At the beginning of his satirical novel China Dream, which has a cover designed by the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Ma Jian expresses his gratitude to George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm. Orwell, he says, “foretold it all.”
Ma, whose work is banned in China and who lives in exile in London, is of course reflecting on Orwell’s warnings about the threat of a totalitarian future in which dictatorships brainwash people. Today, in China’s Xinjiang region, the regime is incarcerating about a million Muslim Uighurs in “re-education” camps.
The target of Ma’s book is the Communist Party of China (CPC), which, he argues, has “imprisoned the minds and brutalised the bodies of the Chinese people.” In particular, his satire targets President Xi Jinping’s signature “China Dream.” A communist official in the novel believes the policy will “go global”; the CPC will become “the ruling party of humanity.”
But before the China Dream can convert humanity to its wonders, it will first have to be accepted by the Chinese people, including those who live in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. There is an American imperative for urging someone to accept reality: “Wake up and smell the coffee.” When Hong Kong’s population wakes up nowadays, the reality of Chinese communism comes with the smell of tear gas.
For five months, Hong Kong has been in a state of turmoil, as initially peaceful protests have subsequently often degenerated into violence on the part of both the police and the demonstrators. At first, the protests centred on the city government’s proposal to allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. Arguments that this posed no problem because sovereign nation-states had similar extradition agreements with China could not be taken seriously. Hong Kong is self-evidently not a sovereign country: that is a fundamental part of the city’s special position. Hong Kong’s citizens feared that the extradition bill would deprive them of the security of the rule of law, and in effect legalise the abduction of individuals deemed to be “enemies” of the Chinese state.
But as the weeks rolled by, and Hong Kong’s government initially refused to budge regarding the proposed law, other grievances emerged, particularly concerning high housing costs and squeezed incomes. There also was a general and wholly justified feeling that the Chinese authorities had tightened their grip on Hong Kong under Xi, and had broken their earlier promises about preserving the city’s freedom and autonomy.
Moreover, the authorities made no attempt to engage the demonstrators in a dialogue about their future. As was true of the 2014 pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, political discussion and attempts to build a consensus were rejected in favour of ever-tougher public-order policing.
I have some sympathy for those police officers (and their families) who behaved properly but found themselves required to act as substitutes for good and responsive government. Alas, as many human-rights organizations have documented, some officers did not follow the norms of good policing. One distinguished surgeon in Hong Kong wrote an article in The Lancet about violations of humanitarian norms after doctors and nurses were arrested for rioting while providing emergency care. They were treated like terrorists, and made to kneel with their arms behind their backs while handcuffed with zip cord.
Not surprisingly, but very regrettably, police abuse sometimes provoked a violent response, which cannot be condoned even if it can be understood. More than 5,000 demonstrators have been arrested; only one police officer has been relieved of his duties.
As long ago as June, many people – including a respected former chief justice of Hong Kong – were calling for the establishment of a commission of inquiry to look into the reasons for the demonstrations, how they have been policed, and demonstrators’ behaviour. With their hands clearly tied by Xi’s government in Beijing, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her government have refused to create such a panel, though doing so probably would have ended the unrest months ago.
China’s leaders and their mouthpieces in Hong Kong have repeatedly claimed that a silent majority of the local community opposed the demonstrators, and that foreign “black hands” were behind the protests. But the city’s district council elections on 24 November told a different story.
More people than ever before registered to vote, and turnout was the highest in the city’s history. Pro-democracy forces secured a sweeping victory, winning 347 of the 452 seats. Independent candidates, many of them pro-democracy, won a further 45, while the pro-Beijing establishment picked up just 60 seats. Before the election, all 18 of Hong Kong’s district councils were controlled by supporters of China. Now, the pro-democracy camp is in charge of 17 of them. Little wonder, then, that one local newspaper used the word “tsunami” to describe the result.
The Chinese authorities’ insulting suggestion that Hong Kong’s citizens were being manipulated was plainly ludicrous. The not-so-silent majority made its views known. The China Dream does not seem to have many takers in Hong Kong.
Some observers believe that the Chinese authorities now will aim to curtail the rule of law in Hong Kong, control the independent judiciary, introduce laws against sedition and subversion, and brainwash the city’s children. And this may well happen: in Beijing, policy is too often decided in an atmosphere of ignorance laced with paranoia.
Yet, if China’s leaders were wise, they would reject this course of action. Instead, they would allow the Hong Kong government to start a dialogue with its citizens, and to use a commission of inquiry as a sort of truth and reconciliation body.
Hong Kong’s citizens want to continue living in a free society under the rule of law. That is their dream. As the recent elections showed, few of them are attracted to Xi’s.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.