“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
— Mao Zedong
China’s Communist rulers have always claimed that they’re social emancipators: public servants constructing an economic powerhouse for “the people.”
And it’s always been a lie. It was proved to be a lie by the “Great Leap Forward” that ended tens of millions of lives, by the “one-child” eugenics policy, and by the massacre at Tiananmen. And today in Hong Kong, we’re seeing Communist authoritarianism meet civil society.
The Hong Kong crisis began in 1984 with the U.K.-China handover agreement, in which China promised Hong Kong would have 50 years of proprietary democracy. It was a lie. Earlier this summer, China declared that candidates to become Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017 will face a purity test. Only candidates authorized by Beijing can stand.
Their relative freedom threatened, Hongkongers have taken to the streets in outrage.
Demanding their rights, these protesters are challenging China’s governing narrative: that “the party” knows what’s best for the people. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has responded in true form. Led by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, C. Y. Leung, CCP has cracked down to defend “social tranquility.” But the party’s reaction proves only one thing: Beijing’s “gun barrel” philosophy doesn’t apply only to its relations with other countries.
Still, the CCP leadership is right to be concerned by what’s happening. These protests offer the hors d’oeuvre to the party’s future.
While there’s a casual consensus that China is the next superpower, Hong Kong proves the CCP has a big problem. After all, whether obstructing citizen access to information, or imprisoning artists and activists, or embracing kleptocracy, or ignoring the human rights of hundreds of millions, CCP leaders are enemies of freedom. Where China’s former leaders built a Great Wall to protect people, the CCP builds walls to control people. And now its walls are crumbling.
CCP leaders believe their authority finds preservation in economic growth, but they cannot overcome their inherent inadequacies.
For a start, they fail to realize that digital freedom is an uncontrollable inevitability. As access to modern technology grows — from the Internet to smartphones — Chinese citizens will find new stimulus for individual thought, and new means to pursue shared agendas. In the years to come, this dynamic will be especially significant in China’s impoverished rural heartlands. Here, CCP leaders are developing rural infrastructure projects. But their efforts won’t check growing disenchantment over rural areas’ poor living standards.
Major social tensions beckon. It’s not just the rural poor whom the CCP should fear. As China’s middle class grows in wealth and expectations, the CCP will face increasing pressures toward more transparent government and media outlets, and toward an independent judiciary. In equal measure, facing massive export-industry competition from other states — regionally and beyond — China’s export-dependent economy is sure to come under ever-increasing pressure. Without massive reform, it will begin to buckle.
And democratization is the only mechanism for that reform. The CCP cannot meet these expectations.
Yet Hong Kong’s situation isn’t just a crisis for CCP leaders. It’s also a wakeup call for the West. As Jim Sciutto has highlighted, the Western silence in response to China’s anti-democratic aggression is damning. The images from Hong Kong of countless citizens demanding freedom mustn’t be brushed away. They remind us that individuals, not bureaucrats, are the true stakeholders of government.
When one thinks about China, it’s easy to fixate on economics. But China isn’t one big factory. It’s a nation of individuals, and their plight — in Hong Kong and beyond — must not be ignored.
— Tom Rogan is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute, is based in Washington, D.C., and tweets @TomRtweets.