It is said that “constitutionalism” is No. 1 among seven taboo subjects in mainland China.
Luckily in Hong Kong, we can still teach any subject we want in our schools.
I have recently taught a course in mainland China’s constitutional development.
We examined why constitutionalism has failed to take root in the mainland compared with the experience in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
We cannot predict the future of constitutionalism in China.
As I mentioned in a previous article about a new book on the subject by Professor David Shambaugh of the George Washington University, Beijing has reached a historical crossroads and its future hangs in the balance.
If China under President Xi Jinping regressed to neo-totalitarianism as happened during the time of Mao Zedong, its future would be anything but promising, according to Prof. Shambaugh.
Judging by the present situation, it is very likely that the Communist Party will remain in power for quite a while.
After all, China is the second largest economy in the world. Many mainland cities have the best infrastructure in the world.
However, compared with its world-class infrastructure, its booming e-commerce and its remarkable internet penetration rate, China’s political and legal systems are primitive.
In fact, there are concerns that the widening gap between China’s fast-growing economy plus rising public awareness about civil rights and its backward laws has given rise to a social force that could topple the communist regime.
It is not hard to imagine that the Communist Party could be overthrown and the country thrown into disarray if China’s political and legal structures fail to keep pace with its rapid economic development.
Some Sinologists point out that Beijing might already have noticed the potential danger and taken steps to avert it.
These include taking away administrative and military power from provincial authorities to thwart any warlordism.
However, even though Beijing is doing everything to keep the country together, the possibility of the Chinese Communist Party falling from power in the foreseeable future cannot be ruled out.
That begs the question: What would happen if the central government in Beijing collapsed?
I believe it would inevitably result in a period of widespread chaos across the country.
But after a period of political turmoil, people in certain regions across the mainland who share the same cultural and language identities might unite to form several independent political entities, giving rise to federalism in China.
As an example, Cantonese, a dialect widely spoken in the Pearl River Delta Region, home to nearly 100 million people, could turn out to be a powerful cohesive force that can help unify natives in this particular area.
The same process might also take place in other parts of China.
As a result, several independent political entities might arise from the disintegration of China and they may become the building blocks of a Chinese federation.
I am not the first academic to propose federalism as the way forward for China.
As early as the 1920s, federalism was a subject of serious debate among the political elite, intellectuals and warlords.
However, the idea never materialized, mainly because of the Kuomintang’s success in conquering northern China in 1928 and its subsequent formation of a central government in Nanking.
Over the years, federalism has remained a subject of debate and discussion in academic circles.
It might sound far-fetched for now, but it might ultimately break the historical cycle in China’s political development.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 9.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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