China’s civilisational challenge

By Wong Chin Huat

China’s “one country, two systems” formula in Hong Kong is failing miserably. After more than six months of large-scale pro-democracy protests – including violent clashes with police – the city’s voters dealt a powerful blow in November to pro-mainland parties, which lost 87% of seats to pro-democracy rivals in district council elections.

The significance of that election should not be underestimated. While district councils have little power, they select some of the 1,200 electors who choose Hong Kong’s chief executive. In the next election, pro-democracy parties will fill nearly 10% of those seats.

The election also had important symbolic implications. District councils are elected in a fully democratic process (compared to only half the seats in Hong Kong’s legislative council). With an impressive 71% turnout, the election was widely seen as a vote of no confidence in the embattled China-backed chief executive, Carrie Lam.

Some of Hong Kong’s people have lost faith in the prospect of maintaining their democracy within the “one country, two systems” scheme. This is reflected in growing demands for independence, which were never heard during 155 years of British rule. While independence remains a fringe idea – owing partly to recognition of China’s uncompromising stand on territorial integrity – almost no one under the age of 30 in Hong Kong identifies exclusively as Chinese.
A similar backlash against mainland China is now also occurring in Taiwan. Having enjoyed de facto independence since 1949, Taiwan was supposed to be drawn back into the Chinese fold by the “one country, two systems” model. But that model’s failure in Hong Kong has hardened anti-China sentiment, and turned many voters away from the pan-Blue political parties, which favour closer ties with the mainland.

This represents a significant shift from last year’s midterm elections, when the Blue Kuomintang party secured several key victories over the ruling, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In fact, that outcome was probably less about desiring closer ties with China than about delivering a sharp rebuke to DPP.

Indeed, after Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his 2019 New Year speech, urged Taiwan to follow in Hong Kong’s footsteps, President Tsai Ing-wen of DPP revived her popularity by reasserting Taiwan’s sovereignty. Bolstered by the Hong Kong crisis, Tsai now seems to be coasting toward a landslide victory in January’s presidential election.

Far from enabling China’s peaceful reunification, the “one country, two systems” model is undermining it. Perhaps this was inevitable, owing to a cause more fundamental than Xi’s centralisation of power, the Communist Party of China’s increasing interference in Hong Kong’s affairs, or even the basic contradiction between a one-party regime and a multi-party democracy. The Chinese state, built on a millennia-old paradigm of political order, cannot cope with intra-governmental conflict.

Modern democracy is based on division, within society and the state. In society, different groups, each with its own interests and priorities, compete for representation. In the state, there is a horizontal separation of powers (among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches) and a vertical division of powers (among national and sub-national governments).

For countries with a history of foreign domination, such divisions may seem like weaknesses that can be exploited by outsiders using a “divide-and-rule” strategy. And, indeed, according to China’s cyclical worldview, the commonwealth (Tian Xia) rotates between division (marked by chaos and war) and unity (which restores peace and order).

To be sure, China does maintain a separation of powers. But it is much more comfortable with horizontal checks and balances than vertical ones. For more than 2,000 years, Chinese imperial courts appointed a censor-in-chief to manage ministers and bureaucrats, and grandmasters of remonstrance to criticise emperors. The Song dynasty even divided provincial-level power among military, administrative, fiscal, and judicial officials.

Conflicts between national and sub-national governments, however, were historically divided into three categories – warlordism (割据, ge ju), insubordination (不臣, bu chen), and foreign threat (外患, wai huan) – all of which are unambiguously negative. To this day, China’s rulers distrust leaders with a local base, often choosing outsiders to serve as provincial governors and party bosses, and reshuffling them regularly.

From the Chinese government’s perspective, “Hong Kong ruled by Hong Kongers” (港人治港, gang ren zhi gang) was already a risky concession. So it ruled out a directly elected chief executive and worked to suppress the opposition, fearing that local dissidents would act as foreign agents to challenge the central government’s authority.

This effort backfired. China’s interference undermined the ability of older “democrats” who identified as Chinese to deliver the changes the people demanded, so they were replaced by younger “localists.” When China’s central government attempted to suppress these figures – including by purging them from the legislature in 2017 – resistance intensified.

By the beginning of this year, when Lam introduced a bill that would make it easier to extradite criminal suspects to mainland China, the people of Hong Kong were fed up. China’s government attempted to silence the protesters, including by arresting leading activists. The protest movement was thus left leaderless, making it impossible to negotiate a resolution.

Many of the young protesters now believe that they have so little to lose that they effectively seek “mutually assured destruction”. This “scorched earth” approach renders Chinese threats of repression virtually impotent.

China now faces a dilemma. Unless democracy – with its requisite division – is shown to support the dream of civilisational resurgence, it will lack legitimacy among Chinese nationalists. But the only way to revive the “one country, two systems” rubric is to accept intra-governmental conflict – a great leap toward embracing democracy.

Institutionalised respect for regional identity and autonomy have eased separatist sentiment in Tamil Nadu, Scotland, Quebec, the Basque region, and Flanders, and it could do the same in Hong Kong, and possibly even Taiwan. But if China continues to suppress intra-governmental conflict, the collapse of the “one country, two systems” model will be only a matter of time.

Wong Chin Huat is a professor of political science at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University. © Project Syndicate 2019.
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