It’s a strange kind of democracy that views umbrellas as subversive. It’s an odd form of people’s government that beats and incarcerates hundreds of people without trial. Bizarre, too, in this democratic nirvana, that journalists are prosecuted for challenging the authorities – and “unpatriotic” people such as you are punished for reading what they write.
These are but a few aspects of the Beijing-style “democracy” brashly celebrated by Xi Jinping, China’s popularly unelected president, when he travelled to Hong Kong last week for the 25th anniversary of the handover from Britain. Xi said his version of democracy was flourishing. Hong Kong’s job now was to assist the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, not stir up trouble.
“After much turmoil, people have learned a painful lesson that Hong Kong cannot be disorderly, it cannot afford to be,” Xi declared, referring to the suppressed pro-democracy movement. “Hong Kong is in a new phase from disorder to stability, from stability to prosperity.” Does Xi believe his own words? This was his first trip beyond the mainland since the pandemic began. He really should get out more. Either he is extremely ill-informed or extremely disingenuous.
Denied the vote and a voice by an island administration run by Communist party placemen, Hongkongers are voting with their feet. More than 120,000 people, locals and expatriates, departed in 2020-21 following the imposition of a draconian national security law. Many, especially younger people, came to Britain. A survey last year found that 40% of expats plan to leave or may do so.
High levels of prosperity at which Xi aims were in fact a striking feature of Hong Kong before China’s crackdown – and are now under threat as international investors turn wary. Hong Kong’s global human rights rating is plunging alongside financial markets and growth. In short, Xi is turning economic success into failure.
A similar trajectory is evident in political life and civil society. No community will truly flourish when people are denied basic freedoms and forced into Orwellian conformity. Nor will coming generations of children whose textbooks airbrush Hong Kong’s colonial history hear mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre; they are blindly inculcated with the official lie that “external forces” drove the pro-democracy protests.
Myopic Xi’s trademark revisionism and systematic repression are storing up huge problems for the future. Yet right now, Britain and the west face an obvious problem: how to deal with this ever more aggressively assertive Chinese regime?
Stern condemnation of Xi’s treatment of Hong Kong rained down last week from Boris Johnson, the Biden administration, Australia and others. Chris Patten, the last British governor, complained the Chinese had “catastrophically and comprehensively broken” their legal obligation to guarantee Hong Kong’s pre-1997 way of life.
Yet while that’s true, Xi’s neo-imperial procession was a final humiliation for the empire of old and there seems little, for all Johnson’s Twitter braggadocio and Liz Truss’s venting, that Britain and its allies can do about it. Will they impose sanctions? Launch another trade war? Send back the gunboats? Nato made some threatening noises last week. But, no. They know that’s not going to work.
Amid all the anger, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, opted for calm. The west must defend the global rules-based order that China threatens, she said. But expanding military alliances in an already polarised world was not the way. “We must use diplomacy at every opportunity, until it has proven to fail.”
In other words, keep talking – and trust that, over time, China’s strange idea of democracy will change.