22 October 2018
A statue of the Goddess of Democracy stands in a Hong Kong museum dedicated to the pro-democracy movement that was crushed by China on June 4, 1989. Photo: Reuters
A statue of the Goddess of Democracy stands in a Hong Kong museum dedicated to the pro-democracy movement that was crushed by China on June 4, 1989. Photo: Reuters

White ghost: What keeps China rulers up at night

There are few things more fearsome than a paranoid power. China is one.

But the paranoia is mainly about the Communist Party being driven from power. Outside of the demise of the ruling elite, China fears nothing and no one.

China’s growing assertiveness, military buildup and relentless innovation — to cite a recent edict from President Xi Jinping — project a certain kind of power that people can see, hear and touch. It’s the closest thing to the saying “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”.

But intentions are intractable and sometimes deadly. Does China really mean what it says?

Hong Kong is struggling for answers after the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a white paper on Tuesday in which it said the central government has absolute authority over Hong Kong and is the source of its autonomy.

The document has raised concern in Hong Kong ahead of a mock plebiscite on electoral reform relating to the 2017 chief executive election.

Some in the ruling circle believe Hong Kong’s political development is going too fast and that the special administrative region refuses to acknowledge that it is part of China. More than once, Hong Kong people have been accused of being unpatriotic toward the motherland and hostile to their mainland cousins.

That is just one aspect of growing cross-border tensions. On June 4, the 25th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, China rubbed the tracks clean, as it has all these years, and all but locked down Tiananmen Square, ground zero of the 1989 suppression, to ensure no commemorations were held.

In Hong Kong, the only place in China where such remembrances are allowed, pro-democracy activists turned out for the biggest candlelight vigil since the local observance began.

But politics aside, the white paper strikes at the heart of a solemn pledge by Beijing to uphold Hong Kong’s freedoms and way of life for 50 years after the 1997 handover from Britain.

Contrary to Beijing’s reinterpretation of the “one country, two systems” principle, the central government is not the source of Hong Kong’s promised high degree of autonomy. It’s a little, largely forgotten document called the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984.

It was the basis of the handover and was largely responsible for soothing anxiety in a populace fearful of communist tinkering with the only way of life it had known for 150 years.

The fact that the white paper did not exactly send Hong Kong people up in arms or trigger a pre-1997-style urge to leave does not mean their confidence has not been shaken. The relative calm is likely a kind of suspension of disbelief. They are still trying to understand what just hit them.

But already, some Hong Kong politicians are accusing Beijing of reneging on its word regarding Hong Kong’s autonomy. Civic Party leader Alan Leong is demanding Beijing keep its promise.

How Hong Kong’s political development might threaten the ruling party is unclear. What’s not is a pattern of preemptive actions by the central government to defend the party line.

That line is a very thin one, straddling economic growth and social stability. If push comes to shove, the ruling party will impose order rather than pursue growth.

And the party’s powerful state organs have a political arsenal designed to protect the status quo. One recently resurrected the ghost of former party chief Hu Yaobang only to blame him for the unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang.

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