China’s policy of ‘one country, two systems’ is in trouble.
Protesters in Hong Kong have taken to the streets to demand that the elections promised for 2017 should present a choice between something other than Beijing-backed candidates that will by necessity be pro-Beijing. The government has shown its fear of the protests by the usual censorship machinery blocking information about the protests from reaching the mainland, and from its partially violent response to the protests. Both Hong Kong protesters and the government have the Tiananmen protests and subsequent massacre in mind, and neither of them wants the violence we have seen so far to escalate. Nonetheless, both sides will find it very hard to compromise on their position, and the threat of increased violence is real.
Beijing and the Hong Kong protesters are at an impasse. Here in the UK, many struggle to understand why it is so difficult for Beijing to make concessions to the protesters. There are numerous factors that affect the current conflict – Hong Kong’s dwindling economic role in China, the increasing migration of mainlanders to Hong Kong, and Hong Kong’s history under British non-democratic colonial rule. A factor that has so far received little attention in the debate, but which can help explain Beijing’s uncompromising stance, is the symbolic importance of Hong Kong and the role of nationalism in legitimising communist party rule in China.
On Wednesday it was 65 years since Mao Zedong stood on the Gate of Heavenly Peace and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. He famously declared that the Chinese people had now stood up, and would no longer be bullied by foreign powers. During what is known in China as the “100 years of national humiliation”, a weak China had to make various concessions to foreign powers, concessions that included leasing Hong Kong out as a British colony for 100 years. Many feared that China would be “carved up like a melon” by colonial powers, much like what had happened in Africa, the Americas and large parts of South East Asia and the Pacific. Mao’s revolution was a nationalist revolution against foreign bullying. He promised the national self-determination and unity that would make China strong and able to resist any attempts to bully it in the future.
But of course Mao’s revolution was also a communist one. The communist party positioned itself as a vanguard party of the “revolutionary classes”. Much of the rhetoric to legitimate its rule, or at least build compliance, involved its position as a communist leadership ruling in the interests of that class. This all changed some way into China’s reform and opening up, when the position as a vanguard class was officially abandoned. Today, some of the party-state’s legitimacy is built on the provision of material goods. Indeed, the last 30 years of party rule has seen a huge amount of people pulled out of poverty in China, and many can see an improvement in their own material living standard. However, those who have not benefited from China’s impressive growth, but are living with the consequences of its extreme inequality, are increasingly disgruntled. There are significant numbers protesting around China every day. If the Chinese Communist Party could ever claim to be communist, it cannot do so any more.
The main legitimating power that remains for the party-state today is therefore nationalism. Through its patriotic education, the party has been rather successful in convincing a lot of the Chinese population that without the iron fist of the party, China would fall apart – it would be carved up like a melon, and become too weak to continue its rightful return to superpower status. Much therefore hinges on the party’s ability to keep China united and resist any concessions to those who want less influence of the party state. The fear is that any concessions to the protesters in Hong Kong will send a signal of weakness to those who demand increased or total self-governance in other parts of China. There is great disaffection on China’s periphery, and places like Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan harbour strong separatist movements. If groups in these areas see that protest leads to concessions in Hong Kong, they may be strengthened in their resolve to use protests in order to achieve their own agendas. If the central government is seen as weak in giving concessions to these areas, this would likely lead to doubts among the general population, who may ask whether the government is strong enough to keep China united. If they did not think so, this would be a potentially fatal blow to the legitimisation of party rule. Because party rule can no longer be justified by it being communist, it relies on being seen as the force that will keep China united. This is why it is so difficult for the Chinese government to give concessions to the Hong Kong protesters even if they wanted to. Much more than Hong Kong is at stake.
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Dr Astrid Nordin teaches on our BA International Relations programme.
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