China’s Choice

PENANG – Much to the Chinese government’s chagrin, a major pro-democracy movement has seized the streets of Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” of China with a long history of colonization and repression. But China’s problem with Hong Kong is rooted less in the region’s history than in its own.

Centralized governance has been the rule in China for more than two millennia, with sporadic moves to challenge the system considered destabilizing and dangerous. After all, challengers would forcefully carve out their own kingdoms and, if they grew powerful enough, attempt to seize the imperial throne.

Such figures have had a lasting impact on the Chinese leadership’s psyche. In 2012, the Chongqing region’s Communist Party boss, Bo Xilai – a prominent and charismatic figure who was widely expected to join the elite ranks of the Politburo Standing Committee – was abruptly removed from his post and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption. While the allegations against Bo were both serious and well-founded, his outsize personality, powerful influence, and lofty ambitions – all of which made him a potential threat to the status quo – likely played a role in his downfall.

Chinese politics has always been a winner-take-all game. Until the late nineteenth century, it was common for entire clans of ruling elites to be executed after losing a power struggle. As a result, China’s leaders do not know how to cope with the kind of intra-governmental and inter-regional conflicts that are commonplace in modern states, or with the notion of a loyal opposition, particularly one with a strong local or regional base.