With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

China Needs to Change Strategy After Hong Kong Elections

There is no mistaking that the Hongkongers’ overwhelming vote on 24 November was a clear and unequivocal rejecting of Beijing and its appointed government in Hong Kong. They voted for greater democracy, including free municipal elections, personal political liberties and the rule of law. It was a rejection of political abuse and repression, and an irrefutable popular endorsement of the demands of the protesters, if not their violent tactics.

Beijing can try to dismiss or downplay the results. Of the 3 million votes cast in these municipal elections, pro-democracy candidates garnered 1.7 million votes. By any calculation, this is a clear majority. Beijing can try to dismiss or downplay these results. The Chinese Communist Party’s media mouthpiece can hyperventilate about ‘foreign interference’ by protesters and mythical voting irregularities. And the humiliated pro-China parties here, seeing their ranks on the local councils decimated, can try to split mathematical hairs, arguing, for example, that the pro-democracy ‘only’ won 60 % of the vote—as if a 71.2% turnout amounts to anything other than an electoral landslide.

But putting the spin aside, there is no mistaking that the pro-China bloc in Hong Kong took a pasting of incredible proportions. The only question remaining is how communist rulers and their minions running Hong Kong will respond to this expressed will of the true silent majority. The options are either reform or further repression.

For many who know China and its rulers, the clear answer is repression. They recall the brutal crackdown of June 4, 1989, when troops of the People’s Liberation Army brutally crushed the last major pro-democracy uprising by massacring hundreds, if not thousands, of young protesters and other Chinese citizens who were supporting the protesters who had occupied Tiananmen Square. The Tiananmen massacre, which Beijing has tried to erase from the collective consciousness ever since, stands as a testament to how far a tyrannical autocratic regime will go to stay in power. But another, more recent event in China presents a parallel option, indicating that when faced with a challenge to its authority, China’s rulers can also be adroit at accommodation and compromise to lesson a crisis. Instead of Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, there is the example of Wuhan in 2011.

Wuhan is a small fishing village in southern Guangdong Province. There, in late 2011, villagers fed up over the seizure of their land, revolted. They forced communist party officials and police out of the village, and took control of the local government.

Rather than move in with force to crush the village uprising, the central government eventually sent in the provincial party secretary of Guangdong, Wang Yang, who was seen at the time as a leading economic reformer. Wang made an important concession to resolve the weeks-long uprising. This included freezing some of the land deals at the heart of the dispute, releasing jailed prisoners from custody and firing some obstructing local officials.

This was a recurring pattern. For example, when faced with a series of labor strikes in 2010 and 2011, Chinese authorities responded first with the police, sparking violent clashes, but eventually urged local provinces to raise the minimum wage.

In 2009, a 19-year-old man named Sun Zhongjie, working as a driver for a construction company, was fined for operating an ‘illegal taxi’ after picking up a man who flagged him down on the road. The Shanghai traffic police were operating a sting operation against suspected motorists. Sun was fined the equivalent of $2000.00 and fired from his job. He made a dramatic public declaration of his innocence by chopping off his little finger. After Sun’s case sparked an uproar on social media, he won his case and didn’t have to pay the fine. Hundreds of other drivers, who had been caught in this scheme, received refunds. This was certainly a shift in strategy from that employed by the ‘Great Helmsman’ Mao Zedong.

Today, Chinese rulers have become more skillful at monitoring public opinion. They employ a vast network of monitoring centers at universities and state-run news agencies. They follow all the trending discussions online trying to direct local officials to defuse potential crises before they start. More recently, the rulers in Beijing have put in place ‘facial recognition’ and ‘social credits’ to more extensively monitor the Chinese people. There is now and ‘Orwellian tinge’ pervading Chinese society.

Of course, this situation comes from the top down. There are major differences between the situation in China now and even a few years ago. President Xi Jinping, who has eliminated term limits, effectively allowing him to rule for life, seems far less interested in compromise and concessions than his predecessor Hu Jintao. As seen by his actions in Xinjiang with the internment of a million Uyghurs in concentration camps with the Orwellian name ‘education centers.’ Xi seems more interested in ruling through power and fear than negotiations. In some ways, he is a throwback to the suppression tactics and ‘personality cult’ of Mao Zedong.

Also, since the relatively open 2010-2013 period, Beijing’s stifling of the internet has been nearly complete. Weibo, once a freewheeling platform for debate, is a shell of its former self. Online dissent can be more quickly suppressed. The media is more strictly controlled than ever. Even virtual private networks used to bypass the censors are more difficult to use.

But that crackdown on the internet and the media breeds its own problems for Chinese leadership—like leaving them ignorant of the depth of popular discontent in Hong Kong.

There has been some informed speculation that China’s leaders, and particularly XI, were unpleasantly surprised by the results of the Hong Kong vote and the overwhelming defeat of the pro-China supporters. One thing that has become certain over the years is that China’s leaders do not want to be surprised. For example, they were surprised by the Falun Gong spiritual movement in in 1999. It staged a sit in outside the Chinese Communist Party compound. To prevent its members from coming to Beijing to protest, city and provincial leaders resorted to brutal methods, including torture and murder, to crush Falun Gong at its grass roots. 

With the depth of dissatisfaction in Hong Kong now made patently clear at the ballot box, China and Xi now face a difficult choice. Will it double down on repression or listen to the people and choose a new course that will require some compromise?

The outlines of this compromise have been known for months. Hapless Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and her incompetent cabinet and advisors must resign. An independent commission must be empowered to investigate the violence and excessive force used by Hong Kong police against the protesters. A ‘truth commission’ must investigate the causes of the unrest and offer amnesty for any protesters who didn’t injure anyone or cause serious property damage—and that would mean releasing most of the thousands arrested on ‘rioting’ charges.

And finally, Beijing needs to respond to the people’s clear aspirations for autonomy by announcing a relaunch of the long stalled political reform process, with a promise to eventually allow all Hongkongers’ to vote for their leaders.

Whether Beijing will opt for the reform path remains to be seen. Like with the changes to the opening and reform policy in 1978, China’s communist leaders have shown they can adroitly shift positions and adapt when they need to. And in Hong Kong right now, shifting and adapting is what they clearly need to do.