An Actual Fight Over Democracy

by Jonah Shepp

The crises in the Middle East and Ukraine are frequently described in ideological terms, as battles between freedom and tyranny, liberal democracy and illiberal authoritarianism. The latest piece in this vein is from Lilia Shevtsova, who calls Russia “an advance combat unit of the new global authoritarianism, with China acting as its informal leader and waiting in the wings to seize its own opportunities”. I think this argument may give both Russia and China too much credit, especially as the informal leader of the new global authoritarianism is feeling threatened by a pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong. Evan Osnos looks in:

On Sunday, the Beijing government rejected demands for free, open elections for Hong Kong’s next chief executive, in 2017, enraging protesters who had called for broad rights to nominate candidates. China’s National People’s Congress announced a plan by which nominees must be vetted and approved by more than fifty per cent of a committee that is likely to be stacked with those who heed Beijing’s wishes. … Hong Kong’s growing activist network, known as Occupy Central (named after the city’s downtown) has increasingly alarmed leaders in Beijing, and they now describe the activism as a brush fire that could sweep over the mainland. In a piece published on Saturday, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, hinted about foreign agitators “attempting to turn Hong Kong into a bridgehead for subverting and infiltrating the Chinese mainland. This can absolutely not be permitted.”

Osnos analyzes the situation as a competition between nationalism and globalism; his analysis is instructive, but at a time when political thinkers are worrying themselves over the possibility that the Western model of liberalism is in decline or failing to gain traction in the developing world, this long-simmering conflict looks to me like the most clear-cut test case of liberalism vs. authoritarianism in the world today.

When the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre came around in June, Hong Kong stirred. And as Isaac Stone Fish points out, the Hong Kong protests point to the PRC’s bigger-picture problem of containing the demand for democracy, which people tend to like and want to keep once they get a chance to try it out:

Beijing could crack down on Hong Kong, but it needs to be careful not to push too hard — that risks alienating the majority of Hong Kongers who aren’t bothered by the status quo. More importantly, Beijing is very wary of the message communicated to Taiwan, the self-governing island of roughly 23 million people claimed by China. For decades, Beijing’s paramount foreign policy goal has been the reunification of Taiwan to the mainland. Probably the most likely way for that to happen would be a situation similar to Hong Kong — whereby Taiwanese would enjoy significant autonomy and a wide range of political freedoms. But the more Hong Kongers suffer, the more difficult it will be for the CCP to make the case that Taiwanese should voluntarily join the mainland.

Noah Feldman also sees the decision as a message to Taiwan:

The latest Hong Kong development strengthens the case for taking the risk of promoting independence. China is signaling that it will not democratize even at the margins during Xi’s leadership. That means nationalism — Xi’s “Chinese Dream” — will continue to be an important source of legitimacy, and that in 10 years, China will probably only be closer to insisting that Taiwan become Chinese.

And Rachel Lu connects it to Hong Kong’s declining economic clout relative to the mainland, which is highlighted in a new report:

In taking a hard-line stance against granting true democracy to Hong Kong, the Chinese government has made clear to the rest of China — as well as Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province — that threats of civil disobedience will not lead to political concessions. The central government probably also believes that it can now cast a menacing shadow over Hong Kong with its increasing economic weight. The report by Trigger Trend does not appear to be commissioned by the Chinese government, but the report’s conclusions have been widely publicized in mainland media and align nicely with the central government’s unspoken message to Hong Kongers: The special administrative region is no longer very special.

I have little background in Chinese politics or history, so I have no expert insight to render here, but even from casually following the news out of China, one has to wonder how tenable the status quo is. Capitalism has won the day, as it has in most of the world: does liberalism necessarily follow? It certainly hasn’t done so everywhere, but what’s interesting to me about China is that there are about 30 million people in Taiwan and Hong Kong who have long since proven that liberal democracy can speak Mandarin. In other words, one can’t credibly say that China is culturally indisposed toward democracy, as is often said (unfairly, I think) of Russia, Iran, and the Arab world. Of course, the legacy of Maoism and the past half-century of history bear heavily on the politics of the mainland, but it’s entirely possible that a free China could emerge in the long run, provided a catastrophic war doesn’t derail everything.

In any case, again, it’s certainly worth watching. China’s political trajectory has huge implications for American foreign policy (and indeed, for the entire world) in the coming decades. Which brings me to a couple questions I’ve had in the back of my head for a while and would like to pose to the collective brain that is the Dish readership: 1) what do you think of the prospects for democracy in China? and 2) given the choice of an ascendent Russia and an ascendent China, which should the US prefer? My off-the-cuff answer is “obviously China”, but I’d be curious to hear what you all think. E-mail me your ideas at I’ll revisit these questions later this week, hopefully with some brilliant insights from the inbox.