CHINA: THE IMPOSSIBLE REVOLUTION: PART 3: Beijing's great Hong Kong experiment

2006-03-09Asia Times

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BEIJING - There is a time for peace and a time for war, a time for talks and one for struggle, a time for stability and another for revolution. As of now, it is not the time for revolution in China, but it could still hit the country.

Certainly, nobody knows for sure when it might happen, but also certainly, in the next decade or so we will enter a risky time for revolutions.

The key for determining whether there will be revolution or peace, between a bloody crackdown and a smooth transition, is not only in Beijing but also in Hong Kong with its lively political debate.

But first we have to take a step back.

A conference organized by the People's Daily and the Society for Strategy and Management and held in Beijing on February 17-18 claimed that in 15 or 20 years, more than 50% of the Chinese population will live in cities. By that time urban people might make up 70% of the total population. Chinese scholars such as Wang Jian of the Commission of Development and Reform believe that currently some 40% of the population live in the cities, some 30% if we consider only the ones with a residence permit.

And revolutions notoriously start in the cities; from the countryside come only peasants' uprisings. The model of Western revolution starts from organizing disgruntled workers, the "proletariat" in Marxist jargon, in the cities. As cities are the center of an urbanized country, once the workers conquer the main city, or cities, they have control of the state and have won the revolution.

Mao Zedong's "revolution" was actually a traditional Chinese peasant uprising, endorsed by the Communist Party only when the Western-style revolution failed in Shanghai in 1927. Mao's strategy was the correct one for the time. Too few people then lived in cities for a revolution of the Western model; China was a peasant society, and so the government could be toppled only in the traditional Chinese manner, through a long, tough and opportunistic partisan war. And that is what Mao did successfully after the Western revolution model, which had been successful in Paris in 1789 and in Moscow in 1917, had failed in Shanghai. The Chinese communists had to organize disgruntled peasants for a protracted confrontation that would besiege and stifle the cities and take them from outside, since they could not be taken from within.

The communists knew then and still know now how to handle, and suppress, the peasants. This capability allows the party to emasculate small uprisings at their beginning. Many uprisings in small counties count for nothing as they are not locally organized, and they have no nationwide organization and no broad political goal. Thus they can be nipped in the bud by spreading some money around and arresting the ringleaders.

But cities are different. There, social differences become stark, and organizing opposition becomes easier, as people are more concentrated and more difficult to manage and control by the authorities. Clashes can then become bigger, and more money has to be spent buying off demonstrators and more "ringleaders" must be arrested.

In other words, as China becomes really urbanized, real revolution could become easier. Yet it is unthinkable to stop urbanization, as it is a byproduct of economic development. At the same time, there is a large consensus in the Chinese government that the country needs a strong hand to continue its economic development program, and that a leap toward democracy would result in insufficient authority to push this development ahead.

But once the time is right, democratic reforms could be the best antidote against revolution.

From observing how development has progressed elsewhere, it appears that democracy begins to be a practicable option once a country's per capita gross domestic product (GDP) reaches US$3,000-$5,000. Analysts have said that in Taiwan and South Korea, democracy finally arrived when GDP per capita was touching $10,000.

In about 15-20 years the Chinese GDP could have quadrupled and become larger than Japan's. By then, Chinese scholars believe, friction with Japan could have been reduced as Tokyo will have recognized the larger Chinese role in Asia.

By that analysis, then, at least 15 more years are needed for democracy to be considered for China, with per capita GDP at about $3,000.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) envisages an orderly transition to democracy, guided by the party. While the minimum time frame for the change is 15 years, there is also a maximum time frame, placing the transition around mid-century. In 2047 Hong Kong fully returns to "Chinese sovereignty" under the 50-year clause in the Sino-British agreement that returned the former colony to China in 1997, and it is highly probable that Beijing will adapt to Hong Kong's political system, not the other way around.

Furthermore, Taiwan has to return to the motherland. But the island is an entirely democratic territory and there is no possibility for the return of an authoritarian regime there. Therefore Taiwan's integration must coincide with the democratic transformation of the mainland. Beijing will not accept this as a prerequisite for talks on reunification, but it is clear that an authoritarian mainland will have problems uniting with a democratic Taiwan. On the other hand, imposing an authoritarian regime on Taiwan would stir up huge problems on the island, in the world and also on the mainland.

With all these conditions there remains a problem: how to move to democracy without causing grave social and political unrest that will stop economic growth and risk splitting the country. Nobody knows for sure, and the Chinese are reluctant to test grand theories without track records. Hong Kong, therefore, can serve as a laboratory.

Beijing would like to experiment with:
A series of progressive reforms to enlarge gradually the number of people directly elected through popular vote.

Retaining a measure of "noble votes", certain people who are not elected through direct voting. This could control the potential demagoguery rising from direct election, and also could help to keep the CCP in overall control of the situation.

If the experiment proceeds with success in Hong Kong, it could be expanded elsewhere in the country; if not, then corrections could be introduced and the process slowed down.

For now, it is not proceeding as expected because in Hong Kong many want to push ahead the timetable of "Beijing's experiment" and attain full-fledged democracy while Beijing is still unprepared. Full democracy in Hong Kong could bring in local rulers opposed to Beijing's politics, and this could create much friction between the government in Hong Kong and that in Beijing. In that case Hong Kong could become a fifth column of political destabilization in China, something Beijing could not tolerate. Therefore Beijing will try to avoid a hostile government in Hong Kong to prevent things from spinning out of control.

Things should proceed as Beijing plans, not as Hong Kong plans. Hong Kong, according to Beijing, will be consulted, its opinions will be taken into account, but Hong Kong people must understand it is not only the destiny of their territory at stake, it is the economic development and the political transition of the whole of China.

Furthermore, Beijing fears three demagogic trends that could take hold of mainland public opinion and could be kindled by political confrontation in Hong Kong. The main ones are the following:
Nationalism pushed by strong anti-Japanese tensions. These could evolve into anti-Western and xenophobic trends.
Religious cults by pseudo-Christian sects spreading in the countryside and the cities, and pseudo-magical-Buddhist ones like Falungong.
Local power centers affiliated or organized as triads, which could piggyback on the first two trends.

These trends could bloom on the mainland under two conditions that could create tension and social unrest:
A slowdown of economic growth creating unemployment and a whole group of strongly discontented people, which could become a mass movement for rebellion and revolution.
A fast urbanization process with growing social disparities and dwindling opportunities for new businesses or jobs. Rapid urbanization, as we said, will occur in the next 15-20 years; the question is whether this will take place in better or worse conditions than now exist.

In the cities, social and political tensions are stronger and more difficult to control than in the countryside. In the countryside the unemployed can grow food in the back yard as a sustainable good, while in the city the unemployed starve.

Furthermore, in 15-20 years there could be another population crisis. Under China's one-child law, single offspring resulting from that law are allowed to have two children of their own, and 15 or 20 years from now such people will be in their 30s or 40s and doing just that. And such couples will find themselves having to support all four of their elderly parents, plus two children. Two salaries, then, will have to be enough for eight people.

Alternatively, pensions will have to be provided for the elderly to take the burden off the young families. But such pensions at that time would have to be the result of wise insurance investments now, and so far Chinese insurance schemes have not been very effective in that regard. Therefore social security of some kind will have to step in to take care of the unemployed, as well as education for the greater number of children, as well as health care for the greater number of elderly.

Add to all this the likelihood that by that time China will be an even larger importer of oil than it is today, thus creating economic and geopolitical tensions with other countries and forcing Beijing to have a higher profile in the Middle East quagmire, something that has brought glory to nobody. To top it all there could be the international pressures of many groups with an interest in the slowdown of Chinese growth or even the breakdown of the country, though of course it is impossible to predict this with any accuracy 15-20 years hence.

So far, social instability and democratic pressure are not pressing issues in China, but in 15-20 years they could become so. By then, one can also expect a real slowdown in economic development. By that time Chinese GDP might have peaked as the second-largest in the world after the United States', with a size 50-100% of US GDP (this will depend on the revaluation of the yuan against the US dollar and the relative speed of economic growth in the US and in China).

Besides economic measures, such as providing opportunities for personal betterment and a more equal distribution of welfare, political reforms could be a way to avert political crisis, by providing Chinese people a channel to express dissatisfaction and move ahead the agenda of their particular interest groups. Freedom to express one's political views preempts the need to force one's political agenda into a confrontation with authorities who do not want to listen.

In a nutshell, political reforms are the best way to guard against political revolution. They could turn out to be a cheap way to cheat those who want radical changes, ie, revolution. The pace and the scope of these future changes in China are being prepared now and are being experimented with in Hong Kong.

In this way, the importance of Hong Kong is coming back: it is a bridge to the future of China. If the political transition in Hong Kong has no problems, or only minor ones, then the political transition in China might also be reasonably problem-free. But if in Hong Kong there are major difficulties, Beijing will get the idea that democratic reforms in mainland China could create big trouble. In the first case Beijing could start applying political reforms on the mainland readily; in the second case, it could slow down or even shelve the process.

People in Hong Kong and the local political forces, then, hold an important key for the future of China. Their daily political struggles are not only about the local constitution, but about the political future of Greater China. So the issue is, what future do Hong Kong people want for China, and how do they want to achieve it? (2006-03-09 Asia Times)


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