The battle of ideas on China’s peripheries

The events in Hong Kong are not isolated; they are part of a larger movement against Beijing’s risin

China's rising assertiveness has come at the expense of the region's maritime security, writes Heydarian [Getty]

In his groundbreaking essay “The End of History”, Francis Fukuyama argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of a centuries-old great battle of ideas, which defined the essence of human history. According to Fukuyama, Communism represented the last ideological rival to capitalist democracy, which – with the decisive defeat of the Soviet Union – is destined to become the ultimate ideal form of social organisation and self-governance for all humanity.

While there is no guarantee that all countries will embrace market economics and transition into liberal democracies, Fukuyama confidently maintained that all societies will, in one way or another, strive to become more democratic in character and liberal in their outlook. The most recent wave of protests in Hong Kong, sparked by pro-democracy student activists in late-September, has absorbed much of the international community’s attention in recent days, precisely because it partly supports Fukuyama’s argument that the quest for democratic rights is a universal impulse.

Without a question, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been enormously successful in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, transforming a once-stagnant country into a global economic powerhouse in a span of three decades. Across the world, many autocratic regimes have tried to emulate the CCP’s successful blend of state capitalism and autocracy.

Autocratic capitalism

The ongoing protests in Hong Kong seem to have fizzled out in recent days, with authorities vowing to “take all necessary actions to restore social order” in the city-state. But they demonstrate how so many people, even within Beijing’s sphere of influence, continue to yearn for more democratic rights and political freedom. The events in Hong Kong however are not isolated; in fact, they are part of a larger crisis on China’s peripheries, from Tibet and Xinjiang to Taiwan, South China Sea, East China Sea, and now most visibly in Hong Kong. It shows that China’s model of autocratic capitalism remains unattractive to millions of people on China’s peripheries and beyond.

Since 2012, pro-democratic forces in Hong Kong have progressively pushed against Beijing’s efforts to transform the city-state in its own image. Having successfully blocked the introduction of Mainland-style “Patriotic” education into Hong Kong’s basic education curricula, activists such as Joshua Wong and a myriad of other progressive forces, from academics to reform-minded legislators, prepared for a larger showdown in the years to come.

Long praised for his decisive brand of leadership … Xi’s ultimate aim is to amass enough political capital to transform China’s domestic economy and restore its historical glory as the epicenter of the East Asian order.

Since June, Hong Kong has been engulfed by unprecedented protests over Beijing’s decision to effectively deny the Special Administrative Region (SAR) any genuine democratic elections in 2017. With a (pro-Beijing) nomination committee vetting candidates for the 2017 Chief Executive elections, Beijing will be in a position to filter out more independent-minded figures.

Many Hong Kong residents interpreted this as a betrayal of China’s earlier promise to introduce universal suffrage by 2017. Under the so-called “One China, Two Systems” principle, Beijing promised to respect the political autonomy of SARs such as HK and Macau.

Since his ascent to power, President Xi Jinping has stepped up his efforts at quelling domestic political discontent, tightening the grip of the CCP on the Greater China, and consolidating China’s sovereignty claims over Taiwan and a whole host of disputed features in the Western Pacific.

Long praised for his decisive brand of leadership, evident in his successful stints as a top official in Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, Xi’s ultimate aim is to amass enough political capital to transform China’s domestic economy and restore its historical glory as the epicenter of the East Asian order.

Xi’s slogan “China Dream” best embodies his undying ambition to carve out a special legacy for himself in the country’s pantheon of great leaders since the ancient times. China’s economic preponderance has allowed it to deepen its influence across the region, turning neighbouring countries such as Taiwan increasingly dependent on trade and investments with Mainland China.

Beijing treats Taiwan as a renegade province to be eventually re-incorporated into a Greater China. Under the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, it has threatened to use force to block any genuine expression of independence by Taipei authorities.

Taiwan’s concerns

In Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, a growing number of people fear that Beijing could exploit Taiwan’s economic dependence to push for greater political assimilation into Mainland China. No wonder, in mid-March student activists occupied Taiwan’s legislature to block the proposed Taiwan-China Cross Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which, according to critics, will only tighten China’s chokehold on the island nation’s economy. Taiwan’s student-led protests, focused on preserving the country’s political autonomy, evolved into a larger social movement, dubbed the “Sunflower Movement”, which began to inspire and coordinate with “Occupy Central”, which has served as the backbone of recent protests in Hong Kong.

For many Taiwanese, the events in HK serve as litmus tests of how Beijing will treat Taiwan in an event of reunification in the future. The Uighur population of Xinjiang, home to millions of Turkic-Muslim people, have also experienced an uptick in Chinese state repression, which has intensified on the heels of a deepening cycle of violence in the northwestern autonomous region. The Uighur population has opposed what it sees as an economic encroachment by the majority-Han population into the resource-rich region as well as Beijing’s oppressive policies, particularly restrictions on religious and cultural practices by the Muslim population.

Under the Xi Jinping administration, China has also accelerated its efforts to develop a robust fleet of para-military and conventional naval forces to consolidate China’s territorial claims in the South and East China Seas, sparking a series of dangerous skirmishes between Beijing and other rival claimant states, particularly Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines. As a result, the maritime disputes in the Western Pacific have evolved into an increasingly militarised standoff, potentially undermining freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most important waters.

Overall, however, critics claim that China’s rising assertiveness has come at the expense of maritime security in the region, political autonomy in places such as HK, and stability in autonomous regions such as Xinjiang. Beijing has stubbornly stood its ground, refusing to compromise on any of these issues. But China has also risked squandering its decades-long attempt at deepening its soft power and enhancing its image in the region and beyond, estranging many neighbours, which have fervently hoped for a more constructive engagement with Asia’s pre-eminent power.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.”