China Can’t Back Down

The seeds of what is going on in Hong Kong today, with tear gas being used on local protesters apparently for the first time in history and student heads being busted by police, were sown in 1997 with the promulgation of the territory’s Basic Law, the foundation document that is supposed to govern Hong Kong for 50 years.

There was never going to be a time, in retrospect, when Beijing could accept universal suffrage for Hong Kong despite the promises in the Basic Law. That is because, despite the enormous uplift of China’s 1.3 billion people since Deng Xiaoping began to open the country to new economic ideas, it remains a communist dictatorship. Dictatorships by their nature can’t back away in the face of provocation.

That is especially true of Xi Jinping, who since he was named to head the politburo, has been out to demonstrate that the two weeks he once spent on an Iowa farm when he was a teenager didn’t make him into a democrat.

Accordingly, unlike in the past when police tolerated the largely irrelevant Occupy Central movement and its tents under the HSBC building and other spots, troopers clad in riot gear are gassing and pepper spraying student protesters to stop them from blocking traffic on main roads in and around the Central business district. Those who run the Hong Kong government are a vivid demonstration of why the city needs to pick its own leaders, not be handed a slate of loyalists from Beijing.

The differences in perspective between Hong Kong and Beijing are enormous and unbridgeable. What the country’s leaders in Zhongnanhai see and fear is an ungrateful upstart. And, in the inevitable calculus of relationships between large, totalitarian governments and small democratic economies, the large, totalitarian government is going to win, no matter how many student heads are busted before that happens.

There was a naïve hope, in 1997, that China would absorb some of the principles left over from 152 years of British rule, which included a fair judiciary, the rule of law and tolerance for civil liberties that were real and tangible despite the fact that, as the critics say, the colonials themselves also never granted the territory’s citizens the right to vote.

China has absorbed nothing democratic. It has absorbed instead the lessons of Tiananmen Square in 1989, when the murder of students put a black eye on the government that lasts to this day . Instead, Beijing if anything, has hardened its stance on domestic protesters to make sure nothing like that happens again -- including in Hong Kong.

The leaders in Beijing seem to have lost respect for the city’s open economy and society partly because of conditions of their own making. In 2003, China gave Hong Kong the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, a generous free trade act that provided a major economic lifeline for the city. Mainlanders responded by moving their (often illegally gained) assets into Hong Kong property, and pouring money into branded boutiques for items that escape Beijing’s tax authorities. Beijing sees, meanwhile, is a city where its crooks could find a bolt hole – at least until Hong Kong literally becomes just another city on the Pearl River Delta, at which they will have to move their cash again, perhaps to the British Virgin Islands.

In addition to those irritations, Hong Kong’s citizens have had the temerity to rise up again and again, first in 2003 against a sedition law that would have prohibited most protest, and later against attempts to introduce Chinese patriotic education into the schools. The waving of British colonial Hong Kong flags, which has occurred over the past year, has stirred outrage in Beijing as well, giving rise to the suspicion that instead of Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” the city’s 7.5 million residents are loyal instead to the west. After all, the ancestors of a great many Cantonese – who prefer to speak their own language, not Putonghua – swam down the Pearl River in the 1960s and earlier to get away from Communist China.

There was a time, during the 2008 Olympic Games, when millions of Hong Kong citizens turned out in a burst of patriotism. That extraordinary display is long gone. There is no indication that Hong Kong wants to share the mainland’s common destiny, if that common destiny includes the willingness to trade rising prosperity for destruction of civil and social rights.

The week-long boycott of classes by Hong Kong students to protest of Beijing’s refusal to allow for a freely elected chief executive has gained the support of many in the academic community. It remains to be seen how much support the Occupy movement and its student allies will get from a wider spectrum of the citizenry. But it is abundantly clear that a majority of Hong Kong’s young want nothing to do with the way Zhongnanhai is running things on the mainland.

The big question is whether mainland citizens – if they can find real news about Hong Kong in China’s censored press ‑ will ask why they can’t enjoy the same kinds of freedoms. If Taiwan is any harbinger, that is a real danger. Half a dozen years ago there was strong sentiment for reunification in Taiwanese government circles, and public disillusion with the pro-independence forces. Now sentiment has begun to swing back. Recent polls show that the events in Hong Kong have made Taiwan more cautious about the dragon’s embrace.

China has been described as a “tinderbox” faced with growing suppression and that the events in Hong Kong could provide the spark. The students in the streets of Central are a real threat to Beijing. They hope that just as the citizens of Hong Kong drew inspiration from the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, when hundreds of students were crushed under the army’s tanks, mainland students will now draw similar inspiration from Hong Kong.

That would only usher in a stronger reaction from the government. Xi and his fellow communists are riding a dragon they cannot dismount.