There has been much talk recently about economic problems in key economies around the world. Early Wednesday morning, for example, I spoke on Bloomberg Surveillance about the situation in China. Before I went on air, Bloomberg News was covering multiple stories on the decline in bond yields and its effect on the U.S. economy, weakness in the German economy, and so on. I then realized how closely this issue is linked to the protests in Hong Kong.
It has been about 10 years since the last U.S. recession, and we would expect to see another one soon. Since the United States is the world’s leading importer, an American recession always leads to a weakening of the global economy. Massive exporters like Germany and China are particularly vulnerable to such downturns. China’s economy was significantly weakened by the 2008 financial crisis. It has, until recently, managed to stave off U.S. attempts to try to level the imbalance between Chinese exports to the U.S. and U.S. exports to China. But it has now lost the ability to manage the United States. And at the same time, Hong Kong is rising.
The uprising occurred because China was increasing its control over Hong Kong, including taking much greater control of the criminal justice system. In 1997, when the United Kingdom relinquished control of Hong Kong to China, Beijing was willing to allow Hong Kong to have a high degree of independence because Hong Kong was the financial interface between China and the world. China could not afford to undermine Hong Kong’s dynamism.
But China is in a very different position today, and it can no longer accept a strong and independent Hong Kong. Even before the U.S. trade actions, the Chinese economy was in serious trouble, and its banking system was nearly in shambles. The introduction of new tariffs by its largest customer has created deeper problems in the economy, which are seen in industrial production data and other sector statistics. The accuracy of these statistics is always uncertain to me, but that China is publicly revealing its economic weakness is significant. When it admits that it has problems, it likely means the problems are serious indeed.
Today’s China was built on economic growth and the promise of prosperity. Maoism still exists, but it is on the margins. Chinese elites, like elites everywhere, expect greater wealth and, at minimum, that the wealth they have already accumulated will be protected. And the public expects a better life for themselves and especially their children. The Communist Party of China, therefore, now derives its legitimacy not from communist ideology but rather from the promise to deliver prosperity to the people, coupled with national pride. But as the economy weakened, China engaged in major international initiatives to try to encourage pride in its global standing, from exaggerating its military power, to lending money to other countries, to building a route to Europe. The more concerned China was about delivering prosperity, the more it leaned on pride in Chinese power and the idea that the U.S. would be bypassed by the Chinese in every way possible.
But the Chinese realize that their relationship with the United States has gotten out of control. On one hand, they depend on the U.S. to buy their goods. On the other hand, they want to show that they are pushing back against the United States. In the end, national pride goes only so far in a country that is divided into many social classes, with millions left out of the economic boom and others having benefited but remaining resentful of the avariciousness of the elite. The foundation of China is prosperity; national pride is just a substitute.
Right now, that prosperity is threatened not only by U.S. demands to redefine economic relations between the two countries, but also by the last thing China needs: a global economic slowdown. It is always the exporters who are hurt the most by such downturns.
China tried to dramatically increase its control of Hong Kong, not out of confidence but out of fear. If the Chinese economy contracts, Hong Kong doesn’t want to be taken down with it. But the people of Hong Kong couldn’t predict how far they would be able to separate the island from China’s problems, so they wanted to ensure their security apparatus had control of Hong Kong. The Chinese resistance to these steps was what really led to the uprising. From my point of view, it also points to a critical Chinese weakness. China relies on its internal intelligence system to maintain order, but it failed to anticipate the uprising in Hong Kong. That raises the question of whether a pillar of the Chinese system, its internal controls, is weakening.
Another major concern for Beijing is that the unrest in Hong Kong may spread to the rest of the country. People in other Chinese cities might sense Beijing’s weakness and, facing tough economic conditions, take their concerns and resentments into the streets. This is why Beijing cannot appear to have lost control of Hong Kong. If it does, China’s global image as a confident, leading power would be transformed into one of a brutal and repressive regime, fighting its own people.
Hong Kong has not triggered a reaction on the mainland, but Chinese President Xi Jinping has been wrong on several fronts, so the Central Committee may not be in the mood to let him handle this problem. But it is caught between its need to suppress the protests in Hong Kong and its fear of the consequences if it does. When decisive action becomes a threat, it’s a sign that a regime is in trouble. China has tried to appear patient, but it is increasingly appearing impotent to its own people. And that is the one thing it can’t tolerate.
Economic downturns have a tendency to trigger political responses. Consider 2008 and how the political landscape changed in many countries in the following years. While 2019 may not be as intense as 2008, many countries’ economies are struggling, having never fully recovered from the global financial crisis. It is in this context that I am beginning to think of China. It’s easy for an exporter to prosper in a robust global economy. It’s much harder to sell to a world facing an economic downturn. Such exporters are battening down the hatches – China’s approach to Hong Kong is one example. Having encountered resistance, it fears the consequences of decisive action. And it fears not acting. China doesn’t know quite what to do, and that is not the behavior of a formidable rising power.