For Beijing, which expects itself to order and others to obey, concessions are unthinkable and indispensable.
Hong Kong and China entered dangerous uncharted territory at 8:09 the morning of Friday 8 November, when university student Chow Tsz-lok died in hospital. He had grievously damaged his skull in an ill-judged jump, evidently as he ran to escape tear gas. Until Chow, no one had actually died in five months of protest in the city. Now Chow is the first casualty.
This death, however, is far more than a personal tragedy. In the months and years ahead, it will serve to confirm an important fact stressed by Carl von Clausewitz. Marching and protesting and negotiation are one thing. When a person dies or is killed, however, the key changes. One enters an unfamiliar world where, to expand a bit, emotion and reality become unfamiliar as in a carnival “fun” house where all is seen in distorting mirrors, where cars roll uphill.
Moreover, this is the land of lex talionis: an eye for an eye for an eye and then another. Blood heats. Deadly violence proliferates. Some wretched policeman with a wife and young children, maybe like many a secret sympathizer, is going to die. Then a protester. Then more in a bloody spiral that will be almost impossible to stop.
That is why Shakespeare says “let slip” the dogs of war. No collars no leashes they are on their own, out of control. Now that has been done. Hong Kong has entered that land of horrors.
Chow’s “martyrdom,” for that is how it will be remembered, comes five months after Beijing attempted to extend the power of her secret police to Hong Kong, in violation of the whole spirit of what Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) called “one country, two systems”. At the time, some bravely hoped that his slogan could somehow work in practice. The past five months have seen mass protests, as well as now increasing violence, weekend after weekend. Yet neither the unelected Hong Kong government, nor the likewise unelected government in Beijing have so much as met with the protesters or discussed their grievances. The fact of this inaction is of great importance to understanding China’s prospects.
Were such a crisis to begin in a democratic country, one may be certain that the chief executive would go to the place immediately, convene a conference on the spot of all concerned parties, and start intense negotiations until a way forward was found. In China no communication with the protesters seems to exist, and very little between Hong Kong’s communist officials and Beijing. Nor do we see any sign of understanding that only difficult talks and concessions will even calm the situation. As mentioned, the death of Chow has made the exit close to impossible. A tear gassing may be eventually forgotten. The anger over the death of an innocent never subsides. How have we reached this pass?
China’s President Xi Jinping (1953-), poorly educated, untravelled, for whom Pinyin Romanization must be supplied in speeches as many characters are too difficult for him, has reversed Deng’s ever-so-slightly liberal policies in order to create an absolute dictatorship, using the most modern surveillance technology, more systematically oppressive than any other in Chinese history.
But as the greatest Chinese intellectual of the last century Hu Shih (1891-1962) pointed out already in the 1920s, China is by nature cohesive, but paradoxically, attempts to standardise, to organise, to homogenise, above all to impose centralised rule on this near European-sized and infinitely varied entity, lead to fissures and fractures caused by the pressure of that attempt.
Had Xi done nothing to make Hong Kong more “secure” Chow would not now be a martyr. If he had permitted voting for leadership, as all but promised, marchers would go to the polls on election days. Weekends would be calm. Xi turned up the pressure, seeking control, but as Dr Hu predicted, the result was to break a system that might have worked, while creating unappeasable grievances.
For Beijing, which expects itself to order and others to obey, concessions are unthinkable. They are also indispensable. The Chinese government’s problem is: how, without making any concessions, do we make enough concessions genuinely to win back the people of Hong Kong? Facing this challenge, is it surprising that Beijing has done nothing, hoping that somehow, if ignored, it will all go away? (The bloodbath scenario, occasionally mentioned menacingly, can almost certainly be accorded low possibility. It would not work, most likely, while only sons, who comprise much of the PLA, coming home in body bags would bring destabilising protest.) So Xi, or perhaps we should say more accurately the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China, has reached its limit: a problem it cannot solve and not the only one.
For this reason Mr Chow’s “martyrdom” has deep implications for China’s future. When in the 1980s the USSR reached its limit, a new system of rule, including greatly increased freedom and elections, was introduced that while scarcely a resounding success measured against Poland or the Czech Republic, is far superior to the Soviet system. (This author first visited the USSR in 1967 as a schoolboy, knows the language, and has returned many times, most recently to now Russia three years ago.)
In the West one hears of the “collapse” of the USSR. This is deeply misleading. What happened is that the operating system of the country, communism, was recognised by nearly all as dysfunctional, the product of a long previous process of “dis-integration.” In Russia it is understood that everything was still there after the Red Flag had come down for the last time from the Spasskaya Tower of the Kremlin on 25 December 1991. Only the Constitution and practice of politics had to change. So in Russian what in the West is wrongly called “collapse” is in Russian напад or распад (napad, raspad), and in Chinese 解題 jieti. Here these locutions convey the idea that what had once been a simple system integrated by a dictator had become too complex for the problems it faced, with highly educated populations well-nigh impossible to manipulate. It just didn’t work. It was coming apart.
Arguably, the Chinese Communist government is now reaching that point. Hong Kong, of course, is an object lesson not only in failed policy, the product of too weak a brain in too big a country, but also of failed execution. It is not alone. We learn now that the design of the Three Gorges Dam is fundamentally flawed, a point made to this author by several Chinese experts who, like the Ancient Mariner, simply compelled him to hear their alarming reports. Water supply is totally mismanaged. The heroic diversion of often toxically polluted water from south to north has only spread the problem. Building and land use are chaotic. Corruption is ubiquitous within the party and society, Ferraris not uncommon in the cities, even while hundreds of millions remain poor. In China, if one earns the equivalent of $1.90 per day, one is not considered poor. No wonder some imagine China has overcome poverty.
The components of the system do not operate as one coherent machine. Rather gears fail to mesh, parts inexplicably fall off, instructions are contradictory, results unsatisfactory. To this author, this is disintegration, raspad, jieti. June of this year was thus a turning point in China. That was when the problem of the disintegration of the already limited unity of the population became inescapable.
This is a human and political problem and for that reason more pressing for the political class, as it cannot be solved by engineering. Some in the leadership know this. Much of what is written above is drawn from private conversations, not with high officials, but with what might be called their brains-trusters.
Not China, one of the world’s greatest civilizations, but her current outmoded system of government, is approaching its end. Its failures are too many, from foreign policy, scarcely understood except in some elite circles, to poisonous air pollution, which even an illiterate can identify. The commonest question posed to this author by the brains-trusters was, “what the hell do we do?” Transition without collapse or internal conflict is difficult; effectively unknown in China. Finding the right sequence of measures is immensely difficult intellectually, and not made easier by the cossetted, propagandized, and isolated world, absolutely distinct to the actually existing China, that the leadership inhabits, nourishing their illusions. Potentially change could lead to internal conflict.
Many Western authors gush about “China’s rise” much as an earlier generation did about the Soviet Union. That is not going to happen, at least not under the current system. As with 25 December marked the end in the USSR, chances are that in retrospect we will date the beginning of whatever China becomes to June and November in Hong Kong.
Arthur Waldron is Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania.