Understanding China’s Hard Line on Hong Kong

When Chinese students first took to the streets of Beijing in April 1989 – initially to mourn the death of reformist former Premier Hu Yaobang, then to protest for more democracy – nobody in the Chinese leadership seemed to have been planning for it to end with tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square.

As Ezra P. Vogel tells it in his painfully long but hugely informative biography Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China – which I read on trains and planes and in hotel rooms during a trip to China in June organized by the China-United States Exchange Foundation – many Communist Party officials were sympathetic to the protesters. The most important of those officials, Deng Xiaoping, was not so well-disposed, but he initially hoped the movement would fizzle out on its own. It was only when it didn’t, and after inept attempts at shutting the protests down without violence backfired, that Deng put his foot down and his underlings sent in the tanks.

What does all this portend for the protests currently unfolding in Hong Kong? Not sure, of course. But when Edward Wong and Chris Buckley write in The New York Times that “the toolbox of President Xi Jinping of China appears remarkably empty of instruments that could lead to palatable long-term solutions for all involved,” it’s hard not to worry that things could go terribly wrong. On the mainland, the Chinese leadership has learned since 1989 how to shut down incipient protests quietly or channel citizen anger in Party-approved directions. Those methods don’t work in Hong Kong, Wong and Buckley write, because the former British colony has civil liberties and freedom of speech. But at the same time, it’s hard to see how the protesters’ demands for political self-determination will ever fly in Beijing.

Why won’t they fly? It helps to go back to Deng, and the intellectual and political battle that followed in the wake of Mao Zedong’s death. Mao was of course the mercurial, tyrannical, economically disastrous founding father of Communist China. Deng had been a top Mao lieutenant since the birth of the People’s Republic in 1949, but was sent off to a rural tractor factory during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s for trying to fix the country’s flattened economy by, in Mao’s words, “pursuing the capitalist road.” He was rehabilitated in 1974 and briefly served as Mao’s right-hand man, but was expelled from office again in early 1976.

After Mao’s death in September of that year, the country at first appeared headed in the direction outlined in a February 1977 People’s Daily editorial with the typically opaque headline, “Study the Documents Well and Grasp the Key Link.” It became better known as the “two whatevers,” which may sound like a Bud Light ad but was actually a hard-line commitment to “resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.”

The problem with this approach, as Deng pointed out in May 1977, was that over the years Mao had contradicted himself repeatedly and even admitted to making loads of mistakes. (“He said that no one can avoid making mistakes in his work unless he does none at all,” Deng wrote.) Faithfully adhering to Mao’s decisions and instructions was a recipe for confusion and error – and in fact Mao’s handpicked successor Hua Guofeng had already begun changing course even while publicly espousing the “two whatevers.”

A year later, Deng threw his weight instead behind the approach outlined in an essay by a philosophy professor first distributed in Party circles and then published in the Guangming Daily and elsewhere, titled “Practice is the sole criterion for testing truth.” Or, as Deng himself liked to put it, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

Deng’s view of course prevailed. He became the country’s de facto leader, and not only stayed in that role for almost 15 years but built a production line of presidents and premiers who have largely followed his lead. That lead has consisted of doing whatever it takes to keep the economy growing, as long as it doesn’t threaten the supremacy of the Communist Party. (In fact, it’s economic growth that has come to be seen as essential to maintaining the supremacy of the Communist Party.)

Deng thought that Nikita Khrushchev irreparably weakened the Soviet Union by disavowing predecessor Josef Stalin in 1956. And so while he abandoned virtually all of Mao’s economic policies, Deng never disavowed Mao or the one-party state. After the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, events in Eastern Europe and the former USSR seemed to Deng and his colleagues to prove that preserving one-party rule was essential. The collapse of Communist rule not only left a lot of former Communist rulers out of work, imprisoned, or killed, but in Russia and other former Soviet Republics it also left the economy and the people worse off, at least through the 1990s. The contrast of that debacle with the world-changing economic miracle that China has pulled off since 1978 only strengthened the conviction among China’s leaders that their way was the right one.

It’s not so important to them that Maoism or even Communism continue to be practiced in China – despite the frequent obligatory references to Marxism and “Mao Zedong Thought” in political pronouncements, the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton appear to have more currency in modern Washington than Marx’s or Mao’s do in Beijing. But it’s extremely important that the Party remain supreme. Because otherwise, well, look at Russia.

But if the Chinese Communist Party isn’t really Maoist, or even Communist, what is it? The parallel that springs most readily to mind, especially when one learns about the systematic ways in which the Party selects, trains, and promotes its leaders (recommended reading: Richard McGregor’s The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers), is that of a big corporation – IBM or GM in their Organization Man heydays. Another parallel is to the corporatist ruling parties that drove earlier modernization drives in other East Asian nations, from the LDP in Japan to the KMT in Taiwan to the PAP in Singapore to what’s now called the Saenuri Party in South Korea.

To an outsider, in fact, it’s not clear at all that the example of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s is the one Chinese officials should be looking at. Western corporations are effectively one-party states, but they are at least in theory open to that party being deposed by shareholders if it does a poor enough job. And most of the other Asian corporatist parties have moved away from one-party rule, allowing opposition politicians to not only contest elections but win them, without bringing economic ruin or even entirely ceding power. But the idea that China could learn political lessons from its smaller neighbors isn’t popular in Beijing. Instead, the mantra is that the country is uniquely diverse and hard to govern, and needs single-party rule to stay together. (For an impassioned and quite entertaining defense of this view, see Shanghai venture capitalist Eric Li’s TEDGlobal talk from last year.)

Hong Kong is different from the rest of China, and Beijing has been willing to let it be different. But Party leaders don’t appear willing to let the territory’s inhabitants challenge the Party’s ultimate authority over them – presumably out of fear that this would weaken its authority elsewhere in China. This year, in fact, they have made several new assertions of that authority, most recently the dictate that, while Hong Kong residents will get to elect a political leader in 2017 (something they never got to do under British rule, by the way), Beijing will choose the three nominees.

That’s what brought on the current round of protests. They’re embarrassing for China’s leadership, and any harder crackdown will be even more embarrassing, and possibly extremely damaging to Hong Kong’s economy. But don’t imagine that Xi Jinping and his colleagues in Beijing will be easily persuaded by a bunch of protesters 1,200 miles away, and a bunch of negative media coverage or even official condemnation from the West, that the course that Deng Xiaoping laid in back in 1978 – and violently reaffirmed in 1989 -is in need of a major correction.

Harvard Business Review

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Posted on October 2, 2014, in Sri Lanka. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Understanding China’s Hard Line on Hong Kong.

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