SUPPOSE, in 1989, the tanks did not roll into Tiananmen Square in China. Suppose, in that glorious summer, there was no crackdown and no deaths. Would the students and workers’ protest have ended without incident? More significantly, would the Chinese Communist Party have retained its power unscathed?
The answers are yes and yes.
Admittedly, counter-history is a rich fount of conjecture. But these questions are not entirely hypothetical. Perhaps the most important consequence of Tiananmen is one missed entirely by foreign experts and historians. It relates to the Communist Youth League faction, and how it had, through Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, inspired and empathised with the protesters and how it had, through Hu Jintao and Li Keqiang, gone on to preside over the country’s pinnacle of power, the Politburo Standing Committee.
The aspirations and demands of Tiananmen, therefore, were in some way and to some extent fulfilled and subsumed by government following the event. But what exactly were those aspirations and demands?
Here, we find another misconception the outside world holds about Tiananmen. The protesters had demanded democracy, it is true, but not in the form of de jure rights of liberty and property as the West believed. Far from that. The protesters had demanded protection for their de facto rights of person: protection from the avarice, corruption, and rapacity unleashed by the newly-liberalising Chinese economy – indeed, protection from the rights of individual liberty and private property itself.
Unfamiliarity with these two concepts of freedom is due to their nuance. And three decades after Tiananmen, they are again confused by international observers of the protests in Hong Kong. The people want democracy, the media reiterates – without first asking what democratic freedom might actually mean in a bastion of free trade in the Far East, where deregulated markets, private capital, and the rule of law survive in the shadow of state mercantilism and party rule. Where is there no democracy in Hong Kong?
But, indeed, therein lies the problem. The rights of individual liberty and private property have been so long sanctified in Hong Kong that they intrude upon the rights of the unpropertied and desolate classes to rest, eat, breathe, and exist. Perhaps it is because of this that the propertied and law-abiding residents, though exasperated by the anarchy and destruction, have not turned on the protesters. In fact, in an extraordinary solidarity incomprehensible to outsiders, they seem silently to empathise with their unhappy brethren – and are quick to tell foreign critics to butt out.
What, then, is really going on in Hong Kong?
Very simply, the unpropertied and desolate classes want security in their lives and livelihoods. They want housing, welfare, healthcare, jobs, pensions – provisions traditionally (but no longer) administered by the secret societies. In short, they are crying out for protection of their wellbeing – for good governance. But the present government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), being from its historical legacy merely a non-interventionist overseer of trade, markets, capital, property, and the law, is unable to supply this protection and governance.
The result is deep-seated discontentment, directed with fury and loathing toward the government and its branches of judiciary and police. Interestingly, the discontented seem to not begrudge their propertied and affluent brethren. Instead, they resent the Chinese mainlanders who, long their inferiors, have now both wealth and wellbeing.
The significance of this “human condition” context is the denouement it anticipates. What will happen to Hong Kong? This question is best answered with another: Why has Beijing not interfered at all?
Beijing, of course, knows perfectly what is going on and what lies ahead. Social-political unrest is an intrinsic element of the Chinese state. “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” – the opening lines of the famous 14th century saga, Romance Of The Three Kingdoms. For centuries, what every ruling dynasty had feared most of all was the truth of the maxim, nei luan, wai huan, or “internal disorder, external threats”.
To hedge against this prophecy, the central government had long deployed negative liberties abroad as a relief valve for positive liberties denied at home. Thence emerged the phenomena of the porous border on the southern coast and of the “Overseas Chinese”, who, frustrated and oppressed at home, were allowed to venture abroad and freely acquire wealth. Thus grew Canton, Qing China’s relief valve, and the inheritance of the same function by colonial Hong Kong.
This circumstance, however, has come full circle. In years to come, Hong Kong’s protests will become known as its Cultural Revolution moment. They signify Hong Kongers’ laying waste their institutions of government and law and clearing the way for new ones. As in the 1960s, Beijing need not intervene. For, as after 1989, the aspirations and demands of the protesters will become fulfilled and subsumed by the HKSAR government – not the present one but a government new in form and substance. This new government will not involve the party, because it will, in its own exclusive way, exercise socialism with Chinese characteristics and intervene more fully in society.
It has long been said privately that the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement of 1997 was always an anachronism. One
generation after Hong Kong’s handover, we are now probably witnessing the irony of free trade and individual liberties being discarded, by popular choice, in the Far East.