Snatching one Swedish national and forcing a phony-sounding confession out of him doesn’t look great; doing it to two looks plain nasty. Not content with abducting Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai and parading him on TV, Chinese authorities have arrested NGO activist Peter Dahlin and wrung an ‘apology’ out of him for helping people ‘called “lawyers”’. Officials in Stockholm are politely asking China about their two citizens, and apparently hoping for the best. The UK is taking the same tepid approach to Beijing over another kidnapped Hong Kong publisher, British national Lee Bo.
Some 15 to 20 years ago, mildly observant and averagely prescient Hong Kong people noted the huge and growing surge of investment into and exports out of Mainland China as the country’s economy bounced back with a vengeance after the lost Maoist decades up to the late 1970s. The risk-to-reward ratios were once-in-a-lifetime. We put our savings into amazingly underpriced Chinese companies being listed on the local stock market and saw returns of 500% or 1,000% in five-to-10-year spans.
It was a one-off historic opportunity for those of us lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. By the mid-2000s or so, China’s dramatic return to economic normality had run its course. Now, 10 years further on, the country is in trouble. The Communist regime faces a stark choice: relax its grip to let the economy grow, or tighten its grip to keep itself in power. The place is too big to fail, so we all vaguely assume they will find some middle way and wing it – though damned if we can see how, exactly. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping is re-establishing a dictatorship, as Swedes and others are finding out.
But news travels slowly. In Europe, they have only just heard of this thing called the Great Chinese Miracle Stratospheric Rise Story. To the UK, Sweden and the rest of the West, it is still the 1990s and the big boom is just starting to take off. So besotted are they with the mythical riches bound to flow from China that they feel a need to indulge in the most cringe-making pre-emptive kowtows.
Western policymakers probably see Beijing’s rogue behaviour – like kidnapping their own citizens – as an unfortunate but soon-to-pass phase that China is going through in its dazzling emergence as World’s Number-One Economic Power. They don’t realize that the clampdown on human rights (and media/academia/civil society/etc) is the direct result of, and response to, the end of the economic ‘miracle’. This is a corrupt regime fighting to survive. You don’t need to grovel to it. (At least with the Saudis you get some oil.)
As China does as it pleases with Swedish and British passport-holders, democratic Taiwan overwhelmingly votes for a Western-educated, reformist, progressive and pluralist leader. The West’s response? Implicitly criticize the Taiwanese for inconveniencing Beijing. Tut-tut at them for disrupting the Communists’ plan to absorb and crush their free society. Warn them, as the obvious troublemakers in all this, not to provoke China into ramping up the military threat.
Maybe in 10 years or so, the news will reach the West: the Big Wonderful Taking-Over-the-World Exploding Chinese Inevitable thing is over.