Under “core” leader Xi Jinping, says scholar Minxin Pei, China is now “gripped by fear in a way it has not been since the era of Mao Zedong.” Dr. Pei cites the government’s heavy crackdown since 2012 on human rights activists, corrupt officials, intellectuals, and even investors. While it is easy for the world to bemoan the fears of the Chinese Communist Party for its very survival, the question is how to react. Should China’s rulers be punished or persuaded to change course?
The dilemma is acutely felt in Hong Kong, the former British colony whose autonomy and freedoms were guaranteed for 50 years after it was handed over to China in 1997. Its 7 million people are in an intense debate on how to deal with the Communist Party’s fear-based repression. They are part of China yet still free to talk with freedom. They could be a model for how to better engage Beijing.
As the party’s crackdown has escalated on the mainland, Hong Kong has experienced more heavy-handedness from China or by the territory’s Beijing-approved officials. The older pro-democracy advocates have been at a loss, which has frustrated young people who feel little cultural affinity with the mainland and resent a flood of mainlanders into Hong Kong. In 2014, mass demonstrations by a nonviolent youth movement to win full democracy were suppressed with force. Then a more radical group, called Hong Kong Indigenous, began to gain strength.
Resentments finally boiled over on Feb. 8, the start of the Lunar New Year. Hong Kong officials tried to close down illegal street vendors selling fish balls and other local food, sparking protests. The official action was seen as suppression of Hong Kong’s culture. Food stalls are an expression of the city’s free-market and egalitarian traditions. Police fired warning shots, and the Indigenous group joined the vendors.
In the end, more than 90 police officers were injured and 54 people were arrested. The incident has made the debate in Hong Kong even more urgent.
In a recent forum, Margaret Ng, a barrister and former legislator in Hong Kong, explained that the people of Hong Kong must know when to compromise and when to stand on principle. She says rule of law is one of those principles that cannot be compromised, especially as the Communist Party puts itself above law. “Because if you compromise on the rule of law, you compromise the future of the Chinese people, and not just the future of the people of Hong Kong,” she said.
“We need to exercise a lot of patience and understanding. But the future does not lie in compromising our principles. Because this is really the future, not only of Hong Kong, not only with China, but the whole world – we believe in the rule of law not because it’s a Western value, but because it is universal.”
These are wise words for a small place dealing with a fearful giant next door. Instead of resorting to violence, China and Hong Kong need more level-headed listening. And as China flexes its muscles in front of the world, more eyes should be on how Hong Kongers find the best path to keep their freedoms.