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The Baron's Briefings

Jonathan Fenby

The days of what was known as “constructive engagement” with China have long gone and the relationship is going to prove more difficult to deal with for the West and its allies in the years to come, says Jonathan Fenby (photo), former Reuters editor and author of eight books on China, past, present and future.


We are now moving into a different world of dealing with the People’s Republic, though there is very little unity within the West as to how it confronts the rise of China in its more assertive form, he told former colleagues in a a Baron’s Briefing co-hosted by The Reuter Society and The Baron.


“I still don’t think that China is going to rule the world. I think there are too many drawbacks, politically, institutionally, and economically plus the rise in negative sentiment internationally. But China is going to prove more difficult to deal with for the West and its allies in the years to come,” he said in a tour d’horizon on China and Hong Kong.


On Hong Kong, Fenby said the scene was all set for Beijing to take up the reins on national security legislation which would give Beijing a great deal of presence on the bodies implementing the legislation.


“There will be Chinese mainland state security agents posted in Hong Kong able to operate above the law as far as one can tell… Beijing has basically said it has the right to over-rule local Hong Kong institutions including the government and the legislative council to impose the one country part of the [1997] handover formula on the second of the two systems.”


The question will be how Beijing wants to implement this power - whether it goes for an all-out attack on independent Hong Kong institutions.


He thinks further prosecution of various pro-democracy figures who were arrested a few weeks ago will be seen, a tightening on opposition and dissent, and pressure on the corporate sector for companies to come into line with the new state of affairs as a number of leading firms already have.


“But at the same time I think Beijing does not want to destroy Hong Kong’s particular position as a bridge between the mainland and the rest of the world. It still serves a very useful purpose both inward and outward for financial flows, although obviously the economic importance of Hong Kong in China as a whole has diminished greatly since the handover from almost 20 per cent of national GDP to around three per cent. Politically Hong Kong has become much more front of stage with American and European and Japanese concern for what is happening there. So we may see a more diplomatic approach now that the watershed has been passed of imposing central control on Hong Kong. But I see what has happened as being a logical, although to my mind regrettable, step in the way that Beijing, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, exercises power. And I think this is now becoming much more apparent to the rest of the world. The days of constructive engagement… those have long gone.” ■