Quo Vadis, China? Actually, one cannot know


The ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong show how powerful democratic ideas are. Ever since the so-called Tiananmen protests in 1989, the Communist Party of China (CPC) invests enormous economic, technological and ideological resources to prevent any major outbreak of popular dissatisfaction against its one-party rule. Its propaganda and censorship efforts, however, have paradoxical implications that make it very difficult to predict China’s future political path.


Does what happen in Hong Kong stay in Hong Kong?

Since June 2019, and remarkably still in full swing, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are a conceivably unwelcomed birthday present to the CPC, which is in preparation to celebrate the 70th anniversary of modern mainland China under communist rule on October 1st. Of course, more than 150 years of British rule shaped Hong Kong’s political values and discourses, but Beijing’s unrelenting dealing with Hongkongers’ dissatisfaction with a proposed extradition bill alienated broad sections of the public even further. So why is the case of Hong Kong – which is ought to be governed by the one country two systems principle – relevant for the Chinese mainland? First of all, Hong Kong is part of China whether one likes it or not. Secondly, the CPC might be well aware of the fact that it is currently “breeding” a new generation of protesters in Hong Kong; skilled in mass protest organization, eager for more democratic rights and hardened in its stance against communist rule. To contain these protesters and to prevent them from bringing their ideas to the mainland will be an important task on the CPC’s agenda in the coming years. It might be no exaggeration to speak of paranoia when the CPC recently even banned the Christian song and unofficial Hong Kong protest anthem “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” on Chinese streaming platforms.


The Paradox of Censorship

It is without question that the CPC’s censorship efforts proved to be exceptionally successful. For example, a survey among Beijing’s university students found that only fifteen out of hundred identified the famous “tank man” picture correctly and could associate the picture to the protests and the government’s crackdown in June 1989. The representativeness of this survey might be questioned, however, it raises the question to what the younger generation knows about these events if even their well-educated peers hardly know anything. Either way, this censorship has some implications that go beyond the CPC’s control: Considering the CPC’s selective dealings with popular protests (some protests, especially such with a nationalist component, are allowed), it is questionable how citizens would know whether protests for their cause will be tolerated, especially when the remembrance of the biggest crackdown on protesting citizens in modern Chinese history seems almost deleted from China’s collective consciousness. This can be called the “paradox of censorship”. For 30 years of successful censorship and education policies were able to delete the memory of what happened in 1989, the deterring effect of the crackdown loses its leverage. Paradoxically, if censorship deletes the suppression of past protests from the public’s collective remembrance, censorship also diminishes the deterrence effect of a “cautionary tale” of a violent suppression. Political scientist research was able to demonstrate that the first and foremost purpose of China’s censorship efforts is not to silence criticism in general but to prevent collective action against the government. Therefore, even if censorship is aimed at preventing collective action, it simultaneously reduces the deterrence effect of past suppression as well. 

After the successful suppression of the pro-democracy protests in 1989, there was a general agreement that a revolt against the CPC’s regime will be suppressed with all violence necessary. But how do younger generations of Chinese citizens know what would happen if they demonstrate in masses for issues they genuinely care about? In this sense, the Hong Kong protests offered the CPC an opportunity to show to the mainlanders what happens with anti-governmental protests. But the devil lies again in the detail: Chinese state media keep generally quiet about the current situation in Hong Kong, and when they report, they keep mainlanders in the dark about the real reasons why Hongkongers are flooding the streets. A narrative that denies Hongkongers the right to have legitimate concerns and demands can be risky. Because when one engages in mass protests, one is sure to have a legitimate demand, even for mainlanders who are otherwise susceptible to state propaganda and fans of President Xi Jinping. Nationalist feelings can be very well exploited for political purposes. But such a strategy can also backfire. The CPC is walking a fine line between exploiting nationalist feelings to its own advantage and allowing manifestations of popular grievances that could as well take on a life of its own. As for now in Hong Kong, time works in favor of the central government in Beijing. It is less certain whether the same can be said for the mainland.

photo by Zachary Keimig retrieved on unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/Uizd4Zd41Ww. Photo in the public domain.