Why did Beijing make the decision that they did? I would start by saying that I don’t know. There might only be a few dozen people in the world who actually understand the full strategy, thinking, assumptions, and rationales behind Xi’s moves. For instance, there is the specter that this was a mistake, a misunderstanding, or simply a dumb move. Secretive autocratic regimes are often assumed to have more agency, forethought, and Machiavellian schemes than transparent democratic regimes. Poorly reviewed decisions by Obama or Cameron are often read as being dumb and naive, while almost anything Xi and Putin does is said to be the work of evil geniuses. This is not necessarily the case. Nonetheless, it it worth teasing out what the logics of power are that might be in play
Don’t Be Gorby?
One prevailing argument is that the Hong Kong election decision was based on a logic that might be called “Anti-Gorbachev.” This thinking has it that any serious attempt at democratic reforms in autocratic states quickly leads to full-scale collapse. Gorbachev loosened his grip on the Soviet bloc, the USSR disintegrated, the Russian economy collapsed, and some members of the Warsaw Pact even joined NATO. In its shortest incarnation, it is considered a realpolitik fear of all things democratic and open.
Domestically, glasnost and perestroika let the proverbial cat out of the bag. Rather than reforming the Communist Party, it killed it. This is compelling theory when trying to understand mainland Chinese media and civil society restrictions. One can draw an arrow, as I did in my 2008 study in Sichuan, on how letting even benign independent NGOs act as proxies for a civil society threatens the CCP’s monopoly on political organization.
But this analysis fails when applied to Hong Kong, for a number of reasons. To begin with, even full democracy in Hong Kong would never lead to a situation analogous to Poland joining NATO. The Chinese have full autonomy over the foreign affairs of Hong Kong. No Chief Executive is even in the position of asking the PLA to leave. He or she might quibble over basing arrangements – Admiralty, after all, is a terrible location for a garrison in 2014 – but the SAR will always be PLA airspace if the Basic Law is in-tact, our waters will always patrolled the PLA Navy.
Nor could a democratically elected Chief Executive declare the SAR to be an independent nation. For this, they would face arrest for treason. No matter how they came to office, they would have sworn an oath of office to: ….
… uphold the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, bear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China and serve the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region conscientiously, dutifully, in full accordance with the law, honestly and with integrity, and be held accountable to the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Attention then turns domestically. Would allowing Hong Kong real democracy be the equivalent of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost? Would Beijing be conceding that democracy is the ‘right way’ for some Chinese, but not for others? The issue is nuanced and complex, but I think the answer is similarly no. Hong Kong’s long history of glasnost has had little impact in the mainland, so there’s no reason a little perestroika would have different impact.
On Chinese Firewalls
Chinese leaders have historically liked firewalls. We often read the history of Shenzhen and other Special Economic Zones as being a place where a policy was experimented with in a closed space with the intention of later policy copying. That’s a teleological reading. For the first half of its history, the Shenzhen SEZ was surrounded by a 20 foot fence. It was walled off from China. Though enforcement lagged with time, Chinese originally needed special permits to live and work in Shenzhen.
“One Country, Two Systems” is often read the same way, but the purpose was not just to firewall Hong Kong from China, but to firewall China from Hong Kong. Overwhelmingly, it has worked. Hong Kong’s rule of law has not seeped across the border. Shenzhen leaders, in fact, even backed down from an idea to make the new Qianhai district a place to trial Hong Kong law in the mainland.
Nor has Hong Kong’s press freedoms trickled into the mainland in any meaningful way. Try finding a copy of the South China Morning Post in Shenzhen. Nor have Hong Kong politics seeped into the mainland in any meaningful way. I had a hometown friend living in Shenzhen during the massive 2003 protests against Article 24. She was, by large, oblivious to what was going on just a 30 kilometers away. One would struggle to find anyone in Shenzhen with any nuanced view of any political issue in Hong Kong. They simply lack exposure.
Which leads to the case that allowing Hong Kong the right to democratically elect a Chief Executive would have almost no impact in the mainland. What we’re left with then is a Chief Executive who simply doesn’t have the power to challenge Beijing in strategically important ways. We see an effective firewall that meant that what’s local and special to Hong Kong stays local. The is no defensible realpolitik case to be made against Hong Kong democratization in so much as it relates to the CCP’s survivability in the mainland. It simply doesn’t apply in this case. I argue in the next post that ‘anti-Humiliation‘ is probably a better fit.