13 September 2016

Mao’s legacy suggests a path for change in China


Over the past few days, thousands of men and women gathered in Chaoshan in Hunan, southern China, the hometown of Mao Zedong, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the passing of the Great Helmsman. They were all dressed up like Red Guards, and were commemorating the time between 1966 and 1976 when Mao launched the Great Cultural Revolution, a confused and confusing period.

Then, some thought Utopia was coming to Earth; many were persecuted for something for which they had no fault, like being born of particular parents; most suffered from hard labour and poverty; a few thrived by accruing the power of life and death over anybody; all said they were all equals.

Chaoshan’s celebrations remembered Mao in his eighties, when he was ill, paranoid and spoke through his nurse-mistress. They ignored the fact that the same man, in his fifties, had rejected the calls of his adversary Chiang Kai-shek to return to the Confucian past, instead opening up China to Western influence (Communism is very Western), collaborating with Americans in his stronghold in Yan’an, and appealing to liberals like philosopher Feng Youlan or writer Lao She, then living in the USA. They also forgot the man in his sixties who gave up some 20 per cent of Chinese territory to the USSR and who accepted wholesale a foreign system, the Soviet one, to run the country.

This selective memory, that forgets which of Mao’s actions hurt China and which helped it, may be at the root of two problems that have arisen for Beijing in recent days.

First, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un upped the ante once more by carrying out a new nuclear test. The situation is intractable: Beijing has trouble reining in the headstrong Kim, South Korea doesn’t want to reunify with the North, and China doesn’t want to give up its influence over Pyongyang in the complex Asian game. Still, Beijing resents the new unity of purposes between South Korea and the US, and especially the new anti-missile system now being deployed.

The situation is prickly. China does not want a potentially unmanageable escalation, and would like America to step back. But America doesn’t seem inclined to do so – and North Korea has plenty of weak spots that it could target (the last time, it did so via Kim’s bank accounts in Macao).

This situation could become very embarrassing for China. Kim’s escalation is banking on continued Chinese support, and therefore on the continuation of China’s present rift with the US. But Kim’s actions deepen that rift, making bilateral ties even more difficult to build, multiplying the chance of unpredictable and dangerous accidents.

China’s exact relationship with North Korea is hard to fathom – and Kim’s intentions and goals even harder. What is much clearer, though, is the situation in Hong Kong – which serves as an even better barometer of the political situation and inclinations in Beijing.

Last week’s elections were good for Beijing – but not were not enough. Deputies loyal to the Chinese Communist Party were confirmed in an absolute majority in the local mini-parliament, yet were still short of the numbers needed to impose constitutional reforms.

The opposition retained enough seats to veto drastic changes – and the radical opposition gained three seats, squeezing the moderate opposition of the so-called “pan-democrats”.

The new radicals preach a Hong Kong identity and even claim to fight for Hong Kong’s independence – the greatest taboo for the Communist Party, which for decades has been battling to silence those in Taiwan who want to announce their formal independence of from the mainland.

Taiwan is de facto (although not de jure) already independent, while Hong Kong is de facto and de jure part of China. This means that the threat to China’s unity coming from Hong Kong is far more dangerous.

If the Hong Kong radicals were to gain more support, it could embolden pro-independence forces in Taiwan. It could also be a justification for pro-independence movements (“splittists”, as the official Beijing jargon labels them) in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Of course, the radicals shouldn’t be dazzled by their success either. The vote proved that the vast majority of Hong Kong is for the status quo: most people do not want to disrupt their life to follow the radical and extremely difficult demands of the young protesters whose demonstrations have held Hong Kong hostage for much of the past couple of years.

People in Hong Konh are still fond of their good and stable life. But those youngsters feel their opportunities for social advancement are shrinking. Salaries, which have reached the developed-country average, won’t go much higher, while business opportunities have been monopolized by a few tycoons, largely those with good connections in Beijing. If these bright, active youngsters can’t achieve change through politics, what can they do?

This predicament was already becoming apparent more than a decade ago – indeed, I wrote about it at the time. Since then, the situation has not greatly improved. These young people have to be engaged, rather than having their demands treated in a patronizing way or simply disregarded.

As they survey these challenges, the fundamental question people in Beijing have to answer is simply this: what do they want China to be in 2047, when Hong Kong will fully revert to China? Do they want Hong Kong to be like China now, or do they want China to be like Hong Kong now?

Until a few years ago, people in Hong Kong thought China would follow them. Now some Hong Kong youngsters are thinking: Beijing doesn’t want to change, so we had better break up before they gobble us up.

There is still ample room to manoeuvre and time for Beijing to adapt. But time is not infinite, and the experience of the past couple of years proves that if mishandled, things in Hong Kong could get flare up.

Challenges in politics, as in life and the economy, are opportunities to change and improve. If there is a lesson from how Mao took and hold on power in the 1940s and 1950s, it is that he dared to go against the tide of common thought and perceptions. Many think Beijing is doomed to be seen in Hong Kong as the old, grouchy, northern dragon. The question then is: can things be different?

Francesco Sisci is a Senior Research Associate of China Renmin University. The author of Asia Times’ Sinograph column, he was also Asia Editor for the Italian daily La Stampa and Beijing correspondent for Il Sole di 24 Ore, and has written for numerous Italian and international publications.