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Democracy is Contagious

What message does civil unrest in Hong Kong send to the rest of China?


Want a simple method for understanding top-level decision-making in China? Assume that the decision was made with the end goal of keeping the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in power. While imperfect, it’s the easiest way to explain why the CCP does what it does. It also offers a simple grading system for China news: the more a story touches on issues that threaten the survival of the party — corruption, rural discontent, democracy movements, fissures in the CCP  — the more crucial they are to Beijing. 

That’s why the seemingly mundane updating of Hong Kong election rules — which curb democracy in Hong Kong — is a hugely important story. On Aug. 31 the National People’s Congress, Beijing’s rubber-stamp parliament, announced its long-awaited official position of candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive: a nominating committee loyal to Beijing must first approve them, and only two or three will be allowed to run in the next election, in 2017. The announcement, which if implemented would effectively bar opposition candidates from appearing on the ballot, led to protests by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. 

Beijing is demonstrating its dominance over Hong Kong. In 1982, during negotiations over the fate of the then British colony, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reportedly told British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the Chinese could easily take Hong Kong by force: "I could walk in and take the whole lot this afternoon," Deng said. Thatcher replied, "There is nothing I could do to stop you," she said, "but the eyes of the world would now know what China is like." Beijing had promised that Hong Kong, which returned to the mainland in 1997, would be eligible for "universal suffrage" by the 2017 elections; it now appears to be breaking that promise. Like Deng’s 1982 statement, Beijing’s decision is a reminder of who calls the shots in Hong Kong, international opprobrium be damned. 

International opinion about China — which has a much smaller effect on the CCP’s ability to maintain power — matters far less to Beijing than domestic opinion. And while Beijing is trying to communicate that it has Hong Kong firmly under control, discontent in Hong Kong could send a worrying message to people throughout China.

The implicit social contract between the CCP and the Mainland citizens it governs is that in exchange for relinquishing their rights to meaningfully participate in politics, Beijing will ensure economic prosperity and national revival. 

Hong Kong tests that assumption: under what Beijing calls "one country, two systems," the 7.2 million citizens of Hong Kong, while part of China, are granted far more leeway in freedom of assembly and speech than their compatriots on the mainland. Its citizens enjoy a per capita income of nearly $40,000, great schools, extremely low tax rates, and some of the best social services and healthcare in Asia, if not the world. If even Hong Kongers chafe under Mainland rule, then doesn’t a student in Beijing or a day laborer in the northwest region of Xinjiang have a far more legitimate cause to complain and protest?  

Choosing the opposite strategy, and placating Hong Kong by allowing it to choose its own chief executive, could lead to too many nightmarish scenarios for the CCP. Hong Kongers could elect someone who made important policy decisions without consulting Beijing, or someone who enacted policies that made Beijing uncomfortable. Even worse, what if the people of Hong Kong elected someone who wanted to declare independence from the Mainland? That would be catastrophic for a leadership obsessed with China’s territorial integrity. Better for Beijing to prevent fair elections now — that’s far easier than deposing a popularly elected leader or managing an independence movement. 

Furthermore, democracy is contagious. If Beijing allowed Hong Kongers universal suffrage, it would be more difficult to argue that other parts of China didn’t deserve it. Already, there are grumblings in the nearby region of Macau, whose roughly 600,000 citizens enjoy a similar amount of freedom to those in Hong Kong. If a similar movement emerged on the Mainland, this would be far more worrying for the CCP. "What if Shenzhen, which is not far away from Hong Kong, also asked for the same thing?" Ding Xueliang, a professor of Political Science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, mused to Bloomberg.

Beijing could crack down on Hong Kong, but it needs to be careful not to push too hard — that risks alienating the majority of Hong Kongers who aren’t bothered by the status quo. More importantly, Beijing is very wary of the message communicated to Taiwan, the self-governing island of roughly 23 million people claimed by China. For decades, Beijing’s paramount foreign policy goal has been the reunification of Taiwan to the mainland. Probably the most likely way for that to happen would be a situation similar to Hong Kong — whereby Taiwanese would enjoy significant autonomy and a wide range of political freedoms. But the more Hong Kongers suffer, the more difficult it will be for the CCP to make the case that Taiwanese should voluntarily join the mainland.

To be sure, troubles in Hong Kong at this stage are far from an existential threat to the CCP. But Beijing will want to handle this very carefully. 

–with research by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian


Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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