Is Hong Kong China’s future?

HK protests. Stringer China/Reuters

The media spotlight has shifted away from Hong Kong and toward President Obama’s visit to Beijing, but students and activists remain in Admiralty and Mong Kok, and their demands for political change have not softened.

It seems highly unlikely that they will gain the specific goal they have set for themselves – a more open nominating process for the 2017 election of the region’s Chief Executive – but they might achieve something greater by reminding the rising urban Chinese middle class that human dignity is something more than material comfort, that it resides in an active and autonomous political life.

The forging of a distinct identity

There are, of course, significant social and cultural and political differences between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Hong Kong 2014 is not Beijing 1989. Indeed, it is precisely those differences that have generated a sense of a distinct “Hong Kong people” identity.

Since Hong Kong shifted, in 1997, from British colony to “Special Administrative Region” of the PRC, a significant portion of the population has grown more distrustful of the power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This suspicion has been produced, in large part, by actions taken by the Hong Kong government, whose Chief Executive is selected indirectly by Beijing.

In 2003, a massive demonstration swept across the supposedly apolitical city, when the Hong Kong government attempted, at the beck and call of Beijing, to promulgate an “anti-subversion law,” which would have eroded the civil liberties Hong Kong people had grown accustomed to. In the face of public pressure, the bill was tabled.

In 2012, once again Hong Kong people resisted the efforts of the CCP leadership to rein in freedom of expression and thought, this time in relation to a proposed “moral and national education” curriculum that the local government had attempted to impose on primary and secondary schools. And once again the government had to back down.

Thus, while there is certainly a cultural component to Hong Kong identity, and economic grievances also play a role in the current protests, it is clear that many people there embrace liberal political values as fundamental to their public life. Civil rights and freedoms are central to what it means to be a Hong Kong person.

Do not mention civil society

In that regard, Hong Kong people are similar to others in advanced industrial countries around the world, not just in Europe and North America, but also in East Asia. Although political liberalism can take a variety of forms, and give rise to an array of constitutional structures, its core values are reinforced by the dynamism of relatively open and prosperous economies.

And that is one thing that unnerves CCP leaders in Beijing when confronted by Hong Kong’s defense of civil liberties. The PRC has benefitted greatly these past four decades from the “reform and opening” of its economy. Its society and culture are changing at breakneck speed. In some regards, China could follow the democratizing path blazed by South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia. But the ruling Party works hard to limit the political implications of economic and social transformation.

“Peaceful evolution,” the idea that modernization will bring Westernization and the gradual transformation of the PRC into a liberal multi-party democracy, has been a target of CCP ideological struggle since the 1980s. The fall of the Soviet Union still haunts Beijing. Last year, the Party warned against the “seven do not mentions,” which include: “democracy, universal values, civil society, market liberalism, media independence, criticizing errors in the history of the Party (‘historical nihilism’), and questioning the policy of opening up and reforms and the socialist nature of the regime.”

All of those things are not only mentioned in Hong Kong, but most are practiced vigorously.

Single party rule vs. liberalization

So as the Party leadership in Beijing endeavors to maintain single party rule within an increasingly dynamic and individualizing society and economy on the mainland, Hong Kong activists publicly and dramatically demand greater political liberalization. This was not what Deng Xiaoping had envisioned as “one country, two systems.”

At its core the “umbrella movement” – so named for the use of umbrellas to ward off pepper spray and tear gas – seeks wider democracy in Hong Kong as a means of popular middle class representation against a political system dominated by tycoons and bureaucrats.

And that is something that could eventually inspire the emerging middle class in China. Political change of some sort is necessary. Growing inequality, continuing official corruption, violent struggles over land rights and other problems strain the existing authoritarian power structure.

Not too long ago, retiring Prime Minister Wen Jiabao called for “political reform” to avert economic stagnation and social breakdown.

Obviously, that is not happening now. President Xi Jinping is more of a power centralizer than a political reformer. And Hong Kong is not, for many PRC people, an appealing political model . Quite to the contrary, a steady stream of commentary in the controlled Chinese media portrays Hong Kong activists as spoiled children, ungrateful for the benefits bestowed upon them by a benevolent CCP leadership.

That could change, however. As economic growth slows in China, and social problems persist, well-educated yet unemployed and politically frustrated middle class youth there might look again at what their Hong Kong brethren have wrought.

In time, the Hong Kong umbrella might prove to be valuable when the political rain falls in Beijing.