Even as China celebrated the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule on Oct. 1, with a massive military parade and President Xi Jinping declaring “no force can shake the status of our great motherland,” the demands for greater freedom and democracy that could one day bring an end to one-party rule on the mainland were once again on display in Hong Kong.
Tragically, that same day, in perhaps the worst escalation of violence since pro-democracy protests began in Hong Kong four months ago, police fired a live round at an 18-year-old protester from point-blank range. The protester survived, only to be charged with two counts of assaulting a police officer and rioting.
Since then, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has invoked controversial emergency powers to ban protesters from wearing face masks, a move protesters are calling unconstitutional. If you’re wondering why so many choose to wear a mask, it’s a defense against Beijing’s increasingly ubiquitous facial-recognition technology, used on the mainland and in other troubled regions like Xinjiang to identify, apprehend and often hold without due process anyone who dares to challenge the regime’s authority.
And that’s just the beginning. Straight from the pages of a dystopian novel, the regime plans to implement a national “social credit” system by 2020 that would monitor everything from online activity to jumping subway turnstiles and assign everyone in the country a rating on how well they behave. All this is necessary, the regime believes, to maintain order and central-government control without allowing for more direct representation and competing voices through a multiparty system.
This helps explain why what began as spontaneous protests against a bill that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China grew into a mass movement calling for greater democratic freedoms — including universal suffrage — promised under the “one country, two systems” framework agreed to before the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule.
That Beijing’s celebration of 70 years of Communist Party rule was largely overshadowed by the violence in Hong Kong, where many fear a Tiananmen Square-like crackdown, reflects the deep fissures in Chinese society, not only in Hong Kong but also on the mainland, and underscores the inherent instability of one-party Communist rule. As we saw with the Soviet Union, social, political, and economic repression are a weak foundation for a superpower’s strength.
Since 1949, China has managed to maintain one-party rule largely because of Deng Xiaoping’s market-based reforms that began in the late 1970s and led to an explosion of wealth and the second-largest economy in the world. But at what cost? The Communist Party under Mao Zedong murdered and imprisoned tens of millions of people during the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and otherwise made itself into a dictatorial center of gravity that pulled a portion of Asia toward tyranny.
Now, once again, the Communist leadership is finding that its future hinges on whether it liberalizes. China has, of course, experienced remarkable economic growth over the past few decades. But much of that is what economists call “catch-up” growth. It grew by using existing technology and management techniques to catch up to the developed world. Now those gains are running out. China needs to innovate to survive and reform or privatize its debt-ridden “zombie” state-owned enterprises, which account for more than a third of public investment.
We don’t support a trade war, but China is in a much weaker position than people realize and the civilized world should press it on human rights and economic liberty. As the economy slows, hardships will increase and calls for political and social reform will rightly increase on the mainland.
The growing unrest in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the Middle Kingdom casts into sharp relief the price of tyranny. The role for the United States is to press China to respect its citizens’ human rights — whether they be in Hong Kong, Beijing or Xinjiang — and allow for meaningful, multiparty elections.
Unfortunately, as reported last week, President Trump told President Xi in June that he would remain quiet on Hong Kong protests as trade talks progressed, thus needlessly betraying a long tradition of using the power of the presidency to bend the arc of history toward freedom.
For these reasons, Congress should pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and send it to the president for his signature. This is a pivotal point in our relationship with China, and it’s critical to have allies and a values-based approach in dealing with the regime in Beijing and its satellites.