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Taiwan and Hong Kong Have a Stake in Mainland China’s Political Development. They Should Act on It.

June 4 marks the 30th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.)’s violent suppression of the anti-corruption and pro-democracy protests that swept across mainland China in 1989. Over the three decades that followed, a range of observers and experts predicted that mainland China’s rapid economic modernization since the early 1990s would lead to social and political liberalization. Writing in 2008, the American political scientist Larry Diamond argued that politics in the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) would follow a path from authoritarianism to democracy like that of Taiwan. “[M]any of the political and normative consequences of economic development will be the same,” he wrote. “[I]f new generations of Chinese political leaders, technocrats, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and artists can be vigorously and yet respectfully engaged, the political outcome will, sooner or later, likely be the same as in Taiwan: some form of genuine democracy.”

Needless to say, that has not come to pass. The mainland’s economic reforms have neither led to liberal democracy nor social equality, nor have they enhanced transparency and accountability. Still, I am more optimistic when it comes to the potential for mainland China’s society to outgrow authoritarianism in the medium to long run. Here’s why.

It’s important to bear in mind that the disappointing outcome of mainland China’s political development to date was not due to lack of leadership by mainland Chinese democracy activists. Whereas 10 years ago the French political scientist Jean-Philippe Béja was probably right when he pointed to “a loose, unstructured movement that lacks a unified strategy and program,” China’s democracy movement is rapidly maturing. I have conducted longitudinal and comparative studies that reveal democracy activists in mainland China are increasingly aware that traditional strategies of either working exclusively within or exclusively outside the political system will not lead to transformative change. Politically active citizens in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong stand the best chance to succeed when simultaneously embracing a multitude of strategies aimed at pressuring the autocratic elites to accept liberal democracy as the “only game in town.” To achieve this objective, it is incumbent on democracy activists to bridge the gap between reformers working for change within the Chinese Party-state and those who muckrake and critique the C.C.P. from outside the system. Beyond that, for mainland China’s democracy movement to succeed, tacit support from Taiwanese and Hong Kong citizens will be crucial. While the latter are unlikely to subscribe to C.C.P. Chairman Xi Jinping’s idea of a “community of common destiny,” they could still see themselves as a community of citizens concerned about the lack of political progress in mainland China.

Despite fierce political repression by the C.C.P., mainland China’s democracy movement has developed by leaps and bounds. The anti-corruption and pro-democracy movement of 1989 was brutally suppressed by the People’s Liberation Army on June 4, but it also had inherent shortcomings in terms of its potential to affect lasting change: It lacked a clearly defined strategy or functioning organization, and activists made tactical errors. In 1998, dissidents attempted to remedy such shortcomings by trying to register the opposition China Democracy Party. Not surprisingly, this attempt was also thwarted by the C.C.P. It took until 2008 for mainland Chinese political activists to recover from these setbacks. Charter 08, a political declaration based on the six principles of freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy, and constitutional rule, not only formulated the goal of overcoming one-party rule but also sought to unify a highly fragmented democracy movement. In response, the C.C.P. harassed its signatories and went to great lengths to slow its dissemination. But as a kind of “grand strategy,” Charter 08 has nevertheless served as a cognitive map for subsequent political declarations or open letters originating in mainland China.

In 2009, the civil society organization Open Constitution Initiative, established by the well-known public interest lawyer and practicing Christian Xu Zhiyong along with other notable lawyers, was closed on trumped-up charges of tax evasion. For Xu and his supporters, this decision was a pivotal moment. It marked the transition from working through a Beijing-registered civil society organization to nation-wide social movement activism. In late 2009, Xu started an “education rights campaign to abolish the household registration (hukou) requirement for children to take national the university entrance examination (gaokao) by 2012,” as described by Human Rights in China. This initial campaign quickly transcended the initial demand for equal opportunity in education. In June 2010, activists called on Chinese people to sign an ambitious “citizen pledge” to stay true to their inner conscience; understand, respect, and care for others; obey and help implement mainland China’s constitutional law; strive for social justice; demonstrate social integrity; refuse job privileges; uphold professional ethics; participate in public affairs in a rational and non-violent way; support the establishment of China’s rule of law; donate money or volunteer; and other action points. Such advocacy of foundational morals, ethics, and political principles came to be known as the New Citizens Movement (NCM). Whereas only a few individuals had been involved in the top-down process of drafting Charter 08, the NCM took a distinctively bottom-up approach. Its reform goals were developed as part of a process of online and offline constituency building. In 2012, Xu conceptualized the NCM as a decentralized meta-movement representing a wide range of existing social movements aimed at promoting political, social, and cultural change as well as peace building. While Xu did not invent the NCM, he gave it a recognizable name and purpose and thus became its spiritus rector. Prior to a crackdown in 2013-2014, NCM activists garnered 100,000 signatures for a petition which led the Ministry of Education to allow migrant children to take the gaokao where they live. In mainland China’s cybersphere, the NCM encouraged Internet users to discuss the “New Citizen Spirit.” Offline, it called for people to organize lunch meetings to discuss political issues ranging from constitutional democracy to the need for C.C.P. cadres to declare their often ill-gotten assets. For his leading role in the NCM, Xu Zhiyong was imprisoned for four years between 2014 and 2017. Since his release from jail, he has publicly reaffirmed the NCM’s goals of changing China’s political system through active citizenship. In a video message to supporters in 2018, he stated that “[when] every one of us Chinese becomes a true citizen, our country will definitively have change[d].” The mainland’s increasingly assertive feminist movement as well as young Marxist students’ defying Party-state control are some of the clearest signs yet that the spirit of the NCM is vitally alive and reinvigorated by young and often female activists who are not afraid to exercise their citizenship.

In order to succeed, however, the NCM will need to build bridges between the pro-democracy camp and reformers within the C.C.P. Xu Zhiyong is aware of the limits of traditional strategies of either exclusively working within or outside the Party-state system. Instead, he advances the idea that “[the] most ideal reform model for China is to develop constructive political opposition groups outside the existing political system that can negotiate with progressive forces within the system to enact a new constitution and, together, complete a transition to constitutional democracy.” Xu Zhiyong’s political leadership in mainland China resembles the central role of Kang Ning-hsiang, an influential Taiwanese democracy activist of the 1970s and 1980s. Xu has the potential to become a key figure in unifying mainland China’s democracy movement, not unlike the role that Kang played in Taiwan’s democratization process. Kang came from a humble family background. As a former worker at a gas station, he received his management degree by attending night school at National Chung Hsing University. He played a crucial role in Taiwan’s democratization. Kang represented the Taiwanese dangwai (literally “outside the party”) opposition movement during a period of heightened political repression, not unlike the situation in mainland China today. He enjoyed a good personal relationship with President Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek. Throughout the 1980s, as Chiang evolved from dictator to political reformer, he gave tacit approval to Kang to internationalize the dangwai by leading a delegation to the United States, thus securing U.S. backing for Taiwan’s democratization. Kang also struck a balance between moderate and militant democracy activists within the dangwai.

But is there anything the NCM could perhaps learn from Hong Kong, the second bastion of liberal democracy at China’s periphery? Three of the key lessons from Hong Kong’s democratization movement are that a lack of unity among liberal democrats, an inability to synchronize a parliamentary reform approach with simultaneous street action, and increasingly nativist politics undermine the cause for liberal political reform. In 2003, political parties, religious groups, and civil society organizations in Hong Kong mounted a successful campaign to quash proposed anti-sedition legislation in the territory. Such unity, however, did not last very long. In recent years, the coalition of pro-democratic political parties known as the pan-democratic camp has splintered and very small parties have emerged: the Citizens Party (from 1997 until 2008), Democratic Alliance (since 2001), Civic Party (since 2006), League of Social Democrats (also since 2006), Neo Democrats (since 2010), Labour Party (since 2011), People Power (also since 2011), Civic Passion (since 2012), Youngspiration (since 2015), Third Side (also since 2015), Demosistō (since 2016), and the Hong Kong National Party (also since 2016; banned in 2018). This is problematic since, as Mathew Y. H. Wong, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, argues, “[with] more parties competing for the same group of supporters, the level of intra-camp competition has intensified.” In part due to a politically ineffective pan-democratic camp in Hong Kong’s parliament (the Legislative Council) citizens have repeatedly taken to the streets to defend their values and interests. The 2014 Umbrella Movement for universal suffrage ended without its key demands being met. Recent protests against the enactment of a proposed controversial law legalizing extraditions to mainland China attracted more than 130,000 demonstrators, according to organizers. Yet street action on its own is unlikely to reverse Hong Kong’s slide towards authoritarianism. Hong Kong’s democracy movement is playing defense, and nativist and anti-mainland political sentiment is on the rise.

All the while, Taiwan is gearing up for a divisive presidential election in January 2020. Increasing C.C.P. interference operations are already casting a shadow on the upcoming election. A highly polarized discourse about Taiwan’s political future already limits discussions about civic engagement across the Taiwan Strait.

This turn toward nativism at China’s periphery is a case of pathological learning. What we are now witnessing in all three regions is the emergence of three forms of nationalisms: a C.C.P.-led militant nationalism aimed at preserving mainland China’s crony-capitalist political system; a Taiwanese variant which has moved from ethnic and cultural to a more civic form of nationalism; and a nascent Hong Kong nationalism which could either take on the form of an ethnic and cultural or civic nationalism. From the perspective of those trying to liberalize China’s politics, nativism and nationalism—especially in their ethnic and cultural forms—are highly problematic in that they give the C.C.P. a pretext to equate liberal democracy with separatism. This in turn can also serve as another justification for the C.C.P. to clamp down on democracy activists in mainland China.

Instead of shutting the door towards mainland China, Taiwanese and Hong Kong citizens should recognize the stake they have in its political development. It is in their enlightened interest to see mainland China’s New Citizens Movement succeed. While more direct forms of support for the NCM may prove risky—see the fate of Taiwanese democracy activist Lee Ming-che, who received a five-year prison sentence in mainland China in November 2017—there are other ways to support it indirectly: Journalists can popularize the NCM’s goals, scholars can document its activities, and citizens in Taiwan and Hong Kong can stand in solidarity with mainland Chinese political activists such as the recently imprisoned young feminists and Marxist students. Such support could be highly symbolic and might encourage mainland Chinese democracy activists to redouble their efforts. The potential reward of a successful New Citizens Movement could be what Charter 08 signatories have called a “federation of democratic communities of China.” Benny Tai, one of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement leaders, has suggested that if the political regime in the mainland were to change, the three regions could go “independent, being part of a federal system or a confederation system similar to that of the European Union.” As mainland China’s political future is uncertain, and since a future democratic Chinese state could take on forms which transcend the current binary choice of unification versus independence, it is unfortunate that politicians in Taiwan and Hong Kong so far have been rather unimaginative and done little to promote civic exchanges between the three regions. The latter could help spur mainland China’s liberalization and democratization. It is thus incumbent upon citizens in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to exercise leadership. In this process, they may realize—despite whatever disagreements they have—that they also have shared ambitions and aspirations: to live a life in peace, prosperity, and most importantly free from fear.