Mao Zedong was the ultimate revolutionary, and one wonders how he might think about Beijing’s reaction to the Hong Kong protest situation today. Would he side with the protesters?
One of the key concerns of the dissidents has been income inequality between the elites and the normal folks who find difficulty in getting decent jobs and housing in Hong Kong.
Mao might have jumped on this like a June bug as he did in 1927, when he launched the Communist Revolution in China and again in 1966 when — believing that his own Communist Party ruling elites had become too big for their proverbial britches — he slapped them down hard in the Cultural Revolution where elites were exiled to the provinces to get the full peasant experience first-hand.
More likely, Mao would see the protesters in the streets of Hong Kong as overindulged bourgeoise who are incredibly spoiled compared with the bulk of Chinese in the early part of the last century. He also might well be dismissive of the Western media in siding with the Hong Kong mob against the central government in Beijing. All other things aside, Mao was a xenophobic Chinese nationalist and cared very little about world opinion beyond the Middle Kingdom’s borders.
Regarding President Xi Jinping and current ruling elites in Beijing, Mao would have probably had contempt for their lack of strong action in the face of obvious rebellion in a rogue province. No doubt, he would have considered the Beijing government’s reforms since his death to be counterrevolutionary blasphemy. The very thought of capitalism and communism existing side-by-side in China would be anathema to everything Mao held dear.
What would Mao have done in this situation? Regarding Hong Kong, he would have sent the people’s Revolutionary Army (PLA) into Hong Kong to ruthlessly crush dissent. The current unrest might be considered to be leaderless, but Mao would merely solve this dilemma by rounding up everybody who might be a dissenter in thought or deed. Simultaneously, he would cut off most contact with the West to include the Internet and social media for as long as it took to re-establish order.
Mao was able to isolate China for two-and-a-half decades, ignoring international opinion because he knew the world would come knocking to a quarter of the world’s economic market when he finally gave the go-ahead. Those who disagreed — including Mr. Xi and the Hong Kong protesters — would spend years in re-education camps harvesting rice in rural regions in order to contemplate the error of their ways. Mao tolerated neither dissent nor weakness. He would view China as rife with both today.
Fortunately for China, Chairman Mao achieved room temperature nearly four decades ago; but President Xi is in a tough spot. He is no Mao. This is 2019 — not 1969 — and the world has changed. The social contract between Mr. Xi and the nation’s people is that they will give a hand wave toward communism while doing their best to pursue capitalistic goals of economic self-improvement.
A hard crackdown in Hong Kong will almost certainly destroy the current policy of political and economic outreach that has created unprecedented growth in the country for four decades. The option of trying to turn China into an inward-leaning, ideologically-pure hermit state no longer exists. But failing to crack down on the Hong Kong demonstrations will almost certainly put Mr. Xi in trouble with the hardline members of the political elites in Beijing — to include the PLA.
This brings us to the question of America’s role. We should give moral support to the Hong Kong citizens resisting the slide into centralized autocratic rule from Beijing and anyone else who supports democracy, but we need to stay out of China’s internal business. Two decades of trying to reform two countries that we barely understand should be an important life lesson.
Our form of democratic government works for us, but even it is under attack at home from progressives who don’t think it is democratic enough and a growing proportion of millennials who would prefer to be ruled by experts rather than elected officials. This is a poor time for us to be lecturing anyone about proper governance.
If Mr. Xi tries to emulate Mao, he’ll fail; China and the world have changed too much. If he does nothing, he will appear weak; and likely be replaced by another ambitious bureaucrat, committee or soldier who’ll face the same issues. It couldn’t happen to a nicer group of Commies.
• Gary Anderson lectures in Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.