Hong Kong’s Revolt and China’s Future

The results of Hong Kong’s local elections, which saw an overwhelming victory for the pro-democracy candidates and humiliation for Beijing, should raise questions about the accepted wisdom which propounds the inevitable rise of China and the relative decline of the United States.

Beijing might have hoped that the one country, two systems would produce over time a kind of practical convergence. Back in 2015, 1.4 million votes saw pro-Beijing candidates sweep all 18 district councils in Hong Kong. Now, with 2.9 million votes, pro-democracy candidates have won 17 out of 18 district councils. The Chinese Communist leadership was hoping the disorder in Hong Kong would produce a backlash. Their hopes were dashed, raising profound doubts about not only the future of Hong Kong, but also that of the Xi regime in Beijing.

It is easy to argue that Beijing can and will snuff out Hong Kong freedom when it chooses. Yet waging war against a decentralised pro-democracy movement in full view of the rest of the world will produce huge self-destructive costs for the Communist regime. Of course, a decentralised movement facilitates infiltration by pro-Beijing agents who promote gratuitous acts of violence and property destruction in order to discredit the movement. So far, such attempts to discredit the protests have utterly failed. On the other hand, the absence of any leadership hierarchy frustrates the efforts of a twentieth century totalitarian regime to deal with a twenty first century phenomenon. In an age of increased facilitation of information flow, the notion that Beijing can use technology to create a safe space for itself seems illusory over time.

On a broader front, one of the least appreciated aspects of twentieth century history is the inherent instability of totalitarian regimes. The common denominator  of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes was that opportunity for expansion and plunder was essential for survival. For example, Hitler seized Czech gold and Stalin snatches entire industrial plants from East Germany. The point is that both Hitler and Stalin got lucky. Containment would have doomed both regimes sooner.

There is much loose talk about the inevitable rise of China. In part, this is based on a realistic appreciation of the vast economic progress over the last four decades. Yet, there is a persisting notion that displays of totalitarian power is a sign of superior efficiency. Added to this is the idea that China’s prosperity was the product of a wise and all-knowing regime which is superior to the messy democracies of the West.

I would suggest that a rather more prosaic answer  lies in the shift from Maoist totalitarianism to an authoritarian regime, inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping. We might say that this dispensation, which had persisted until the rise of Xi Jinping, emphasised stability and predictability. Within this authoritarian dispensation were implicit boundaries and spaces which allowed an informal acknowledgement of private property and limited toleration of religious minorities, including Christianity. As the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 demonstrated so tragically, the boundaries were always fragile.

No Marxist-Leninist regime could explicitly enshrine property rights and minority rights under the rule of law. Following this transitional authoritarianism, the present paramount leader for life, Xi Jinping is reverting to the old totalitarianism. Like Stalin, Hitler and Mao, Xi seeks to resurrect the essential lawlessness and instability of twentieth century totalitarianism. Maybe, China’s four decades of growth was an elongated version of Lenin’s New Economic Policy.

Perhaps the record capital flight out of China,  accompanied by the mass incarceration of   the Uighur Muslim minority, and the increased persecution of Christians may be a portent of regime failure — and an end to a popular myth.

4 thoughts on “Hong Kong’s Revolt and China’s Future

  • pgang says:

    An interesting viewpoint, and makes a nice change from the usual non analysis in the MSM. I would suggest also that China’s economic growth was based on a form of cross border plunder via mercantilism. They also got lucky with a compliant USA willing to hollow out their own industrial base and give away a large chunk of their currency via trade imbalances as a sort of economic nation in exile, controlled by the Communists. It seems to me that it is that massive bank of US dollar reserves that is providing China’s economic clout. So I think another portent to add might be Donald Trump, who is finally putting the lid on this US Pandora’s Box.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Lin Yutang translation of Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching:

    Rule a big country as you would fry small fish.
    Who rules the world in accord with Tao
    Shall find that the spirits lose their power.
    It is not that the spirits lose their power,
    But that they cease to do people harm.
    It is not (only) that they cease to do people harm,
    The Sage (himself) also does no harm to the people.
    When both do not do each other harm,
    The original character is restored.

    The big problem: how does one overthrow a centralised, corrupt and brutal empire (eg Chiang Kai-Shek’s China) without replacing it with another centralised and ruthless one, given that enemies and revenge-seekers will abound, and there are no democratic traditions? (New emperors are always waiting in the wings.)
    No European country managed it, not even Britain. While Britain managed to create fairly equal and democratic societies in her own Anglophone colonies, (the US, Canada, Australia, NZ; not counting conquests like India) she had to go through a civil war on her own long haul to something like democracy; her own bougeois revolution arguably being the American War of Independence.
    And she still has not taken the final step of getting rid of the House of Lords, though the monarchy is blessedly neutered.
    But beginning in 1492, Spain and Portugal transplanted feudal values and social norms to their colonies in Latin America, which then went through countless civil wars, military coups and revolutions as a result; and stabilising only recently.
    China will get there, but it promises to be a long, drawn out and bloody process, with the inheritors of power timidly giving inches, when what the fed-up mass of the population wants is miles.

  • whitelaughter says:

    2nd pgang’s thoughts.

    Workable democracy is Christianity’s child. Nothing before the church could handle more than a single city state. The oldest continual democracy in the world is San Marino, founded by Christian refugees 17 centuries ago. With the massive growth of the church in China, democracy there is now feasible: as it has been in South Korea and Taiwan, thanks to their churches.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    “Workable democracy is Christianity’s child.”
    Ever heard of a place called polytheistic Athens,; 6th C BC? For the greater part of its history, the ascendant Christian Church (whose own internal life is inevitably hierarchical) fought to prevent democracy, just as fiercely as the Christian Americans did in Vietnam (1965-75).

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