Is Hong Kong Important? For Whom?

Hundreds of thousands in the streets of Hong Kong protesting the anti-extradition bill for now over ten weeks; thousands closing down the busy international airport; an influential British parliamentarian proposing to return UK citizenship to Hong Kong residents; Chinese students supporting the government and those supporting the protesters clashing in foreign countries; videos showing Chinese armored personnel and troop carriers moving closer to the border with Hong Kong threatening a military intervention.

Is any of this important, or is it merely an internal Chinese affair?

While there have been international calls by world leaders for calm and a peaceful resolution of the situation, and while tensions continue over the trade war between the United States and China, most of the world is just waiting to see what the Chinese government will do to stop the protests. Will the situation degenerate? Will the army intervene?

There is another place we should all be watching. What is happening in mainland China? Is there any movement to support the Hong Kong protesters? Although the casus belli of the protests was the extradition bill, the Hong Kong riots have gone way beyond that to include high-priced housing, unfair elections and now police brutality. The extradition bill was quickly suspended by Chief Executive Carrie Lam on June 15, and the protests continued.

The Chinese miracle of economic growth with authoritarianism has been in direct opposition to liberalism. Francis Fukuyama’s end of history proposed democracy and capitalism as the final answers to organizing society. The rapid rise of China called that dual ideal into question. The Chinese system of state controlled economics has been successful, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.

With increasing authoritarianism and increasing economic inequality, it seemed that democracy and capitalism were reaching their limits. How Democracies Die by Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is a recent example of growing skepticism about democracy and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is another example of capitalism’s critiques. The Chinese model, or Beijing Consensus, has been put forward as a counterforce to the Washington Consensus.

“We are all Hong Kongers” is a headline that invites people in the West to support the protesters. What are they supporting? Freedom of expression and other liberal values would be high on the list. But behind that is a rejection of the China model with its authoritarianism and state controlled economics. If the protests spread beyond Hong Kong to the mainland, then it will show that the China miracle has not been successful, and that Fukuyama, even with his later revisions, was right after all.

This plays particularly well at the moment that ideas of socialism have been creeping into the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Candidates self-branded as democratic socialists have been lambasted by the right wing as Un-American, recalling visions of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) or Steve Bannon’s current iteration with “the destruction of the administrative state.” If the Hong Kong protests spread to the mainland, the Chinese model will be seen as an unrealistic alternative to free market democracy, fulfilling Fukuyama and right-wing visions of the inevitable end of history.

The Chinese government has been very successful in controlling its domestic affairs, whether by overseeing internet or the censoring the press. There have been very few anti-government activities that we in the West know about. And when they have become public knowledge, there has been considerable support. Those in opposition have become heroes. We want the Chinese system to fail because it is so different from ours.

So whatever the failings of liberalism and democracy, we must be better than some other system. The protests in Hong Kong could be the beginning of something larger. And if that happens, there will be gloating throughout the West to emphasize how even if there are problems within our system, we are better than any other system. Winston Churchill’s famous quote will be repeated and repeated: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

And all our failings will be pushed under the carpet. After all, aren’t we better than other systems? The Soviet Union collapsed, and now China. Isn’t that what we are hoping for?

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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