Hong Kong’s Protests Show the Biggest Challenge to China’s Rise Is at Home

World Politics Review, 19.06.2019
Howard W. French, corresponsal extranjero y escritor de asuntos globales 

Tens of thousands of protesters carry posters and banners through the streets as they demonstrate against an extradition bill, in Hong Kong, June 16, 2019 (AP photo by Kin Cheung).

In the first decades after the commencement of China’s economic reforms and “opening up,” which began at the end of the 1970s, one question loomed in the minds of Western heads of state and many professional China watchers: How long would it take, as capitalist production and consumerism took hold, for Western forms of law and government to follow?

By the time the Soviet Union was dissolved, in 1991, this kind of evolution came to be seen as inevitable, and with the invention and near-universal adoption of the internet, a robust vehicle to help catalyze change in China seemed at hand. For most, the outcome was never in question. It was simply a matter of time. So much so that as President Bill Clinton was helping usher China into the World Trade Organization, which it joined in 2001, he all but gloated about the inevitability of liberalizing change that access to information would bring to Chinese society. Good luck in trying to control the internet, he chuckled. “That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”

From the very outset of their historic moves to become a socialist market economy, though, the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and senior Communist Party apparatchiks were fully on guard against political liberalization. Deng famously used a folksy aphorism about the inevitability of a few unwanted flies entering the home when China opened its windows to the things it valued from the West: investment, technology, modern management skills and the higher education that underpinned them all. At the same time, unpublicized, but hardly a secret, the Communist Party maintained an ongoing internal discourse about the dire necessity of avoiding what it called “socialization” into the liberal values of the West.

Ever since the international financial crisis that rocked the West in 2009, followed by crises of populism, xenophobia, the decay of Western alliances and of both democratic institutions and norms, along with deepening political self-doubt in the United States and Europe, winds of triumphalism have blown over China. Under its strongman leader, Xi Jinping, the feeling the country has increasingly sought to project—and one that many at home and abroad have readily bought into—is China’s own irresistibility and the inevitability of its continued rise. China has not only avoided becoming infected by Western values, according to this narrative. Now is the time for China to step confidently forward and place its imprint on the globe.

This column will return often to China’s changing place in the world, but events of the past two weeks point to the fact that the biggest challenges to this now-widespread view of an ascendant, authoritarian China come not from the West at all, but from China itself. Beijing’s central dilemma is neatly encapsulated in recent events in Hong Kong, where first 1 million and then, a week later, 2 million people turned out in the streets to peaceably demonstrate against attempts to introduce an extradition law that would erode some of the legal protections that give Hong Kong its distinctive character. Those protections were implicit in the so-called “one country, two systems” arrangement put in place at the time of the city’s return to China after 150 years of British rule in 1997.

Newly freed on Monday after being jailed over his role in a previous round of large-scale civil disobedience in Hong Kong in 2014, Joshua Wong, the young leader of the resistance to repeated attempts to encroach on the city’s freedoms, told Time magazine that “Beijing just turned a whole generation of students from citizens into dissidents.” But even this, if anything, might understate what is going on there. Proportionally, the turnout of 2 million people, which represents nearly 30 percent of Hong Kong’s entire population, may have been the largest civil demonstration in modern history—anywhere.

The best response that Chinese propaganda has been able to come up with is the old stock explanation that the demonstrations were instigated by the West, and by the international media, in particular. Some Chinese media, meanwhile, have raised the notion of “fake news” to a whole new level, claiming that the protesters had actually turned out in support of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government. None of this obscures the fact that Beijing won’t allow images of these protests to be seen in mainland China. Nor will it allow the voices of Hong Kongers clamoring once again for the protection of their rights to be heard there. Say what you will about the effectiveness of Chinese censorship, but this is above all a statement of extreme fragility, and not one of self-confidence, nor the reflection of a robust and high-functioning system that is ready to flourish and assert itself around the world.

Back in the 1980s, the West was wrong to think that its influences would steadily change China, effortlessly bringing it more into line with its own perceived norms. Beijing, though, was equally wrong to believe that it needed to only hold the line against the West until it became strong economically. It was also wrong in the associated belief that the West would serve indefinitely as a useful foil as it seeks to perpetuate a form of government that the former American diplomat Chas Freeman has called “Market-Leninism,” which it sells in its own distinctively Chinese way.

The biggest challenges to the brittle present system in China don’t come from outsiders concocting destabilizing plots in an imaginary, inimical West, but from Chinese people themselves, which is precisely what the people of Hong Kong are, as Beijing itself has always insisted. Once they get a whiff of them, people everywhere, it turns out, like freedoms of speech and association and the right to fair and impartial justice, and having a more or less direct say in the choice of their leaders. These are not, as many wrongly believe, Western ideals. They are human ones.

There will be many more struggles ahead for the people of Hong Kong, and these will inevitably include setbacks. They should take comfort, though, in the fact that Beijing’s fear of allowing news of events there to circulate reflects an awareness at the highest levels of power that given a chance, many people in mainland China would opt for more and more of these things, too. As China grows more affluent and its population better educated, the desire for liberalization there, in fact, will only grow.

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