Should We Be Optimists or Pessimists on China?

Hong Kong

On September 29, tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters shut down Hong Kong’s business hub. (Photo from bluuepanda, via Flickr Creative Commons)


For those of us who value intellectual and political freedom, what could be more heartening than the sight of thousands of students and other “umbrella” protesters in Hong Kong defying Communist authorities and asserting democratic ideals? Meanwhile, on the mainland, what could be more dismaying than China’s sentencing of the Uighur economics professor Ilham Tohti to life in prison on charges of separatism?

Until six years ago, the optimist in me would have held sway. The gradual thawing of China’s authoritarian tendencies, I would have reasoned, is often ungainly but continues apace.

But now, my inner pessimist prevails. And while this makes the Hong Kong protesters all the more admirable, in my view, I also shudder at the resurging authoritarian forces I fear they will increasingly face.

Trying to make sense of recent headlines from Hong Kong and the Muslim-majority region Xinjiang, I keep thinking about a powerful book published a decade ago: Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China. It’s by Ian Johnson, one of the most thoughtful and clear-eyed journalists based in Beijing.

It is exceptionally well written and offers carefully etched portraits of a set of inspiring individuals, including rights lawyers who were daringly working within the system to expand zones of freedom and bring justice to the powerless and mistreated, and it shares a key trait with my other favorite academic and journalistic books on China. Namely, it steer clears of two misleading tendencies: the Totalitarianism Trap, a conviction that Chinese politics is impervious to change as long as a Communist Party is in power, and the End of History Fantasy, the naïve belief that some specific factor, whether it’s the fall of the Berlin Wall or the rise of the Internet, will smoothly transform China into a liberal democracy.

What Johnson described instead was a shifting political landscape in which there was a mix of encouraging and discouraging trends worth tracking. The hard-line actions taken then against the Falun Gong sect were among the grounds for pessimism, reminding us of how paranoid the party’s leaders can be and how resistant they are to backing down once they draw a line in the sand. For Johnson, writing in 2004, hopeful signs, such as the ability of rights lawyers to carve out space to defend the disadvantaged, suggested that a “slow-motion revolution” might have begun that would eventually, if perhaps in fits and starts, make China a more open country.

In the decade since I first read Johnson’s book, I’ve sometimes thought of how his approach fits with Xinjiang and Hong Kong. For pessimists, the harsh methods of rule used in the former, which fit Orwell’s famous 1984 vision of a Big Brother state using boot-on-the-face techniques to maintain control, show the Communist Party’s true colors. For optimists, Hong Kong represented the possibilities of that slow-motion revolution since it stood out as an example of a city that was freer than any Communist-run metropolis had ever been.

Long after becoming part of the People’s Republic of China, in 1997, Hong Kong remained a place where people could say and do things in public that would get them into trouble in any mainland city, where the rule of law was in place in ways that it was not elsewhere in China, where university campuses were venues for free and open debate, their libraries stocked with books that deal with what on the mainland are taboo topics.

Optimists could also point to the bold actions that Hong Kong citizens kept making to push back against efforts by Beijing to curtail their freedoms. And the optimists could cite Hong Kong residents’ determination to dream of and work toward greater control over the city’s governance—greater not just than what they currently had but, crucially, also much greater than under the long period of British colonial rule.

Up until 2008, I was, on the whole, cautiously hopeful. There were moments, such as the arrival of politically charged anniversary dates, when the hard-line approaches used in Xinjiang and Tibet, frontier zones dealt with in similar ways, threatened to become the norm across the mainland—as they had been during the worst phases of the Mao era (1949-1976).

There were longer stretches, though, when it seemed that, in incremental ways, parts of the softer approach taken toward control in Hong Kong were seeping across the country’s eastern border. News media in southeastern mainland cities, for example Nanfang Zhoumou (Southern Weekly), began to publish reports and commentaries that moved further from official lines than previously seemed possible in a Communist-run state. Scholars on Shanghai campuses and at think tanks such as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing, seemed to be having an easier time veering from orthodoxies, traveling to international conferences, and collaborating with foreign scholars in new ways.

Since 2008, however, I’ve felt the balance tipping the other way. The idea that China is moving two steps forward, one step back, has seemed less and less defensible. One step forward, two steps back has been more the recent norm.

Darker, more-totalitarian days echo loudly. Ilham Tohti, a moderate Uighur academic, is sentenced to life in prison, with former students behind bars denouncing him on television. Official statements call into question the patriotism of intellectuals who work closely with scholars from the West. And, of course, the announcement by Beijing that triggered the latest round of protests in Hong Kong: that the city’s next chief executive would be chosen via a tightly controlled process ensuring fealty to the party. The kinds of rights lawyers described in Wild Grass are now harassed and arrested. And Nanfang Zhoumou has been reined in.

Hong Kong’s residents are savvy enough to be worried by such developments on the mainland. Johnson’s slow-motion revolution may, sadly, be grinding to a halt. Indeed, civil-society reforms might even be going into reverse.

In my more optimistic days, I hoped that the Communist leadership would begin feeling more self-confident. After all, the paranoid strain in contemporary Chinese politics that leads to hard-line policies feeds on a sense of real and imagined past slights by foreign powers, as well as a worry about the speed with which Communist governments in other parts of the world began to disappear late in the last century. A more-confident Beijing, this logic went, would stop jumping at its own shadow and be ready to become a more normal member of the world order.

Alas, what we have seen is Beijing leaping from a lack of self-confidence straight to a projection of arrogance. It is more insistent than ever on joining the global order only on its own terms. The party used to legitimate its rule by promising a China more equal than the country had ever been, run by an organization less corrupt than its predecessors. Now, flagrant inequalities and bountiful instances of corruption are exposed regularly.

So what rationale is left? Well, only a strong state can protect the nation’s interest in a chaotic world, the party line goes. And the current sorry state of the wider geopolitical world makes harping on this theme easier than it should be for Beijing. A cloak of counterterrorism hides state-waged terrors chillingly resonant of Cultural Revolution.

The Hong Kong protesters are voices of freedom. When we look back on the demonstrations in 10 years, will we hear the song of China’s trajectory? Or will it be an elegiac tune that only makes us wistful for what China could have been?

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, where he also holds courtesy appointments in law and literary journalism. He is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2013).

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