Hong Kong protests
The Party v the people
The Communist Party faces its toughest challenge since Tiananmen. This time it must make wiser decisionsOct 4th 2014 | From the print edition
OF THE ten bloodiest conflicts in world history, two were world wars. Five of the other eight took place or originated in China. The scale of the slaughter within a single country, and the frequency with which the place has been bathed in blood, is hard for other nations to comprehend. The Taiping revolt in the mid-19th century led to the deaths of more than 20m, and a decade later conflict between Han Chinese and Muslims killed another 8m-12m. In the 20th century 20m-30m died under Mao Zedong: some murdered, most as a result of a famine caused by brutality and incompetence.
China’s Communist Party leaders are no doubt keen to hold on to power for its own sake. But the country’s grim history also helps explain why they are so determined not to give ground to the demonstrators in Hong Kong who want to replace the territory’s fake democracy with the real thing (see article). Xi Jinping, China’s president, and his colleagues believe that the party’s control over the country is the only way of guaranteeing its stability. They fear that if the party loosens its grip, the country will slip towards disorder and disaster.
They are right that autocracy can keep a country stable in the short run. In the long run, though, as China’s own history shows, it cannot. The only guarantor of a stable country is a people that is satisfied with its government. And in China, dissatisfaction with the Communist Party is on the rise.
Hong Kong’s “Umbrella revolution”, named after the protection the demonstrators carry against police pepper-spray (as well as the sun and the rain), was triggered by a decision by China in late August that candidates for the post of the territory’s chief executive should be selected by a committee stacked with Communist Party supporters. Protesters are calling for the party to honour the promise of democracy that was made when the British transferred the territory to China in 1997. Like so much in the territory, the protests are startlingly orderly. After a night of battles with police, students collected the plastic bottles that littered the streets for recycling.
For some of the protesters, democracy is a matter of principle. Others, like middle-class people across mainland China, are worried about housing, education and their own job prospects. They want representation because they are unhappy with how they are governed. Whatever their motivation, the protests present a troubling challenge for the Communist Party. They are reminiscent not just of uprisings that have toppled dictators in recent years from Cairo to Kiev, but also of the student protests in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. The decision to shoot those protesters succeeded in restoring order, but generated mistrust that still pervades the world’s dealings with China, and China’s with its own citizens.
In Hong Kong, the party is using a combination of communist and colonial tactics. Spokesmen have accused the protesters of being “political extremists” and “black hands” manipulated by “foreign anti-China forces”; demonstrators will “reap what they have sown”. Such language is straight out of the party’s well-thumbed lexicon of calumnies; similar words were used to denigrate the protesters in Tiananmen. It reflects a long-standing unwillingness to engage with democrats, whether in Hong Kong or anywhere else in China, and suggests that party leaders see Hong Kong, an international city that has retained a remarkable degree of freedom since the British handed it back to China, as just another part of China where critics can be intimidated by accusing them of having shadowy ties with foreigners. Mr Xi, who has long been closely involved with the party’s Hong Kong policy, should know better.
At the same time, the party is resorting to the colonialists’ methods of managing little local difficulties. Much as the British—excoriated by the Communist Party—used to buy the support of tycoons to keep activism under wraps, Mr Xi held a meeting in Beijing with 70 of Hong Kong’s super-rich to ensure their support for his stance on democracy. The party’s supporters in Hong Kong argue that bringing business onside is good for stability, though the resentment towards the tycoons on display in Hong Kong’s streets suggests the opposite.
Yet the combination of exhortation, co-option and tear gas have so far failed to clear the streets. Now the government is trying to wait the protesters out. But if Mr Xi believes that the only way of ensuring stability is for the party to reassert its control, it remains possible that he will authorise force. That would be a disaster for Hong Kong, and it would not solve Mr Xi’s problem. For mainland China, too, is becoming restless.
Party leaders are doing their best to prevent mainlanders from finding out about the events in Hong Kong (see article). Even so, the latest news from Hong Kong’s streets will find ways of getting to the mainland, and the way this drama plays out will shape the government’s relations with its people.
The difficulty for the Communist Party is that while there are few signs that people on the mainland are hungering for full-blown democracy, frequent protests against local authorities and widespread expressions of anger on social media suggest that there, too, many people are dissatisfied with the way they are governed. Repression, co-option and force may succeed in silencing the protesters in Hong Kong today, but there will be other demonstrations, in other cities, soon enough.
A different sort of order
As Mr Xi has accumulated power, he has made it clear that he will not tolerate Western-style democracy. Yet suppressing popular demands produces temporary stability at the cost of occasional devastating upheavals. China needs to find a way of allowing its citizens to shape their governance without resorting to protests that risk turning into a struggle for the nation’s soul. Hong Kong, with its history of free expression and semi-detached relationship to the mainland, is an ideal place for that experiment to begin. If Mr Xi were to grasp the chance, he could do more for his country than all the emperors and party chiefs who have struggled to maintain stability in that vast and violent country before him.