China marked 70 years of Communist Party rule on Tuesday with quite a display of state firepower. The focus was supposed to be a parade in Beijing that showcased to the world, for the first time, military weapons designed for offensive strikes. Instead, the world was focused more on Hong Kong. There, for the first time, police took a violent turn and shot a demonstrator as tens of thousands marched for freedom and democracy.
China had indeed warned the protesters of the “immense strength of the central government.” In fact, during the parade in Beijing, one guest of honor was Lau Chak-kei, a Hong Kong police sergeant who was photographed carrying a shotgun during a protest in July. He is touted as a Chinese hero.
From shotguns to new hypersonic missiles, China has decided to show that its state power rests mainly on its firepower. This is quite a shift from seeking other forms of legitimacy, such as increased prosperity. It hints at a party fearful of losing support, both at home and abroad, to maintain its sole right to rule. To its credit, China has not used violent force outside its borders since 1988, when it provoked a confrontation with Vietnam. For three decades its leaders have focused on adopting a semi-free market economy. Yet both the escalation of official violence in Hong Kong and the parade of offensive weapons reveal a new intolerant and raw assertiveness.
Some scholars within China have warned against a kind of statism that relies on violence. Even the father of post-imperial China, Sun Yat-sen, warned China not to develop “the cult of force” with weapons as the country’s outstanding feature. One Chinese historian, Xu Jilin, writes that China “has seen an unprecedented resurgence in nationalism and statism, with the potential for military conflicts to erupt at the drop of a hat.”
Mr. Xu suggests the party return to an ancient Chinese idea of tianxia, or a restraint on the powerful through the use of concepts such as equality in the treatment of others and a pluralism that tolerates social and ethnic differences. Such concepts have spiritual power, he states, at a time when “the noble spiritual basis of the past is gone.”
“China’s rise has made neighboring countries uneasy,” he wrote in a 2018 book. “They fear that the soul of the Chinese empire will be reborn in a different body.” He points to Europe’s attempt after the nationalist wars of the 20th century to create a union of states based on universal values. Such an “external order” of values exists beyond the sovereignty of the nation-state. It also exists beyond the power of weapons and helps define how a society should exist in peace.
This is the message that Hong Kong, along with Taiwan and China’s Uyghur minority, are trying to send to Beijing. The answer cannot be guns.