NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE L ast week in this space, I argued that the idea of the Westphalian nation-state is an insufficient way of thinking about Putin’s Russia. I used the term “civilization-state,” coined by Martin Jacques, to describe the Russian president’s understanding of his own country. A civilization-state is a polity whose collective self-consciousness far predates the advent of the nation-state on the world stage and can subsequently maintain political identity across vast expanses of time in spite of changing constitutional settlements. The salient features of these polities are language, race, religion, and other characteristics that can be projected back into the mists of time in order to fasten the present to the past with bonds of affection and recognition that obtain over centuries, if not millennia. The truth is that Russia is only a “junior varsity” civilization-state (to use the American parlance) in comparison with China. Until we come to terms with the fact that China “is a civilization pretending to be a nation-state,” as Lucian Pye put it, our prognostications about the plight of Hong Kong will continue to miss the mark.
The sense of intimacy between the Chinese and their own history absolutely dwarfs all other nations in both fervor and longevity. As Jacques writes,
There are no other people in the world who are so connected to their past and for whom the past — not so much the recent past but the long-ago past — is so relevant and meaningful as the Chinese. Every other country is a spring chicken by comparison, its people separated from their long past by the sharp discontinuities of their history. Not the Chinese.
When they speak of their history, the Chinese are referring to a continuous narrative that stretches back at least 3,000 years, a figure that is often rounded up by jingoes and patriots to 5,000 whenever possible. Speaking in generalities about “the Chinese” in this way is not as unwarranted as it might seem. As Jacques himself observes, you are likely to hear this kind of rhetoric from “not just the elite, but taxi drivers too.” The Chinese scholar Huang Ping further notes that “not only scholars, but civil servants and entrepreneurs as well as ordinary people all have a strong sense of history. . . . No matter how little formal education people receive, they all live in history and serve as the heirs and spokesmen of history.” In the field of foreign policy, historian Wang Gungwu asks, “Of what other country in the world can it be said that writings on its foreign relations of two thousand, or even one thousand, years ago seem so compellingly alive today?”
Because of this deep sense of historic identity that recognizes no significant break or disjuncture between the ancient and the modern, the geopolitical categories that inform the strategic thought and goals of the Chinese Communist Party are markedly different from what Americans (and Hong Kongers) are used to. As I wrote in my piece about Russia, Westerners have taken the idea of the nation-state “to be fundamental, and projected it psychologically, geopolitically, and militarily on parts of the world where it is a purely contingent and incidental way of manifesting and safeguarding modes of political unity that far antedate it.” Former British colonies such as Hong Kong are a result of this projection and, having been steeped in the culture and traditions of English liberty for more than a century, are well accustomed to it. That the purpose of the state is to provide a framework of ordered liberty for a sovereign citizenry in which freedom can be exercised in a context of the least possible coercion is as intuitive to most Hong Kongers as it was to William Gladstone or James Madison. For the Chinese politburo, however, this idea is little more than a passing fad — a constitutional TikTok or Tamagotchi. Their confidence is understandable in light of the Chinese understanding of history. If Xi Jinping seriously believes he is at the helm of a 5,000-year-old juggernaut, he has little reason to think that it will not outlast the world order established at Westphalia and exported by the English-speaking people. After all, such a civilization, if it is any more than a powerful fictional construct, will have outlasted Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and Christendom. The chances that it will cave to a small group of valiant protesters in its own legal jurisdiction are vanishingly thin.
So, if the CCP rejects the notion that liberty under law has staying power in historical terms, how do they think about Hong Kong and their broader sphere of influence? The answer is to be found in the tributary system that predominated in East Asia until the end of the 19th century. For most of the last two millennia, China enjoyed overwhelming geopolitical dominance in the region. Her neighbors, in varying degrees depending on their geographic distance from Peking, paid homage and pledged fealty to the Middle Kingdom in exchange for patronage and protection. There is an important racial element to the tributary system, which is why the required level of abasement varied according to how far away the supplicants came from. Closer bonds were forged with those who had closer ethnic ties to the Chinese rulers. The sinister preeminence of race in the policy considerations of the CCP has been made manifest by their genocidal treatment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang and by their concomitant pro-natalist stance toward the majority Han Chinese population. The claims of ethnicity far outstrip the claims of popular sovereignty in the Chinese psyche. This explains the CCP’s complete disregard for the democratic preferences expressed by the people of Taiwan, Macao, and Hong Kong. According to the 2016 census, 92 percent of Hong Kong’s population are ethnically Chinese. That, combined with other indicators of civilizational indebtedness to mainland China — the ideographic writing system, for example, and the influence of Confucianism — is enough to make any potential political separation between Hong Kong and mainland China seem self-evidently disgraceful and absurd in the eyes of the CCP. Legitimacy, for them, is a matter not of consent but of history.
In The Atlantic, H. R. McMaster, the president’s former national-security adviser, reported from his own diplomatic experience that the geopolitical psychology undergirding the tributary system is alive and well in Peking. He writes very bluntly that “Chinese leaders aim to put in place a modern-day version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states.” Policy initiatives such as “Made in China 2025,” “The Belt and Road Initiative,” and “Military–Civil Fusion” are being undertaken with a view to reestablishing this particularly Chinese form of regional dominance in Southeast Asia and beyond. The Belt and Road Initiative is particularly effective and malevolent in this regard. Its essential purpose is to enable China to act as a geopolitical loan shark toward smaller countries. Chinese banks finance huge infrastructure initiatives in developing countries and then leverage the resultant debt in order to gain access to ports, airports, and communications networks for the CCP (all with a view to displacing the United States as a given country’s key ally). Mongolia, Montenegro, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Djibouti, the Maldives, and Pakistan have all fallen prey to this tactic already. The Communist Party’s ambitions are spreading out in concentric circles from Peking like ripples in a pond, and they are unlikely to suffer any humiliation close to home when their lust for power extends so far beyond Hong Kong geographically and depends on the projection of imperious strength on the Asian continent.
Before American policymakers undertake any plans for a rearguard action against the Chinese in either Hong Kong or Southeast Asia writ large, they will have to reckon with the fact that the United States’ huge trade deficit with China makes us far too vulnerable to the tributary predations of Peking than we should be. During the Qing dynasty, an important part of the tributary homage paid to the emperor by his vassals was the performance of the kowtow at the imperial court. Owing to the wonders of modern communications technology, players and officials of the NBA did not have to make the pilgrimage to Peking to perform the same tribute at the court of the Communist Party. To amend a quote from the great Michael Jordan, “Communists buy sneakers, too.” They just make them as well.
Proving true the age-old maxim that a broken clock is right twice a day, Paul Krugman once astutely observed that in the context of free trade, economic competition between nations doesn’t really exist. Companies operate to satisfy customers and shareholders in whatever country or jurisdiction they might be. For this reason alone, it looks like Americans will soon face a choice between advocating for free trade and advocating for free markets, since free trade with China has become trade with an unfree market — a market that is politically engineered to work against the strategic interests of the United States. If the American government wants to work against the geopolitical proliferation of the tributary system in Southeast Asia, it has to extricate itself from it first.
If this can be done (granted, it’s an extravagant assumption), the next step would be to form a new group of multilateral institutions with countries in China’s sphere of influence and exploit any nationalist resentment they harbor toward Peking after what has in some cases been millennia of vassalage. Some Pacific equivalent of NATO is a more pressing need in the 21st century than the Atlantic original. If there is to be liberty for Hong Kongers in the future, it will have to come as part of a regional pincer movement orchestrated by the United States to limit China’s influence on its neighbors. Only when China is isolated as an island of despotism in an ocean of Asian liberty will it be easier to weaken its tributary claims on Hong Kong and the surrounding nations. It remains to be seen only if the willpower exists in the United States to prevent the emergence of another Warsaw Pact, far more powerful and intractable than the first. Hong Kongers can and should be granted asylum and sanctuary in the United States, but that will not prevent China’s fiscal and technological annexation of the entire region. Only American leadership can do that.