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Modern Realities
The Stakes for China in Hong Kong

After the fiercest protests yet in Hong Kong over the weekend, local authorities are beginning to cope with the effects the pro-democracy demonstrations are having on the bottom line. The FT:

Hong Kong’s quasi central bank implemented emergency measures on Monday morning as the battle between Hong Kong democracy activists—many of whom spent the night camped on the streets—and police made itself felt on the territory’s businesses and markets.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority acted after a tense night that saw tear gas and pepper spray used in a failed bid to clear tens of thousands of protesters from a central business district.

By Monday morning as workers returned to their offices, many streets remained blocked and transport was disrupted.

Economically, Hong Kong is a lot less important to China than it used to be. But as a pointer to China’s future, it means more than ever. The democracy protests now shaking one of the world’s most beautiful and dynamic cities offer the Chinese government a taste of the turmoil that the 21st century holds.

The Party hopes that by promoting prosperity it can win the gratitude, loyalty, and quiescence of the population. This calculation might work if people were cows, looking only for enough grass to chew and water to drink. But that is not how it works, and paradoxically, the more affluent we get, the more we begin to insist on our dignity, and the more skeptical we become about those who claim to govern us.

We see it in the United States, where populist revolts against technocratic government have steadily grown—both on the left and on the right—since the age of Robert Moses and the New Deal, when Americans looked to powerful governments and technocratic administrators to solve the problems we faced. Nothing drives DC wonks and think-tankers crazy like the populist resistance to their latest decrees on what we should eat, how we should raise our kids, and on and on. As Americans have grown richer and better educated—arguably at least in part the result of smart technocratic decisions—we’ve grown less willing to defer to the opinions of “experts” and bureaucrats. Our messy and graft-ridden democratic system may not provide clean or clear answers to many of our pressing problems, but it provides a framework within which different social groups and points of view can be heard, and where their influence can be felt.

If the Chinese technocracy is a success (and we at TAI fervently hope that happens), if it actually creates the kind of affluent and educated society Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues dreamed of, then it is going to create an unmanageable, ungovernable mess of entitled, pushy, aggressive, and energetic citizens who won’t be content with letting the guys with the fancy degrees and strong party credentials make all the decisions.

Hong Kong’s people, like the Taiwanese, got there before the rest of the mainland Chinese did, but anybody who knows Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing knows that the citizens of these cities are feeling more entitled and less passive from day to day and year to year.

Some Americans think that China will inexorably become more like America as it continues to develop and modernize. That seems unlikely; China isn’t headed down any predictable or well trodden path. For one thing, manufacturing jobs in our increasingly automated and outsourced world won’t provide a stable middle class standard of living for the bulk of China’s population the way it did here for two peaceful generations. For another, China’s history, culture, and demography are unique, and whatever its future looks like, we can be sure it will be one with plenty of uniquely Chinese characteristics.

But regardless of where China is headed, the demonstrators in Hong Kong, and the large chunk of public opinion that supports them, have presented Beijing with a taste of the future. Erupting political crises, students unwilling to live within the boundaries their elders think proper, sudden mass movements against unpopular policies and officials: there will be more of these as time marches on. Some people will be watching Beijing’s reaction and moralizing earnestly about how “good” or “bad” it is; we think it’s more interesting and more important to look and see how smart Beijing is. Can it find no realistic alternatives between ugly repression and destabilizing capitulation? Is it really ready to trash any hope of peaceful reunification with Taiwan for the sake of ensuring that only loyalists will hold power in tiny Hong Kong?

Regardless of their ultimate values and intentions, China’s leaders are going to have to display inventiveness and flexibility even as they make complicated decisions on the fly. That’s what it’s like to govern an increasingly sophisticated and affluent country. The whole world will be watching to see whether Beijing has what it takes.

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  • Anthony

    An outstanding analysis.

    I have only one question. Why is Professor Mead lauding protestors in Hong Kong when he has trashed the occupy protestors in America?

    • Suzyqpie

      The occupy protesters were an ovine gallimaufry & 0bama sycophants who had no intelligently stated goals. The Hong Kong protestors see ugly repression and resent only Chinese loyalists holding power in Hong Kong. Prof Mead recognizes the difference, aka, dumb disorganized people vs smart organized people. Hope that answered your questions.

      • ltlee1

        Please tell what is your opinion concerning the Hong Kong Wall which bar many mainland Chinese from visiting Hong Kong as they see fit. What would you say if there were a Florida Wall?

      • Anthony

        Read this. Sounds a lot like occupy wall street to me.

        conducted by academic institutions over the past year have indicated
        that the most disaffected and potentially volatile sector of Hong Kong
        society is not the students, nor the middle-aged or even elderly
        activists who have sustained the democracy movement here for decades.
        Instead, the most strident calls for greater democracy — and often for
        greater economic populism as well — have come from people in their 20s
        and early 30s who have struggled to find well-paying jobs as the local
        manufacturing sector has withered away, and as banks and other service
        industries have increasingly hired mainland Chinese instead of local
        college graduates”

        • Anthony

          Comparable response Anthony and helpful context; for more see Charlie Rose’s 9-29-14 interview with China policy experts concerning Hong Kong.

    • ltlee1

      Professor Mead probably knows much more about the US than Hong Kong/China. The irony here is that Hong Kong protestors are seeking to be like Wall Street bankers.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Because of the control of media and the internet in China, word of protests and riots is heavily suppressed. I have heard reports of hundreds of mass protests in China every year with many resulting in riots and violent government suppression. One of the reasons if not the major reason for China’s unjust and outrageous claims to territory and the saber rattling is to generate patriotism to counter the massive lack of support for the power corrupted Chinese government.

  • ltlee1

    Hong Kong exists in an artificial environment maintained by 1.3 billion mainland Chinese sacrificing their freedom of traveling to and from Hong Kong. Hong Kong is only special because of this policy Hong Kong Wall. Are those protestors
    truly for freedom? Would they also support the breaking of the policy Hong Kong Wall?

    A Hong Kong Wall is part of deal. China has a say on Hong Kong’s candidate is also part of deal. Otherwise, the Hong Kong Wall will create a moral hazard. It can limit the benefit of risky policy to Hong Kongers but China would be ultimately responsible to any mess created by Hong Kong’s leaders.

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