Reading the tea-leaves in Hong Kong

Reading the tea-leaves in Hong Kong

By Jonathan Power

August 20, 2019

In 1995 in a little remembered event Li Ruthuan, a member of the Chinese Politburo (containing the top seven in the government), made a speech likening the Chinese take-over of Hong Kong to the case of a lady who had agreed to sell a 100-year-old Yi-Xiang teapot that was famous for the taste of the tea it poured.

Unbeknown to her, its quality derived from the residue that had accumulated on the inside of the pot. In her eagerness to prepare the pot for sale she cleaned and polished it. When the purchaser came to try using the pot the tea was dreadful and he demanded his money back.

In this way Li Ruthuan made his point that the majority of the Chinese leadership didn’t have a proper understanding of what were the important factors that enabled Hong Kong to be such a successful commercial centre.

It also should remind us today that the leadership of the Communist Party is probably not a monolithic hardline group. Li was liberally minded. So was General-Secretary Zhao Ziyang who opposed the Tiananmen crackdown and went to visit the protesting students in an effort to calm things down.

Tragically, he was overruled by Deng Xiaoping who ordered the tanks in, even though a majority of the Politburo supported Zhao, according to Bao Tong who was Zhao’s chief of staff.

such divisions went right to the top of the Communist party in the not too
distant past we can be pretty sure they exist today.

I suspect that today among parts of the current leadership there is an appreciation that to tamper too much with Hong Kong could be counterproductive.

Indeed, caution over what to do about Hong Kong goes right back to the time of Mao Zedong when the victorious Communist armies stopped short at the Hong Kong border in October, 1949.

Stalin was pressing Mao to advance but Mao refused, convinced that Hong Kong would be useful to China as a base for foreign trade and as a political bridge to the West.

of them may well be lobbying Xi, pointing out that it’s not in China’s interest
to intervene if it precipitates a flight of capital, a collapse of the property
market (which undermines the super billionaires of Hong Kong who largely
support Beijing) and a large exodus of the professionals and the elite.

mainland intervention, some could well be saying in Politburo meetings, would
definitely affect the Chinese growth rate which is already falling. This, they
would add, might lead to large scale labour unrest and an alienation of those
(a big majority of the people) who have mentally traded away more freedom in
return for good economic growth and the reinforcing of the welfare state.)

above is an optimistic reading of current Chinese debates. But we know that the
official public voice of China has made it more than clear its visceral hatred
of all things democratic, combined with paranoia over British intentions.

This goes back to Deng Xiaoping, who as an economic reformist led China into the capitalist age and who presided over the early negotiations on the return of Hong Kong.

He said, “Watch the British, lest they might abscond with the capital”.  Today the government is telling the British to keep well away.

of us always hoped that once the British had gone that the Chinese, having seen
that the British were honourable and hadn’t absconded with the silver, would
come to terms with Hong Kong’s liberal and open society. They haven’t.

Regrettably, the British leant over too far backwards to give China a good deal in accepting limits on Hong Kong’s democracy. If they had done what they did to other colonies like India and Nigeria – and introduced full democracy in internal affairs years before independence – all this would never have happened.

The students wouldn’t have had to fight as they are today to get China to honour its pledge to the departing British to move step by step towards democracy.

One can blame successive British governments for this, but not Chris Patten, the last governor, who did his best to play a bad hand well.

This is not to sanctify Patten – he didn’t do enough to rid Hong Kong of its gross differentials in income distribution and to eliminate the appalling slums where hundreds of thousands still live in almost animal-like conditions without satisfactory medical care.

Xi has risen to the top of Chinese society without blood on his hands. He was a small child at the time of the Revolution and he has never cut off any heads as he climbed up the pole to the top leadership position.

He’s accumulated a lot of power and cut back on the growing sense of liberty in China, but he’s no Mao, Stalin or Hitler. He’s not even another Deng Xiaoping.

I’m sure he’s struggling in his mind as to how to end this confrontation without blood on the streets. The two sides must meet each other half way. 

Xi must set out a timetable promising full democracy in Hong Kong, even if it’s 15 years away (Deng once said he expected China to become democratic by the year 2035.)

demonstrators must unambiguously undertake to give more respect to the mainland
and to promise a moratorium on demonstrations once it becomes clear that
Beijing is committed to implementing such a promise.

Jonathan Power.

3 Responses to "Reading the tea-leaves in Hong Kong"

  1. Bente Petersen   August 25, 2019 at 8:11 am

    Do not agree with Jonathan on this one… Hong Kong is not as ”needed” by China today as it was 1997… there are other financial centres, and they are on the mainland.. they are big and will be evn bigger … China today is so much stronger than it was 1997… IF ANYONE MADE A MISTAKE IN 1997 IT WAS CHINA, They did not have to give HK the one nation two system.. however hindsight is always easy. And btw… HK police has been very restrained…

  2. F Jahanpour   August 23, 2019 at 6:04 pm

    It is a pity that the British did not institutionalise democracy in Hong Kong when they ruled it and only thought of it when they were leaving. However, at the moment, millions seem to be rising for democracy although there may be some incitement behind the scenes. At a time when millions of people are demonstrating in the streets it would be very foolish if China resorts to force to quell the opposition. So far, China has acted with restraint and should continue to do so, because a repeat of the Tiananmen Square would be a disaster and would make the matters worse. China should accept greater democracy and freedom in Hong Kong and should gradually introduce them to the mainland too.

  3. Ulf Timmermann   August 22, 2019 at 12:49 pm

    Never liked him Jonathan Powel and I don’t need to state my reasons for that. They would be too trivial.


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