Thinking a century in advance
China's governing powers aren't really doing it. Long-term thinking has to be adaptable.
Most people have probably heard the trope that China's leaders have an inherent advantage over their Western rivals because they supposedly plan 100 years in advance. Former American diplomat Michael Pillsbury claims in a book called "The Hundred-Year Marathon" that China's government has been guided by such a plan since 1949.
■ If such a plan exists beyond rumors, we don't seem to know for certain. It isn't implausible, since there's nothing that necessarily stops any organization (from a government to a business to a church) from writing ultra-long-term plans. In fact, writing an ultra-long-term business plan may well be a very good way to obtain very good results in the medium term, especially if competitors are only thinking about quarterly results. Warren Buffett has long touted that his "favorite holding period is forever", and that's served his corporate fortunes extraordinarily well.
■ Using the long term for strategic advantage was also the express philosophy espoused by Abram Pritzker. He may not be a household name, but he established one of the most spectacular family fortunes of the 20th Century with the mindset that "Any public corporation that seeks vast expansion has a conflict with shareholders, who follow the daily market and are not thinking of future gains." He kept his family interests almost entirely private, and they grew astronomically -- to a fortune worth some $15 billion after just a few decades. But what he wasn't able to stop was a massive family feud that ultimately divided that fortune.
■ So, there is most certainly an advantage to be gained from thinking about the long term, and it's likely that any good plan of that type would also be enhanced by keeping it quiet. Thus it's entirely possible China's government has such a plan.
■ But if they do, it's either being ignored or it isn't being revised in light of new facts. Nothing undermines the trope that "China's leaders think 100 years ahead" like the way they're dismantling Hong Kong. It's short-sighted and insane. Pro-democracy media outlets are being frozen. Candidates for office are being subjected to "patriotism" background checks. Trade unions are being silenced. The regime in Beijing is nakedly grabbing power and, as the world has seen, squelching protest.
■ It's easy to understand why the Communist Party doesn't want to tolerate the freedoms cherished in Hong Kong. It's much harder to understand why they have calculated that they're better off with a neutered Hong Kong than with a vibrant one.
■ If you could simply wave a wand and clone Hong Kong in its entirety, there isn't a sane government on the planet that wouldn't say "We'll take one of those, please". It's a place with nearly $50,000 in annual GDP per capita -- the world's 45th-largest economy (just ahead of Ireland, Peru, and Israel), sitting on just 427 square miles of land and water -- smaller than the city of San Antonio, Texas. It is a (rightly) self-proclaimed international financial center and the world's 7th busiest port city. That's a lot of success for a place with only 7.5 million people.
■ And yet: What China's government is doing to Hong Kong right now is completely and inexcusably nuts -- and obviously wrong. But even if we can't count on their sense of justice, it's downright daffy that they aren't acting in their own self-interest. The UK is trying to welcome hundreds of thousands of people from Hong Kong, and why wouldn't they? Beyond their historical and legal ties to the city, the British at least recognize that the people leaving are a proven resource, not a deadweight.
■ Maybe China has a 100-year plan sitting somewhere gathering dust on a shelf in Zhongnanhai. But plans are only worth the paper on which they are printed, unless they can be turned into action. And any plan that would lead you to knowingly destroy a gem like Hong Kong isn't even worth the paper itself. It's not a 100-year plan: It's a plan for self-destruction.