When my oldest son started college this fall, I learned about a professor at his school who forecasts the success or failure of governments. When I did a quick Google search, I came across a book Bruce Bueno de Mesquita had written back in 1985: Forecasting Political Events: The Future of Hong Kong (Yale University Press).
I quickly ordered it used from Amazon and couldn’t wait to read his predictions (and that of his co-authors’ David Newman and Alvin Rabushka). Not only did this book come out a year after the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which outlined the terms of Hong Kong’s handover to China, but this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Handover.
Hong Kong’s future has never been more vulnerable than it is now, so I was eager to read the predictions outlined in this book 33 years ago.
The results were chilling.
The first two chapters are heavy on theory and mathematical equations. I was a political science major in college and in graduate school, but was more interested in the Hong Kong-specific chapters, so skimmed those first two.
The authors give a survey of Hong Kong economic, political and social history in Chapter 3. I remember first studying China the year this book was published. I was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school and took history and English tag-team-taught classes that spent a third of the year on China. The verdict on Mao wasn’t out yet, so it wasn’t terribly surprising to read this about Hong Kong in Forecasting Political Events: “Another flood of people crossed the border in 1962, following three years of bad harvests in China.” (page 61). Bad harvests? More like manmade famine that resulted in 45 million deaths from 1958-61.
It was also striking to read this in Forecasting (from 1985): “Polls show that a majority of British residents are not aware that Hong Kong is a British Crown Colony.” (page 70) That’s sad, but what happens next is even more dismal.
About the Joint Declaration, the book states that “The Chinese granted these guarantees, but, given the Chinese notion of sovereignty, the British have no way to prevent an erosion of these guarantees in the future.” (page 105) It’s easy to simplify what’s going on in Hong Kong today as something that was never going to work in the first place, but that’s the gist of the book.
The interim years of 1985-1997, according to the book, would bring Hong Kong to a state of limbo. The authors predict that rushed measures to bring more democracy would occur in Hong Kong, and that was true, especially during the Chris Patten years.
Another passage from the book: “After 1997, the guarantee of continued free exercise of local rule depends solely on China’s good will. … Local control, then, can be quickly transformed into deference to Chinese wishes, and ultimately, direct Chinese control of Hong Kong.” (page 107) What’s more, Bueno de Mesquita and his co-authors write that there were no specific plans for how to elect the Chief Executive. That’s become a huge issue in Hong Kong this decade.
Deng Xiaoping is portrayed very favorably in this book, which was published four years before Tiananmen. But even that could be explained in the book. The authors praise Deng for his economic reforms and for allowing the Joint Declaration to guarantee the status quo in Hong Kong for the first 50 years after the Handover. They portray the army and Deng’s opponents as hardliners. Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were Deng’s allies in 1985, but that sadly had all changed in 1989 after Hu died and Zhao sympathized with the protestors. Deng caved into the hardliners and the rest is history.
This relates to Hong Kong because “Internal Chinese politics, not political maneuvering in or the economic welfare of Hong Kong, dictate how the leadership in Beijing will respond to tradeoffs between economic and political goals.” (page 137). Xi Jinping, anyone?
The book analyzes and predicts the future of Hong Kong’s free market, tax structure, local government structure, wage rates and labor regulations, and social welfare. All predictions have proved to be true 20 years after the Handover.
In a way, it’s amazing the first two decades post-Handover have carried on this well, because, as the authors write, “In time, policies in Hong Kong and in China will blend.” (page 139)