The mere juxtaposition of events in Hong Kong with festivities marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of People’s Republic of China (PRC) last Tuesday is a slap in the face to Beijing and a victory for the pro-democracy protesters. The Communist Party leadership has many reasons to celebrate, but there is no missing the tensions that are present in contemporary China. Hong Kong is the most pointed of those concerns, but it is not the only one.
This week’s celebrations had something for everyone. There was symbolism: President Xi Jinping in the very spot overlooking Tiananmen Square where Mao Zedong declared establishment of the PRC in 1949. There was raw power: A military parade showed off the country’s expanding arsenal of weapons, with emphasis on its nuclear capabilities. As one exuberant commentator noted, adversaries have been warned, friends reassured.
China’s media played messages of national unity, national development, the strength that is derived from cohesion and those economic gains and, implicitly, dangers that lurk if either is threatened. A new white paper on China’s role in the world extolled the country’s rising international status — “The Chinese nation has risen and become prosperous” — and made plain who deserves the credit: “Over the past 70 years, China’s success boils down to the Communist Party’s leadership.”
One of the subtexts is Xi’s role in the march toward greatness. Many of the weapons on display were developed since he became president in 2012, reminding the country of his support for the military and the military of the prominence he affords them. The most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, Xi has become “the reddest leader of his generation” to embrace the supreme power of the CCP leadership. He has assumed the personalized leadership of Mao (and Stalin), putting “struggle” and “loyalty to the center” above all other priorities.
Given that mindset, events in Hong Kong are a repudiation of Xi and the CCP. The sentiment at the core of the protests in the city — which have stretched out over five months — is a demand for freedom, in the form of democracy and accountability. It is a rejection of CCP leadership, wisdom and benevolence.
Skepticism about CCP benevolence is understandable given developments in Hong Kong this week. Demonstrations that started in opposition to an extradition law — since withdrawn — and transformed into demands for more democracy assumed a new dimension when Hong Kong police for the first time used live ammunition against protesters, seriously injuring at least one. When the tear gas settled, the police reported that more than 180 protesters had been arrested, bringing the total arrested since June 9 to nearly 2,000. The Hong Kong Hospital Authority said at least 74 people were injured, two in critical condition. The police said 25 officers were hurt.
On Friday, the Hong Kong government invoked emergency powers — for the first time since 1967 — to ban face masks worn by the protesters. The rarely used legislation giving the government such powers could also allow it to control or suppress communications networks, raid homes without a warrant, and arrest, detain, exclude or deport individuals and appropriate their property. Taking such steps would expose the Hong Kong government as much as the demonstrators.
Beneath these actions, and increasingly evident in Chinese policy, is the tension and concern beneath the veneer of success. For all the economic success — and the modern Chinese story is extraordinary, with 750 million people lifted out of poverty — there are deep fissures within Chinese society: splits between the Han majority and other cultures, between haves and have-nots, between CCP members and those that are not members of the party, and between those who believe in human rights and those who believe in the unquestioned power of the state.
The split screen that the world outside China sees that shows events in Hong Kong along with those of Beijing is nowhere visible within the country. The two feeds are not only infuriating to the CCP, but it worries them as well. The CCP and Xi fear that demands for democracy in Hong Kong might spread to the mainland. That demands suppression and distortion of their message in the official Chinese media. When Xi took power, he pointed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, calling it “a profound lesson for us.”
This is largely a domestic drama, but one with unmistakable implications for the region. Neighbors must be prepared for unrest in China, and most likely on its periphery. The central government could take fateful steps to suppress demonstrations, they could spill over borders if violence is severe or Beijing could look for foreign scapegoats. Japan must be ready for all three. These are not the messages that Beijing sought to send on the 70th anniversary.