Libertarians are often divided over the “China issue”: whereas some believe that China is opening itself towards a more libertarian worldview based on the benefits of capitalism (despite the overwhelming lack of evidence), others concede that China is either still a communist dictatorship or on the verge of a second Cultural Revolution.
The idea of “China’s Opening Society” is usually sustained on its policies and relations with its nearby ex-colonial territory, Hong Kong, usually referred as the economically freest society in the world. The Chinese government has increased cooperation between the Mainland and Hong Kong, for example, allowing Chinese citizens to visit the latter or even settling themselves in easily. “China’s Opening Society”, to quote from a famous book, is often seen vis-à-vis the opening of economic borders with Hong Kong. Although there are a few dissenting voices regarding open borders policies carried through Europe and U.S., most libertarians agree with the fact that open borders are good. But as true as this may be, I concede, for at least the vast majority of Western countries, this idea advocated by many libertarians misses the most important point: libertarianism is not concerned with ethical values, neither does it offer moral assessments on what is good or bad –its unique concern are individual rights and, most specifically, the right of private property.
Thus, libertarians would never judge whether prostitution or drug consumption are good or bad, but the right of every single individual to make their own choices regarding prostitution or drug consumption –even if those choices would have counter-productive results and, thus, are not good. And the same can be said about open borders: even if they are good, individuals should have the right to decide who could enter their property –and the land of any country, although now in the hands of the Leviathan state, is also the subject of property rights.
Because of this, important libertarians such as Lew Rockwell believe that state-sponsored open borders policies are an assault on private property and should not be advocated by the libertarian movement. If we understand libertarianism in the Misean sense of capitalism (Ludwig von Mises, Liberalismus, Introduction § 5), then state-sponsored policies on immigration and open borders should be seen as cronyism rather than libertarianism, especially because the state is supporting and patroning free circulation of people in one single direction, offering special benefits to attract them that will be paid with taxpayers’ money.
The same problem arises when libertarians talk about open borders between China and Hong Kong: they are seen as something good, despite the fact that these policies are unidirectional, state-sponsored, and only aim at taking advantage of Hong Kong’s free society and economy for the sake and survival of the Chinese Communist Party.
In order to explain the unfair relationship between China and Hong Kong to Western audiences, I believe a more familiar approach is needed. Thus, extracted from well-known Western history, let’s talk about the relation between the Soviet Union and Poland.
The Soviet Union-Poland metaphor
Poland was one of the largest and most prosperous countries of 17th century Europe. In 1569 it became a commonwealth with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the so-called “Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth”. Following Russian victories over the Ottoman Empire, which resulted from Russian expansionism, the Commonwealth lost its autonomy and was forced by Russian forces to pass a resolution that would make Poland a Russian protectorate. As a consequence of these events, an association of Polish nobles was formed at the fortress of Bar in Podolia in 1768. The Bar Confederation, as it was called, tried to preserve the economic liberties of Polish nobles which limited the power of the king in order to defend themselves against Russian interests over Europe. With the support of France, a group of volunteers declared war to Russia, but they were finally defeated in 1772. The confederates were sent to either Siberia or to concentration camps, and the territory was divided between Prussia, Austria and Russia. The remaining Polish territory only survived for a few years: in 1793 it was divided again, leaving behind a small land unable to maintain its own independence. The Commonwealth finally disappeared when Russia and Austria divided and controlled its remnants two years later, in 1795.
It was not until the Second Poland Republic, following World War I, that Poland regained its original national borders, following the decisive Battle of Warsaw against the Soviets in 1920. But the territorial claims of Russia over Poland did not disappear with the “peaceful” communism that followed the foundation of the Soviet Union in 1922. In the years preceding the invasion of Poland by both Communist Russia and Nazi Germany, the former insisted on having transit rights for their troops through Polish territory because, according to Soviet propaganda, the Polish state was on the verge of collapse following Nazi incursions from the Northwest and Southwest. Although the Soviets did not recognize the Polish state and neglected Polish culture in general, they claimed to be protecting the Polish people from the German invaders. However, behind the scenes, Communist Russia had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the Nazis to divide Polish territory between the two of them. In September, 1939 the Soviets invaded Poland without a formal declaration of war and occupied the whole country in less than two months. The reign of terror that followed sent thousands to the Soviet Gulag, whereas many others were simply killed on sight and piled up in mass graves. Political prisoners, a category that under communism includes basically anyone who dissents with the leader, were deported to the remotest areas of the Soviet Union, land was confiscated and nationalized, and all Polish property, private or public, was redistributed among the invaders.
In short, the original Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth did not survive because of its inability to use an almost-private militia to fight a gargantuan Empire. In our modern world, many believe that wars could be avoided if the invading state will lose more than it has to gain because, as Randolph Bourne said, “war is the health of the State” (War and the Intellectuals, 1964, 9). But this misses the ideological and psychological content of many wars that goes beyond profit and even power, such as Russian, German, Japanese, or Chinese expansionism, and the fact that human loses are not only insignificant for the Leviathan state, but also seen as heroes and martyrs by the surviving brainwashed citizens who have been educated, from cradle to the grave, under the state-sponsored nationalist propaganda. And even if, in the long run, all empires are dead, the collateral damage suffered by civilians in both sides of the conflict should be a reason for historical reflection.
Likewise, the Soviet invasion of Poland, although not directly linked to open borders, tried to make use of these policies to advance Russian interests in a foreign, autonomous region. The case of Poland teaches us that the sudden implementation of libertarian policies without further reflection in a world with bloodthirsty dictatorships could have disastrous consequences for free societies, and that it is the reduction of the power of the states –of all the states–, and not state-sponsored “libertarian” policies (cronyism) which empower them, condition sine qua non for the natural development and flourishing of our individual rights.
The People’s Republic of China is a Soviet Union on LSD. Change “Soviet Union” to “China” and “Poland” to “Hong Kong” and you will start to get a clear picture of how far we are today, globally speaking, from that utopian world without expansionist empires and conquest states.
How China-Hong Kong reflects Soviet Union-Poland
Although Hong Kong was formally founded in 1841 when Commodore James Bremer took formal possession of it in 1841, the territory today known as the freest economy in the world has a long history. It belonged to the Yue tribes when it was conquered by the bloody Qin dynasty in 214 BC, and regained independence again when the dynasty collapsed in 206 BC and General Zhao Tuo founded the Nanyue kingdom two years later. This old version of Hong Kong remained independent until 112 BC, roughly one century, when it was defeated after the Han-Yue War and became part of the Han Empire. Along the centuries, Hong Kong has been a curious place: it served as an international trade port center during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), and during the Mongol invasion of 1276 the imperial court moved to today’s Kowloon City. These two events are highly significant, because modern Hong Kong is not only an international trade center again, but it has also served as a safe place for those running away from the Communist invaders in 1949, during the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. History, indeed, repeats itself.
During the early years of the Chinese Communist Party, most leaders realized that Hong Kong’s economic and geographic position could serve as a proxy for the deficiencies of a Communist state. Thus, Zhou Enlai, at that time Premier of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong, declared as early as 1958 that “China wished the present colonial status of Hong Kong to continue with no change whatever”, the reason being, according to the director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office Liao Chengzhi, that “Through Hong Kong we can trade and contact people of other countries and obtain materials we badly need”.
Under British rule Hong Kong had become a prosperous nation and was part of the Commonwealth of Nations. On June 3, 1959, Singapore gained self-governance. The Chinese Communist Party, with interests in the region, had carried armed uprisings in Singapore, leading to the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) and Chinese middle school riots. With Communist interests at stake, Chinese leaders feared that Hong Kong could also gain independence and take away the goose that lays golden eggs. For this reason, the aforementioned Liao Chengzhi threatened to “liberate” Hong Kong from independence, democracy, and universal values if any political reform was made to change the colonial status of the city. Although China wanted to preserve Hong Kong for economic reasons, the similarities with Russian intervention in Poland are quite remarkable.
Things changed once more, however, with Deng Xiaoping, who believed that Hong Kong could better serve China by sponging it directly. Hence, he envisioned the so-called “One Country, Two Systems”, under which Hong Kong’s colonial status would disappear, whereas its economic exclusiveness would be preserved. Hong Kong became part of China in 1997, under the promises of a “high level of autonomy” and “nothing would change for 50 years”.
But give the State a hand, and it will take away all your rights. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Chinese nationalism started to flourish exponentially to such an extent that the old-forgotten national expansionism of Nazi Germany, Czarist Russia, or the Mongol Empire came back to life again. As for today, China has border disputes with fourteen countries and, unlike its fellow disputers, constantly carries propaganda campaigns to ignite the nationalist feelings of its citizens. Whereas during the Cultural Revolution young students would destroy books, attack “capitalist traitors”, and burn Western shoes, modern Chinese youth tears apart books with Western ideas, assaults capitalist consumers in KFC, and smashes expensive smartphones. Deng Xiaoping’s strategy is no longer valid: China needs more golden eggs than the goose can provide. And in order to take advantage of the fruits of half a century of the best capitalism, Communist China has developed new approaches to the original “One Country, Two Systems”, such as the Individual Visit Scheme of 2003, that allows Chinese citizens to visit Hong Kong and Macau without a business visa (but not the other way around, i.e., from Hong Kong or Macau to China). Chinese policy of open borders is only open in appearance. It is more like a door for China to plunder freely the fruits of Hong Kong’s economy. Or, in other words, China is acting as a free rider.
As it was the case with Russia and Poland, the Chinese government does not recognize the autonomy of Hong Kong, neither does it respect or value its unique culture, language, and traditions. For this reason, some analysts have called attention over the possible “Tibetisation” of Hong Kong. Tibet, just like Hong Kong, had a unique culture that was almost destroyed by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s and 1960s. As for today, the Chinese Communist Party promotes immigration from the Mandarin speaking areas of China to those places where, like Tibet, citizens do not use the language created by the government. China’s Permit for Proceeding to Hong Kong and Macau allows Chinese citizens to settle in Hong Kong outside of the vetting procedures of the Hong Kong Immigration Department, which had set a quota of 150 immigrants per day. Of course, most beneficiaries of this permit are government officials and their families, who use Hong Kong as a tax haven to make free use of their “red capitalism”.
In the past the Soviet Union kidnapped and killed thousands of Polish citizens. The Chinese Communist Party has already started to kidnap Hongkongers and also Taiwanese citizens, as it happen in 2015 with the five Causeway Bay booksellers, or in April, 2016 with Taiwanese workers forced by the Kenyan government into a plane to China. To expect that China, a crazier, dirtiest, and thousands of times more nationalist version of the Soviet Union will ever reform itself and become a free society without a formal dissolution of its current party is as naïve as it is dangerous. But to believe that any open borders policy it implements between China and Hong Kong is somehow a step into liberty is plainly and simply stupid.