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A hard lesson for China’s soft power

Progress for rights

An election in Hong Kong shows how much Beijing must improve on being a power known for attractive ideals, not its coercion of others.

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    Supporters of Nathan Law of the political party Demosisto celebrate after Law won the legislative council election in Hong Kong. A new wave of anti-China activists appeared headed for victory in Hong Kong's most pivotal elections since the handover from Britain in 1997, which could set the stage for a fresh round of political confrontations over Beijing's control of the city.
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Without free elections in mainland China, it is difficult to know whether its people prefer the values of the Communist Party’s self-appointed leaders. Not so in Hong Kong. While an official part of China, the coastal city of 7 million is partially democratic, a result of the 1997 handover of the former colony by Britain. On Sept. 4, an election there served as an insight on the Party’s efforts to have China become known more for its attractive qualities – or “soft power” – than its use of coercive force.

The election of a new Hong Kong legislature showed that Beijing has work to do if it wants support in the world for its type of leadership. In a record turnout, voters not only picked candidates who favor full democratic rights but also some who seek either independence or long-term autonomy for the territory. The election outcome was such a shock to the Party that official Chinese media was largely barred from reporting on it.

The voter rebellion came after a series of missteps by Beijing since 2012 to suppress freedoms in Hong Kong and to tighten control over the local government. It also came soon after a similar rejection of China’s forceful behavior by Taiwan, which China considers its own territory. In January, voters on the island nation elected a president who has leaned toward declaring formal independence for Taiwan.

In recent years, China has done much to win friends in the region and elsewhere. It set up an Asian development bank. It plans a modern “Silk Road” of transport links for trade. It exports Chinese culture and language through its Confucius Institutes. And it hosted the latest G-20 summit of large economies.

Closer to home, however, its attempt to project soft power has lacked moral authority. Hong Kong and Taiwan prefer respect for individual rights, rule of law, and multi-party governance. With the freedom to vote, they reject Beijing’s increasing crackdown on basic freedoms on the mainland and its attempts to influence their own governments.

In both Taiwan and Hong Kong, young people have been the strongest leaders in recent protests for civil liberties and in keeping China at a distance. In Hong Kong’s election, Nathan Law at age 23 became the territory’s youngest legislator ever. He was a leader of the mass “Umbrella Movement” pro-democracy rallies of 2014.

In the digital age, young people are more attuned to global trends, such as the need for nations to compete by the attraction of their ideals rather than by force or by simply appealing to material self-interests. For Beijing, the Hong Kong election was an eye-opener on the task ahead.

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