Chinese contradictions and ironies, 1997 to 2017

Roundup
tags: China, North Korea



Jeffrey Wasserstrom is the editor of the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China (2016), as well as the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (originally published by OUP in 2010), a third edition of which, co-written with Maura Cunningham, will be published later this year. This post originally appeared on the OUPblog.  Thumbnail Image - Hong Kong Island Skyline 201108, by kudumomo. CC-BY-2.0

How can China be a “Communist country” when it has so many elements associated with capitalism? I can’t remember when someone first asked me this, but I think it was around 1 July, 1997—a notable date as it marked the Hong Kong Handover that changed a clearly capitalist British Crown Colony into a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the still Communist Party-run People’s Republic of China. Ever since then, whenever I have given a public talk focusing on the current state of the PRC, a question and answer session rarely ends without someone asking a variation of the “Communist or Capitalist” query. I see no reason to think I’ll stop being asked the question anytime soon. There will, after all, always seem something contradictory about leaders who claim to take inspiration from Marx and Mao running a place with a growing gap between rich and poor and cities with McDonald’s, megamalls, and multiplexes.

Lately, though, I’ve begun to notice a new “how can China be considered X, when it is Y” question starting to vie for that old one for supremacy. This one has to do not with China becoming a land where the elite can buy Lamborghinis and Louis Vuitton bags—as well as knock-offs of both sorts of luxury items—but with whether the main thing about Xi Jinping’s China is that it is becoming more and more outward looking and enmeshed with global structures, or that it is turning inward and closing itself off from international flows.

How could Xi claim at Davos to be a champion of globalization, people now want to know, when the Party he heads tightly controls the Internet and voices concern about Western ideas exerting influence on campuses? Questioners who know enough about Hong Kong to be worried, as I am, about the disturbing ways that Beijing has been ratcheting up pressure on dissenting voices and liberalizing forces there, sometimes bring up that urban center. Why, they ask, would a leader seeking to “globalize” and “open up” China try to rein and tamp down civil society in the PRC city that is most globalized and open to the world?

Before getting to how I address this globalization-related “how can China be X when it is Y” question, I should explain how I’ve handled the earlier Communism vs. Capitalism one. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I typically framed my response around the need to get beyond Cold War binaries and simply consider the PRC a hybrid place. We were conditioned before 1989 to think in terms of a clear divide between two kinds of settings: on the one side, there were consumerist countries, on the other, Leninist lands ruled by people who emphasized the evils of Western imperialism and governed through tightly disciplined Communist Party structures. We simply need to accept, I would say, that the PRC is now both of these things at once. Curiously, it is run by a Communist Party whose ranks include entrepreneurs, and for a time, around the turn of the century, it even had a “Red Army” (the PLA) that operated hotels on the side as a profit-making venture.

I haven’t abandoned this way of answering the question, but I’ve begun to feel that in the past I sometimes put too little stress on the relationship between the X and Y involved. I now emphasize that it is in part because of its moves toward capitalism that the Chinese Communist Party has been able to stay on top in China so long after comparable organizations in Central and Eastern Europe tumbled. This certainly isn’t the only variable that matters. Nationalism is also part of the mix: one reason Communist Party rule persists in China, as well as some other places, such as Cuba and Vietnam, is because it trades on the ides that it once played a central role in a patriotic upheaval. And there is one important case in which a tilt toward consumerism hasn’t contributed at all to Communist Party longevity: North Korea.

Still, it is not just that China happened to get KFCs, karaoke bars, and later Porsche showrooms and Shanghai Disney while still having a Communist Party in charge, but that the arrival of the former things has helped keep the latter organization on top. One cause of discontent in various parts of the former Soviet bloc before 1989 was a widespread sense that the ruling groups there were unable, literally, to deliver the goods in material terms and that life was dull and lacking in diversion. People knew that not only were political choices much more limited in, say, East Berlin as opposed to West Berlin and Budapest as opposed to Brussels, but so were choices at the grocery, the department stores, and on television. Even while the political choice differences between Taipei and Beijing got much wider after the 1980s, thanks to Taiwan’s democratization and the PRC’s lack of it, the consumer and entertainment choice differences between the live led in the two cities narrowed dramatically—and this has helped the CCP endure.

A similar kind of approach might be best to take with the newer X and Y question. At one level, when Xi alternates between championing globalization and moving to make China more closed off from certain sorts of international flows, he is just showing that, like many world leaders, he is capable of doing contradictory things and sending contradictory messages. There is, though, something else to be reckoned with as well. It is partly because of the degree to which China has become more enmeshed in international structures, a more central player in economic globalization, and more entwined with various countries that Xi feels able to make some of the moves he has to close China off. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the effort to make Hong Kong more like other mainland cities, the promise that it could largely go its own way for half-a-century after 1997 notwithstanding.

One thing that protected Hong Kong during the first decade or so following the Handover was that Beijing depended on it to serve as an economic intermediary between the mainland and the worlds of international business and finance. CCP leaders might have secretly wished that Hong Kong publishers would stop issuing books about the dark side of mainland politics and that its press would adhere to official lines, but taking a relatively soft line on those kinds of things seemed a small price to pay for the business-related benefits that came from having it as an SAR of the PRC rather than a Crown Colony.

Now, with the twentieth anniversary of the Handover nearing, we have been seeing more and more examples of kid gloves being replaced by an iron fist in Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong. The SAR remains a freer and internationally connected city than any other in the PRC, as I am reminded of every time I log onto the Internet there and find that I can visit all sorts of websites that are blocked when I go online on the mainland without using a Great Firewall jumping VPN. Many ominous things, though, have been happening. In 2015 and 2016, for example, several booksellers associated with a publishing house known for issuing gossipy works about the private lives of Communist Party leaders began disappearing in mysterious ways. Earlier this year, the authorities in Thailand, presumably responding to pressure from Beijing, blocked Umbrella Movement leader Joshua Wong from entering their country when he tried to come into Bangkok to give an invited speech. Then, most recently, other protest leaders involved in 2014 civil disobedience actions were charged with several year old alleged crimes just one day after the latest pro-Beijing Chief Executive was selected, via an “election” in which only a tiny fraction of the local populace could vote.

There are many variables involved in Beijing’s tightening of the screws on Hong Kong, but one thing making it easier for current CCP leaders to this than it would have been for their predecessors is how China’s global position has changed. The increasing importance of the Shanghai Stock Market and China’s central role in the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to cite just two recent developments, have decreased Beijing’s dependency on Hong Kong as a connecting hub. The international climate is one in which—thanks to (among many other things) Washington’s declining moral prestige and the current American administration focus on issues other than human rights where China is concerned—Xi can be less concerned about Western pushback being triggered by moves against Hong Kong civil society as the twentieth anniversary of the Handover approaches than Hu Jintao was when the tenth anniversary came and went. Chinese enmeshment in development projects in neighboring countries plays a role in things like Joshua Wong being prevented from speaking in Thailand—notably also a country from which one of the missing booksellers disappeared.

In short, just as it is partly because of moves toward capitalism that Chinese is still run by a Communist Party, it is partly because of China going global in some ways that its most globalized city is suffering. This is an era when it is important to be mindful of not only the contradictions at play in China now, but also to the dark ironies that can come from the country’s ability to be both X and Y at the same time.




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