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Benny Tai: Hong Kong should consider the many possible forms of China’s post-Communist future

Originally published in December 2017. Translation by Jun Pang.

As a function of shared geography, history, culture, economy, and politics, regardless of one’s subjective point of view, Hong Kong and China are inextricably related. Although the size of these territories is not comparable, their relationship has never been unilateral. It is not the case that only the mainland has the capacity to influence Hong Kong; indeed, Hong Kong can also influence the mainland.

From when Hong Kong first became a British colony to when it became a Special Administrative Region of China after the 1997 handover, the relationship between Hong Kong and China has been founded on a unique arrangement predicated on a kind of separation. And it is this separation that has allowed Hong Kong and China to maintain a measure of distance from one another. Though they have influences on each other, these influences have been indirect.

Given this relationship to the mainland, in thinking about Hong Kong’s future, we must also consider China’s future. The future of Hong Kong will inevitably be shaped by developments on the mainland. In turn, the ways in which Hongkongers prepare for their own future will also have an impact, however indirect, on the future direction of China.

hong kong china flag

File photo: In-Media.

To use an analogy, the future of Hong Kong and the future of China are neither divided, nor are they linked by a solid line; they are connected by a dotted line. This dotted line represents the distance that keeps Hong Kong at arm’s length from the mainland.

Although Hong Kong may not be able to influence China’s future development directly, Hongkongers must, in thinking about Hong Kong’s future, keep China’s future possibilities at the back of our minds, in order to prepare ourselves for what is to come.

See also: Interview: Labelled a ‘threat to China,’ Hong Kong law scholar Benny Tai says Beijing is trying to brainwash Hongkongers

At the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping rolled out a form of post-totalitarian, or perhaps neo-totalitarian, rule, centred on his cult of personality. In thinking outside the box about China’s future, there are at least ten possible paths the country may take:

  1. Totalitarian rule will continue. Not only will Xi Jinping have abolished the Communist Party’s regular rules limiting heads of state to 10 years in power and extended his rule as General Secretary, this totalitarian system will also be passed on to his successor. Of course, the transfer of dictatorial powers to the next ruler may not be possible, given that the nature of totalitarian systems is such that it is extremely difficult to have a peaceful transition between leaders.
  1. After the age of Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party will revert to a system of decentralized political rule revolving around the Party’s centres of power, walking the line between totalitarianism and authoritarianism. However, this situation will be extremely unstable. If a new competitor emerges, the Party may revert back to a totalitarian system; at the same time, in the face of various pressures, the Party may deem it necessary to engage in policies of liberalization and democratization.
Xi Jinping emperor

Photo: In-Media.

  1. The Chinese Communist Party proactively undertakes limited democratic reform and introduces contested elections. However, it uses different resources to ensure that the Party emerges victorious. It is then able to claim a new form of legitimacy from the election result, and continue in its mandate to rule. If China achieves this degree of political reform, the current situation could persist and endure. But if the opposition manages to achieve an electoral breakthrough within the designated limited space of political action, and succeeds in ending the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, then the Party may overturn the result, and return to a system of totalitarian rule. On the other hand, the Party may accept the result, and allow China to enter an age of constitutional democratic rule. Of course, there is only a slim possibility of this happening.
  1. The Chinese Communist Party engages in comprehensive internal political reform and China steps into an age of constitutional democratic rule. A new political party may even emerge and take over from the existing holders of power. Obviously, there is only a slim possibility of this happening. In the aforementioned processes, the rule of the Chinese Communist Party breaks down as a result of a variety of factors, in a so-called process of ‘self-implosion’. But the aftermath of ‘self-implosion’ has been the subject of scant theorization. Below are a few possible outcomes in the event of the breakdown of the Party system – but no one can predict when they will happen.
  1. A new political strongman will emerge, whose authority will replace the grip of the Chinese Communist Party, and who will continue the system of totalitarian rule. Totalitarianism will have a new face, but remain, in essence, the same.
  1. The system of government will undergo fragmentation, causing China to descend into a state of anarchy.
National People's Congress npc beijing great hall

File photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

  1. China will split into many different segmented territories, and descend into civil war.
  1. Through discussion and negotiation, the territorial segments will decide to establish a democratic federation of China.
  1. Each segment will establish its own independent, sovereign state. Some will pursue a constitutional democratic system of government, others will continue to practice totalitarian politics.
  1. Each segment will become its own independent country. Through collective negotiation, they will establish a federal system, constituting the confederation of China.

Thinking about China’s future from the vantage point of Hong Kong today, any of the above could happen – indeed, for all we know, there could be other options. The only thing, the best thing, we can do in Hong Kong is to strengthen our own consciousness and our capacity for autonomy, so that no matter what happens in China – the good, the bad, the ugly; the small, the big, the enormous – we will be able to face the challenge. Hong Kong’s future may be linked to China’s future by a thin thread, but the capacity for Hong Kong’s future to change the course of China’s future continues to rest in our hands.

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Benny Tai: Hong Kong should consider the many possible forms of China’s post-Communist future