Statements of the bleedin' obvious passed off as prophecy

Red Flag over Hong Kong
October 4, 1996

Any book prophesying the future of Hong Kong under Chinese rule needs some sort of unique selling point if it is not simply to sink without trace into the growing pile of similar tomes. This book's claim to deserve our attention lies not in its content but in its methodology.

This is how the authors describe the superiority of their predictive methods over the attempts of China experts: "Most analysts of China depend on inside information, divining from tea leaves as it were. They do not have a framework that allows them to escape the shifting currents of Chinese rhetoric and behaviour. We do. Our framework allows for decision makers to renege on their promises and change their mind so long as those changes are consistent with their self-interest." Whereas, they imply, a mere area specialist will just blindly follow the mutterings of whichever inscrutable "insiders" he/she has access to, without considering anything as arcane as the real interests of the various players. Those of us who occasionally indulge in empirical research in between bouts of tea-leaf reading and flights of "whim and caprice" may be forgiven for feeling somewhat slighted by this assessment of of our work.

In virtually every respect, I would agree with the authors' fairly bleak and pessimistic conclusions on China's future and, dominated by it, that of Hong Kong. This will be of absolutely no consequence to the authors, of course, since they already know that they are almost always right. In the past their model has proved 90 per cent accurate, and moreover it carries the CIA seal of approval. However, the idea that much of what is contained in the first and final three chapters constitutes bold predictions of the shape of a new China and a new Hong Kong is harder to swallow. For one thing, it is a lot easier to predict things boldly if they have in fact already happened. The authors' "findings" here seem to include much that is already observable, and observed, about major Chinese institutions such as the People's Liberation Army; about the slowdown in the mainland's economic reforms and a partial, temporary retreat from Deng Xiaoping's radical reform strategy during the struggle to succeed him; and about the centre's loss of authority to prosperous provinces. Other examples could be cited. If these discussions were couched as predictions that certain specific present trends would continue in the near future, this would be fair enough, but the authors seem to believe they are describing quite new future developments.

The book would be improved by the omission, or complete rewriting, of much of chapters two to five, mostly historical surveys of China and Hong Kong since the 19th century, since this section is of such poor quality. There is no space here to detail all the unwarranted assumptions, tendentiousness, inaccuracies and downright silliness contained within this narrative, but China specialists in particular would be well advised to avoid it. The rest of the book must have been designed for its target audiences (international business, overseas Chinese and middle-class Hong Kongers) to dip into relevant sections only, judging by the amount of repetition contained within a relatively short volume. The authors' favourite aphorism, that it is only in mainland China that the average Chinese person is poor, finds its way in at least three times in 140 pages.

Only the cliche of Hong Kong as the goose that lays China's economic golden eggs is more overworked; that, and the news that Li Ka-shing has placed all his personal assets in trust in the West Indies, which is mentioned six times.

The price for making accurate short-term predictions grounded in present realities will always be to have your audience assume that they knew all of this already, but that does not conceal the fact that this book makes exceptionally heavy weather of many of its commonplace observations. Is it really necessary, for example, to confront readers with such a multiplicity of graphs, pie-charts and indifference curves in order to convince them that there is little room for compromise between those on the mainland who prefer to retain a strong central government and increasingly powerful provincial interests favouring decentralisation? This seems to belong to the realm of what Basil Fawlty termed the bleedin' obvious. Under this heading must also come the statement that "the next several years will be dominated by uncertainty" in China as the succession to Deng Xiaoping works itself out.

Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in international history, Keele University.

This charming man: Gaitskell's charisma attracted passionate loyalty and inspired many to see him as a potentially great prime minister judy Cassab/national portrait gallery

Red Flag over Hong Kong

Author - Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, David Newman, and Alvin Rabushka
ISBN - 1 56643 041 0 and 040 2
Publisher - Chatham House
Price - £20.00 and £12.99
Pages - 196

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