By Barclay Bram Shoemaker
While Hong Kong has been wracked with protests, many have been quick to point out the comparisons with Tiananmen Square. Many saw the police brutality against students calling for democracy and were immediately drawn back 25 years. For some, the adolescent leaders Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow are the modern day reincarnation of Wang Dan and Chai Ling. Even the umbrellas, the symbol of this movement, evoke the tarpaulins that covered the square during the torrential downpours that took place before the June 4th crackdown.
As the author Ma Jian argued in the Guardian, even though the Hong Kong protestors individually may represent drops of rain, together “they converged this week to become an unstoppable river of democracy”. Water however does not flow uphill, and the mainland is notoriously arid. While HKU sent a message of support to students and staff wishing to “express their strongly-held views” mainland universities haven’t needed to say a thing. At Fudan University in Shanghai the campus could not be more peaceful, more removed, from the frenetic street battles of Hong Kong.
The protests in Hong Kong will not spark a new Tiananmen Square style movement for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the distinct political apathy in mainland, particularly among students. People are not socialized into talking about politics like they are in the West. Furthermore, it is logical that in an insanely competitive country in which material success is highly prized, a lot of students are far too busy applying for jobs than demanding wholesale political reform. China will see over 7 million students graduate this year, but the economy is slowing and 200,000 of last year’s graduating class are still yet to find jobs.
Not only is the economy completely different, but the political climate is far removed from 1989. When the June 4th massacre occurred it came at a time when the Soviet Union was fragmenting and the world seemed ripe for democracy. It was the end of history, and it seemed clear that liberalism and self-governance had won.
Today however democracy does not seem nearly so attractive. The Balkan states, which were just gaining independence in 1989, have stagnated into kleptocratic nightmares. Elsewhere the Arab spring, which many hoped would spark a Jasmine revolution in China, had the obverse effect. The chaos and continued bloodshed in the Middle East have been the best possible advert for the longevity of the CCP.
People are intensely skeptical of what a sweeping change like democracy may mean in China. The reality is that the country may well be better served by its current system than by a democratic replacement. This is neither to be an apologist for the CCP nor to argue against democracy in general. It is however to be realistic about the state of democracy in the modern world.
In the western context when we consider democracy, we automatically conjure a liberal-democractic entity. Today we see these two strands coming apart. While democracy has flourished and is prevalent, liberalism is withering. There are plenty of states, Kazakhstan and Iran to give but two examples, which are democratic, but are far from liberal. These illiberal democracies, without the separation of powers that constitutional liberalism requires, have fomented nationalism, ethnic conflict, and even war. Dangerously, their democratic nature provides a veil of legitimacy beneath which they are able to operate with impunity.
China however is the opposite of an illiberal democracy. It is a liberalising autocracy. The existence of the CCP is predicated on a grand bargain, allow us to govern, and we will improve your life. To date they have been staggeringly successful. China doubled it’s GDP growth per worker nearly four times between 1953 and 1994, which means that every 9-10 years China’s economy doubled. In 2011, China’s GDP growth was so large it added the equivalent of Greece’s economy every 11.5 weeks.
China’s economy is now slowing down and is focusing on more qualitative, rather than quantitative growth. Pollution, which is arguably China’s biggest problem, is being addressed. Over the next 5 years China will spend $275bn improving air quality, the same as HK’s GDP and twice the annual defence budget. Corruption, another systemic problem, is decreasing due to Xi Jinping’s recent campaigns, with former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang arrested among others.
Democracy, when imposed in a fell swoop, tends to enfranchise the worst elements within society. It is only when it is coupled with the constraints of constitutional liberalism that democracy flourishes and functions adequately. These liberal institutions however take time to grow and implement. China is liberalizing, gradually. It is not in China’s best interest to let the torrent from Hong Kong dampen the embers.