariff’ propelled Hong Kong’s development. At the 1921-22 Washington Conference – convened amongst other things to decide upon the future of the Chinese territories leased to foreign powers – Arthur Balfour of the British delegation hailed one of his country’s prized possessions:

The position of the British colony of Hong Kong in the world’s trade is unique, and without parallel. It is a free port except for a duty on wines and spirits; it has relatively few important industries; it is one of the greatest shipping centers in the world; it is the distributing point for all the enormous trade of south China, and about thirty percent of the entire foreign commerce of China. The conditions of Hong Kong in its relations to commerce are in every way excellent.

Yet by the 1930s Hong Kong was still little more than a fragment of what it was destined to become, ‘the barren pirate stronghold’ not yet eradicated. The Japanese occupation in World War Two (WWII) – following the British surrender on Christmas Day 1941 – brought with it the plunder and brutality that typified the advance of Emperor Hirohito’s zealous forces, abruptly postponing any further advancement.

Indeed, one need only look at the topographic mutilation of Hong Kong to understand its rate of progress in the second half of the 20th century. The traditional grid pattern of single-storey buildings interspersed with areas of open space has made way for a concrete metropolis, where skyscrapers tower above the choking highways, casting a shadow on the pedestrians beneath.

Left: Kowloon in 1935 (Source: NCAP) Right: Kowloon in 2017 (Google Earth)

Hong Kong’s impressive economic development was not, however, accompanied by an equal expansion of political and civic freedoms. Indeed, the British refrained from encouraging or allowing participation politics, belatedly introducing some democratic reforms only when their century-long lease was drawing to a close.

Still, compared with the communist mainland Hong Kong seemed an oasis of free expression and representation on exiting the British yoke. That the British have failed to press the CCP on honouring the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ mantra originally promulgated by Deng Xiaoping is a disappointment. It places a stain on an otherwise remarkable achievement; turning a provincial backwater into a prosperous financial centre complete with a world-famous stock exchange, in the process improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

That Hong Kong’s population fought for democratic concessions from the British, and had seemingly secured them with the 1997 transfer agreement to CCP overlordship, naturally engendered optimism. This has only made Beijing’s crackdown the more frustrating, even if the most sober observer would admit an air of inevitability about the whole thing.

The return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule was marked by a lavish handover ceremony on 1st July 1997

Some have argued that there are unique set of ‘Asian Values’ that advocate order, authority and economic stability over democracy, universal rights and political representation. Even if one buys into this contentious argument, the most recent generational change in Hong Kong has raised the spectre of a new threat to the status quo, and an uplifting of the heavy boot of the CCP.

Beijing’s crackdown on ‘dissent’ continues apace. Joshua Wong has just received a second prison sentence relating to his role in the pro-democracy movement in 2014. Simultaneously, stories have emerged of the kidnapping of Gui Minhai – a dual Chinese-Swedish citizen and Hong Kong based publisher of controversial books about CCP leaders – purportedly by agents of the state.

So, the seed of Hong Kong’s autonomy is bearing decreasing quantities of fruit, and Beijing’s promise of fifty years of minimal interference apparently disregarded in its entirety.

Joshua Wong: part of a generation unwilling to defer to Beijing’s wants

The youthful, energised and well-educated generation that comprise Hong Kong’s millennials will not stand for it. For every charismatic leader that is stifled, like Joshua Wong, more are ready and willing to assume responsibility for leading the fight for the autonomy promised by both the British and Beijing.

It would be wise of the CCP not to enrage this slumbering political leviathan, otherwise a whole new type of piratical venture will be emerging from China’s southern shores.

Sources

Beeson, M. Regionalism & Globalization in East Asia: Politics, Security & Economic Development (2007)

Calder, K.E. & Fukuyama, F. (eds.), East Asian Multilateralism: Prospects for Regional Stability (2008)

Woodhead, H.G.W. ‘Shanghai and Hong Kong: a British View’ (Foreign Affairs, January 1945)