But, also by the time you read this, there will have been an altogether different set of commemorations in Hong Kong. Even as local authorities in the former British colony ceremonially raised the Chinese flag, new protests flared down its streets as an emboldened pro-democracy movement sought to puncture the central government’s great day of national unity and celebration.
Chinese President Xi Jinping may hope the choreographed pomp in Beijing will obscure the scenes of unrest elsewhere. On the eve of festivities, he bowed three times before a statue of Mao Zedong, the late revolutionary and the first leader of the Communist republic forged in 1949 after years of conflict. In the decades since, China has in many ways left behind Mao’s Marxist-Leninist legacy: Its tech companies are cutting edge; its state enterprises are worldwide juggernauts; its exports have reshaped the global economy; its middle class is as hyper-materialist as they come.
But Xi, as my colleague Anna Fifield wrote, sees himself walking in Mao’s footsteps. More than his recent predecessors, he has adopted the doctrinaire rhetoric of the “struggle” and built a cult of personality around his rule, adding his name to the country’s constitution and dissolving term limits. That elevation of Xi’s own status has accompanied a tightening grip under his watch. The protests in Hong Kong may seem the most direct, vociferous challenge to Beijing’s rule, but there are ripples of disquiet across the mainland.
“To stamp out dissent, the party has cracked down on lawyers, human rights activists and other members of civil society,” Fifield wrote. “It has overseen a sweeping campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic minorities, detaining about 1 million Uighurs in re-education camps in Xinjiang. Xi has steered an anti-corruption campaign so extensive that it has led to the arrest of more than 1.5 million people. ”
Xi is firmly ensconced in power, but he’s never far away from the fear of losing it. “The history of the People’s Republic of China is one of aspiration, destruction, ambition, confidence and anxiety,” said Klaus Mühlhahn, professor of Chinese history at the Free University of Berlin, to Fifield. “I think a lot of Chinese policy is driven by fear. This fear of losing power, of a development similar to what happened in the Soviet Union, shapes much of the policy and thinking.”
Those anxieties have intensified amid a worrying economic slowdown, one that has also been compounded by an aggressive American trade war and a hardening anti-China consensus in Washington and other Western capitals.
In a conversation with Today’s WorldView last week, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested Xi and China’s leadership need to think beyond the “powerful narrative” they peddle at commemorations such as Tuesday’s 70th anniversary: It’s a story anchored in historical grievance and tragedy, bemoaning China’s misfortune at the hands of foreign invaders, only to be redeemed by seven decades of plucky, resolute communist rule.
But China, Lee implied, is no longer a victim on the world stage — and it can’t face the rest of the world from such a position.
“I think they understand intellectually that they have a problem,” Lee said of China’s leadership. The challenge for them is “to pull the pieces together and decide how to make a calibrated and controlled repositioning without being stampeded into giving up ground.” He sees Xi as a political figure who has assumed greater authority and powers to push through policies “he feels are essential to get done.”
“The risk, of course, is that if it is more centralized,” said Lee, “a lot more depends on the right decisions being made right at the center.”
A thorny problem lies in China’s domestic disturbances. This year marked other significant anniversaries, too: It’s three decades since the bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square and five years since a new generation of pro-democracy protesters first took to the streets in Hong Kong. “These internal cohesion issues, I think worry them because they do not see any easy way of dealing with any of them,” said Lee, referring to the protests in Hong Kong and the crackdown in Xinjiang.
The Singaporean leader doesn’t think Xi or his allies would countenance a repeat of 1989 with a military intervention into Hong Kong. “This will be worse if they have to go in that way, and what will they do with Hong Kong after that?” Lee asked. “You have destroyed Hong Kong. I think China is now in a dilemma — how do you hope that this comes down without them getting overly involved?”
To be sure, Hong Kong’s protests aren’t exactly an existential threat to Xi and his cohort. The 70th anniversary of the people’s republic means China’s single-party government has lasted a year longer than the Soviet Union — and it shows no sign of cracking yet.
The rise of “a true opposition movement would take a systemic crisis — say, a real economic meltdown or a climate-induced catastrophe — that doesn’t yet seem likely,” Beijing-based journalist Ian Johnson noted. “And so, superficially at least, the Communist Party seems to go from strength to strength, relying on China’s capable civil service to make sure the high-speed trains run on time, the highways hum with new cars, and the aircraft carriers get built.”
But there’s a tension burrowed inside this seeming stability, Johnson concluded: “It is precisely this return to prosperity that has given people the opportunity to contemplate a century-old question: what exactly holds their country together other than brute force?”
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