With the unsurprising election of Beijing-backed candidate Carrie Lam as Hong Kong’s new chief executive on March 26, China’s President, Xi Jinping, can be assured once again that the Communist Party is firmly in control. While much ink has been spilt over the shameful denial of Hong Kongers’ human rights or the danger of unrest, commentators should remember Lam’s election is exactly what China’s leaders want. For Xi, the elections mean that one more potential distraction is removed, giving him a freer hand to look toward the future and the difficult work that lies ahead in restoring China as the dominate regional, and eventually world, power.
The view from the highest seat in the Politburo is quite different from that of Hong Kongers or foreign observers. For the Communist Party leadership, Hong Kong is a useful economic engine but also a recurring source of annoyance. Although some have thought that the region could serve as a laboratory for tinkering with political reform, most of the leadership in Beijing, especially Xi’s ruling faction, believes most political reforms are too risky and that stability must come first. Members of the ruling elite, steeped in China’s long and rich history, have also studied the rise and fall of other powers—especially the demise of their ideological forebear, the Soviet Union. The Politburo knows that China was traditionally East Asia’s greatest power and it is still working to become that power again. Xi himself has written an entire book on the importance of ensuring the future of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—a future that does not emulate Soviet collapse or submission to Western political thought.
Successive Chinese leaders have long maintained that political stability, i.e. continued one-party rule, is the necessary prerequisite from which all of China’s ambitions and hopes rest upon. The “one country, two systems” principle by which Hong Kong is governed is best understood as a part of that long-standing priority. That principle was agreed upon by the United Kingdom and the PRC when the region was transferred from the Crown to Beijing in 1997 and is enshrined in Hong Kong’s constitution and Chinese law. As laid out in a 2014 white paper, China has made it clear that “The continued practice of ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong requires that we proceed from the fundamental objectives of maintaining China’s sovereignty, security and development interests and maintaining the long-term stability and prosperity of Hong Kong.”
Carrie Lam may have been an unpopular and blundering candidate, but she was Beijing’s candidate nonetheless. The second candidate, Woo Kwok-hing, ran to restart election reform and so was frowned upon by the powers that be. The third candidate, John Tsang, was very charismatic and popular but tainted in the PRC’s eyes by his previous service under the last British governor of Hong Kong. China may allow Hong Kong a high degree of economic and press freedom, but ultimately the PRC is in control. Of 7.3 million people, only 1,194 election committee members are allowed to vote for the chief executive and those members are in turn elected by 250,000 other electors, all of whom have been vetted and approved by Beijing.
One might protest and say that China is secure enough and that it can afford to give Hong Kong, and perhaps eventually all of its citizens, a bit more political autonomy. After all, protests have caused some officials to offer at least minor reforms, even if they have been more economic than political. Analysts have rightly asked how long Hong Kongers can be ignored before they become troublesome enough that Beijing forcefully puts them down or the protests become an example for disaffected mainland citizens to follow. Pro-democracy groups make up 27 percent of the legislature, a gain of 9 percent from 2012. Furthermore, a 2016 poll found 58.8 percent of those over the age of 18 support independence when the Hong Kong’s constitution that China agreed to expires in 2047.
Yet in the name of security, it seems that any democratization is unlikely until the end of Xi’s official term in 2023. China has instead opted to keep Hong Kong in line through economic interdependence and encouraging outright fear and ambivalence. This may seem unnecessary to Westerners, but for China how much security is enough? And how much is enough to risk instability? When students protested for broader political and economic reforms in Tiananmen Square in 1989, then leader Deng Xiaoping, as much as a reformer as he was, ordered military violence to end the demonstrations. Chinese leaders believe they had been given a warning when they saw the economic and political floods unleashed by Gorbachev’s reforms and the Kremlin’s lack of will to keep control. Whether Tiananmen could have toppled the Communist Party or not, many PRC officials still believe it wasn’t worth the risk.
Additionally, China’s leaders and many of its people see their current progress as insufficient. On one hand, the PRC has become the world’s second largest economy, has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, is modernizing its military, and has institutionalized a fairly successful (and relatively non-violent) succession mechanism in which one party rules but leaders themselves are term-limited by age. These are no small feats. But on the other hand, China’s GDP has trended downward over the last decade from an impressive 2007 high of 14.2 percent to a 2015 low of 6.9 percent (unofficial estimates are even lower). GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity, ranks 81st globally at $15,432, still lagging behind Iraq, the Dominican Republic, and Russia. China also has many complex and ingrained issues, including how to prop up an overvalued currency, slowly deflating its large housing bubble, overcoming the demographic disaster of the one-child policy, and a combined provincial-national debt of at least 225 percent of GDP.
As for China’s military, it is large and growing in sophistication, but still largely geared toward suppressing domestic uprisings. Beijing has taken pains to develop serious asymmetric capabilities such as its diesel submarines and anti-ship missiles. But, again, from Xi’s point-of-view, China has a long way to go and Beijing’s most recent military white paper warns of the need to develop better sea, air, and space-based power projection capabilities. After all, the PRC just barely got its first carrier when most of the other regional powers such as India, Japan, and South Korea, already had at least one. (The United States has between 10 and 19 depending how you count.) The PRC also is closing in on, but has yet to overcome the United States in any category of military capabilities and equipment.
But it is not only the Chinese leadership that desires stability; collective memories of trauma fuel the desire for stability in the Chinese people as well. Part of this desire stems from the violent and cyclical rise and fall of dynasties, the many humiliations at the hands of Western and regional imperial powers, and the chaos of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.
The result of all these factors is that the rulers of China believe they must maintain control and stability at all costs—both to avoid the disasters of the past and to implement the policies needed to secure their future. Knowing this, Xi is well on his way to consolidating power and will likely use the upcoming Party Congress in the Fall to purge any remaining rivals from the Politburo and other governing bodies. It is speculated that when all is said and done, Xi may be the most powerful leader of China since Mao. Therefore, for Xi there can be no threat to that power and no disruption of his plans for broader economic and military reform.
Beijing should not be excused for its desire to maintain stability over revisiting the difficult issue of Hong Kong democratic reforms or self-determination. However, the reality is that the leadership of mainland China and the Hong Kongers who want more say in their own affairs are fundamentally at odds over their priorities and interests. At the end of the day, whether anyone likes it or not, power rests in the hands of Beijing and the controls it have over the electors who choose Hong Kong’s chief executive .
Image: The 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. (Flickr, Studio Incendo, Creative Commons)
John Dale Grover is a graduate student in Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and a current writer with Young Voices. Previously, he earned his BA in international relations at Bowdoin College and was a Non-Resident Fellow with the Center for the National Interest.