BY MONTE R. BULLARD | BLOG PIECE
The blog piece examines China's proposal to pass an extradition law in Hong Kong that would allow for the first time extradition to mainland China. It examines the primary driver of the China leaders' proposed extradition law, the potential implications for the "one country, two systems" formula, as well as the overall goal of the Chinese leaders.
The single most important element in the minds of senior Chinese Communist Party leaders is the memory of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR). That period between 1965 and 1975 is when China went through a political oppression that witnessed possibly the worst affront to human lives and dignity in the history of the mankind. In that movement children were turned against parents, wives were separated from husbands, serious scholars and doctors were sent to the hinterland to tend pigs and millions in positions of authority were ridiculed, killed or tarred and feathered. All schools were closed for ten years to produce what has been called the "lost generation". During the GPCR the Communist Party (Mao) even experimented with pure democracy and it failed miserably because it resulted in social, economic, and political upheaval bordering on a civil war.
What is little known or written about is that most Chinese, especially older Chinese, agreed with the decision to fire on students on June 4,1989 at Tiananmen and put down protests in 120 cities throughout China. It comes down to a simple assessment… can Chinese citizens accept a strong authoritarian rule, or should they support democratic ideals which are contentious by definition. In other words, is stability (defined as no return to the chaos and indignities of the GPCR) more important than freedom or liberty offered by democratic practices in the west? After experiencing the GPCR or hearing about it from family members, most Chinese opt for stability over liberty even if force, as used in Tiananmen, is required to maintain it.
Outsiders condemn the current Xi administration for becoming increasingly demanding or tightening of Communist Party rule over society. Because of China’s unique cultural and demographic situation, it is too easy for a protest to erupt and spread throughout the country. Older Chinese citizens, now in the leadership, are scared to death of a return to the madness of the GPCR caused by protests. Those Chinese leaders are searching for a political system that will maintain stability yet allow enough democracy for citizens to breathe. Finding that balance is not easy because it requires the leadership to actively implement policies that cause tightening or loosening of control over the society, economy, and so on, which means the system generally shifts between being opened or closed.
The recent events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang have pushed the limits of authoritarian control, but they are quite different. In Hong Kong the fight has been over China’s ability to extradite Hong Kong citizens to China for those accused of crimes highlight a serious problem for China in its quest for a balance. Most analysis takes the word of the Hong Kong protesters about what “could” happen if a person were extradited. In Xinjiang, where most analysis is from external sources applying western democratic judgment, the problem is a potential independence from Beijing rule. What is lacking is an analysis what Chinese authoritarian control really means.
Since 1997 when Hong Kong reverted to China’s sovereignty, (99 years after it was signed over to Britain by unequal treaty) the Chinese have walked a thin line to allow a degree of “autonomy” in Hong Kong but making sure it was known that Hong Kong was a part of China. It was touted as “one country, two systems” and legally defined in the Hong Kong Basic Law.
This system has enabled the Communist Party to gain gradual control over Hong Kong through various measures. The Party has encouraged Han Chinese migration, which has allowed it to establish a powerful presence in key political, economic, as well as social institutions. Despite this, there has not yet been a major attempt to alter formally the legal system. But it appears as though the new extradition law may be the beginning of an erosion of this principle.
Chinese leaders’ rationale for starting with the legal system is not clear and the scope of protest probably surprised them. The attempted change in law was aimed at the Hong Kong leader’s decision-making authority assuming some degree of ultimate Chinese guidance more than a concern that criminals are not punished sufficiently. Part of President Xi’s overall strategy is the tightening political control at home, especially in regions that threaten the stability of the Chinese state, prior to extending China’s influence abroad.
The regions of Hong Kong and Xinjiang share some similarities and some differences. From the viewpoint of the Communist leaders, both areas are major sources of instability and pose threats to the durability of the Chinese state. Further, what happens in these areas has bearings on the future reunification/unification of China and Taiwan, a decades long challenge the Communist leadership has yet to resolve in its favor.
Since Hong Kong is a financial juggernaut in Asia, Chinese leaders have had to move very slowly to achieve the final goal of political control. They are prepared to take their time and they will doubtlessly continue to probe in various academic, cultural, economic, legal and political areas to bring Hong Kong completely under Beijing’s control. If it takes another 99 years… no problem.
The problem with Uighurs in the Xinjiang region of China is Chinese leaders perceive the threat to be completely different and has to do with cultural not political control differences. In that area China already institutionally has absolute political control and the challenge is perceived to be an external (Muslim) threat.
The Chinese response to Xinjiang Uighurs is almost an exact repeat of Communist Party methods used during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. During that period all Chinese citizens experienced the same re-education processes to inculcate the Communist view of being a citizen of China. In the modern age, the leadership enacts other forms of control, such as shutting down the internet when Uighur college students return to the region in order to prevent the rapid dissemination of different ideas than the party line being promoted there.
The question of the degree to which either of these protests will harm the Chinese leadership or be a threat to the United States is not really open. The Communist Party will ultimately prevail in both cases, so judgment has to be about the humaneness of the Chinese leadership. It has often been said that a benevolent dictator is tolerable, but we have no agreement on the term benevolent and the primary criticism of any authoritarian regime is that even if it is benevolent now it could easily and quickly become malevolent. Generally totalitarian rule is more efficient than democratic rule since by definition Democracy includes allowable internal and even public fighting and it takes more time to carry out decisions. The Communist leadership finds both consequences of Democracy unacceptable. Any criticism of the Chinese Communist regime now can only be useful in causing the leadership to be more humane; it is not likely to be useful to triggering systemic change. It will take a combination of internal protest and external criticism to insure a degree of humaneness.
If we examine the current Chinese Communist regime humaneness in detail, we must also include its feedback mechanism. Are the senior leaders aware of grass roots issues or are they in their own elite world? Do the leaders care about local problems or is their own power the force behind their decisions? Do decisions at all levels find a balance between stability and democracy?
When the Communist Party organizational system of placing commissars or party representatives in all levels of organizations is working, there is no doubt that the party leaders at every level have the information, they need to make tolerable decisions… acceptable to the current senior party leadership and with a degree of humaneness. It is an effective intelligence gathering system. Within China nearly every citizen is involved in some form of organization whether work or neighborhood oriented. One of the goals of tightening the Party organization is to make sure Party control returns and the feedback system is working which will allow leaders to coopt what they believe to be bad behavior.
Their preference is to resolve issues by control of all media content and school curricula including all social media. Control methods continue to evolve as the media evolves. China also has assured backup of the mind-control and mind-influencing mechanisms. Military and police are now better trained and organized and prepared to assure citizens that there will be no return to the chaos of the GPCR and as Party control is tightened in all organizations the likelihood of a military coup is almost nil.
Another characteristic of Communist Party decision-making is that when they meet an obstacle or in today’s world organized protests, they often take one step back and then later two steps forward. That could explain the Hong Kong decision to back up on the extradition law.
Hong Kong autonomy has meant that the Communist Party allowed less control over mind-influencing schemes and almost no Party intrusion into any type of organization. Most older Hong Kong Chinese leaders were not so affected by the GPCR, so they are more tolerant of protests. China has therefore been unable to gather the complete intelligence information they need to coopt the challenges to Communist rule. They have been unable to prevent mass protests so we can see where their likely efforts will occur. How they respond in Hong Kong and Xinjiang will have a very strong impact on the efforts toward independence in Taiwan.
In summary, current Chinese leaders’ political thinking is still strongly influenced by the consequences of the GPCR. The Chinese people support methods that contribute to stability and prevent a return to that period of chaos. Leaders, through a good feedback mechanism, are aware of issues within China and have the military and police means to back up their policies. The key to our China-watching is to focus on the degree to which the Communist Party is able to manipulate or control all forms of media and schooling as well as penetrate organizations at every level with Party members, including foreign entities such as businesses. Although penetration will be a slow process in areas like Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the Party will continue to actively experiment with ways to increase its influence in those areas in order to maintain stability and the unity of the Chinese state.