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Minxin Pei
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This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Minxin Pei, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of China’s Crony Capitalism.

Project Syndicate: In your latest PS commentary, you argue that a Tiananmen-style crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong would only make matters worse, rendering the city instantly ungovernable and demolishing a vital bridge between China and the global economy. China’s government would thus be far better off making some concessions. What concessions would be palatable to China’s government and yet succeed in appeasing the people of Hong Kong?

Minxin Pei: Protesters in Hong Kong have made five key demands: withdrawal of the extradition bill (which Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has declared “dead,” but has refused to withdraw formally); an independent investigation of police misconduct; the release of arrested protesters and dismissal of all charges against them; Lam’s resignation; and renewed political reform (leading to direct elections in Hong Kong).

Of these, the first three should be easy to accept because they do not directly challenge the Chinese government’s authority. Lam’s resignation might be less attractive to China, but it is still feasible; someone has to be the fall guy, and she has lost credibility. Political reforms might be too much for China’s government to swallow, but accepting four of the five demands would probably stabilize the situation in Hong Kong almost instantly.

PS: One of the reasons China’s government is loath to succumb to popular pressure in Hong Kong is that it fears that any concessions there would only harden the sentiments of Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has been governing the island since 2016. How might a crackdown in Hong Kong influence events in Taiwan, which is scheduled to hold a presidential election in January?

MP: Major concessions by China’s government to the people in Hong Kong would help to win many hearts and minds in Taiwan, whereas a hardline position gives the DPP more credibility, by exposing the “one country, two systems” model as unreliable. Indeed, a crackdown would help the DPP enormously in the forthcoming elections, by enabling it to turn the election into a referendum on relations with China.

PS: You recently called for a credible public debate in the US on President Donald Trump’s confrontational China policy, which has raised the specter of a decoupling of the world’s two largest economies and even increased the risk of armed conflict. Such a debate, you argued, requires, first and foremost, clarification by the Trump administration of its policy’s ultimate objectives. What should America’s long-term goals be with respect to China, and how should it go about trying to achieve them?

MP: One of the most worrying aspects of the Trump administration’s China policy is that it is not clear what it is designed to accomplish. Some want to “contain” China. But what does that mean? So far, it seems to entail an open-ended conflict, with no measurable indicators of progress. In any case, with China’s growth now driven primarily by domestic factors, achieving that goal would require China to make some serious policy blunders.

In an ideal world, the ultimate goal might be a China that looks more like the West; but that is not realistic. A far more viable long-term objective would be peaceful co-existence and rules-based competition.

The Chinese are realists: they respect strength and know what is in their interests. This means that, while they won’t intentionally escalate a conflict with the US, if they feel that they are under attack, they will defend themselves fiercely. The West would thus do well not to be overly aggressive, even if it means allowing China’s continued rise.

Although a powerful China would pose a significant challenge, a united West – underpinned by a broad-based alliance – would be strong enough to handle it. But that does not mean it would be easy: maintaining such a state of peaceful co-existence would require leaders to sustain a tricky balancing act.

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Pei recommends

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Pei's picks:

  • The Back Channel

    The Back Channel

    An engrossing account of how the US relied on diplomacy, not force, to achieve key foreign-policy objectives, and a relevant read at a time when the US is no longer practicing traditional diplomacy.

  • The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

    The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

    The first book by a major China scholar to examine systematically Xi’s rhetoric and policies reaches a stark conclusion: Xi is engineering a political revolution that is reversing the progress China has made since Mao.

From the PS Archive

From 2018
Five months into Trump’s trade war, Pei argued that portraying China’s efforts to spread its influence abroad as a genuine threat to the world’s democracies not only highlighted the West’s own insecurity, but also gave China more credit than it deserved. Read his commentary.

From 2015
Before Trump even arrived on the political scene, Pei wondered if the downward spiral in Sino-American relations overseen by President Barack Obama could be reversed. Read his commentary.

Around the web

Pei tells CNN’s Christiane Amanpour why China doesn’t want to engage with Trump and offers insight into China’s response to the Hong Kong protests. Watch the interview.

Pei explores the digital dimension of the competition between the US and China. Watch his speech.

Pei offers a concise overview of the comforts and freedoms Chinese have gained as a result of economic development, and those they are likely to demand in the near future. Watch the video.