As covered extensively in The Diplomat, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Hong Kong demanding democratic reforms. Specifically, the protesters want free and fair elections and universal suffrage to select the city’s government, which Beijing promised as part of the condition for the UK handing back the city to China.
Sadly, Occupy Central is doomed to fail. The Chinese government will not accept the protesters’ demands.
Beijing has already made it clear that it views free and fair elections in Hong Kong to be a threat to one-party rule in the country. At most, it will allow Hong Kongers to select one of the candidates that it pre-approves. It has also deemed Occupy Central illegal. In other words, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views the issue as one of its “core interests,” and it hasn’t stayed in power this long by compromising on issues that it views as threats to its survival.
This was perhaps best demonstrated by Deng Xiaoping’s time in power. To be sure, China liberalized politically and economically to a significant extent during Deng’s tenure. However, what is too often underappreciated is that this liberalization was not an end in itself. Rather, Deng viewed it as necessary to bolster the CCP against threats both domestic and foreign.
Indeed, after the April 5 Movement that followed Zhou Enlai’s death, Deng saw that the Chinese people were becoming increasingly agitated with the excesses of the Party. If the Party was to survive, it would have to fundamentally change. And that took the form of changing its raison d’être from revolutionary vigor to improving the livelihoods of the Chinese people. Thus, economic modernization became the guiding principle of Deng’s time in power.
To modernize economically, some degree of political liberalization was necessary — for example, allowing (and in fact encouraging) people to travel abroad to learn the lessons of the West and the Asian tigers. But the purpose of these political reforms was ultimately to strengthen the CCP’s grip on power. As Orville Schell and John Delury explain in Wealth and Power, while Deng strongly encouraged the Chinese to learn from the West economically, “one thing he did not intend to borrow from the West was its liberal political model. On that score, Deng would prove almost as ruthless as Mao in silencing his critics.”
He would prove this even before taking the reigns of power. In between his two purges in 1975, Muslims in a remote village in Yunnan Province began refusing to pay their grain taxes until they were granted more freedom to practice their religion. According to Schell and Delury, “Deng signed an order dispatching PLA troops to ‘put things back in order,’ and an estimated sixteen hundred men, women, and children were killed in the twenty-one-day ‘pacification’ operation that followed.”
An even better example are the Democracy Walls that began appearing in late 1978, first in Beijing and later elsewhere. At first Deng supported the Democracy Walls and extolled the virtues of people expressing their grievances. He did this primarily because it made implementing his reform agenda easier politically, but also because he believed it would be healthy for people to vent some of their anger at the excesses of the Mao years. However, as the demands and criticisms being posted on the so-called Democracy Walls became increasingly bold—for example, demanding democracy and criticizing the principle of one-party rule, instead of merely Marxism or Maoist thought—Deng quickly reversed himself. Thus, he ordered the Beijing government to issue a decree that announced: “slogans, posters, books, magazines, photographs, and other materials which oppose socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leadership of the Communist Party, Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought are formally prohibited.” To emphasize this point, Deng then had the most famous poster on the Democracy Wall, Wei Jingsheng, arrested and thrown in prison.
And of course, Deng also once again showed that the purpose of his reform agenda — that is, to strengthen the Party’s rule — in cracking down on protesters in Tiananmen Square ten years after the Democracy Wall crackdown. And, in the context of Occupy Central, it’s worth noting that Deng ordered the crackdown despite knowing that it would hurt China economically with the West in the immediate future.
This is the blueprint that Xi Jinping and the top CCP leadership are operating under in handling the Hong Kong protests. Even before the protests began, they deemed completely free and fair elections in Hong Kong to be a threat to CCP rule. That signaled that they are not going to allow them, negotiations and promises be damned.
The massive protests that have swept through Hong Kong in recent days have only made it more urgent that the CCP hold the line on the issue. The Party can ill afford an example of mass demonstrations forcing it to compromise on an issue deemed to be of core importance. Before the protests, it was possible the CCP might have assessed that free and fair elections in Hong Kong would not threaten one-Party rule on the mainland because of the “one country, two systems” mantra. However, the Party giving in on a core issue because of mass protests would, without question, set a dangerous precedent for the CCP’s grip on power in China. It therefore will not be done.
This isn’t to say that a violent crackdown is coming. Indeed, as is almost always the case, the CCP will want the local government on the frontlines in handling the protesters, while Beijing directs things from behind the scenes. As Steve Hess has pointed out in The Diplomat, using local governments as scapegoats has long been an effective tool of the CCP. If it means the restoration of stability, that could very well mean the end of CY Leung’s career. It’s also possible some sort of “compromise” will be worked out that allows the protesters to claim some sort of victory without compromising the CCP’s ability to maintain a large degree of control over the chief executive of Hong Kong.
But when it comes down to it, there will not be completely free and fair elections in Hong Kong under the CCP’s watch for the foreseeable future. The CCP undoubtedly prefers a quick and peaceful restoration of stability in Hong Kong — so long as its bottom line is upheld. But if forced to choose between its bottom line and peace, the Party would almost certainly choose the latter. As many have pointed out, a violent crackdown would have significant economic repercussions on Hong Kong and the country in the immediate term. But the CCP proved quite willing to bear those costs in 1989, and in the decades since China has rapidly accumulated economic influence around the globe, which will ensure any international backlash from a crackdown is less severe and lasting.