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?