It ought to be a particularly sweet anniversary for China’s leaders: Their Communist state has now lasted longer than the Soviet Union, which endured for 69 years.
But it is not. The months-long standoff between the party and the millions who have been protesting in Hong Kong is set to come to a head on Oct. 1, when the demonstrators plan to stage a counter-rally.
“A confrontation of monumental proportions is coming up,” said Orville Schell, a China specialist at the Asia Society. “Clearly, something will happen on Oct. 1.”
Chinese officials have been going to great lengths to ensure “stability” in Beijing on the day of the parade. Homing pigeons and kite-flying have been banned. Airports and train stations are planning extra security checks.
Local journalists have been told to report only good news, and foreign ones have been told to stay off their office balconies to avoid being shot by snipers. The skies have been ordered to be blue.
But the protests in semiautonomous Hong Kong — and the sympathies they are generating in Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway state — show that not everyone shares President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream.”
Xi, who is presiding over his first of the Communist Party’s decennial anniversaries — but maybe not his last, because he removed term limits on leadership — has laid out a vision to revive the Chinese nation and restore it to its rightful place at the center of the world.
Part of this vision involves the reunification of greater China, incorporating Taiwan, which exists as a democratic, pluralistic flip side to the one-party state of the People’s Republic.
Another part involves overcoming the “century of humiliation,” in which Hong Kong played a significant role. Britain invaded Hong Kong in 1841 at the beginning of the First Opium War, when it forcibly redressed its trade imbalance with China by getting people addicted to the narcotic.
These factors make the expression of a different kind of Chinese dream in Hong Kong and Taiwan inconvenient, to say the least, for the Communist Party.
“There’s a kind of counter-dream, one with a more cosmopolitan view of Chinese-ness and a more inclusive view of Chinese-ness that’s separate from the Chinese Communist Party but linked up to things that really fit in with the Chinese tradition,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California at Irvine.
Indeed, the “Chinese Dream” has almost zero appeal in Hong Kong, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“In the past, the Hong Kong and Chinese identities had always been distinct, but they have been diverging since 2012,” Cabestan said. That was the year mainland Chinese patriotic education, including a book titled “The China Model,” extolling the Communist Party, was introduced into Hong Kong schools.
“More and more Chinese young people think that they can’t be both,” Cabestan said. “They might feel Chinese, but they don’t feel PRC. That’s why the Chinese Communist Party feels threatened.”
A survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong in June found that the percentage of people who identified as Chinese had fallen to a record low.
Only 11 percent of the 1,015 respondents said they were Chinese. More than half — 53 percent — described themselves as Hong Kongers. Twenty-three percent said they were “Hongkongers in China.” When asked whether they were proud of being a Chinese national, 71 percent said no. That rose to 90 percent for respondents ages 18 to 29.
While Hong Kongers say they have felt more distance from the mainland, they say they also have begun to feel closer to Taiwan.
In 2014, Hong Kong and Taiwan saw large-scale demonstrations bristling against Beijing’s influence.
Hong Kongers took to the streets in their Umbrella Movement to protest Beijing’s increasing intervention in their governance. Young people in Taiwan launched the Sunflower Movement to oppose greater integration with China.
“Since 2014, since the Sunflower and the Umbrella movements, they have felt that they share the same values,” Cabestan said.
This poses an existential challenge to Xi, whose top priority is the perpetuation of Communist Party rule over a rejuvenated greater China.
In the years since Hong Kong’s return from British control in 1997, Beijing had held up the territory as an example of what the future could hold for Taiwan: a vibrant Chinese territory with a degree of autonomy.
Hong Kong held the promise of how the “one country, two systems” framework could work for Taiwan.
But since 2014, that promise has begun to look more like a threat.
“With the Umbrella Movement, the protesters in Hong Kong began to say: ‘Look Taiwan, Hong Kong today could be Taiwan tomorrow,’ but in a warning sense,” Wasserstrom said.
Now, five years on from those protests — and five years of increasingly authoritarian leadership under Xi — young people in Hong Kong and Taiwan are finding more concerns in common.
After the Hong Kong protests began in June, demonstrators in Taiwan took to the streets chanting “Taiwan cheng Hong Kong,” using the Mandarin word for “support.”
Then musicians from Taiwan and Hong Kong joined forces to release a song called “Cheng.” “The dark night is falling, but I will keep you company. The rain pours down heavy and hard, but cannot drown our dream,” the lyrics go. “Let us hold up the umbrella, never give in, never back down.”
The situation is clearly uncomfortable for Beijing.
As if to show that “one country, two systems” can work, the party plastered photos of Xi and the next chief executive of Macao, a Chinese special administrative region like Hong Kong, over the front page of its mouthpiece, the People’s Daily.
When Ho Iat Seng visited Beijing this month, Xi said Macao, which was handed back to China by Portugal two years after Hong Kong, showed that the principle of “one country, two systems” was “completely feasible, and can be achieved and well received with people.”
For his part, Ho emphasized the “one country” part of the formulation and said he would work to make sure the casino state became further integrated “into the nation’s development.” He encouraged young Macanese to work on the mainland.
Communist Party leaders have condemned the violence of some of the protests and accused Western countries of fomenting the unrest. But they have stopped short of direct action.
They have publicized military training on Hong Kong’s borders and at the Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army, which reports to the party. But apparently conscious of the international criticism that would follow military action and the effect on Hong Kong as a financial center, they have shown restraint.
The big question now is whether, after the spectacle of Oct. 1, Beijing will be less worried about the optics of action.