Hong Kong and China

Hong Kong and China: the unsustainability of communism

Renato Cristin

Translated by Joshua Gregor

May 25, 2020

The pressure the Chinese government is putting on Hong Kong, and in particular on movements that claim relative independence from the central power of Beijing, has clear psychosocial characteristics. It shows traits of an obsessive-compulsive attitude that, when it crosses the bounds of the individual and becomes state behavior, becomes dangerous on a wide scale and on multiple levels. This attitude has a touch of the maniacal and shows a will for control (a specific variant of the generic will to power) which can only be explained if one thinks of totalitarian regimes, of their theoretical assumptions and their techniques of applying them – of which we unfortunately have no shortage of examples, ranging from basic, bloody mechanisms of slavery (à la Cambodia) to sophisticated (though no less bloody) forms of control and manipulation such as under the Nazis or Soviets. Joined to the practice of the systematic annihilation of political adversaries, this form typical of totalitarianism and characteristic of communism has produced repression, domination, destruction, and death: a criminal tide that continues to be a threat to all, to the entire world.

China’s action against Hong Kong reflects Beijing’s general tendency regarding minorities (of all types, ethnic and religious), showing its specific application to an external group that can be considered an extraneous body to be assimilated: a sac of financial liberalism in an economic organism that is no longer exclusively statist but is certainly subject to strong state control, a capitalist island in a communist sea, even if it is the modified twenty-first-century form of Chinese communism. Control in this instance must take forms different from those that Beijing uses with respect to minorities, from Christians to Tibetans. In the case of Hong Kong this control must be characterized as institutional control, economic first and then political. The repression of 2019 grew to the point of imposition of the central government’s will. A few days ago, that repression’s characteristic attitudes, warnings, and threats were seen once more. According to this logic, Hong Kong’s autonomy is being reduced to the point of elimination. Having excluded the pre-1997 option of “two countries, two systems,” and after letting it be understood that “one country, two systems” could be a workable formula, China is now trying to impose the option of “one country, one system,” and paradoxically could reach the point of accepting “two countries, one system,” because what is fundamental in post-Maoist thinking (which, under the form of the party, guides the fortunes of the world’s most populous country, one that aspires to become the world’s most powerful as well) is the system – what the notion of a system implies, what can be explained precisely through power. The Hong Kong autonomy movement is regarded by China as more than its defined scope: it is a symbol of something in danger of escaping from the clutches of the central authorities, above all those of the supreme authority – the Communist Party.

Much has changed in China since the end of Maoism as a closed and dogmatic ideological framework: profound transformations in social life, in the means of production, in international relations, but in this whole dynamic of change one thing has remained unaltered – the existence and power of the Communist Party. The Chinese government’s action, centered on party lines, is no longer strictly linked to Maoist orthodoxy or tied to Marxist-Leninist doctrine. This means that the party in power, a single and unchallenged party, is communist in name but slightly less so in fact; and therefore society in general is even less so. Indeed communism is not a monolithic bloc, identical in every moment in history and in every country: communism in Tito’s Yugoslavia was not the same as in Hoxha’s Albania; that of Erich Honecker’s East Germany was not the same as that of Pol Pot’s Cambodia; the socialism of Gamal el-Nasser’s Egypt was not the same as that of Nicolae Ceaușescu; and we could go on with such examples. This is not the place now to ask what these differences consist in and what their causes are, but we need to identify their common denominators and give evidence that they hinge on the will for control. Today’s China is less communist or, to put it better, communist in a different way than that of Mao’s era, although there remain concerning unknowns regarding the real abolition of laogai, the Maoist gulags. The new leaders have learned from the implosion of the Soviet Union; they have understood that the communist economic system is unsustainable in the long run, and have thus intervened in the most incisive and apparent weak point. But communist systems have another weak point as well: the privation of personal freedoms, the long-term consequences of which are no less devastating than the failed economic prescriptions. And so, with the same long-term view, current leaders must also intervene concretely and resolutely in this other colossal negative aspect of the system. Let us therefore formulate a theoretical hypothesis: if the change already effected represents the possibilities of further distancing from Maoism, and if the Chinese government wants to transform this potential into act, it must modify further aspects of its politics, both internal and external, starting with the question of freedom.

But is that really possible? The obstacle that blocks any attempt, any good intention on the part of the Chinese government, is represented by that hard and deep-rooted nucleus that consists in the will for control. This inescapably forces them to act as in the past, whether it produces effects considered positive by the regime or (as in the case of the virus produced in Wuhan) generates consequences objectively negative for the regime – and in this case, also because it was not immediately reported to the international community, absolutely devastating consequences for the whole world and in particular for the West. The current pandemic too is an involuntary effect (classifiable as “heterogenesis of ends”) of the general lack of freedom and the deep internalization – psychologically and doctrinally – of the drive for control within the great ideological-pragmatic mechanism that rules the Chinese regime and is made manifest in it. The pandemic is an indirect consequence of precisely this: when control as such works perfectly, people are deprived of freedom, society is enslaved, but the regime wins; but when in the exercise of control an organizational fault is revealed, society does not become more free (unless the organizational fault is one that presages the collapse of the system itself, as in the case of the Soviet Union and its satellites, but this is certainly not the case in today’s China) and the regime is harmed by it – obviously beyond the damage that, with the spread of the virus, this fault has caused in the West, damage for which the West will have to hold China fully accountable with all the institutional, legal, and diplomatic means at its disposal.

As is evident, the question revolves around a single point. Without radical action on this essential point of any communism, real or theoretical, softer forms of communism can take shape (as has already happened in history), without ever taking the decisive step of abandoning communism as a guiding system and social paradigm. The problem here is at once political and logical: if the will for control is the foundation for communism’s action is general, how can the manifestations of this action be radically changed without eroding that foundation? And on the other hand, if steps are not taken to change the will for control, how can we think of realizing a change of paradigm, that is, of abandoning communism? There is a single, unequivocal answer: it is impossible. Should the Chinese ruling class ever think of definitively departing from Maoist ideology, even gradually, and changing the paradigm, it will never succeed without taking action regarding the theoretical-practical nucleus of this paradigm. And since the real and objective facts show that Chinese political and governing brass continues to exhibit this same will for control, some small steps of departure from the Maoist line can be taken, but these will never go further than a pragmatically modified communism. On this level, then, the Chinese chessboard is at a stalemate: no decisive move seems possible.

And then? Must Hong Kong capitulate because the communist Moloch, constrained by its very ideological structure (and twistedness) cannot change any more than this? There is a certain, very narrow, possibility: a world superpower such a China today must take a decisive step in the direction of freedom, that is towards a free society that can openly face the free world, the West, without the lies and sophistic twists that we have seen since the Tiananmen Square massacre. And it must take this step not because it is forced by the free world, but of its own free choice, out of conviction that such is the only way to keep the colossus (which it is, in spite of everything) on its feet. China should dissolve the communist party persuaded by the historical need for such a step and the benefit that dissolution would bring for itself, its people, and its government. A great power should give evidence of being great, more than simply powerful. And since power is measured in material terms but greatness is judged by spiritual and moral criteria, it is on this ground that China must demonstrate to the world and to history that it is a “great power.”

Otherwise it will remain an economic power and a spiritual weakness, besides being a political object of shame and an ideological dinosaur doomed to fade sooner or later; and the judgment of history – not that of historians but that of the universal dynamic of history, will be unavoidably and drastically negative, both with regard to the crimes of Maoism (which objectively and morally demand condemnation and justice) and with regard to the errors of successive leadership (which are subjectively and pragmatically reprehensible, such as in the recent case of the Wuhan virus). The Chinese giant should have no fear of claims for autonomy coming a relative ant like Hong Kong, and therefore accept these requests without hesitation. Repression, as has happened thus far, renders China less credible and altogether odious in the eyes of the free world, and will end up concretely eroding its power, not at once but in the course of time. And since Chinese culture, beyond any ideologies and forms of government, has always paid close attention to historicity and the long term, authorities in Beijing should pay attention to long-term consequences, and thus reconsider their actions toward the former British colony, granting and respecting its autonomy. This is what a superpower should do, even one that unfortunately remains tied to the fetish of the communist party. But if it is not possible for it to reduce the intensity of the will for control, it will not be able to concede anything, and in time it will become less powerful.

Renato Cristin is a professor of philosophy at the University of Trieste, Italy.