BY MONTE R. BULLARD | BLOG PIECE
EDITED BY TOM MARKS
This blog piece examines the recent protests in Hong Kong and, in contrast to conventional wisdom, contends that the best way the Chinese government could pacify the protestors is to denounce publicly the extradition law withdrawal while making clear that it has no intentions to change the status quo.
Hong Kong remains wrapped in chaos with no end in sight. It is not that the current protests have limited value and that many may be harmed by them, rather the students (and others) must learn to identify and define their target audiences more clearly and narrowly. Although Beijing has tried to remain outside the current Hong Kong situation, this is unlikely to go on indefinitely. Ironically, the best way Beijing could pacify the protesters would be for President Xi Jinping to publicly denounce the extradition law withdrawal and to make it clear that Beijing wants no change in the status quo. The remainder of the protester’s concerns are internal Hong Kong problems – behavior of the police, role of the Chief Executive, and so on. Beijing’s best tactic is to ensure that the protests stay focused internally.
Two new analytical topics are required to understand protests in China today: the role of social media and the effectiveness and strength of the Chinese government in Beijing… and Hong Kong. The first supports the organization, planning, and execution of the protesters. The second supports the power of government to prevail in a conflict.
Social media contributes to effectively communicating (explaining and promoting) the substance of issues that are to be protested against. Perhaps more important tactically, though, is the use of social media to communicate the times and places of protests to assure large numbers in the protest effort. It is now easy to quickly broadcast information to myriad followers with a single click, dispensing with countless phone calls to organize protesters. Further, if the government responses to protests are overly forceful, the circumstances of contact between government forces and protesters can be quickly reported complete with photos and video.
The second factor to be considered in protests in Hong Kong or China is the power of the Beijing government. After 70 years of political, economic, and educational evolution, the Chinese Communist Party has solidified its state apparatus into one of the most powerful in the world. Internal Party discipline and communist controls over the state have produced a mature political system.
This new political environment requires protesters to evaluate their methods if they are to be successful. Student protests in the streets or at transportation hubs are probably not the answer. In fact, they are more likely to ultimately result in damage to their cause.
Careful dissection of the protest topic is required. It appears the protests have moved from opposition to the proposed change in Hong Kong laws – that would allow accused Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to Chinese courts for disposition – to a challenge to Hong Kong autonomy. This autonomy is delimited by the “One country two systems” agreement (1984) between China and Britain, which set the ground rules for Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese control on July 1, 1997 after 156 years of British rule. Hong Kong leaders then enacted a “Basic Law” as a Constitution for Hong Kong to assure a fair degree of autonomy within Hong Kong’s area of political governance. Part of the governing agreements allows Beijing to prescreen and approve of the key Hong Kong chief executive, so Hong Kong is not totally autonomous.
There is no doubt that Hong Kong protesters legitimately highlight any effort to reduce the degree of autonomy they have. Some of the protesters, however, have begun to challenge totalitarian rule in China. That is a clear challenge to Chinese communist leadership. The fact that there is communication with student groups within China to also pursue this line of protest is a major red flag for the Beijing leadership. There is no doubt that China has an efficient intelligence system that monitors almost every aspect of Hong Kong life and communications with Chinese citizens.
A central questions, then, is to what extent can protests, led by young students, be successful in changing Chinese policy or political structure? No single-factor analysis can answer this question. Conclusions about one set of protests (Hong Kong) do not transfer well from other sets of protests (Puerto Rico or Russia). The local contexts in which the protests occur are all very different and will require different analytical approaches.
The major consideration generally is the degree to which a government is stable and in control. Specifically, in China, the communist leadership is in control. It has been relatively successful in improving the lives of the people and has attained a good degree of legitimacy. It has built extremely strong and reliable security forces. The political commissar system within the military is successful at setting the mindset of soldiers as well as establishing an efficient feedback system. In many ways, the Hong Kong students could not have picked a worse time for their protest, regardless of its rectitude.
Modern Chinese history has a couple of examples of severe student protest movements. One hundred years ago, May 4, 1919, a student movement in China was influential in planting seeds in the minds of students who later became leaders in both the Chinese Communist and Chinese Nationalist parties. More important, it initiated a cultural movement that got the “people” more involved in politics. The immediate consequence of the movement was to stop the new Chinese government from going along with the Treaty of Versailles, which would have transferred control of the Shandong area from the Germans to the Japanese. Government leaders were forced to resign. The students were successful in creating a sense of Chinese nationalism. This was, however, an environment in which the Chinese government was still new and very weak.
The June 4, 1989 protest led by Chinese youth in Tiananmen was very different. It was an important example of a serious challenge to the Chinese communist leadership – and it failed. The government was strong and had solid control over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA internal indoctrination was so good it was said that some officers even had sons or grandchildren among the student protestors, yet they were able to carry out orders to stop the demonstrations, though it meant killing several hundred of them. The government prevailed and there were no significant changes in government policy or structure as a result.
New protesters should understand that they may be able to force some local policies to change, but they are not likely to cause much movement within China toward increased democracy. This requires a more focused approach.
An examination of current protest placards shows a high degree of fragmentation or expansive idealistic goals. Initially, it was protest against the extradition policy, then against police excesses, then against the Beijing-supported chief executive. Then, there were pro-democracy signs looking to take on the communist system. In terms of tactics, though, it is not enough to oppose a government just because it is totalitarian or because democracy is better. That may be so (and, in this case, is), but it is critical to examine the context in order to see if the objects of protest can be replaced or changed. Beijing is certainly strong enough to withstand the Hong Kong protests. As it demonstrated at Tiananmen, it is willing to produce whatever body count is required to achieve its ends.
Part of this rationale is a legacy of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), which was an internal protest initiated by Chairman Mao Zedong, directing students to protest against existing government officials. The GPCR was such a disaster that it caused serious harm to nearly every citizen in any type of authority. As a result, many Chinese citizens began to support authoritarian government control, because it meant maintaining stability as a political value. Stability became a higher value than freedom, liberty, or democracy.
This is what the students face. Their idealism is not in question. They are sincerely concerned with local policies inimical to their political beliefs and an erosion of Democracy. Most of the beliefs are based upon democratic ideals, but their analysis of policy or systemic weaknesses has yet to demonstrate a depth commensurate with their courage. This must occur if their movement is to produce something long-lasting.