On July 7, a young man from China crossed the border into Hong Kong, found the nearest KFC, and locked himself in the bathroom. He took out a pen and a paper sign, trembling at the thought of how his life was about to change. “I come from the mainland,” he wrote. “Thank you, Hongkongers! Don’t give up, fight for freedom!” Then he joined the protesters marching from Tsim Sha Tsui to West Kowloon, and held up his sign. When he returned to China the police arrested him, stripped him naked, forced him to sing “There is no new China without the Communist Party,” and held him in a room with forty other prisoners. They threatened to beat him to death for betraying the Chinese “race.”
The man, whose name is Lu, was released ten days later. It is quite common in China for people to be arrested and rearrested multiple times in quick succession, and it is also common for the police to use torture. With this in mind, Lu fled to Thailand. Now he may never be able to return. “Actually a lot of young people on the mainland support Hong Kong,” he told Lily Kuo at The Guardian. “But because of the suppression, the constant monitoring, they dare not speak out loudly.” They know that it is not possible to defy the Communist Party and get away with it. One mainlander who called Xi Jinping a “coward” in a private message on WeChat was sent to prison for two years, while another activist was jailed in July for suggesting Xi step down as president, and was dead within weeks. The dissident Dong Yaoqiong went further than these two: she dared to film herself splashing ink on a poster of Xi. Police took her from her home and forcibly admitted her to a psychiatric hospital, where the website Boxun reports that staff were given instructions to slowly poison her to death. The Party has laboured for decades to project an image of unassailable authoritarian power (an image represented most vividly by the pitiless tanks of Tiananmen Square) and Xi has only strengthened the image since assuming the presidency.
In 2019, however, the first cracks are appearing in the picture. All summer long, the Chinese people have watched Hongkongers defy the central government, and after nearly four months the expected massacre has still not come. Of course, state media makes sure that the population is fed a steady diet of lies. A significant number of young Chinese may privately support Hong Kong, as Lu suggests, but most mainlanders have obediently swallowed the propaganda. They believe the protesters to be rioters or even terrorists. And yet the success of this brainwashing may prove to be one of Xi Jinping’s biggest mistakes. By exaggerating the chaos and painting a picture of lawless insurrection, he has unknowingly introduced a new idea to Chinese citizens: the weakness of the central government. More than a billion people now imagine that so-called “terrorists” can stand up to the Communist Party and survive. No doubt the seeds of sedition are sprouting already—in Shenzhen, in Shenyang, in Shanghai.
Why has no crackdown come? The answer is economic: the Chinese Communist Party exercises tight control over the movement of funds in its territory, but at the same time it desires greater integration into the world economy. The only way to achieve the latter while maintaining the former is by preserving the special status of Hong Kong. The region enjoys a free market economy, allowing foreign companies to access China while mainland companies can extend their influence beyond the country—indeed, as Kerry Brown points out in CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, more than 60 percent of China’s outward investment actually goes through Hong Kong. “We are a window for China to look to the outside world,” says Hong Kong politician Emily Lau.
A repeat of the Tiananmen Square nightmare would almost certainly lead to a massive economic crash, and China cannot risk this, especially now that its economy is slowing down. Xi Jinping is much too arrogant to give in to all of the protesters’ demands (universal suffrage, etc.) but it would seem that he is not quite arrogant enough to send in the troops, transforming Hong Kong from a lucrative financial hub into a ghostly dystopian police state like Tibet and Xinjiang. And so, the total authoritarian control that Xi craves has been denied to him for the first time since he took office. He is trapped, and the trap was sprung (knowingly or not) by the Hong Kong protesters.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of this development. The Chinese government under Xi Jinping is unashamedly imperialist, and until now it seemed that nothing could halt its rise. The Party already considers much of the South China Sea to be Chinese property, showing scant respect for the complex legal issues involved (or indeed the opinion of the international community). It has carried out extensive land reclamation and militarisation in the region, openly defying the International Court of Arbitration. Now Xi is using the celebrated “Belt and Road Initiative” to create potential vassal states all over the world. His dictatorial ambitions have even extended to abolishing China’s two-term presidential limits. These limits had been introduced after the death of Mao Zedong in order to prevent another disastrous cult of personality springing up around a single leader, but Xi clearly does not consider this to be an issue. He already views himself as an emperor in the dynastic mould.
We should not imagine that his planned empire would be communist: China’s government has only retained the name “Communist Party” because to do otherwise would be a first step towards admitting the atrocities of the past. The severing of the link between Xi and Mao would make it possible to acknowledge that Mao was one of history’s worst villains. This would set a precedent for criticising authority that would inevitably lead to Xi’s own downfall. So the name stays, but in truth there is nothing “communist” about this Communist Party (save its authoritarianism). In fact, Marxist students, activists, and social workers have been arrested and tortured since Xi took power, and universities have shut down Marxist societies.
As Simon Leitch has noted in an essay for Quillette, the Chinese government is actually fascist. This term is widely used in a hyperbolic sense today, but Leitch explains that the word originally meant a political system with three distinct features: authoritarianism, ethnonationalism, and “an economic model in which capitalism co-existed with large state-directed industries and partnerships between the government and corporations.” Here we have a perfect description of the current regime in Beijing (and if we need more evidence, we should remind ourselves that this regime also imprisons people in concentration camps for having the ‘wrong’ ethnicity). The Communist Party is fascist—in the literal, technical sense.
When we remember that this fascist state is threatening to become the new global hegemon, then we will appreciate how important it is that the protests succeed. If Xi manages to break the will of Hong Kong, there can be little doubt that he will cast his gaze across the Taiwan Strait for his next target. Two Chinese acquaintances of mine have even suggested that Xi’s real reason for abolishing two-term limits was that he “needs” an extra decade in which to conquer Taiwan. They told me this independently of one another, and they both claimed to have the information from senior Party officials known to them back home. Xi’s own statements provide supporting evidence: he has said in public that the absorption of Taiwan must not be delayed for another generation.
Previous Chinese leaders all bleated the Party mantra that Taiwan “belongs” to China, but none of them went so far as to provide a specific timeframe in which the island was to be forcibly conquered. It is possible, then, that Xi views the Hong Kong situation as a dry run for Taiwan. The Party has used a variety of tactics in Hong Kong—training local police to use brutal force, creating scores of fake social media accounts to spread misinformation, and so on. Perhaps we will see the same tactics redeployed over the Strait in a few years’ time. Of course, there is a chance that Xi will just run into the same economic trap again. Taiwan is crucial to the CCP’s long-term imperial plans, partly because assimilation would bring some of the world’s most cutting-edge technologies under mainland control. If Taiwanese citizens react to the Party’s insidious influence in the same way as 2019’s Hongkongers, then Beijing will be stuck. Taiwan is the world’s 22nd-largest economy, and Xi will want to keep things that way.
He may have already thought of this eventuality, and he may be planning a different approach. If the worst scenario comes to pass—if Taiwan falls—then other South East Asian states will wonder which of them is next. Resistance has always faltered in the region. Think of Benigno Aquino, the former president of the Philippines. Aquino famously challenged the CCP’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, objecting to the “many red lines” in the Party’s behaviour. In 2016 a UN tribunal even ruled in favour of the Philippines—a ruling that opened up a vital opportunity for South East Asian countries to form a united front against Chinese expansionism. But then Aquino was replaced by Rodrigo Duterte, who had little quarrel with a fellow tyrant like Xi, and the opportunity was lost. Fate, it seemed, favoured the Communist Party.
No doubt Xi has always believed as much. He made no room in his plans for the courage and defiance of Hong Kong, simply assuming that the city would lie back and tolerate increasing Party intrusion and the dismantling of basic freedoms until it was fully reabsorbed in 2047 (or earlier, considering the CCP’s disregard for legal agreements). He miscalculated badly. And now Hongkongers have come to understand just how important their role is. They see themselves “on the front line to fight against Communist China for the rest of the liberal world,” in the words of the political group Hong Kong Autonomous Action. Pro-democracy lawmaker Ray Chan uses the same image, but he puts two participants into the combat zone: “Hong Kong and Taiwan are both at the front line of the global fight to stop Beijing’s creeping authoritarianism and control,” he says. “Our cooperation and mutual support will be key to defending our freedom.” Lu’s generation are watching the battle back in China, and they will feel bolder with each day the protests continue. Liberals of all nations must hope that the front line holds.
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