Until or unless investigators prove otherwise, the Chinese government and people are going to suspect – probably assume – that Saturday’s disappearance of a Beijing-bound Malaysian Airlines flight was an act of terrorism aimed at them. Indeed, what are they or any of us supposed to think? Alternative explanations like pilot suicide or statistically freakish hull/engine failure seem no more credible. If we had to put money on it, we’d probably say: deranged, Salafi-brainwashed losers martyring themselves for brothers and sisters in Xinjiang. It’s the least unlikely of a range of improbable and unpleasant options.
If it ever turns out to be true, it will be interesting to see how Beijing fits it in with its worldview narrative. Will it be Chinese people as victims uniquely picked on by exploitative and oppressive foreigners, or China as normal member of the international community facing the same evils and threats as other countries?
Meanwhile, as if in sympathy (though of course by coincidence), Hong Kong’s skeptics and opponents of Beijing take a sharp turn away from blatant antagonism. The ‘anti-locust’ protestors against hordes of Mainland shoppers ditch their colonial flags and separatist rhetoric, and instead wave Communist banners and appeal to tourists to be patriotic and buy Chinese goods. (Actually, Louis Vuitton and all that other overpriced tat is ‘hand-crafted’ in the Mainland’s increasingly uneconomic sweatshops, but you know what they mean.) And pro-democracy activist Joseph Cheng appeals to the Chinese government to stick to core socialist values like equality and justice in devising Hong Kong’s future electoral system. In considering their responses, Beijing officials have a wonderful opportunity to display their self-deprecating wit and playful irony.
Alternatively, they could just be honest. Professor Larry Diamond of Stanford U dismisses recent remarks from a top Chinese official that Hong Kong must not adopt a ‘foreign’ or ‘Western’ style of democracy. “Beijing,” he says, “has the power to impose constraints on the election process in Hong Kong. But it does not have the right to redefine what democracy is and is not.” He adds that Hong Kong, with rule of law, civil society and all that, is better suited for democracy than the 60-odd countries that have embraced it in recent decades, including South Korea, Taiwan and even Mongolia.
“It was predictable that Beijing would fear ‘losing control’ of Hong Kong … It would be refreshing if Beijing authorities would simply state these anxieties, rather than resorting to specious and patently false arguments that Hong Kong is ‘not ready for democracy’ or ‘not suited for democracy’.”
(Or, for that matter, that vague Basic Law provisions and contrived quasi-amendments completely forbid full democracy.)
As it is, we seem set on a collision course. The Occupy Central movement is committing itself more deeply to ‘international-standard’ democracy, while Beijing and local officials and supporters are digging their own heels in and saying ‘impossible’. Larry Diamond understates things by saying openness by Beijing would be ‘refreshing’; it would blow the pro-democrats out of the water, albeit along with a decades-long pretense of the Communist Party’s own.
North Korea has just held an election for its make-believe parliament, in which the ballot has just one candidate. (Traditionally, the polling stations have two ballot boxes – one for ‘yes’ and a curiously unused one for ‘no’.) This is universal suffrage of a sort a one-party state can live with. Economics students know of the impossible trinity of central bank policies. We can construct a similar one for the Hong Kong political structure: the city can have only two of the following three: a high degree of autonomy; elections where everyone can vote; and elections where anyone may stand. If Beijing simply stated that this trade-off is unavoidable if you are a part of a Leninist one-party system, it would pull the rug out from under the pro-democrats. But of course that would take frankness and openness. As Larry Diamond suggests, it is the Chinese government – not Hong Kong – that is not ready for democracy. Similarly, Beijing cannot face being honest about it either.