NEW YORK – Tens of thousands of people have been “occupying” the tear-gas-filled streets of Hong Kong’s Central district to fight for their democratic rights. Many more may soon join them. Though some businessmen and bankers are annoyed by the disruption, the demonstrators are right to protest.
China’s government has promised Hong Kong’s citizens that they can freely elect their Chief Executive in 2017. But, given that candidates are to be carefully vetted by an unelected committee of pro-Chinese appointees, citizens would have no meaningful choice at all. Only people who “love China” – that is, love the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – need apply.
One can almost understand why China’s leaders should be baffled by this show of defiance in Hong Kong. After all, the British simply appointed governors when Hong Kong was still a crown colony, and nobody protested then.
Indeed, the deal that Hong Kong’s colonial subjects appeared to accept – leaving politics alone in exchange for the opportunity to pursue material prosperity in a safe and orderly environment – is not so different from the deal accepted by China’s educated classes today. The common opinion among British colonial civil servants, businessmen, and diplomats was that the Chinese were not really interested in politics anyway; all they cared about was money.
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Chinese history knows that this view was patently false. But, for a long time, it seemed to be true in Hong Kong. There was, however, a significant difference between Hong Kong under the British and under China today. Hong Kong was never a democracy, but it did have a relatively free press, a relatively honest government, and an independent judiciary – all backed by a democratic government in London.
For most Hong Kong citizens, the prospect of being handed over in 1997 from one colonial power to another was never an entirely happy one. But what really invigorated politics in Hong Kong was the brutal crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and in other Chinese cities in 1989. Huge demonstrations took place in Hong Kong to protest the massacre, and massive commemorations of the event are held every June, keeping alive a memory that is repressed and fading in the rest of China.
It was not simply humanitarian rage that galvanized so many people in Hong Kong to act in 1989. They recognized then that under future Chinese rule, only genuine democracy might safeguard the institutions that protected Hong Kong’s freedoms. Without any significant say in how they were to be governed, Hong Kong’s citizens would be at the mercy of China’s leaders.
From the point of view of China’s Communist rulers, this seems perverse. They regard Hong Kongers’ democratic demands as a misguided effort to mimic Western politics, or even as a form of nostalgia for British imperialism. Either way, the demonstrators’ agenda is considered “anti-Chinese.”
The way China’s rulers see it, only firm control from the top and the CCP’s unquestioned supremacy can create the conditions needed for a rich and powerful China to emerge. Democracy, in their view, leads to disorder; freedom of thought causes popular “confusion”; and public criticism of the Party tends toward the breakdown of authority.
In this sense, the CCP is rather traditional. But, though Chinese government always was authoritarian, it was not always as corrupt as it is now. Nor were China’s politics always as lawless.
China traditionally had institutions – clan associations, religious communities, business groups, and so on – that were relatively autonomous. Imperial rule may have been authoritarian, but there were large pockets of independence from central control. In that sense, Hong Kong is perhaps more traditional than the rest of China, excluding, of course, Taiwan.
Today, the CCP’s political supremacy places it above the law, which encourages corruption among Party officials, whether at the local or national level. Strict Party control of religious, academic, artistic, and journalistic expression stifles the dissemination of necessary information and creative thought. The lack of an independent judiciary undermines the rule of law. None of this benefits future development.
When Hong Kong was formally handed back to China 17 years ago, some optimists thought that the former colony’s greater freedoms would help to reform the rest of China. The example of a clean bureaucracy and independent judges would strengthen the rule of law throughout the country. Others, for the same reason, regarded Hong Kong as a dangerous Trojan horse that could seriously undermine the Communist order.
So far, there is no evidence that the protesters in Hong Kong’s Central district have any ambition to undermine, let alone topple, the government in Beijing. They have their hands full just standing up for their own rights in Hong Kong, and the chance that they will succeed appears to be slim. Chinese President Xi Jinping is anxious to show how tough he can be. Compromise would smack of weakness. His aim seems to be to make Hong Kong more like the rest of China, rather than the other way round.
And yet, there is every reason to believe that China would benefit greatly from the opposite course. Less official corruption, more trust in the law, and greater freedom of thought would make China a more stable, more creative, and even more prosperous society.
In the short term, this probably will not happen. But the people who truly “love China” are more likely to be found in the streets of Hong Kong than in the closed government compounds of Beijing.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.