The Chinese government’s insistence that candidates for election to the post of chief executive of Hong Kong first be approved by Beijing makes a mockery of their undertaking to introduce universal suffrage. Democracy involves more than just the right to vote.
The regime in Beijing has been reluctant to use the overwhelming force at their disposal. This is not because they have any intention of making any concessions, but because they would prefer not to provoke further anti-Chinese feeling in the rest of the world. They know, but will not admit, that the Tiananmen massacre of students in 1989 remains a vivid blot on modern Chinese history.
They also have to bear in mind their ambition to incorporate Taiwan. The formula agreed for Hong Kong before the British colony was returned to China in 1997 of “one country, two systems” was intended to apply also to Taiwan. They do not want to destroy this myth completely.
The authorities in Beijing hope the protesters will tire and that they will lose popular support from other Hong Kong residents who do not want their life and business interrupted by what they consider to be vain protests. But President Xi Jinping is ruthless; rather than make any real concessions on democracy, he will use all measures he considers necessary to remove any threat to the domination of Chinese politics by the Chinese Communist Party.
No mention of the protests in Hong Kong has been allowed in the Chinese media. Internet sites reporting on the protest have as far as possible been blocked. But some information has certainly leaked back into China. Chinese tourists in Hong Kong cannot have failed to see what was happening, and Chinese travelers elsewhere must have seen reports of the protests.
The Chinese authorities, having seen what happened following the breakup of the Soviet Union, remain determined to ensure that nothing similar happens in China. But maintaining autocratic control of as large and populous a country as China, with its ethnic minorities who have their own languages and their own traditions, requires a vast security apparatus. Oppression inevitably incites violent opposition.
So far the growing and increasingly prosperous middle classes in China have been largely content to concentrate on increasing their wealth and standard of living. Xi no doubt aims to keep it that way. But double-digit annual growth is no longer the rule.
China may not yet have reached the stage of building bridges to nowhere, but the property bubble of apartment blocks without buyers is a phenomenon in some Chinese cities.
State-owned companies still dominate in some sectors and their existence leads to serious problems in trying to ensure a sensible allocation of resources and credit. Managers are often more concerned about satisfying the party than producing a profit through efficiency and meeting demand.
Inequality in China has shown the hollowness of Chinese communist ideology and is an increasing cause of discontent. Corruption seems to be all pervasive in the party, the bureaucracy, central and local, as well as in business.
Xi has shown his determination to root out corruption. This seems to have had some effect, but corruption is so extensive that the immediate effect of his efforts may be to make those involved so cautious that flexibility and initiative are lost. The effectiveness of the anti-corruption campaign is also limited by the absence of an independent legal system. The rule of law is meaningless in the absence of professional judges who reach their judgments unaffected by “advice” from the party and the government.
The leading advocates of democratic institutions and processes in China are the limited number of brave intellectuals who have faced persecution and imprisonment.
Winston Churchill famously quoted the statement that “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Even Xi might one day come round to recognizing this fact and realize that his campaign against corruption will not be effective without radical change in China’s system of government.
Xi will eventually have to recognize that an autocracy such as prevails in China cannot avoid a succession problem. He may for the time being have “the mandate of heaven.” But he cannot live and rule forever. A successor has to be chosen by the party, but who chooses the party members who make this decision? There is no such thing as a free vote within the party hierarchy. Merit is supposed to be the criterion for promotion, but how is merit assessed?
Lord Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, did his best to introduce a more democratic system of government in Hong Kong, but he was criticized by the business community, British and Chinese, who did not want the ordinary people of Hong Kong to get in their way and insist on improved conditions. Even before Patten took over as governor, some of the more liberal-minded officials in London had wanted to introduce more democratic procedures into local government, but they faced opposition from the China hands and the “Hongs” in Hong Kong.
The business and financial establishment in Hong Kong has no wish for democracy in the territory. They support the stance of the Chinese authorities in the election of the next chief executive. They take the cynical view that China will have its way in any case, so why bother with the details? They apparently believe in profit before principle.
This sadly seems to motivate some governments in the developed as well as developing world who kowtow to the Chinese over Tibet and do little more than mumble about human rights in case their protests lead to the loss of profitable business opportunities.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.