Hong Kong protests and their implications for business in Greater China

For many, the magnitude and impact of the protests in Hong Kong are difficult to understand. Some may see the protests as an extension of the 1989 Tiananmen uprising and a general revolt against an oppressive one-party regime. Others may see a movement that looks similar to Occupy Wall Street, with streets filled with young idealistic activists. While certainly there are some similarities to these historical protests, the truth is a bit more nuanced. To start, an understanding of Hong Kong’s historical significance is necessary.

Hong Kong’s Historical Significance

  1. Hong Kong as a gateway for unwanted change

    Even prior to the United Kingdom handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Hong Kong has long been a region of experimentation. From the mid-1700s, the greater Guangzhou region (the area surrounding Hong Kong, also known as Canton) was the only point of trade and contact with the Western world under the Canton System. This system was meant to not only limit the perceived commercial threat posed by foreigners, but also to limit a perceived political threat from abroad as well. Following the First Opium War, the UK seized Hong Kong as part of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, forcefully opening more points of free trade. One of the goals of this war was to rectify a trade balance, wherein the West was purchasing large amounts of Chinese goods but were limited from selling products to the Chinese mainland. What resulted however, was the forced trade of opium into China. This was the first of many unequal treaties, in which China was subjected to the whims of the Western powers during what Chinese historian’s describe as the “Century of National Humiliation.” After a Second Opium War and years of forced opium trade, 27% of China’s male adult population regularly used opium by 1906. From a historical perspective, Hong Kong and the greater Guangzhou region represented an entry point for physical poisons.

  2. Hong Kong as a gateway for controlled experimentation

    Since the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, Hong Kong has existed as a Special Administrative Region (SAR), with a different set of rules and regulations than the rest of the Mainland. Under this system, Hong Kong was granted a high degree of autonomy with a separate political system and economy described by Deng Xiaoping as “One country, two systems.” In particular, Hong Kong maintained its own currency, economy, and most importantly, government. The establishment of neighboring Shenzhen as a Special Economic Zone served as an experiment for market capitalism under the system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The investment of large international firms like Foxconn, resulted in large economic successes that drove the rapid acceptance of market capitalism throughout the rest of China.

As a result of Hong Kong’s history, there is a subtle but important cultural gap between Hong Kong and the Mainland. Rightly or wrongly, many Hong Kong citizens see themselves as superior to Mainlanders. Nevertheless, China has continued to allow Hong Kong special privileges not afforded to the rest of China in maintaining Hong Kong as a place for economic experimentation. Given its special status in China, changes in Hong Kong have major implications on business in Greater China

Implications for Business in Greater China

Given this historical perspective on Hong Kong, there are a few key questions that businesspeople need to examine in the wake of these protests:

  1. Will China allow Hong Kong’s historical role as a gateway into China extend beyond an experiment in economics into an experiment in politics?

    What started these protests was that Beijing proposed a change that would limit the existing democratic election process, by effectively limiting the chief executive candidates to those handpicked by the mainland government. Thus, the results of these protests have very specific implications for the future of democracy in Hong Kong, and by proxy democracy in China. Although democracy in China is unlikely at this point, any steps towards or away from democracy in Hong Kong will likely effect the political discourse in greater China.As any who have worked in China know, it is very necessary to have relationships or guanxi (關係) in order to do business there. As market capitalism has spread through China from Hong Kong, business reform has also spread. Thus, the political discourse in China will likely have a long-term impact on the way business in China is done.

  2. Will these protests lead to more severe unrest in Hong Kong and Greater China?

    This is a key question with the potential for more severe short-term financial implications. Since the start of the protests, the Hang Seng Index has already plummeted over 6.4% as investors pull money out of Hong Kong. Certainly, these investors are afraid that extended unrest in Hong Kong will negatively impact business potential in Hong Kong.In addition to the effect of unrest on Hong Kong, one must also consider the impact of unrest in Hong Kong on greater China. Instagram has been blocked in China since Sunday, and other social media and search sites are being actively censored by the government. If the unrest contagion spreads to greater China, it is likely that the PRC will clamp down in a much more extreme manner, but this is dangerous territory. Images of protestors being met by police armed with tear gas and riot shields are likely to evoke memories of Tiananmen, even in China where this event is actively censored. China must tread very lightly, as a violent clampdown of prospects in Hong Kong would likely crush the future of Hong Kong as an international business center.

  3. How will this impact cross-strait relations and the prospect of Taiwan joining greater China?

    China has extended to Taiwan the offer of rejoining China as a special administrative region similar to Hong Kong. Given Taiwan’s status as one of the “Four Asian Tigers,” this certainly has large implications for business, especially for the information technology and high tech manufacturing industries. Since the election of Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九) as president of Taiwan in 2008, cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan have improved dramatically, resulting in substantial Taiwanese investment and emigration to China.In recent years, one of the simpler ways for foreigners to invest in Chinese growth was to invest in Taiwanese firms investing in China such as Foxconn. How things play out in Hong Kong will have a substantial impact on the future of cross-strait relations and continued Taiwanese investment in China.

The PRC has a very delicate task ahead in figuring out how to address these protests. Extended protests and backing away from previous moves will certainly cause the PRC to “lose face,” but violent clampdowns would have very dramatic repercussions. For businesspeople, it is important to understand that these events could radically change the future prospects of doing business in greater China and Asia Pacific.

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US Bill Creating the Great Firewall of America

History of Chinese Internet Censorship

In the western world, China has long been infamous for its human rights abuses. Prior to Deng Xiaoping’s re-opening of China to the west in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, these abuses were largely hidden from the West. With the advent of globalization, the PRC quickly realized the dangers of the internet to China’s fragile societal balance. Beginning in 2005, China began enlisting Western aid in Chinese internet censorship. Western companies like Cisco and Google have long abetted the Chinese government in establishing the so-called Great Firewall of China.

As Western social media developed, the PRC quickly recognized the power of these sites and moved to restrict its citizen’s access to these web sites. While some of these actions may appear to be antitrust behavior to allow local Chinese companies a competitive edge, make no mistake that the primary reason for censorship is the ongoing restriction of information from Chinese citizens. Nonetheless, as the Chinese web has developed, Chinese ‘netizens’ actively find ways around the Great Firewall and discuss social issues around the world. Numerous free tools such as Freegate, Freenet, and Vtunnel provide solutions for Chinese netizens to access the internet in the free world. As Chinese netizens find ways around the firewall, China has continued to step up its policing of the Chinese web.

The Power of Social Media in China

Over the past few years, more and more of China’s human rights abuses have come to light through social media. Ai Weiwei’s recent incarceration and the PRC’s bullying of Ai through gigantic back tax charges has resulted in Ai Weiwei speaking out about his incarceration. Using Google+, Ai was able to communicate methods of donation to help fight back against the $2.4 million back taxes claimed by the Chinese government. According to Chinese law, in order to contest tax charges of this nature, half of the sum must be presented as  collateral. In an awe-inspiring demonstration of the power of Chinese social media, Ai’s supporters around the world have already donated more than $1 million in 2 weeks.

Despite the outpouring of support from the West, Ai Weiwei is quick to criticize Western foreign policy.

“Today, the West feels very shy about human rights and the political situation. They’re in need of money. But every penny they borrowed or made from China has really come as a result of how this nation sacrificed everybody’s rights… With globalization and the Internet, we all know it. Don’t pretend you don’t know it. The Western politicians—shame on them if they say they’re not responsible for this. It’s getting worse, and it will keep getting worse.”

Unfortunately, Ai is more than correct in his assessment. Unfortunately, Western politicians’ short-sightedness extends beyond Chinese foreign policy.

Internet Censorship in the United States

On October 26, 2011, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced in the House of Representatives. This bill aims to quell loosely defined “online piracy.” I’d like to compare SOPA to the Chinese web landscape by discussing the two major things that SOPA would do if passed.

1. SOPA allows for suspension of service prior to being found guilty

SOPA does away with the “safe harbors” defined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). These safe harbors allow some degree of protection for providers like Facebook, Youtube, and Google from liability for copyright infringement. SOPA would hold any site with user-generated content responsible. In Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., it was demonstrated that big media corporations have not considered fair use in the past when issuing takedown notices. In the SOPA world, the alleged rightsholder would be able to force former safe harbors to suspend service prior to being found guilty of infringing on rights. None of the sites that rely on user-generated content would be able to survive in this environment.

While China is not as concerned with IP laws as America is, there are obvious parallels here. The major Chinese Twitter-clone, Sina Weibo, is often forced to censor information without proof of guilt. This frequently involves blocking references to activists like Ai Weiwei who are trying to express free speech. The important point to note here is that in Ai’s case, he has not necessarily been proven to be guilty of anything prior to the repression of his speech. Similarly, whether or not the rightsholders’ property is being infringed upon, the alleged infringer would have to suspend services immediately.

2. SOPA allows the US government to blacklist web sites

Under Section 102 of SOPA, the Attorney General could order American companies from doing business with any alleged infringing web site. While proponents of SOPA have avoided using the term blacklist, make no mistake. SOPA allows the US government to blacklist websites.

If alarm bells aren’t ringing in your head yet, they should be. This is exactly what China has done with the Great Firewall. We have seen many times in China and recently in the Arab Spring that the censorship of internet is a strong component of the suppression of human rights. Recently, the UN has declared internet access a human right. SOPA would be infringing on American human rights in order to protect big media companies from infringement on their content.

Ultimately, SOPA attempts to control the American web space in the same way that the PRC suppresses human rights in China in the name of intellectual property protection. Look, at the end of the day, online piracy is a serious problem. However, SOPA is not the way to deal with it. If the DMCA needs to be revised to adjust to today’s web, then so be it. Let’s be clear here. This is not a slippery slope argument. SOPA puts in provisions that allows the US to control the internet the same way that the PRC does in China.

To  help fight this bill,

Contact your Congressmen

AND

visit americancensorship.org and show support for American Censorship Day tomorrow, November 16, 2011.