Xi is on the Wrong Side of History in Hong Kong

It was a coincidence but a symbolic one. On the day that Hong Kong’s police launched repeated volleys of tear gas onto pro-democracy demonstrators in the heart of the city, Chinese President Xi Jinping was reported to be calling on all Chinese to embrace the spirit of Mao Zedong and protect the position of the Communist Party.

Hong Kong’s police have in the past mostly been viewed as relatively tolerant towards demonstrators, reflecting the fact that these are ordinary policemen from ordinary homes who likely reflect the majority view in wanting political progress for Hong Kong and the maintenance of liberty, but not violence.

But on this occasion, doubtless at the behest of Chief Executive CY Leung, himself under orders from Beijing, they came well prepared for offensive action to clear the streets of those they claimed were disrupting public order and assembling illegally. Helmets, batons and huge amounts of pepper spray aimed directly at demonstrators’ faces were deemed insufficient, hence the resort to large quantities of tear gas.

In the background stood other police armed with guns that threatened the use of rubber bullets.

So strong was the police response to what had been a peaceful occupation of public space – albeit one deemed illegal – that some of the leaders advised withdrawal rather than face injury in the face of police tactics.

Of the demonstrators, the largest number were students but they also included legislators and religious leaders such as Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen and many ordinary people who wanted to show support for the students and or backed the Occupy Central movement that aimed to bring the Central business district to a standstill.

The movement’s aim is to draw world attention to China’s failure to allow real universal suffrage for the election of the next chief executive in 2017. Beijing’s version of universal suffrage is to allow everybody to vote, but to handpick the candidates they will vote for.

In the event, the students proved rather better organized than the Occupy leaders and although numbers temporarily dwindled the demonstrators are not going away and it is likely that October 1 will see a new wave of protests – it is China’s national day and a public holiday and good reason for those who reject the divine right of the Communist Party to rule Hong Kong to go to the streets.

The build-up to these events has shown just how out of touch Beijing – and Hong Kong’s quisling leadership – have been in assessing the mood in the territory. Suspicion of the Party and Beijing goes deep in the older generation who remember being refugees or victims of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Meanwhile the students have shown an unsuspected degree of radicalism and willingness to endure sustained discomfort and even injuries in pursuit of more democracy. For some, democracy may be an end in itself, but much of the student action is based more on fear that existing liberties are gradually being taken away as Beijing tightens its grip on this long free-spirited but law abiding society.

Beijing’s attitudes have hardened significantly since Xi came to power and have spurred radicalism in Hong Kong. Its refusal to make any concessions to moderate democrats and allow a modicum of choice in the candidates for chief executive mean that there could no longer be any middle ground. All democrats had to oppose the phony “universal suffrage” laid down by the central government with a small group of appointees nominating the candidates.

Making matters worse, Beijing then aligned itself with the territory’s richest men, who were invited to a meeting with Xi himself. These tycoons mostly became mega rich thanks to their cozy relationships with the government over land deals. These are the very class of people, the landlord exploiters, who were executed when the communist party led by the now re-sanctified Mao Zedong came to power.

Xi is clutching at any symbol to back up his own push to be elevated to the ranks of Mao, Lenin, Stalin and, maybe, Deng Xiaoping. Yet the same president who purports to back Mao’s “spirit” of class struggle and perpetual revolution is also advocating a return to the values of Confucius, the “feudal reactionary” so fiercely condemned by Mao.

Confucius’ emphasis on order and hierarchy comes in handy for defending rule by the party elite. Confucius also has the merit of being Chinese, unlike that other leading source of ethical value in China – Buddhism, tolerated only as long as its stays apolitical.

Xi’s mix of Mao, Confucius and robber-baron, party-led capitalism is inherently unstable. That explains why he fears any development of liberal democracy in Hong Kong and tars it as a dangerous western and anti-Chinese idea. Hence the hard line response in Hong Kong is also an aspect of his reliance on nationalism, as seen in his policy towards Japan and the South China Sea, to build his power at a time when the economy is faltering.

But if Hong Kong’s past is anything to go by, Xi is now behind the curve of history and the students of Hong Kong will find their mainland counterparts open to their example when the occasion arises. This is something for the government to be extremely worried about.