Democracy white paper shows Chinese ideological flexibility

China has picked a critical time to publish a white paper on Hong Kong’s democracy, as the country finds itself embroiled in an ideological competition with the West. On the one hand, Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, an event with a clear focus on countering China and Russia, had just wrapped up. China, not surprisingly, did not receive an invitation to the event; while Nathan Law Kwun-chung, a former opposition legislator who is wanted by Hong Kong police for breaching the National Security Law for Hong Kong, was invited to make a speech calling on “democratic countries” to confront China. On the other hand, Hong Kong had just completed its first Legislative Council election under the revamped electoral system introduced earlier this year. The patriotic camp took a sweeping victory but the Five Eyes and G-7 jumped quickly to attack the electoral system, claiming that it has reduced the number of directly elected seats and established a vetting process to severely restrict the choice of candidates.

Against this backdrop of ideological challenge launched by the Western powers, China is fighting back confidently and fiercely by clarifying the history of Hong Kong’s democratic development with two irrevocable historical facts: First, the British government never intended to implement democracy in Hong Kong until the city’s return to China in 1997 became inevitable. The sudden interest of the British government in “electoral reform” during the final days of the colonial rule revealed its hypocrisy, with scheming political calculations to jeopardize the governance of China over Hong Kong after 1997. Second, Beijing has been endeavoring to promote Hong Kong’s democracy step by step to avoid political destabilization. However, this process was disrupted by opposition politicians who would rather take to the streets than reach a reasonable compromise with the central government. The “Occupy Central” movement was proof of that, and it was not the only one.

The West loves to demand China to “respect its obligations” under the Sino-British Joint Declaration as if the declaration was meant to promote democracy in Hong Kong, which it was not. Yet as the white paper makes clear, the West has failed to realize that it was Beijing’s intention to develop democracy in Hong Kong and wrote it into the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, not the Joint Declaration. The very spirit of “one country, two systems”, a governing principle whose ingenuity eludes the arrogant West, is that the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong with different socioeconomic and historical conditions deserve to have different governing methods. The Communist Party, the ruling party of China, maintained Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy including its political system not because it is afraid to upset the Western powers or to annoy Hong Kong’s business elite, rather, it is because the Party’s leadership has the wisdom to go beyond the narrow Western political dichotomy of “(Western) democracy is good” and “everything else is bad”. What Hong Kong needs is a political system capable of balancing popular participation and social stability, local interest and national interest, high degree of autonomy and national security. What it does not need is blindly borrowing the political system of some geographically distant Western countries with vastly different socioeconomic and historical conditions, the potential consequences of which have been thoroughly demonstrated by the situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other places where the Western governing model is incompatible with local conditions and has reduced those countries to failed states. Beijing has been carefully navigating Hong Kong away from the failures for the good of both Hong Kong and the nation, while the West has been relentlessly promoting its ideology in Hong Kong out of arrogance or malign intent.

Sadly, the simple black-and-white, good-versus-evil narrative of the West catered perfectly to the ethos in Hong Kong, and we witnessed Hong Kong being almost torn apart in the political and social turmoil of 2019. The United States, aiming to turn Hong Kong into a thorn in China’s side, helped radicalize and instigate Hong Kong’s opposition camp into launching a full assault on China’s sovereignty, which forced Beijing to take unprecedented measures, including implementing the National Security Law for Hong Kong and revamping the electoral system to ensure Hong Kong’s political security and stability. It is true that the LegCo election, under the revamped electoral system, imposed additional restrictions on candidates and reduced the number of directly elected seats, but these were necessary measures to ensure the bottom line of national sovereignty and security remain intact and that Hong Kong, by applying the principle of “patriots administering Hong Kong”, can establish a safety-net mechanism to prevent political figures who seek to undermine China’s national security from wielding political power. In fact, these measures probably would not have been introduced if Hong Kong’s opposition had not been hijacked by the West’s (particularly American) ill-intentioned efforts to ideologically sabotage China through Hong Kong.

The dust has settled on Hong Kong as the city returns to normality, but on the world stage, China and the US-led Western countries have entered a prolonged ideological struggle centered upon whose governing model is superior. As long as this struggle continues, Hong Kong will continue to be a key battleground. By publishing the white paper, China demonstrates its political flexibility to “ensure the success of development on the mainland, which practices the socialist system, … (and) ensure the success of development in Hong Kong, which practices the capitalist system”, as was put clearly by President Xi Jinping in 2017. Furthermore, the case in Hong Kong challenges the Western monopoly over the narrative of democracy by presenting its own vision of democratic development in Hong Kong compatible to its local socioeconomic and historical conditions instead of blindly borrowing abstract Western political theories.

The author is a political analyst at the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.