[SCMP Column] Predictions and wishful thinking

December 31, 2017

Good riddance to 2017. In real life, most chickens live 42 days before being “processed”. I wish our year of the rooster could have been cut so short.

As we crash through into 2018 and the year of the dog, we can only hope for the better. But I suspect the year that I wish for will not match the year that we get. Let’s play a 2018 fortune-telling game anyway, distinguishing what I wish will happen from what in reality is likely to happen. Here are eight predictions for 2018:

Trump: We have to start with Trump. Born in June 1946, he is the fourth president to be born in the Year of the Dog (Benjamin Franklin, Bill Clinton and George Bush) but is the only Dog to be President during a Dog Year. Ironically, he is one of the few US presidents not to have a dog in residence. Dog people are supposed to be loyal, protecting, fair, intelligent, hard-working and sincere”. Gosh. Trump?

Wishful thinking: some peace from eccentric and scatological tweets; he ends up impeached; he finds himself facing multiple law suits for sexual abuse under the smouldering #metoo campaign; he and family do not get invited to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding; he suffers humiliating losses in November’s Mid-term elections. So much for wishful thinking.

Likely reality: tweets will continue to mesmerise and keep him centre-stage; his golf handicap will be well burnished; he will continue with infuriating effectiveness to take credit for things he has not done, and divert blame for harm his policies are beginning to inflict; leaders worldwide who should know better will continue to give him unjustified face; the chauvinisms, racism and xenophobia at the heart of Trump’s “core” will deepen the already-alarming divisions in a deeply divided US. He might with luck be mauled in the Mid-term elections.

Trade: My wishful thinking agenda would be that continuing commitment to trade liberalisation and renewed commitment to plurilateral agreements would further enhance global economic integration; that services trade is liberalised; that protectionism embedded in differing domestic standards and regulations is lifted, helping small companies to get more meaningfully involved in international business.

Likely reality: US attacks on Nafta and other plurilateral trade agreements will bear harmful fruit; that US trade attacks on China will erupt and trigger harmful retaliation; that US and British efforts to prioritise bilateral deals will make progress, harming most international businesses, and most smaller economies.

APEC: APEC has played an invaluable role in the past 20 years in driving at a practical level the initiatives and reforms needed to encourage cooperation and integration, raise living standards and reduce protection. Without lawyers hovering around to drive nit-picking formal agreements, officials in APEC have worked on practical demonstrations of the merits of free and open trade, leaving governments across the region free to craft their own liberalising legislation.
Wishful thinking: that this continues, despite de facto US withdrawal from this process.

Likely reality: the US will de facto withdraw from much of the meaningful liberalising work of APEC; the other 20 APEC members will unite around commitments to continue liberalisation, but will lack the experience, assertiveness and resources to fill the vacuum left by the US; Chinese officials will in some areas fill the void, but will be regarded with suspicion.

Brexit: Wishful thinking: somehow I will wake one morning to find that the Conservative government has imploded under its own forlorn contradictions; a centrist party emerges from the ashes of the Liberal Democrats to rebuild a case for remaining in the EU; a fresh referendum endorses this; and the European Union, taking sober account of the legitimate criticisms of the autocratic and unaccountable way it runs itself, commits to reforms.

Likely reality: mess and muddle mire Britain’s politicians in internecine civil war, making remaining unthinkable, and coherent foundations for exit unmanageable; this will plague and dominate British politics for the coming decade. The main beneficiaries, lawyers. The main victim, the British economy.

US-China: Wishful thinking: Trump’s trade rotweilers see the harm their proposed policies will do to the US economy, and to others, and pause to construct a more pragmatic way of coming to terms with a fast-rising China; Beijing will liberalise meaningfully to give international companies fairer access to their market.

Likely reality: a series of megaphone attacks on China’s “unfair” trade practices aimed more at pleasing Trump’s US “core” than at any outcomes that would benefit US companies; Chinese retaliation that opens the way to rising protectionism, harming not just the US and China but the rest of us too.

Hong Kong and China: Wishful thinking: Hong Kong people will acknowledge the reality of our economy’s gradual integration with that of the Mainland; we will champion for adoption across the Greater Bay Area those legal, institutional and business strengths that have made Hong Kong so competitive, and so aided China in building access to world markets; our graduates will seek opportunities across the Mainland just as Londoners compete across Europe, or New Yorkers across the cities of the US.

Likely reality: ongoing political gridlock on issues linked with integration; continuing resentment at elite Mainland graduates and business leaders growing roots in Hong Kong; official reluctance to take a lead in building the institutions that will define the Greater Bay Area.

Housing, health and elderly care: Wishful thinking: significant billions invested in building affordable housing, in large numbers of community-based primary health clinics, and in measures to enable “ageing-in-place”.

Likely reality: inadequate housing commitments that leave a significant majority of the population with no hope of ever owning a home; ongoing bias towards building hospital-based care, which sees our elderly “ageing-in-hospital-beds”

Wild cards: Think North Korea; think terrorism and ugly Saudi Arabian assertiveness across the Moslem world; think a major new pandemic; think a stock market crash as interest rates rise and QE policies are unravelled.

Not a pretty mix, and all too possible. Even if some of the likely realities never materialise, and some bits of my wish list prevail, it would need a lot of naïve wishful thinking to expect our Year of the Dog to be a happy one. Let’s hope for more bark than bite.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.
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