Unrest in the Middle Kingdom

Today we will have another post about China. While my previous post focused more on China’s foreign policy, today’s post will focus more on the Chinese government’s relations with its own people.

To start with, despite the image the Communist Party projects, China is unstable and increasingly so. CNN states that there were almost 800 strikes across China in 2016 in the two months before March. At that rate China will see well over 4000 worker protests and strikes by the end of the year. But it is important to note that this figure only includes labor disputes. There are thousands of protests each year stemming from other sources. And the number of protests is not going down, but increasing rapidly. The Communist Party’s response so far has been to ignore the ‘incidents’ and to crack down on activists. China remains the world leader in executions, with the true number unknown but estimated to be in the thousands. But not only is the Party cracking down on activists but even on the elite. In the past couple of years, a number of Chinese business leaders haveĀ disappeared and, sometimes, reappeared. Little official explanation is given, but it is undoubtedly an attempt by the Party to coerce business leaders to support the government’s policies, in both the economic and civil spheres. The Party is seeking to increase its control of the populace to stave off potential revolution, and Hong Kong is proving to be a major flashpoint in this struggle.

Hong Kong occupies a unique position in Chinese politics. As a result of the “One country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong is still officially part of the People’s Republic of China but maintains a (relatively) vibrant democracy. As Hong Kong is an island, and movement of people and information to and from the mainland is strictly controlled, it isn’t too hard for the Communist Party to keep events in Hong Kong from affecting the mainland so long as nothing really major happens. But Hong Kong is shaping up to be the ‘West Berlin’ of the new Cold War: a bastion of freedom and democracy behind the Iron Curtain. However, this ‘West Berlin’ is not independent, but controlled by the People’s Republic, which is increasingly assertive in respect to Hong Kong’s affairs.

I would like to again draw attention to a new film made in Hong Kong, ‘Ten Years’. The film paints a dark image for the future of Hong Kong. In the film, the Communist Party has asserted its control over Hong Kong and the city lives in an atmosphere of fear. But this future is not so far off. The People’s Republic is determined to bring Hong Kong further into its control by ensuring that pro-Beijing candidates occupy the top posts. Furthermore, that case of Hong Kong’s missing booksellers demonstrates that the PRC is willing, and capable, of resorting to extraordinary tactics. But, as the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ of 2014 and the making of ‘Ten Years’ itself show, the people of Hong Kong are increasingly willing to push back. Just this month, the leader of the Umbrella Movement, Joshua Wong, has founded a new political party dedicated to the fight for greater freedom in and for the City of Hong Kong. How the PRC will react to this challenge is yet to be seen. For now, they will probably seek to ignore it and hope it loses steam. But it is important to note that this new party is just one of many new parties and movements pushing for greater freedom for Hong Kong. The growing ‘localism’ movement in Hong Kong agitates, ultimately, for full independence for Hong Kong. I do not believe that the PRC would ever allow such an event and would be willing to use military force to prevent it from occurring, and with Hong Kong activists ever upping their challenge to Beijing we may be closer to such an event than widely believed.

Hong Kong is the emerging front line in struggle for freedom in China. While information about Hong Kong’s struggle for greater freedom is currently limited in mainland China, should a major event occur, such as the independence of Hong Kong or a Tienanmen-style crackdown, it is hard to see how the Chinese Communist Party would keep such a thing from becoming known in the mainland. In the short run, the Party will simply seek to gradually increase its control of Hong Kong while trying to prevent ideas about democracy from reaching mainland China hoping that slow and steady movements will achieve its aims. Activists such as Joshua Wong may force Beijing to act sooner than planned however, and plans made in haste usually fail.