Everyone is talking about the protests in Hong Kong, for good reason. What I find most interesting is the official response. (All links via Simon’s World, the one-stop shop for China stuff.) Xinhua’s take was almost comical, pointing out that bus routes were disrupted and giving no idea what the protests were actually about. Much more interestingly, Donald Tsang, the Beijing-appointed Chief Executive seems to be making noises about democracy.
“I am 60 years of age. I certainly want to see universal suffrage taking place in Hong Kong in my time,” Mr Tsang said.
I find his remarks interesting because I wonder what they say about center-local relationships and the relationship of democracy to power in China. He could of course just be throwing a sop to the protesters, but it is more interesting to wonder if he is telling the truth, that is that he wants an expansion of democracy. As is pretty well-known, the Chinese central government has been claiming that China will eventually become democratic, and elections, if often problematic ones, are held at the local level. The central government likes this because it makes it harder for low-level party bureaucrats to entrench themselves in power and it helps to re-constitute order in a place At the very least they favor a bit of democracy for instrumental reasons.
On local democracy in China see Susan Ogden Inklings of Democracy in China
More interestingly, I assume at some point these local leaders are going to take advantage of the greater legitimacy democratic elections give them to defy the center. That is basically what happened in 1911, provincial assemblies that claimed to “represent” “the people” (it’s really complicated) took their provinces out of the empire. The provincial assemblies had considerably more legitimacy and influence than the central government, and for that reason, among others, the revolution was relatively quick and bloodless.
That the center and the provinces bicker a lot today is not news, although it takes a serious Zhongnanhai-ologist to know what is actually going on. Adding democracy into the mix seems to be almost inevitable, and very bad for the center. Eventually Hong Kong will have its first freely elected Executive, and this will potentially give him a lot of power in relation to the Beijing. I think that is why the center is so nervous about this. If you look at the structure they are talking about it seems that even a freely elected Executive would be pretty constrained in a formal sense. Hong Kongers seem to generally buy the government line that order and national power are more important than individual liberties, and my guess is that anyone who was elected would be pretty agreeable to much of what Beijing wants. Hong Kong is not France, or even the U.S. Still, once you let democracy jump to the provincial level its hard to see how it can be contained, other than by more democracy. I think the most encouraging thing about the demonstration is that Beijing really is afraid, and they have good reason to be.