TIME world affairs

China’s New Identity Crisis

Activists Take To The Streets As China Votes On Hong Kong Election Process
Protesters take part of the rally for the beginning of Occupy Central movement outside Central Government Offices on August 31, 2014 in Hong Kong, China. Lam Yik Fei—Getty Images

Zheng Wang is the Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS) at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Hong Kong is not Beijing, and 2014 is not 1989

Today, students are attempting to occupy the streets outside Hong Kong’s central government complex; 25 years ago, the students occupied Tiananmen in Beijing. However, Hong Kong is not Beijing, and 2014 is not 1989. These similar actions have taken place in entirely different contexts, even though Beijing’s political control is behind both of the events. It is important for us to identify the real sources of the current conflicts in Hong Kong, and not get sidetracked by simple reflections back to Tiananmen.

On the surface, the turmoil in Hong Kong is caused by Beijing’s decision regarding general elections. In reality, the deep sources of the conflict are not so different from the recent large-scale outbreaks of social tensions in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan. These tensions should not be seen as isolated political battles with Beijing, but rather should be heard as both the battle cry of China’s new identity crisis and a conflict of globalization. For these places, globalization has to some extent become “Chinaization” or “Mainlandization.” These recent events can be explained by the globalization theory “Jihad vs. McWorld.” This theory describes globalization as dialectical interactions between modern commercial fundamentalism and traditional parochialism. It argues that the expanding global commerce and the corporate control of the political process has weakened the autonomy and power of local communities, threatening the identity and culture of the smaller communities while at the same time leading to the reassertion of ethnic and religious identities.

In Hong Kong we can see clearly the effect “McWorld” has had, even though the further integration with mainland China brought prosperity to the city. But most of the advantages and profits produced by this process have gone to business tycoons and corporate elites. Much like the American rallies against the “1%” in recent years, the remaining grassroots population experiences the problems that this success has brought.

Due to the arrival of large numbers of newcomers and the flow of outside capital to Hong Kong, the real estate market has skyrocketed, pricing out much of the population while also increasing everyday cost of living. Large numbers of visitors have made the city quite crowded, leading the local people to worry that further integration will threaten their way of living, the identity of the city, and most of all the distinction of Hong Kong from the mainland that they so cherish.

In Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Tibet there is another story of globalization. The Uighurs, Taiwanese, and Tibetans feel they have been marginalized. For the Uighurs population, their response is jihad. In recent years we have seen the violent attacks in Xinjiang and other parts of mainland China. These violent actions can to some extent be seen as local resistance and rebellion in response to this marginalization and threat of identity, though any terrorist actions should be condemned.

Whereas the Hong Kong students went to the street to protest, a group of Hong Kongese business tycoons went to Beijing and met with the Chinese leadership. Beijing was pleased to gain their support. It is similarly common in Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang for elites to have maintained good relations with Beijing. The CCP has garnered support from the successful elites, while keeping their growth tied closely to Beijing. There are many cases of major Taiwanese corporations having relocated their headquarters from Taiwan to the mainland. The huge market the mainland offers has brought enormous profits to the Taiwanese business community. For example, a Taiwanese company in Mainland China manufactures almost all iPhones.

This phenomenon can be explained by another theory of globalization: “integrated on top, collapsed on the bottom.” When the elites of the different regions and industries gain from globalization, they become more united and integrated behind the banner of shared economic interests. On the other hand, even though the living standards of people in the grassroots have been improving in recent years, they have suffered many of the negative consequences of the globalized economy, such as the demise of their established traditions, cultural morality, and identity.

It is in this identity crisis that the different groups have chosen to express their protests. The recent student movement in Taiwan against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China has been the Taiwanese response. While the protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan should not be confused for any type of jihad like that of the Uighurs’, they nonetheless underscore common issues. Unfortunately, Beijing is not well versed in handling identity issues. Identity-based conflict is different than interest-based conflict. People won’t change their cultural identity, whether by intimidation or by compensation. Both the proposition of bribes and the threat of use of force often only worsen a situation, as people remain steadfast to their identity. Beijing lacks an understanding of this concept and how to remedy it.

Hong Kong’s problem will continue for as long as the structural sources of conflict cannot be addressed. The identity crises in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Tibet will surely become Beijing’s real tests and dilemmas. How well the Chinese leadership deals with these crises will determine China’s rise and future development. From this perspective, the identity issues have a real global impact, as does the street movement in Hong Kong.

Zheng Wang is the Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS) at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME China

Tiananmen as the Turning Point: China’s Impossible Balancing Act

The 1989 Choice: China’s Paradox of Seeking Democracy and Wealth
A lone demonstrator stands down a column of tanks June 5, 1989, at the entrance to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The incident took place on the morning after Chinese troops fired on pro-democracy students who had been protesting in the square since April 15, 1989 CNN—Getty Images

To understand the country today, look to the unusual choices the regime made following the 1989 demonstrations, when the country pivoted to opposite extremes in economics and politics.

Twenty-five years is long enough to reflect on the real impact and consequences of an event. Unfortunately, for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, a major event that changed the country’s direction, one won’t find any discussion or reflection in the Chinese media. The Chinese people have a very strong historical consciousness, but their historical memory is always selective. In the past few years, I have given lectures and taught courses at several universities in China where, to my surprise, Chinese students from elite universities knew very little about this incident, even though most of them know a lot about the war between China and Japan that ended nearly 70 years ago. However, they cannot be blamed, as there is no access to open resources for them to learn the details of this event.

Over the past quarter century, China has experienced dramatic transformations. Many of these changes, positive and negative, can be traced back to the choice the regime made in 1989. After the student movement, the legitimacy-challenged Chinese Communist Party (CCP) made an unusual decision. They abandoned their approach of balancing economic reform and political reform that had been in practice since the first decade of China’s reform and opening up. For economic reform, they went to the extreme “liberal” and radical; for political reform, they went to the extreme “conservative” and rigid. This is the “1989 choice.” Basically, the government separated important issues so it could focus on priorities without trying to keep a balance.

As its top priority, the CCP has tried every means to maintain stability and social order. At the social level, it has tried to separate political life and social life. The government applies tight social controls and tries unthinkable methods to suppress possible activities by opposition forces. The government’s budget for maintaining social stability is higher than the defense budget. Compared with 25 years ago, today’s China has less freedom of speech. Although social media has created new channels to express opinions, today’s Chinese media control is stricter than that of the 1980s. However, in everyday life the government actually provides citizens with lots of freedom regarding non-political activities. Over 25 years, China has transformed from a Maoist state to an entertainment center. In recent years, however, we have seen a decline of morality, from corruption and scandals to a lack of beliefs and a focus on money. It is not an exaggeration to say that China is facing a social crisis.

At the same time, Beijing bravely embraced a market economy and globalization. The country became the world’s factory and benefited greatly from globalism. After China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping removed Zhao Ziyang, an advocate for market reforms, as party secretary in 1989, Beijing conducted economic reforms that were bolder than Zhao’s. Over the past 25 years, China has experienced significant economic development, such as going from the ninth world economy to the second world economy.

Many of today’s problems, such as corruption, pollution, and the development gap, can also be traced back to the government’s 1989 choice. The economic reform and opening up have brought China unprecedented wealth and power. However, like the recent story of a young Chinese man who sold his kidney to purchase a new iPad, China has paid a very high price with its environment, morality, and society for its development. After 25 years of rapid growth, the new administration has noticed that it is in a difficult situation regarding new sources of economic growth. Following the significant increase of Chinese labor wages, China is losing its competiveness as the world’s factory. The rapid growth of the real estate market has significantly contributed to China’s GDP growth. However, it is clearer that this path is unsustainable. It has already created a large housing bubble and become a source of social unrest.

Moreover, the government has tried to separate domestic politics and foreign policy. So the CCP is embracing nationalism in its domestic politics and using nationalism and patriotic education in order to strengthen the party’s legitimacy as the ruling party and to increase social cohesion. In terms of foreign relations, China has embraced globalism in the past 25 years. The government follows an open door policy, and joined the World Trade Organization. In recent years, however, we can see that this separation has created many problems. For example, the rise of nationalism has influenced China’s foreign policy-making more and more. Influenced by patriotic education and nationalist narratives, the younger Chinese generations have grown more nationalistic, and they strongly criticize the government for being soft in dealing with issues, such as the South China Sea and Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The government has already found itself in such a dilemma that it has very little flexibility to deal with external disputes with rising nationalism at home.

In 1989, the main claims of the pro-democracy movement included asking the government to conduct political reform, to curb corruption and privileges enjoyed by the children of top leaders, to publicize the income of the governmental officials, and to stop media censorship. After 25 years, it is quite unfortunate that all but one of these claims has yet to be realized. In fact, the situation in the above mentioned areas are much worse compared with 25 years ago. For example, since then we have witnessed enormous expansions of power by privileged officials and family members. Recent news reports have disclosed that several major industries crucial to economic development—such as electricity, oil and gas, and telecommunications—have even been manipulated by several families, such as former Premier Li Peng and ex-security tsar Zhou Yongkang.

The one demand that has been accomplished is the increase in education funding and the higher salaries for intellectuals. China’s rapid development growth has brought the regime huge resources to buy the loyalty of intellectual elites. Common interests have united scholars, entrepreneurs, and government officials who only 25 years ago stood divided in Tiananmen Square. Now they have become stakeholders and co-owners of the new China Inc. For example, professors in China’s top universities now regularly receive generous state funding for research. It appears that those in China at the top of the social ladder are content with sharing the dividends of their prosperity while singing the praises of market economy and the stability of single-party rule. Even though the 1989 choice and the extreme policies have created huge problems and dilemmas for the current CCP government, there is one thing that the government no longer worries about: today’s intellectuals and college students are concentrating on making money and realizing their own personal Chinese dreams of power and wealth. Thus, it is highly unlikely they will take to the streets again.

Zheng Wang is the Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies Seton Hall University and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He is the author of Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, which is the winner of the International Studies Association’s Yale H. Ferguson Award.

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