Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 14

By Gordon G. Chang

A half million demonstrators took to the streets in Hong Kong this month. Can the people in the Mainland be far behind? There are, as we have been told, two systems in the one country that we call China. Yet both of those systems are authoritarian, and as each of them tries to adapt to the modern world, each increases the risk of instability in the other.

“One county, two systems,” modern China’s contribution to political science, has always sounded like a good idea, but it is an idea that was never going to work well in a sometimes-reforming, semi-totalitarian state. True, there has been progress in the Mainland’s political arena in the past two decades, yet forward movement typically occurs at speeds associated with continental drift. “Although a vibrant market economy and a nascent civil society have begun to emerge on the mainland, China’s Leninist political institutions remain substantially unchanged, remnants of a bygone era,” notes UCLA’s Richard Baum.

To prevent any threat to its particular brand of Leninism, Beijing insisted that Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the closest thing the territory has to a constitution, require the enactment of anti-subversion measures. An inept and insensitive campaign to put such legislation into place proved to be too much: the people of Hong Kong turned out in massive numbers on July 1 for a protest march against the subversion bill. A measure that was supposed to guard against instability instead ended up as the immediate cause of it.

The bill, however, was only the triggering event. People also marched to express displeasure over a bad economy and amateurish officialdom. But most of all they took to the streets to show their mounting frustration with a system of unresponsive government. Over the course of six years Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has managed not only to stir up an apolitical and apathetic population against him personally, he is also getting that population to challenge the fundamental nature of its government. Tung is no longer a silly old man–he is a symbol. “It’s not just about Article 23,” says Allen Lee, a prominent Hong Kong politico, referring to the short hand reference for the anti-subversion legislation. “Hong Kong people want democracy.”

But will Beijing officials permit it? Yes, but only if they really believe in one country, two systems. As we have seen over the last fifteen years, authoritarian regimes have a hard time defending themselves against open societies located thousands of miles and continents away. So how can the system-within-a-system structure work within China’s own borders? First, Taiwan, part of the Chinese state according to Beijing, discarded its own Leninist structure and democratized. Now, Hong Kong, definitely part of the People’s Republic, wants to give up gentle authoritarianism for real participatory government. The leaders of the Communist Party fear the next step–some form of democracy for the increasingly assertive people in the Mainland itself. “This is a huge problem for the government,” says Bao Tong, a former high Party official kept on a tight leash since the Beijing Spring of 1989. “That demonstrations will spread to China is the first thing the leaders will think of.”

And the first thing they will fear. Beijing’s officials went to extraordinary lengths to prevent news of the protests from reaching the people of the People’s Republic of China. Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan, for example, refused to mention the demonstration, even when repeatedly asked to comment on it.

State run media, with the exception of some foreign language bulletins, completely ignored the event. On July 1, China Central Television skipped perhaps the biggest story in the world at that moment, the one occurring on its own soil on the streets of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Instead it aired a content-impaired speech from President Hu Jintao on the need for more ideology. CNN and the BBC were blocked. Foreign newspapers, even the increasingly regime-friendly South China Morning Post, were taken off the newsstands. Most computer chatrooms did not allow comments about the protest. Internet portals were of course warned to ignore the march. “We have no channel for that kind of news,” said Julia Cheng, a broadcast professional working in the Chinese capital.

Beijing’s leaders know that, whatever precautions they take, they cannot completely seal their country off from Hong Kong. For one thing, there is not much of a border left between the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and Guangdong Province. Yet even in the faraway Chinese capital–and throughout the rest of the nation–the Chinese people found out about developments through e-mail, foreign news websites, short-wave radio and satellite television.

The porous boundary creates a vexing challenge for Beijing. Tung Chee-hwa is wounded, probably mortally, as politicians from across the spectrum in Hong Kong agree. He still has four years left of his second term, however. Left in place, Tung is bound to provoke more turmoil, as these recent events, and indeed the first six years of his tenure, indicate. In short, there may be no end to the turmoil in Hong Kong, and calls for democracy will only grow louder. Attempts by Mainland leaders to stop political reform will surely aggravate an already tense situation. Intransigence, even as a short-term tactic, will leave them with little room for maneuver.

Yet any loosening of the electoral system in the Special Administrative Region poses its own risks. If Beijing officials make concessions, they will look weak. Regimes are especially vulnerable when they back down in the face of pressure. Reform in Hong Kong will undoubtedly trigger calls for reform at home. Today, it is believed that Beijing will go so far as to keep Tung in place because to remove him would show the people in Hong Kong–and those in the Mainland too–that mass protest works.

In any event, central government leaders have little time to find the right solution. It is even possible that, with events moving as quickly as they are, they might not get a second chance if they come up with the wrong answer the first time.

So far, their answer for Hong Kong is the same one they have developed for the rest of China: Improve the economy. Tung, being as dutiful toward Beijing as ever, now says that doing more to promote growth is his number one priority. If the hapless leader can halt a long decline in economic performance and asset values, he just might survive. Yet this plan is evidence of more than a little desperation because Hong Kong’s economic problems are structural and not cyclical. Turning around the territory’s fortunes in the next few years is simply not likely in view of the fact that the entrepot has lost its exclusive gateway role.

It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s the political system. While Tung tries to find technical solutions in the laws of economics, he fails to do the one thing that can save him–engage the constituencies and interest groups that exist in Hong Kong society. Tung thought that there was no need to listen to the territory’s citizens, and now he is paying the price. Mainland leaders, with more tools of repression at their disposal, have been at this game for a longer time, but they cannot be successful forever. Because they are so good at suppression, authoritarians never know the breaking point of their own people. So we should not be surprised that both the Hong Kong and Mainland authorities are creating instability for one another. In the one country, both systems are unstable.

“Their problem is applying old perspectives to a new era,” said Tung Chee-hwa as he bashed his critics in May of this year. “They will be left behind if they do not keep up with the times.” Those words are all too true. Tung and his backers in Beijing, resistant to calls for political reform, are in danger of never catching up to the Chinese people, those in Hong Kong and the ones in the Mainland too.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, published by Random House.