Comment October 13, 2014 Issue
The Party and the People
By Evan Osnos
When Hong Kong returned to Chinese control, in 1997, after a century and a half under British rule, the Communist Party rejoiced at recovering the jewel of the Crown Colonies, a tiny archipelago of two hundred and thirty-six islands and rocks, with more Rolls-Royces per capita than anywhere else in the world and a film industry that had produced more movies each year than Hollywood. But the people of Hong Kong feared that the Party would unwind the idiosyncratic combination of English and Cantonese culture that made the city so distinctive—with its independent barristers in wigs and its Triad bosses in Versace, all documented by a scandal-loving free press and set on a subtropical mountainscape that’s equal parts Manhattan and Hawaii.
At the time of reunification, Beijing pledged to endow Hong Kong with a “high degree of autonomy” under a deal called “one country, two systems.” But it was a fragile conceit, and, this summer, it failed. The Communist Party had promised to give Hong Kong citizens the chance to vote for the territory’s top official in 2017, but, in August, Beijing released the details: only candidates acceptable to the central government would be permitted to run. On September 26th, after weeks of tension, a couple of hundred students occupied the forecourt of the Hong Kong government’s headquarters. The police arrested Joshua Wong, a seventeen-year-old student leader whose celebrity reflects the rise of young activists who are less apprehensive about challenging Beijing than recent generations have been.
Wong was released two days later, but his arrest attracted sympathizers, and when police unleashed tear gas and pepper spray, demonstrators brandished umbrellas in self-defense, creating an instant symbol of resistance. Numbering at times up to a hundred thousand, they were staging the most high-profile protests against the Communist Party since the student-led uprising in Tiananmen Square, in June of 1989. By week’s end, students, who were calling for the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, had agreed to talks with the local government but vowed to remain encamped in the streets.
The dispute isn’t only about politics. The population of seven million has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, a gap that has widened since China regained sovereignty. University graduates, unable to afford apartments, sleep on their parents’ couches and blame local developers for coöperating with apparatchiks in Beijing to maximize real-estate prices. It had been hoped that open elections would hold leaders accountable and break up the concentration of economic power. The strain is also cultural: even though Hong Kong businesses have benefitted from China’s growth, locals resent the influx of wealthy mainlanders who feed the property boom. Last week, a student organizer named Lester Shum told a crowd that Hong Kong remains a colonial state.
Resolving the crisis falls to President Xi Jinping, in Beijing. Eighteen months after taking office, the tall, phlegmatic son of the Communist aristocracy has swiftly consolidated control of the Party and the military, arresting thousands of officials in an anti-corruption campaign and promoting his personal brand of power. For years, Beijing has downplayed the importance of any single leader, for fear of creating another cult of personality. Xi is reversing that trend: he has already graced the pages of the People’s Daily more times than any leader since Chairman Mao; last week, the government issued a book of his quotations in nine languages.
Xi sanctifies absolutism as a key to political survival. In a speech to Party members in 2012, he asked, “Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that its ideals and convictions wavered. Eventually, all it took was a quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and the great Party was gone. In the end, nobody was man enough to come out and resist.” But the very strategy that Xi has adopted for safeguarding the government in Beijing has hastened the crisis in Hong Kong. He has staked his Presidency on a “great renewal” of China, a nationalist project that leaves little room for regional identities. Last year, when the Party faced mounting complaints over deadly air pollution, Internet censorship, and rampant graft, it arrested lawyers, activists, and journalists in the harshest such measure in decades, and circulated an internal directive to senior members. The notice identified seven “unmentionable” topics: Western-style democracy, “universal values,” civil society, pro-market liberalism, a free press, “nihilist” criticisms of Party history, and questions about the pace of China’s reforms. The list was, in retrospect, a near-perfect inventory of the liberties that distinguish life in Hong Kong.
In the People’s Republic, reaction to the events ranges from quiet exhilaration among beleaguered activists to bemused indifference among ordinary Chinese, for whom both Hong Kong’s liberties and its demonstrations are too remote to be inspiring. So far, there appears little chance that the unrest, fed by intricate local grievances, will spread to the mainland. And yet the Party addressed it as a moral contagion: the filters and the human censors that constitute the Great Fire Wall removed images and comments from the Internet in what scholars who monitor Chinese digital life recorded as the sharpest spike in online censorship all year. In the official media, the events were portrayed as a disaster; an editorial in the People’s Daily published on October 1st warned that “a small number of people who insist on resisting the rule of law and on making trouble will reap what they have sown.”
But the costs of a crackdown—diplomatic isolation, recession, another alienated generation—would be incalculably higher than they were in 1989. China’s economy today is twenty-four times the size it was then, and Beijing aspires to leadership in the world. The question is not whether Xi Jinping can summon the authority to resolve the crisis but whether he can begin to address the problem that awaits him when it’s over: an emerging generation that is ever less willing to be ruled without a voice. Shortly before Joshua Wong was arrested, he told a crowd of students, “Hong Kong’s future belongs to you, you, and you.” ♦
[ My intention with my blog is to simply collect articles of interest to me for purposes of future reference. I do my best to indicate who has actually composed the articles. NONE of the articles have been written by me. – Louis Sheehan ]
Posted but not written by: Lou Sheehan