The Hong Kong 'umbrella revolution' pokes at China's conscience

The Hong Kong protests are a plea for China to live up to a promised ideal of universal rights, and not ‘rob the common man of his purpose.'

Protesters listen as Joshua Wong (not pictured), leader of the pro-democracy student movement, speaks to the crowd in Hong Kong Oct. 1.

Despite his iron grip on a one-party state, Chinese leader Xi Jinping sometimes uses friendly persuasion rather than threats or punishment in his drive to create what he calls the “China Dream.” Just recently, for example, he spoke to cadres of the Communist Party and reminded them of this quote from Confucius: 

It’s easier to rob an army of its general than it is to rob a common man of his purpose.

It was perhaps to appeal to that persuasive side of Mr. Xi that tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong have gathered in peaceful protest – with one express and collective purpose of their own. The demonstrators are asking that Xi reverse a recent party decision that only it will choose the final candidates for a coming election of the city’s next leader.

They may have hoped that Xi would come to consider all the people of Hong Kong as possessing natural rights and civic equality, and thus be able to define their future through democratic means and universal suffrage – including open selection of candidates. 

The defining of a “China Dream,” in other words, would not be done through a top-down diktat by a ruling party with no electoral mandate. Rather the people, through polite persuasion and consensus-making, would create a “Chinese Dream,” rooted in the ideal of treating people with respect and dignity, not as inferior or dupes.

Like the Arab Spring protests of 2011 and Ukraine’s uprising in 2013 – or even the 1989 pro-democracy protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square – the demonstrations in Hong Kong (dubbed the “umbrella revolution”) have stood for the view that each person is fully endowed to join with others in ordering a free society through peaceful, civil means.

While Hong Kong has a special status within China, it also still acts as its main financial center and a conduit for foreign goods and ideas. In its agreement with Britain for the 1997 handover, Chinese leaders promised to keep a policy of “one country, two systems,” or allowing Hong Kong to be self-governed for 50 years. Now that promise is being broken, and puts in jeopardy Beijing’s reputation for upholding other agreements.

The world has a strong stake in Hong Kong’s crisis – and whether the most-populous nation will now move toward democracy. Despite the Communist Party’s rule since 1949, China has lurched from one vision to another, usually at the personal whim of each ruler. Xi, for example, has done away with the consensus-based model of politics of Deng Xiaoping. Deng upended Mao Zedong’s anti-capitalism vision. 

Without the legitimacy of electoral rule, today’s leaders in Beijing are faced with revolts over pollution, inequality, and, most of all, corruption. They lack the corrective mechanism of democracy. “If corruption cannot be effectively controlled, the people will eventually no longer recognize [the validity] of the ruling party,” stated a recent article in a party journal, Seeking Truth.

In another speech to the party, Xi once summed up the reason for the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. “Nobody came out to resist,” he said of the communist leaders.

He might well have added this: It is easier to topple a dictatorship than to rob the people of their common purpose.

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