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President Xi's strongman tactics have severely backfired in Hong Kong

People rest early in the morning around the Legislative Council building during a protest against a proposed extradition law in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Protesters flooding downtown Hong Kong to stop the government's proposed extradition law effectively presented the city's leaders with an ultimatum: back down, or risk violent clashes that could be worse than the Occupy movement in 2014
On Xi’s watch, China has promoted an expansionist and nationalist authoritarianism Credit: Eduardo Leal/Bloomberg

Hong Kong's reunification with the mainland looks increasingly problematic

This week’s scenes from Hong Kong are eerily reminiscent of another battle for Chinese democracy, one that took place just 30 years ago in Beijing. While it’s true that the clashes between Hong Kong’s protesters and the Hong Kong police have been nowhere as violent as that dished out by the People’s Liberation Army that warm June evening in 1989, the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against the crowds are a troubling sign.

From one perspective, this is just a battle between the Hong Kong government and its people over an extradition law, which might make it possible for people in the city to be extradited to the mainland. 

Seen from another perspective, however, it’s a single battle in the war between closed, authoritarian states and open, democratic ones – a conflict between those who believe that a single party should be the arbiter of law, of social taste, of economic life, of education, and even, of thought – and those who believe that it is down to the individual to decide on much of this, and that dignity and happiness lay in the latter – not the former.

As one Hong Kong-watcher wrote this week, “It’s not easy to turn a million prosperous people into political dissidents. But that’s what China might have pulled off in Hong Kong.” Given the fact that Hong Kong’s approval rates for Chinese rule in 1998 were as high as 60 per cent, it is astonishing to think how Beijing has mismanaged the former British colony.

On the 20th anniversary of the handover, just two years ago, less than 3.1 per cent of Hong Kong youth identified as Chinese, while a University of Hong Kong poll found that less than 40 per cent of the city’s residents were satisfied with Chinese rule. It is astonishing, and tragic.

For despite the UK’s historic role in separating Hong Kong from the mainland in what Gladstone called a “most infamous and atrocious” conflict, the Opium War, there was some sense in 1997 that a wrong was being righted. History, however, is not always black and white. Handing over some five million souls back to the Chinese Communist Party now looks increasingly problematic.

To some extent, these current troubles have come not because of the expansion of democratic forces in Hong Kong, but because of the expansion of authoritarian ones on the mainland. The central figure in this push has been China’s President Xi Jinping, who since 2013, has done more than any other global figure to promote, protect, and expand authoritarianism. Personally, he is said to have more power inside China than Chairman Mao Zedong, outclassing his immediate predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.

He has also been at the heart of a push to bring all aspects of Chinese society back under direct Party supervision and control; he has forbidden the discussion of “Western” ideas inside China, banning discussion of “seven perils”, including constitutional government, civil society, “nihilistic” history (read non-CCP history), universal values, neo-liberalism, and the “West’s view of the media”, instead promoting party thinking, such as the Three Self Confidences, defined as confidence in the political system, confidence in the party line, and confidence in party theory.

The impact on China’s media has been immense, and has seen a budding free media, with Chinese editors and journalists being sacked and replaced by those who tow the party line.

On Xi’s watch, China has promoted an expansionist and nationalist authoritarianism that is now undermining the US-China economic relationship. He has ended collective rule and term limits in China, and personally greenlit the militarising of the South China Sea.

His support for China’s state-owned enterprises and efforts to co-opt Chinese tech giants like Huawei into Beijing’s “going out” policy and civil-military fusion have created a backlash against the company in the US and Europe. And finally, he has become a symbol of fear and repression among the Uighur minority, directing and promoting a policy of mass incarceration and re-education.

Earlier today, Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan tweeted: “Taiwan stands with all freedom-loving people in Hong Kong”. As China’s Xi increasingly becomes a symbol of repression and of the closing of the Chinese mind, so will Hong Kong’s fate play on the minds of the Taiwanese.

It certainly is playing on our minds.

John Hemmings is Director of the Asia Studies Centre and Deputy Director of Research at the Henry Jackson Society