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If we can wrench our eyes off the spectacle of the Donald wearing a mask for his trip to Walter Reed Medical Center for Covid-45 treatment, can we ask whether the spring and summer of marches and demonstrations have raised awareness of systemic racism to a level at which we can look at more complex aspects of our national shame? 

Racism and sexism are more complex than most political discussions admit. In this, they follow our traditional pattern of grossly over-simplifying issues to make them publicly accessible. 

Consider Herman Cain and Robert Johnson, two Black billionaires. Each made his fortune by exploiting Black customers. Cain sold cholesterol bombs and sugary sodas to people living in food deserts. People who were already victims of diabetes, obesity and malnutrition. Johnson sells racist, insulting, intellectually degrading programming to people who already suffered from educational deprivation. 

Some white men make fortunes exploiting people. If we are going to beat racism, we have to accept that some Black men will do so as well. 

Then think about Candace Owens and “Diamond & Silk,” Black women building their careers and fortunes on misogyny and racism. Are they any better or worse than their white role models, women from Phylis Schlafly to Amy Barrett? Is Candace Owens anything but a darker Tomi Lahren? 

Some white men make fortunes exploiting people. If we are going to beat racism, we have to accept that some Black men will do so as well.

Really ending racism means accepting that there are and always will be non-white people who are venal and crassly commercial, willing to do anything for a paycheck, just as there are such white people. 

Let’s step away from the current U.S. fascination with Black-White racial issues, and consider another situation of colonial oppression, to see that race can be instrumental in colonial politics, not involving Black people. Let’s think about the recent years of protests and demonstrations in Hong Kong. 

British colonial rule took control of Hong Kong in 1842, after the first Opium War. The Opium Wars arose out of the British colonial effort to flood colonized China with opium, as a way of gaining control of Chinese workers and government. Back then, government WANTED people on drugs. We saw that again when Reagan tried to flood the “inner cities” with crack cocaine, imagining that it would never spread out to the suburbs. 

The Imperial Chinese government tried to fight back, to protect its population from being overrun by opium. The Chinese government lost, but laid the groundwork for dozens of late 20th century films about the noble resistance of Chinese heroes.

In 1897, the British government imposed a 99-year lease on Hong Kong. With typical gunboat diplomacy, the colonial power extracted the “agreement” of the colonized nation to this “lease.” Over the next century, Hong Kong became a major Asian financial and commerce center, ruled by British “Common Law.” 

Inconveniently, during the second half of the 20th century, Chinese people re-asserted their own control of their own country, as so many colonies tried to do. With the Nixon administration opening with China and encouraging U.S. corporations to exploit the near-slave labor available in China, the nation developed economic power. A despotic Chinese government raised the living standards of hundreds of millions of peasants, providing them with education, health care and nutrition, and some measure of law, under the European model of “Civil Law.” 

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As the end of the 99-year lease loomed, the British were unhappy. The Chinese realized that the colonial power might not honor its commitment to return Hong Kong to Chinese rule when the “lease” ended. 

opium-war-450

In an amazingly brief period, from 1990 to about 1995, China acted to reinvent the city of Shanghai. From an industrial and port city, Deng Xiaoping opened the city to foreign capital investment, and encouraged the development of a financial center, based on European/Chinese “Civil Law.” Deng’s plan was to create a financial center to compete with the British center in Hong Kong. 

As the 99-year “lease” on Hong Kong approached its end, Britain did what colonial powers have done throughout history. It decided that it didn’t want to give up what it had promised to give up. Britain, now with the backing of the U.S. Pentagon, “renegotiated” the terms of the lease. At the end of 1984, under the leadership of white female colonialist prime minister Margaret Thatcher, China was coerced into signing an agreement that British style rule would remain in Hong Kong until 2047, with some concessions to Chinese sovereignty. 

The agreement allowed a variety of British colonial political structures to remain in place until 2017, and then fewer until 2047. When 2017 arrived, China wanted to assert more control over Hong Kong. Demonstrations erupted and we have now watched several years of struggle between groups wanting different approaches to rule in Hong Kong. 

It is important to understand what this means. In 1984, the British government insisted that it had the unilateral right to force the Chinese government to renegotiate a treaty that the British government had forced on China a century earlier. The only “explanation” for this unilateral right was that British, White colonial rule was “better” than Chinese self-rule. 

This is, in essence, what we have been told for centuries about White rule over Black populations in the U.S. For domestic consumption, we are always told that the underlying reason is that the Chinese government is “communist.” So was the USSR. But we didn’t say that we had a natural right to force our rule on that (white-ruled) country. 

Essentially, U.S. backing of Margaret Thatcher’s racist colonial policy in Hong Kong was an extension of our systemic racism at home. But how many otherwise sensibly anti-racist Americans think that it is OK for us to insist that the Chinese people do not have the right that the Russian people have, or the French or the Danes or the Italians or the Poles to choose their own governments? 

We don’t think that we’re being racist. But while we backed Thatcher’s play in China, we were also backing every banana republic in Central and South America, again arguing that we were “protecting” the citizenry from choosing the “wrong” kinds of governments to rule themselves. 

This behavior is extremely short sighted, like corporations thinking only of profits in the next few quarters, rather than looking at any longer context. At one time, Hong Kong controlled essentially all of the financial international business marketplace in Asia. Now, Hong Kong sits in fourth place, behind Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo. And Hong Kong, once the port handling 50% of China’s trade goods (1997) now handles only about 13% (2015), with a majority of that going to one customer, the U.S. 

tom hall

Why? In part because the British Common Law system, in force in Hong Kong, is different from the Civil Law system used in Europe, the Middle East, and most ex-colonies of Europe, and in other Chinese port and financial cities. It’s simply easier, cheaper and more familiar to do business in other cities. The continuing British influence in Hong Kong mirrors the U.S. resistance to adopting the metric system - the rich don’t care, but the common folk suffer an economic cost. 

When we look at China, Hong Kong and British and U.S. policies, we see the same things that we see when we look at U.S. racism. The general population is damaged by actions designed to benefit the economic top tier. When we mourn what happened to Detroit and Flint and other U.S. cities, we should also note that Hong Kong now has a very high real estate vacancy rate, while remaining one of the most expensive cities on the planet. 

Tom Hall

And the unrest we see in Hong Kong’s streets may have many of the same roots as the unrest in U.S. cities. It is less about “communist” vs. “free” governance, and more about the increasing economic oppression of the middle and lower classes. 

Tom Hall