Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong — Has Beijing Learned Anything?
I have a bad feeling about this.
It seems — to me, at least — to have been somewhat under the radar in American legacy media, but there has been a slow-moving revolt in Hong Kong over the increasingly authoritarian rules being imposed from the mainland.
When the British returned control of Hong Kong to the People's Republic in 1997, part of the agreement was set out in the Hong Kong Basic Law, and the agreement was that with Hong Kong there would be "one country, two systems."
The agreement has — changed — over time. (Cue Darth Vader.) The Chief Executive is now appointed only with Beijing's agreement. There have been a number of instances of people, for example, booksellers from a democracy-supporting bookstore, disappearing, only to reappear outside the borders of Hong Kong, generally appearing rather the worse for wear.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, the Tian Ming (天命) which basically means that as long as an Emperor or government has the Mandate of Heaven, the government is assumed to be ethical and just and beloved by the people. So, whatever they do must be right. When they lose the Mandate of Heaven, they are deposed and replaced by a new government that now has the Mandate of Heaven. And how do you know when a government has lost the Mandate of Heaven? That's easy: they were deposed.
The current conflict began with a new extradition law allowing people to be arrested and deported to the mainland. I suppose the midnight abductions looked bad, and this would provide a legal fig leaf. Certainly, the people of Hong Kong saw it that way. The first series of demonstrations led Chief Executive Carrie Lam to "suspend" the new law. Not withdraw it, but suspend it until it was convenient to take it up again.
Not too surprisingly, the protesters in Hong Kong weren't placated.
Since then, well, this hasn't been looking good. The People's Army has massed troops in Shenzhen, just outside Hong Kong. A number of visible democracy advocates and more than 900 other people have been arrested. During this weekend's demonstration, for the first time, Hong Kong police have fired their handguns, and the police have started using water cannons on the protesters — with a blue dye added to the water. The intention being to arrest the Blue People at the police's convenience.
In an echo of the Tian An Men protests, the protesters have been waving the American Flag, and singing the Star-Spangled Banner and the Marseilles — as well as "Can You Hear the People Sing" from Les Miserables.
This is where I have a bad feeling. The Mandate of Heaven is something a government only maintains as long as they have the respect of the people — or at least are feared by the people, which has passed for respect for millennia. Waving an American flag looks a lot like a loss of respect. On the other hand, much more than at Tian An Man, the Chinese economy is closely tied into the world economy. A real crackdown with thousands dead would have real consequences — not just with President Trump, who has no time for the diplomatic niceties, but with the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. It might even be enough to embarrass the European Union to act.
It would hurt, and the Chinese people have gotten used to affluence. An economic crisis might well be the last straw that loses the Mandate of Heaven.
If they can't control the protests, that makes it look like they've already lost the Mandate of Heaven.
But we're talking about a government that already has 1 million Uighurs in concentration camps, and treats members of Falun Dafa, a fringe Buddhist sect, as involuntary organ donors.
So there's a decision coming. The Chinese Communist Party is about to have to decide whether the consequences of another crackdown are worse than the consequences of the People's Republic being defeated by the People.
I'm just watching this from my office surrounded by my books. (PS. I write 天安門 as three words — tian an men — because the conventional romanization of "tiananmen" leads people to read it something like "tenamun" and that makes my ears itch.)