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A little trouble in big China

I wonder if there could be more to this civil unrest in Hong Kong than at first meets the eye? I only say that because what started out as a ‘people power’ mass protest at proposed anti-subversion laws has caused not just the Hong Kong government to backpeddle furiously but it also appears to be tightening a few sphincters on the Chinese mainland as well:

In a sign of China’s deep concern about the situation, pro-Beijing politicians said a team of middle-ranking mainland officials had arrived in the territory to assess developments.

A BBC correspondent says the officials are reported to have been present at Wednesday night’s protest, which saw tens of thousands of people gather outside the territory’s legislative council.

No great leaps of imagination are required to here. The nabobs are going to be reporting back to the poobahs on just how deep this river of discontent runs and the poobahs are going to lose a few nights sleep worrying whether all this uppityness could spread to the mainland. Well, you never know.

On the face of it, it seems unlikely that this show of bolshiness in Hong Kong could threaten the regime in China itself if only because, to outsiders, the old commie apparatchicks appear to have the country in such an iron grip. But the truth is that all authoritarian regimes are shot through with insecurity. They know only too well that their power rests solely on their monopoly of and willingness to use lethal force. But if that force ever fails, even once, then the whole house of cards comes down. If the Chinese poobahs are to lay sweating in their beds at night it will surely be at least partly due to the stomach-churning prospect of having to send the tanks back out into Tiananmen Square. Last time it worked for them, next time it might not. That is why the odds always favour a rebellious polity. They only need to be lucky once but the governing regime has to be lucky all the time.

But this is all just wild speculation on my part. Maybe these protests will simply fizzle out and that will be that but I do think that there are some interesting parallels between China now and England under the reign of Elizabeth I. It is largely forgotten these days but, at the time when Shakespeare was scribbling his great works, England was in the vice-like grip of a puritan police-state which was happy to tolerate all manner of mercantile adventurism but would brook no internal dissent whatsoever to the ferociously Protestant Crown. She may have been known as ‘Good Queen Bess’ but Elizabeth’s security appartus seethed with paranoia and had no qualms whatsoever about visiting frenzied and spectacular violence upon anyone (mostly Catholics) who was even suspected of disloyalty.

Although the transition was far from straightforward (it took several upheavals, a civil war and a multi-digit body count) this state of religious totalitarianism did eventually give way to a most glorious liberal order under which Britain grew to be the wealthiest, most industrious and most powerful nation in the world. I am not saying that China will, or indeed can, go the same route but I am saying that there is precendent for the very good to emerge from the seemingly very bad.

I can also recall a radio interview I heard back in 1997 shortly after we formally handed control of Hong Kong back to the Chinese. The interviewee was a calcified old professor of Oriental Studies (whose name I could never remember) and, amidst all the brooding concern for the civil liberties of Hong Kong’s citizens, this learned old coot was bouytantly predicting that China would not change Hong Kong, rather Hong Kong will change China. I wonder if he will live long enough to be vindicated?

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13 comments to A little trouble in big China

  • A very thought provoking post.

    I wonder if the huge displacement of people that has been and will continue to be involved in the damning of the Yangtze that is only just now getting seriously underway, might not also turn out to be a de-stabilising factor?

  • Liberty Belle

    David – A very interesting post. I see what Martin Cole has said above, and he may have a point, I don’t know anything about that aspect. But the wealth of Hong Kong has spread across into Guandong Province big time – as in, the folks in “communist” Guandong now all have mobile phones and are driving Mercedes – many of them stolen to order from Hong Kong and Macao. I don’t know what the population of Guandong is, but it could be this factor that is worrying the poobahs. I said on another Samizdata thread that I had a feeling (based on nothing more than the knowledge that we all have – that of human nature) that capitalism might, about now, be seeping out around the edges of Guandong – as it seeped out of Hong Kong into Guandong. If that were the case, and the government was nervous – good news!

    If that is the case, we may see exhibitions of paranoi at the top table, leading who knows where? Like the Berlin Wall and the USSR, it could happen really quickly. One day everything under control; the next day … uh.

    The release of a billion energetic, clever, enterprising Chinese into the world’s economic scenario. As GWB said in another context: Bring it on!

  • GMat

    I live in China and the speculation regarding the danger of the HK protest spreading to the mainland is very much overblown. Why? The percentage of people on the mainland who have heard of these protests is very, very small. Remember, mainlanders have little ability to watch CNN or BBC, etc…

  • GMat

    I live in China and the speculation regarding the danger of the HK protest spreading to the mainland is very much overblown. Why? The percentage of people on the mainland who have heard of these protests is very, very small. Remember, mainlanders have little ability to watch CNN or BBC, etc…

  • Anno

    I think you’re dreaming if you think the laws the government failed to pass this year won’t ever be passed. A little of them will be passed this year, a bit more next year, and within three or four years Hong Kong’s laws will be the same vile ones as in China.

    What China couldn’t accomplish quickly in one law, it will accomplish slowly with several.

  • GMat,

    Well at least people in China can read the Samizdata – as you have just established!

  • Karl

    I’m also currently live in China (Beijing to be precise) and while it is impossible to generalize about anything in China, I have to say that most city residents wouldn’t think another Tiananmen-style protest was worth it. The countryside is another matter entirely, but the cities and the people in them are doing so well now that most people would rather spend their energy looking for a better job than protesting in the street.

    The experience of most of the younger generation with their government is not all that dissimilar to my experiences with the US DMV. It’s annoying, staffed by fools, but I only deal with it once every 5 years or so, so why risk my neck or treasure fighting the thing. The Chinese government is generally so overwhelmed here that the government, so long as you don’t publish anything against it, leaves people alone. In short there isn’t a large crop of young, angry activists in the cities who feel sufficiently motivated to stick their necks out. If you don’t have political aspirations here you fly under the radar and can get on with life quite nicely, which a very large percentage of city residents seem happy to do.

    The countryside is a different matter, but I couldn’t begin to claim that I understand their motivations. Things there are bad and not likely to get better for the 700 or so million people living outside of the biggest cities. What they’re prepared to do about their situation though, I have no idea. But I can tell you that they have no idea what is going on in Hong Kong.

  • Phil Bradley

    Don’t under-estimate the influence of the Internet in spreading information in China. There are perhaps a 100 million people who access it regularly and Chinese language Internet sites outnumber those of any other language except english.

    The censors in Beijing may be busy cutting pictures and articles out of western publications, but censoring the Internet is a hugely more difficult task, and impossible at the point of the recipient (surfer).

  • very interesting, thanks

  • GMat

    David and Phil,

    I agree that Internet is important, unfortunately however Chinese nationals tend to utilize Chinese websites/sources and the information tends to be…. a little different than what we read.

    Canadian expat and fan of Samizdata

  • Dishman

    My experience in Guangdong is similiar to Karl’s in Beijing.
    The people I spoke to there want democracy.. some day. Essentially, they said forcing a change in government wasn’t worth upsetting the economy.
    The government will likely be able to retain power as long as the perceived cost of leaving it in place is less than the perceived cost of tossing it.
    Cost, is, of course, more than strictly economic.

  • GMat,

    Many thanks for your comments which carry particular weight in view of your residence in China.

    China is changing but slowly. Or so it seems. Maybe that is the way the people like it. My article was mere idle speculation.