Yasuhiro Matsuda: Beijing Will Feel Secure Only When Hong Kong’s Freedoms Are Completely Crushed

Yasuhiro Matsuda, December 13, 2019

China Change transcribed and translated parts of Yasuhiro Matsuda’s recent Chinese language interview with Radio Free Asia (here and here)for his sharp insights on Hong Kong and the structural political problems in Xi Jinping’s decision making. Subheadings added by China Change for easy reading.  — The Editors

Beijing Will Feel Secure Only When Hong Kong’s Freedoms Are Completely Crushed

Hong Kong is also going to pass the National Security Regulations (国家安全条例), which are in fact even more serious because they will clear the path for rounding people up. Should the Regulations be passed, Hong Kong’s freedoms will cease to exist. So it’s more severe, since the fugitive regulations (逃犯条例) would send suspects to Taiwan or to mainland China and in doing so require certain procedures, but the national security ordinances can be used to crack down on newspapers, bookstores, or individuals. Hong Kong has seen this before, for example, some reports on Chinese state secrets, or some internally circulated publications and books, they are available in Hong Kong now, but they would be banned [in the event of the legislation being implemented]. In this perspective, Hong Kong would become exactly the same as mainland China.

I think that passing the National Security Regulations sooner than later is Beijing’s first priority. Because we all think that the situation in Hong Kong has gotten to this point because the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has refused to allow the people free elections. But Beijing’s thinking is quite the opposite. The mentality in Beijing is, “Why is Hong Kong so chaotic now? It’s because they have too much freedom. This is the biggest failure, why didn’t we intervene earlier? It may be too late now, but we have to do something anyway. Hong Kong has too much freedom.” This is Beijing’s idea. In other words, China’s thinking is completely the opposite of what the world outside of China is thinking.

The unrest brought about by the protests have made the Chinese leadership feel that the Hong Kong issue must be dealt with quickly, meaning that Hong Kong’s freedoms need to be completely wiped out. Only by doing so will they feel secure. Of course, there may be strong pushback from Hong Kong society, and it will be a struggle without end. China is sure to shackle people and groups who oppose it with heavy charges. There is no market for Hong Kong independence in Hong Kong, but China deliberately [charged its opponents with promoting] Hong Kong independence. [They say] this is serious, these are serious riots. [The protests] are about subverting the country.

Beijing’s thinking revolves about explaining things to an internal audience. Why is Hong Kong like this? Is Hong Kong like this because Xi Jinping’s policy is wrong? It is absolutely impossible for them to admit their mistakes. All mistakes are the fault of others. However, for the people of Hong Kong to be only advocating freedom and democracy, it does not seem terrible at all. So they must charge the Hong Kong people with seeking Hong Kong independence, that is, separatism, and subversion of the country so that they can explain it to the mainland Chinese. This is a government — a country — that only cares about internal reactions.

I think things were different in Deng Xiaoping’s time. During the Deng era, they believed that Hong Kong was good, that is to say, that Hong Kong’s freedom was useful. In Deng’s time, domestic reformers would let out some news via the Hong Kong media to see how everyone reacted, how the West reacted. Therefore, in the era of Deng Xiaoping, the so-called “Hong Kong intelligence” was very important.

Things are different now. The Xi Jinping government is now upset and uneasy about Hong Kong’s freedom. So many people have taken state secrets to Hong Kong and exposed them there. These people also took state property to Hong Kong as the first stop on the way to North America, Australia and Canada. Their first step is to move assets and family members to Hong Kong, the second step is to send them abroad. This makes [Beijing] uneasy. These people transferred their family and property abroad, so they must have also taken all state secrets for their own insurance. So [for Beijing], they think that this phenomenon must be stopped. This is completely different from when Deng Xiaoping was in power. During the Deng era, Hong Kong’s freedom was an asset. The Xi Jinping government now believes that Hong Kong’s freedom is China’s Achilles’ heel. This greatest of weaknesses has to be eliminated at all costs. The new attitude is the diametric opposite of the old one.

Xi Jinping’s policy making is going to meet with setbacks at every turn

[In September, Japanese scholar Nobu Iwatani (岩谷將) was arrested in Beijing]*, Japanese academia has reacted very fiercely to this incident. Such an approach will definitely affect cultural, academic, and personnel exchanges between Japan and China, because businessmen have also been arrested before. If businessmen and academics are arrested, it will definitely affect relations. In particular, this is a matter of personal safety, which will affect the overall situation of Japan-China relations.

I suppose that the Chinese side has considered the fact that President Xi Jinping will visit Japan in April next year, and that his visit must be a successful one. In light of the instability of China-U.S. relations, China certainly needs to develop more friendships. This has made Sino-Japanese relations become more strategically important. The arrest of a scholar may be a small matter for China’s Ministry of State Security, but for the free and open world, it is a very serious incident. Very likely they don’t understand this. In other words, their MSS was under pressure from Xi Jinping, they had instructions from Xi Jinping. Over the past four or five years, they established many detailed rules and regulations in relation to spy laws, and then used these to make a large number of arrests. They broadened their scope and arrested a lot of people in China; on the other hand, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has orders from Xi to ensure the complete success of his Japan trip.

Both sides received their instructions from Xi Jinping, and their orders came into conflict. When this happens, who will solve the matter? Whose call is it? Xi Jinping, Xi will fix it. This is roughly how it is. I think there are serious problems with how the Xi government makes decisions and runs operations. It has no horizontal links and no mechanisms for coordination. They don’t consult with think tanks. After a few [high officials] make a decision, they just send their orders down to the departments below. If there is no horizontal connection, policies will definitely collide. If such a decision-making model persists, Xi will meet setbacks everywhere.

The Hong Kong issue is the same. The Hong Kong issue is the way it is because he does not understand Hong Kong and does not understand what is going on with Hong Kong society Why did the first regulation [extradition bill] lead to such great pushback? Beijing may not understand the reason.

As things now stand, the personal safety of Chinese citizens is not guaranteed. Be it anti-corruption or reasons of national security, people are being arrested left and right, getting shuanggui’ed (双规, a form of extralegal discipline for Communist Party members), no one dares tell the truth. In a society where everyone is afraid to tell the truth, how can leaders make correct decisions and correct judgments? I think China is headed in a very dangerous direction now.

This is the trap of centralization. Earlier I talked about how, as a result of decentralization, many things become cumbersome, decision-making is hampered, and compromises must be made everywhere. Xi concentrated power in his person, in the hopes that he could rapidly and decisively make the correct decision. He thought this was the case, but in fact it wasn’t.

You don’t have rule of law, you don’t have a proper political system, You focus power on yourself, so the people below don’t dare to tell the truth, they all have been bent to your will, and the results are terrifying. It’s like Mao Zedong. Only when the policy fails completely do you realize that you were wrong. Because the way the process works is that subordinates all praise your decision as correct, you’re not at fault, it is always others who are to fault. This is terrible. There is no free media, no opposition party, and no one to restrain you. You have no idea where you went wrong, so in the end you discover that you made so many mistakes. Then there’s the problem of saving face, so you can’t admit it. Such are the great risks of centralized government.

There are also traffic jams in decision-making. Because everything requires the highest leader to make judgement calls and make decisions, the subordinates dare not decide anything. The dilemma of dealing with these sensitive issues will be pushed to the people above, and the people above will do the same, leading to a bottleneck in policy.

Xi Jinping has put in a lot of effort on some policies. In areas where he had given long-term observation and consideration, the decisions he made were relatively sound. But if something comes up suddenly — every decision has a deadline — it must be approved. This one needs to be approved, and that one has to be approved. He can’t remember them all. Later he learns that he approved two policies that clash with each other. This is a typical so-called “agent problem.” One agent does things according to your orders; the other agent is also following your orders, leading to a trainwreck of the two orders on site.

Therefore, good decision-making requires the rule of law, it needs a governing system, and opposition voices. These must be reflected in the decision-making process. What China lacks now is this, so I am very worried. But this kind of government, such a decision-making model, will persist for a long time. In a democratic society, if you choose the wrong leader, you can immediately remove him assuming you have a cabinet system in place. The presidential system has a term limit. Now that China has no term limits, this is China’s biggest problem.

*China Change note: A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China stated on November 16 that “According to reports, this September 8, the Chinese Ministry of State Security enforced the law onsite at the hotel where Nobu Iwatani was staying, finding in their investigation the state secrets-related materials that Iwatani had obtained. In accordance with the law, they took Iwatani for questioning. Upon interrogation, Iwatani revealed that he had illegally collected the state secrets-related materials on this and other occasions. The facts are clear and the evidence unimpeachable: his acts place him under suspicion of having violated the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国刑法) and the PRC Anti-Espionage Law (中华人民共和国反间谍法). Iwatani made a full confession to the charges, expressing his regret and desire to admit guilt and submit to the law. The Chinese side, according to legal regulations, gave Iwatani remedial education and had him sign an instrument of repentance, whereupon he was released from custody, subject to provision of a surety, pending investigation (取保候审). As of today, Iwatani has already left [Chinese] borders and returned to his home country.”

Yasuhiro MATSUDA(松田康博)is a professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo, Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia.

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