19 October 2014

China’s Choice

OCT 15, 2014 

Wong Chin-Huat is a political scientist at the Penang Institute in Malaysia. 


PENANG – Much to the Chinese government’s chagrin, a major pro-democracy movement has seized the streets of Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” of China with a long history of colonization and repression. But China’s problem with Hong Kong is rooted less in the region’s history than in its own.

Centralized governance has been the rule in China for more than two millennia, with sporadic moves to challenge the system considered destabilizing and dangerous. After all, challengers would forcefully carve out their own kingdoms and, if they grew powerful enough, attempt to seize the imperial throne.

Such figures have had a lasting impact on the Chinese leadership’s psyche. In 2012, the Chongqing region’s Communist Party boss, Bo Xilai – a prominent and charismatic figure who was widely expected to join the elite ranks of the Politburo Standing Committee – was abruptly removed from his post and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption. While the allegations against Bo were both serious and well-founded, his outsize personality, powerful influence, and lofty ambitions – all of which made him a potential threat to the status quo – likely played a role in his downfall.

Chinese politics has always been a winner-take-all game. Until the late nineteenth century, it was common for entire clans of ruling elites to be executed after losing a power struggle. As a result, China’s leaders do not know how to cope with the kind of intra-governmental and inter-regional conflicts that are commonplace in modern states, or with the notion of a loyal opposition, particularly one with a strong local or regional base.

In the Chinese empire, mandarins (high-level public officials) were usually appointed on the basis of their performance on national bureaucratic examinations, not their ability to represent local interests. Today, China’s top provincial leaders often hail from other provinces, with many – including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang – gaining experience at the provincial level before taking on national leadership positions.

In other words, in China, local officials are expected to serve the interests of the central government, rather than represent their communities. Granting a local leader greater autonomy would inevitably undermine the central government.

China’s relationship with Hong Kong is complicated further by the legacy of the 1842 Opium War, which led to Hong Kong’s establishment as a British colony – and marked the beginning of the Western powers’ onslaught on China. The United Kingdom’s 1997 handover of Hong Kong was thus viewed in China as a milestone in its recovery – under the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership – from a legacy of national weakness and subjugation.

In fact, given China’s political history and Hong Kong’s colonial experience, Chinese officials view their promise to allow Hong Kongers to lead the city as a great concession, even if its leader is appointed by the central government. After all, Hong Kong’s governors under UK rule were always British.

Why are Hong Kongers, who evinced no strong demand for elections under British colonial rule, suddenly so opposed to China’s appointment of their leaders? To the Chinese government, the answer lies in Hong Kong’s disloyalty to China, fueled by foreign influence and money.

This absolutist assessment could prove dangerous if it is allowed to dictate the response to the ongoing protests. Specifically, it could drive the Chinese government to initiate a brutal crackdown – an approach that might strengthen central control, but that would also likely lead to Hong Kong’s long-term decline.

If China does choose this route, however, it should not expect an outcome like that following the violent repression of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Whereas bloodshed in China’s capital city could never spur a separatist movement, just one student killed in Hong Kong’s Central district could spur loud calls for an independent Hong Kong.

The right frame of reference would be the so-called “228 massacre,” the Republic of China’s suppression on February 28, 1947, of anti-government protests in Taiwan – which, like Hong Kong, was modernized under foreign rule, before being reunified with a China plagued by corruption and abuse of power. The massacre eventually became the rallying point for Taiwan’s independence movement.

As it stands, Hong Kong democrats, aware that they lack the necessary military or economic foundations, are not pursuing independence. But a crackdown on the current demonstrations could turn Chinese hardliners’ unfounded accusations that the protesters are advocating separatism into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fortunately, violent suppression is not China’s only option. One alternative – perhaps the least painful, in the short run – would be to allow the protests to drag on until they lose momentum. But, until the democratization issue is resolved, China can expect at least three major rallies annually: on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre; July 1, the anniversary of the handover; and October 1, China’s National Day. And, with each passing year, the protesters will grow younger.

This leaves China with one other option: redesign Hong Kong’s political system. If China’s leaders cannot overcome their fear that free election of a chief executive would produce a regional strongman, it can establish a parliamentary system in Hong Kong.

Given that past legislative and district elections have exposed a deep divide between Hong Kong’s democrats and government supporters, and that the region’s proportional representation system has fragmented both camps, legislative elections in Hong Kong are likely to deliver only coalition governments. And Hong Kong’s heavy economic dependence on China means that no regional government could afford to be wholly hostile toward the central authorities.

China should embrace genuine political reform in Hong Kong – and, in the process, learn how to manage intra-governmental conflicts. It is unrealistic to expect that an emerging global superpower can deny representative politics forever.

Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/china-response-to-hong-kong-protests-by-chin-huat-wong-2014-10#JfixFtJZt0LHMwsb.99

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