HONG KONG — The masked men who recently tossed firebombs at Jimmy Lai’s home targeted one of this city’s foremost democracy advocates. Lai, a 71-year-old media billionaire, calls this summer’s ongoing protest “a martyrdom movement” and “a last-straw movement.” It has an intensity and dynamic that bewilders the protesters’ opponents in Beijing and in Hong Kong’s Beijing-obedient city administration.
Today’s mostly young protesters will be middle-aged in 2047, at the expiration of the 50-year agreement that ostensibly accords Hong Kong protected status as an island of freedom. Beijing attempted to whittle away that status with a proposed 2003 law against “subversion.” And by devaluing suffrage by the 2014 requirement that candidates for the chief-executive receive approval from a Beijing-loyal committee. And by this year’s extradition bill that would have facilitated sweeping Hong Kongers into the maw of China’s opaque criminal-justice system.
Monday’s New York Times carried a full-page ad paid for by “the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.” Which means, effectively, by the Chinese Communist Party. The ad said: “We are resolutely committed to ‘One Country, Two Systems’ which provides the constitutional guarantee for Hong Kong’s continued development and success as a free and open society.” The ad pledged “dialogue to talk through differences and look for common ground with no preconditions.”
But the “one county, two systems” formulation, agreed to in 1997, when British authority ended, as a 50-year framework for Hong Kong’s relations with the PRC, is an inherently menacing precondition. And Beijing’s consistently sinister behavior reveals a determination, as implacable as it is predictable, to incrementally nullify “one nation, two systems” by reducing Hong Kong to just another jurisdiction wholly subservient to China’s deepening tyranny.
For Leninists such as Xi Jinping wielding a party-state, nothing is more important than the party’s unchallenged primacy. Another “Tiananmen Square” — a Hong Kong massacre — would be calamitous for China’s Leninists, but less so than weakening the Communist Party’s primacy. The party is, Lai says, “detached from reality” and “will always make the wrong decision” as it tries to become “the most absolute dictatorship in human history.”
In 1940, Winston Churchill warned against “a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” That is China’s aspiration with “digital Leninism,” an application of science through manipulative technologies that neither Churchill nor his contemporary, George Orwell, anticipated. With a steadily refined repression apparatus, aptly called “cyber-totalitarianism,” China’s surveillance state is enmeshing everyone in a “social credit” system. Individuals’ cumulative commercial and social-media transactions give them a score that determines their access to education, housing, clinics, travel and more, even including pet ownership. Although China’s published statistics are as untrustworthy as the regime itself, there are reasons to believe that in this decade China has spent more on “stability maintenance” than on its military. Hong Kong is watching this.
And Hong Kong is reading Ma Jian’s dystopian novel “China Dream,” which is banned in mainland China but not here. The protagonist is Ma Daode, director of the fictional (so far) China Dream Bureau, which aspires to “replace all private dreams” with one communal dream. Ma Daode hopes to develop “a neural implant,” a device whereby “just one click of a button and government directives will be transferred wirelessly into the brains” of the governed. This is not much more Orwellian than China’s evolving reality.
In her 1951 “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt argued that a tyrannical regime, wielding bureaucracy and mass media, could achieve permanence by conscripting the citizenry’s consciousness. This echoed Orwell’s foreboding: “Imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” In 1956, Arendt thought her theory had been refuted by a fact — the Hungarian Revolution, which demonstrated that no state can interrupt “all channels of communication.” Hong Kong sees Beijing using new technologies in the service of an evil permanence.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose,” wrote Orwell, “needs a constant struggle.” Belatedly, the world is seeing. The Economist recently editorialized: “The West’s 25-year bet on China has failed.” The wager was that “market totalitarianism” is an oxymoron. Embedding China in the global economy supposedly would open it to the softening effects of commerce, which would be solvents of authoritarianism. The West’s tardy but welcome disenchantment is, as the Economist says, “the starkest reversal in modern geopolitics.” If Hong Kong’s heroic refusal to go gentle into Beijing’s dark night is accelerating this disenchantment, the summer of dissent has been this decade’s grandest and most important development.
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.