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The Red Priests of Power, Part 1: Hong Kong in the Greater Power Conflict

I was in my last day of contemporary U.S. history class a couple weeks ago, engaging in a discussion on the future of American foreign policy following over 150 years of clodhopping foreign relations in the Middle East, Central America, and South Asia. The topic naturally came to Russia and China in the 21st century: the U.S.’s two most powerful competitors on the modern stage. We drifted over George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, a nuclear escalation that dramatically moved us closer to midnight on the Doomsday Clock. We then arrived at the People’s Republic of China, a financial giant now using its influence to shower free money on developing countries with no strings attached in an effort to develop the strength of its currency, as well as steal soft power points from the West in its most vulnerable vicinities: Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. During this discussion, an overconfident white classmate—I understand there are at least two of these guys in every class at American University—ended a comment with a dicey remark out of nowhere that everyone in the class, Republican or Democrat, would probably agree with: “Hashtag Free Hong Kong,” a phrase borne out of a movement that has finally brought the reality of the U.S.-China struggle into the mainstream political colloquy.

I have written this article, and the series of articles to follow, under a byline I don’t usually use. This byline displays my legal name, my Chinese name, my real name. I was born in China. I grew up Chinese. And now, I sit halfway around the world, watching people who look like me and speak like me inflict horrifying atrocities upon individuals who don’t. When I first began thinking up this series of articles on China, I had a layout of topics all sprouting from this modern-day peninsula reckoning, from the mass detention of Uigher Muslims in the northwestern Xinjiang region to the Tibetan uprising of 2008 and the self-immolation protests of the 2010s. I thought Hong Kong would be an exemplary to all these issues pertaining to the Chinese one-party surveillance state that is now eager to extend its values overseas in its assumption of a world leadership position.

With that being said, because every Western news outlet and government agency has written the Hong Kong protesters as “pro-freedom” “freedom fighters,” it’s easy to think of the movement as patently progressive. My purpose in publishing this piece and this series is to critically examine the Chinese condition, as I see a debilitating flaw in the way we think about the East and confront these issues in an economic and political capacity. My hope is that as you read, you find yourself saying, “Wait. NowThis never published a video about THAT.”

Let me make the following clear before I say anything further. Yes, I was born on the mainland. No, I do not speak Cantonese. Yes, I was raised for a large portion of my life in the U.S. Yes, I go to a private liberal arts college.

Anti-mainland resistance in Hong Kong had brewed for two decades now since its 1998 handover from the British, but never on the scale this year has seen. It’s jarring but inspiring to Westerners: watching vehement, collectivized opposition to a government with a reputation of being ruthless in quashing dissent. As I’m writing this, the unrest has been going on for about seven months in the vigor for which it has garnered international support. Police recently stormed Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which had been occupied by student protesters. In mid-August, demonstrators marched on Hong Kong International Airport’s main terminal, grounding all flights. Videos of protesters jump-kicking police and images of police shooting protesters at point-blank range populate and propagate on Twitter.

Something that has been made very clear is that an extradition bill alone did not incite this violence. The withdrawal process was completed in late October, but war cries have shifted to the larger issue exemplified by the bill: the authoritarian nature of the Communist Party of China (C.P.C.) its crimes against humanity, and its crusade against freedom of expression. Hong Kong is perhaps a uniquely perfect arena for this battle: federal extractions of political dissidents and opponents based out of the peninsula and its surrounding islands have been occurring for years. The detention of a Hongkongese book publisher, the arrest of a billionaire in the middle of his lunch at the Four Seasons, and President Xi Jinping’s placement of all print media under the direction of the Party's Central Propaganda Department, as the New York Times calls it. (China calls it the Publicity Department.) The Hong Kong issue is a four-way intersection of Great Power Conflict katzenjammers, from Xi’s economic prospectives to the soft power struggle in the south Pacific to the conduct and identity of the protesters themselves, and where their rhetoric in its current form sits relative to their case.

Xi’s Great Bluff

In terms of its political strength, something that was heavily put to the test in 2019, the Communist Chinese government’s greatest source of fear is the beckoning appeal of American social and economic freedom, a by-definition departure from the socialist values that Xi strictly maintains on the mainland. This is why it must participate in censorship, political groupthink, and the use of anti-corruption narratives as a means to lock up political dissidents within the government: to disrupt the forces that compelled Libyans to drag their exiled leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, out of a hole in the ground to collectively dismember the staunch image he had long maintained as a dictator.

Xi himself is a de facto dictator produced over decades by the dictatorship that has groomed over 1.3 billion heads below a cloud of unchecked pollution and security cameras. He is a vile lizard bleeding of middle-aged contentment, blind to the type of ideology he has subscribed himself to as a result of his soundproof conscription of China’s core values and ethnic principles, a brand of thinking labeled “Xi Jinping Thought,” recruiting ideas as soldiers to maintain the backward, majority-sustaining, and minority-oppressing dystopia of Mao Zedong’s perverted vision of what a free China should be. George Orwell was not writing about China when he wrote 1984, but still, China has unknowingly inhibited a substantial volume of every facet of the book—the use of censorship and groupthink to effect political goals, the manipulation of language to distort historical implications, the bulky surveillance state, and the absolute, all-seeing, and popular autocratic figure at the head of the snake: a Big Brother that is a warm, grinning, round-nosed, puffy-eyed, chubby uncle instead of a steel-eyed, tight-lipped, high-cheeked military man. “Xi Jinping Thought” is more like “Xi Jinping Groupthought.”

When I was ten years old, I mistakenly came across news footage of Tibetan monks setting themselves on fire in protest of Chinese occupation and restriction on Buddhist practices. I could not look away then and have not forgotten a single shaven face. Self-immolation protests continue to this day. Yoga is hardly the first thing that comes to my mind when I see the Dalai Lama on my news feed. Weeks ago, I watched hidden camera footage filmed by Uigher parents, of meetings with national police who brought news of their children’s deaths to their door, without the body on hand but a cash envelope in exchange for silence. I’ve been watching secret footage of morning routines in the concentration camps in the Northwest, where thousands of Muslims are being forced to renounce their beliefs and practices as China fights Islamic extremism by rewriting the Qu’ran and placing anyone who has ever traveled to a Muslim-majority country in indefinite detention. But what a lot of people don’t understand is why mainland Chinese folks are largely okay with all this. Many would suggest it is because they themselves are not the victims, that they are taught to practice the brand of apathy that is universal in territorial disputes and racial or religious intolerance. Others might say it’s the result of newspeak and strict information control. Some, including myself, would point to the widespread conservatism that hounds the mainland Chinese mindset. Some others, including myself, would suggest Chinese people really are that ruthlessly indifferent about a group they have been taught to hate by filtered history and tribalism. Resting solely on the dual-nation environment I know, all of the above are true in some sense, made possible by uniquely Chinese values disseminated through what exists today as ideological grooming by a ruling Party grasping for ways to hold on to its political crutches.

Understanding this is crucial to understanding why the Hong Kong protests are a worldwide phenomenon. Folks on the mainland are widely disincentivized to participate in politics, mostly because newspapers act as free language arts textbooks for children because nobody reads them; nothing negative is ever in the headline. If you want a taste, visit the front page of the Global Times, the main state media body. Hong Kong enjoys the opposite of this. The “one country, two systems” policy has allowed for a much more fervent political identity on the peninsula. Compare the Global Times’ front page to that of the South China Morning Post’s. The field of economics has this thing called a “natural experiment” in which a scenario develops alongside a control outside an experimental setting. Because facts flow freely in Hong Kong but not on the mainland, there can only be one region that is politically emboldened to speak up. It’s difficult to actively dissent when crucial information is kept under tabs by an extremely popular ruling party, which itself feeds that disinformation.

However, the doctrine that holds up this political construct is economic. India has used the U.S.’s desire to tackle climate change as a way of finding unsanctioned methods of human rights abuses in Kashmir’s Assam region, but China seems to see a financial avenue to reinforcing the value system it is clutching on to. This brings us to the issue of soft power, a term coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye, Jr. that refers to the nonmilitary installation of favorable relations with a strategically important foreign nation. The postwar conception of the soft power concept is frequently put forth hand in hand with the self-edifying argument embodied by folks like neoliberal sweetheart Pete Buttigieg that “if you want peace and prosperity, you want American primacy and capitalism,” as described by Yale historian Michael Brenes. However, the way I use the term in this article is to refer to any sort of Chinese investment in positive public attitudes abroad as ideological buttresses in its global strategy. The Trump administration still exudes considerable muscle in the South Asian region in terms of soft power. China’s broad foreign investments abroad as well as its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, however, are leveling the playing field. China spends $10 billion annually on soft power initiatives, but the U.S. still scores more favorably in global surveys. As it stands, Hong Kong is still the U.S.’s most significant ideological outpost in the region, as China hasn’t made much of an effort to reclaim it fully from Western influence following British abdication under a “one country, two systems” policy.

Trade and foreign investment is how China will disseminate its socialist values. But what has not quite been defined yet in the international appeal of China’s system is the efficiency of that system itself, a flaw that gapes when confronted with the extraordinarily unique situation in Hong Kong. Xi’s international economic aspirations represent a brunt departure from the days of Deng Xiaoping when the implications of China’s authoritarian structure were largely confined within its borders underneath a low-key brand of foreign policy, a strategy that paid off very fruitfully for China’s interior development following decades of disastrous leadership under dotard-mode Mao Zedong. The modern-day Great Power Conflict, a mutation of the growth under President Hu Jintao (Hu’s foreign growth initiatives came somewhat at the expense of the domestic condition), is a play between broad economic interests, in which China has set its global stake in the long term, prepared to afford small losses in the short run toward this grand vision of a world fortified by not just Chinese yuan, but also Chinese values.

If we evaluate China’s financial hand from this year, however, we find that 2019 offered plenty of hiccups for Beijing. There was the Huawei controversy that garnered international chide against Chinese communications technology. There was the costly fallout from the trade war with the Trump administration. But most significantly for Xi, there was a skyrocketing of government debt at the local level. Concerning the rising debt, Xi only has himself to blame, as his centralizing of power has lowered efficiency at the local levels of government, according to an assessment by Elizabeth C. Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a specialized issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that examined the global decline of democracy.

With respect to domestic reactions to Xi’s expansive initiatives, taking into account the aforementioned economic hiccups, the Chinese government’s stringent information control network has made it difficult to gauge the popularity and efficacy of his ideas. This means that the West’s conception of Chinese mainlanders as a politically and ideologically homogeneous body could likely be of an image of formidability and absolution conceived through U.S. insecurity surrounding its own hegemony, in addition to withering appeal of the American system abroad thanks to the chaos of the Trump administration.

Xi’s proposed solutions to the aforementioned economic hiccups, in addition to Hong Kong, suggest this conception’s contrary. He proposed a) tighter control over the Internet, and b) yet another slew of indoctrination techniques to keep Chinese youth thinking on the same wavelength. Back in 2012, during the final days of the Hu presidency, following years of capital and brain drain as the wealthiest mainlanders fled to Hong Kong and a series of protests among the agricultural and working classes, the state media group Global Times conducted a poll that found “more than 70 percent of the respondents said they believed that the government should further accept public supervision from the public and the media.” Nothing in political fundamentalist Xi’s candidacy back then suggested he’d carry out these forms instead of just effecting more state-enforced thought control and happier newspaper headlines.

Chinese officials themselves are reportedly mixed in their reactions to Xi’s dialogue on 2019’s economic battles. They fear the constant efforts for strength and stability may lead in the opposite direction it’s meant, according to Chris Buckley of the New York Times in his analysis of the C.P.C.'s assemblies from earlier this year. “As Xi begins his second five-year term as C.C.P. general secretary and (soon) president, there are signs that the new model’s very successes are becoming liabilities,” writes Elizabeth C. Economy in another article for Foreign Affairs. “He has driven the Chinese Communist Party more deeply in