With regard to the arguments that I will put forth here, I must insist that knowing and understanding the point of view of the People’s Republic of China in its own terms does not mean endorsing, condoning or justifying that point of view. I do not advocate China’s authoritarian technocracy as a substitute for representative democracy. I also do not defend representative liberal democracy as the definitive model when this term “liberal” defends the interests of an immense minority at the expense of a minuscule majority. In other words, I think both models are in crisis. What is happening in Hong Kong right now could be a major symptom of the difficulty of merging the two models.
Challenging liberal democracy
The Chinese political system is synonymous with the Communist Party of China (CPC). Its role is to maintain the political legitimacy of the Party-State in accordance with Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”. He defines this as the “rejuvenation” of China. In traditional Chinese terms, this means the consolidation of wealth and military power. The first priority is to consolidate and maintain the CPC’s control of the political system. The second is to improve people’s standard of living. There is no separation between the party and the administration or the public service in the People’s Republic, a situation that hinders any possibility of alternation in power in the short to medium term. Still, the possibility of a loss of legitimacy because of mismanagement could precipitate social movements that could alter the political status quo. Xi Jinping offers the “China Model” as an alternative to neo-liberalism. Joseph Stiglitz blames today’s simultaneous waning of confidence in neoliberalism and in democracy on neoliberalist policies that have spawned populist and neo-nationalist movements that react against the damage caused by unfettered global markets that concentrate wealth in the hands of the few at the cost of the many (Stiglitz 2019).
Another major area of differing perceptions that affects the situation in Hong Kong concerns the emphasis on meritocracy in the Chinese tradition versus the emphasis on electoral suffrage and openly elected representatives in the Euroamerican liberal democratic tradition. In one case people are accustomed to being selected; in the other, to being elected. The British did not consolidate democracy in Hong Kong while it was their colony. The Basic Law that was meant to guarantee a 50-year period of non-interference in Hong Kong affairs by the PRC established partial universal suffrage but did not envisage the direct election of the executive. On the one hand, candidates for the highest office have to be screened; on the other, a substantial portion of the legislators are chosen from interest groups. Such a system clearly distrusts “the people”. In liberal democracies it has precedents in the Electoral College of the USA or the Senate of the Republic of Ireland or the House of Lords of the UK. The concept of “One Country, Two Systems” enshrined in the Basic Law is unprecedented within a sovereign State, and it is showing signs of strain. At the time of Hong Kong’s handover in 1997 it was an example of the “constructive ambiguity” that facilitated a peace process in Northern Ireland. Each side could interpret it in their own terms. It was also unclear which of the two systems would converge. Perhaps the PRC would become more like Hong Kong.
Daniel Vukovich has argued that there are two basic underlying problems in the case of Hong Kong (Vukovich 2019). On the one hand, the handover was not a process of decolonisation and did not encourage the dismantling of the financial oligarchy that favoured extreme laissez-faire under British rule, an oligarchy preserved by the Basic Law. On the other, the Basic Law is inherently contradictory: maintenance of territorial sovereignty of China trumps unbounded autonomy for Hong Kong. There is also unquestionably an identitary aspect to the protests in Hong Kong because the Cantonese language and culture run the risk of being diluted by the overwhelming demographic and cultural influence of the predominantly Mandarin language and culture of the Mainland. This has leant a xenophobic and ironically anti-Chinese tinge to some elements of the protest movement.
At the other geographical extreme, Chinese policies of “stability preservation” in Xinjiang have led to enforced enrolment in “re-education through labour” on a massive scale for the autochthonous Uighur population. This case involves ethnic, linguistic and religious signs of identity that clearly differentiate the Uighurs from the Han Chinese. It is worth noting that the Uighurs are a small part of the Muslim population of China but not all Muslims in China are being subjected to “re-education”. Whereas Hong Kong was in many ways a society “modernised” by the imposition of ultra-liberal economic policies through foreign colonisation, Xinjiang has passed through a phase of Maoist radical egalitarian development, followed by a phase of market economics “with socialist characteristics”. This latter phase has favoured Han newcomers more than resident Uighurs. In part the re-education through labour camps are designed to impart vocational training to alleviate this problem, but they are also a response to an additional problem of trans-national radical jihadism. Together with a totalitarian approach to preventive surveillance of the Uighur community, they are an attempt to prevent “homegrown” terrorism through counterindoctrination. Liberal democracies also face the problem of homegrown terrorism and have yet to find a workable solution. China’s approach is explainable by its prioritising of stability preservation. That it can be applied in Xinjiang illustrates the enormous gulf between governing a Mainland territory through methods developed for a Leninist revolution and governing a complex modernised society like Hong Kong through “socialist characteristics”. The differing responses of the people of Hong Kong and of Xinjiang correspond as well to the differing circumstances of their histories over the last century and a half.
The legitimacy dilemma
The Party’s preoccupation with maintaining its ruling status shows concern for legitimacy and for the mechanisms that are needed to gain and maintain legitimacy. It also represents a dilemma. Only if the Party is in power can it work to improve the people’s standard of living; only if it improves the people’s standard of living can it hope to remain in power. Which comes first? A recent Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Survey (Pew Research Center 2013) indicates that the Chinese people’s level of satisfaction with their government is much higher than that of most other peoples around the world with other government systems. How can the CPC demonstrate that it is accountable to the people? How can the people show they do—or do not—support the CPC? How would the CPC respond to a loss of support? If Chinese people have been accustomed for thousands of years to being selected rather than to being elected, under what circumstances should direct election by universal suffrage be a valid and efficient process of selection (this is the leading demand of protesters in Hong Kong)? The Party assigns itself the role of arbitrating competing needs and proposals for the common good. If the CPC succeeds in satisfying the people’s needs it will have gained the people’s support, and legitimacy. If it fails to do so, it will lose their support and its own legitimacy.
When the primary task of the Party on the Mainland was to guarantee food and housing for everyone, there was a general consensus on priorities. Once everyone’s access to food and housing had been guaranteed, however, this general consensus broke down as a result of the explosion of rising expectations created by the success of the preceding phase. The problem on the Mainland has now become one of mediating a plurality of diverse and often incompatible demands and interest groups. A major challenge will be the need to adapt the government model to the realities of a complex society in a developed and modern country. The Hong Kong crisis highlights this disconnect between the vision of political elites and the cravings of society.
The demonstrations in China in 1989 called for modest reforms. Hong Kong protesters consider to be acquired rights many legal guarantees that the political system of the PRC does not yet contemplate, and the people of the Mainland have not yet known and cannot yet take for granted. The response to 1989 demonstrations is known. At the time of writing, the response to those in Hong Kong is yet to come. Whether or not the neo-Maoist “China Model” can resolve these “contradictions” also remains to be seen.
Pew Research Center (2013) Global Attitudes Survey, http://www.businessinsider.com/pew-research-global-satisfaction-map-2014-2; accessed 05/01/2020.
Stiglitz, Joseph (2019) “The End of Neoliberalism and the Rebirth of History”, Project Syndicate. The World’s Opinion Page, Nov. 4, 2019, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/end-of-neoliberalism-unfettered-markets-fail-by-joseph-e-stiglitz-2019-11; accessed 05/01/2020.
Vukovich, Daniel (2019) “A city and a SAR on fire: as if everything and nothing changes”, Critical Asian Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14672715.2020.1703296; published online 20/12/2019
Seán Golden is Full Professor of East Asian Studies at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Retired).
Photo: Greg Baker / AFP
If you liked our analysis, stories, videos, dossier, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month).