Commentary / World

History and the logic of empires

by Noah Feldman

Bloomberg

If you’re trying to figure out China’s next move in Hong Kong or how India will proceed in Kashmir, here’s a clue: Follow the logic of an empire. China and India each inherited control from the British Empire, and are following a script that could have been written a century or more ago. Both governments probably have more legitimacy among their subjects than the British Empire did, but that’s beside the point when it comes to their reasons for acting today.

Start with China, which got Hong Kong back from the United Kingdom in 1997. China promised “one country, two systems,” an arrangement that was supposed to allow a common-law-style judiciary to continue operating in the former British colony. Yet it’s not as though Hong Kongers enjoyed democratic self-government under the British. The handover of Hong Kong was the exchange of one empirical sovereignty for another. The government of China was just much closer at hand, and had a stronger traditional claim to the territory.

No imperial government can afford for its subjects to challenge its ultimate ability to lay down the law. When the anti-government protests began in June, the impetus was a proposed Hong Kong law that would have allowed extradition to China for some crimes. That was arguably not inconsistent with “one country, two systems.” The protesters claimed to the contrary.

And initially, Beijing was willing to back down, with Hong Kong’s chief executive suspending consideration of the law.

This was good imperial reasoning: Always give what you can if it will placate your subjects and stop the protests.

The problem for China was that the initial concession didn’t go far enough: The protesters want the bill completely withdrawn, with no threat of its return. And their demands have moved on to include seeking the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and an investigation into the force used by police against demonstrators. As the protests grew, they began to feature challenges to China’s sovereignty: for example, when protesters painted over official Chinese government symbols on government buildings.

From the standpoint of an empire, the challenge to sovereignty is always unacceptable. Once the protests challenged China’s very right to set the legal regime for Hong Kong, there was no question that they had to be put down. Like any imperial power, China would like to use the minimal amount of force necessary so as to not further alienate the population. But if the protesters leave the government with no choice, more force with undoubtedly be used. That’s the logic of an empire.

The British followed the same logic dozens, if not hundreds, of times when they faced independence movements.

India’s actions in Kashmir reflect the logic of an empire in a subtlety different way. The Indian Constitution, enacted after the British gave up the Raj, conferred a special status on the state officially known as Jammu and Kashmir. The state enjoyed a kind of quasi-autonomy, at least in theory. According to the Indian Constitution, that status could only be taken away with the consent of the state’s Constituent Assembly.

Such compromises are not uncommon when new constitutions are being written. With the British Empire gone, the government of India was seeking to create consensus and avoid conflict. Now, more than 70 years later, India’s government has retracted Kashmir’s special status — without asking the people who live there.

The constitutional trick was to claim that the national government had “consulted” the state’s legislature. Unfortunately, Kashmir’s Legislative Assembly was dissolved in November 2018 with the promise of elections that have not taken place. The Constituent Assembly mentioned in the Indian Constitution went away in 1957, so it obviously couldn’t consent under the old provision. The Indian government the proceeded to make a series of questionable constitutional moves to change Kashmir’s status.

What makes India’s actions imperial is its total disregard for the expressed will of sovereign people — in this case, the people of Kashmir whose sovereignty was recognized by the original constitutional provision. Empires don’t fret themselves about the will of the people they choose to govern. They just do what they want.

By revoking Kashmir’s special status without its people’s consent, the democratically elected government of India is treating the people of Kashmir as imperial subjects, not democratic citizens. From this you can deduce what will happen next. The lockdown and information blackout of the state will continue as long as necessary to create acquiescence to the new situation. If the government can get away with it, it will probably encourage immigration to Kashmir of non-Muslims from elsewhere in the country with the goal of creating a new demographic reality. Empires love to move populations around in an effort to weaken local resistance and enhance central authority.

You might think that the governments of India and China are different from earlier empires because they can’t “go home”; they aren’t governing territories far from their capitals. That’s not quite right. China could choose to give greater autonomy to Hong Kong. India could respect Kashmir’s quasi-autonomy. They choose not to, because they are behaving like empires. Once they have made that choice, they must act as empires do. If you keep that in mind, predicting their future course of action becomes a lot easier.

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg columnist and a law professor at Harvard University.