As Hong Kong is gripped in chaos and violence, there is something interesting about the ‘strongly condemn’ statements that Hong Kong SAR Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor puts out at her rare press conferences. Completely in line with the rules prevalent on the Mainland, the first thing she condemns is always the harm done to national symbols of the People’s Republic. A stained national crest or flags thrown into the harbour get precedence over the violence and disorder that has parents dragging their tear-gassed children into lifts to escape the mayhem around their own homes. Much has been written in the recent weeks about the causes of Hongkongers’ disaffection with Beijing and their local government. However, besides the economic and political fundamentals that are not going away, one more problem prevents the people from getting closer to a resolution: total alienation from their leaders.
Every time they turn on their television, the average Hong Kong citizen is faced with the surreal alternative world inhabited by the local elite. There is a strong disconnect between what people see on their streets and the statements coming from officials, pro-Beijing politicians, mainstream celebrities, and the pro-Beijing press. The Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to bring the elite in line with its ideological orthodoxy is creating radical alienation. This is something that happens everywhere the Party aims to expand its control, but the extreme situation makes Hong Kong a good example of the difficulty of totalitarian soft power without totalitarian hard power.
As Václav Havel has pointed out, when a classically totalitarian country changes into a post-totalitarian system, the all-powerful dictator is replaced with that of a self-contained structure of lies: the ‘ideology’. No longer do the commands and wishes of the Dear Leader run the state and fight off challengers. Instead, the self-replicating system of lies maintains power for the Party. Statements such as ‘serving the proletariat’—which formerly had at least some substance—have by now become signalling devices that indicate submission to the Party. The Leninist vocabulary that people have to internalise serves only to prolong its hold over power.
In the uttering of Hong Kong’s elite, the words ‘One Country Two Systems’ and ‘rule of law’ have become unrelated to their original substance; now they make the leaders complicit in the lie. They are shibboleths that signal the person who utters them submits to the system. In return for surrendering their credibility to a logic that only works within the system, they get to partake in its benefits.
But since in Leninism the power of the Party trumps everything else, you cannot burst the bubble of its self-contained logic of lies. A post-totalitarian state has to ‘falsify’ everything: all actors have to live within its lies that reproduce its power at all levels of society. People who, as Havel put it, ‘live within their truth’ are dangerous, because they bring in a logic that the Party cannot control. The plot of reality has its own, uncontrollable direction that has no sympathy for the Party’s supposed infallible and sacrosanct power. It has to be kept at bay.
Under direct rule, the Party can to impose a truth under the threat of violence and using its monopoly on media and education. However, outside its direct rule, it cannot use hard power to deal with people living their own truths. This is a problem, because its system depends on forcing compliance with the CCP’s own reality. As a good Leninist party, it uses the United Front to co-opt groups outside the Party. What the United Front does is take over or found groups and force them into the party reality. That is how you get groups for Chinese overseas in New Zealand waxing lyrically about Xi Jinping’s great diplomatic acumen and the wonderful benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative. It does not matter how far divorced from the daily life of the average Chinese-Newzealander such party-speak is. This is how the organisation reproduces the Party’s power, which then allows the Party to use similar newspeak to instruct them to undertake certain actions.
However, this takes the Party’s agents out of the target population’s truth. In the case of such overseas Chinese business groups they can ameliorate that by having all businesspeople repeat the lies, but they still only capture the elite. Merchants have hard financial interests in playing along. Normal people can only be reached with soft power. But it is hard to build soft power on lies. If you are dealing with large populations, that leads to problems. More recent migrants might still be plugged into the alternative universe on WeChat or Weibo, but in the other cases, it leads to alienation. You have effectively walled off the co-opted elite from the people and their daily reality.
Karl Marx coined the term alienation to point out how far factory work controlled by capitalists removed the worker from what had meaning to themselves. They became tools whose inner consciousness was no longer required. Under the planned economies of the Soviet Union and Maoist China, this alienation was taken to an extreme when the state—now in total control of all productive factors—determined the everyday lives of its workers with absurd detail. Party secretaries even had to sign off on marriage partners. Your entire life had become a tool for the glory of the socialist economy. A similar situation is the case with the post-totalitarian system: you do not live according to your own convictions, but according to the lies the system tells you to make your own.
Since the PRC began preparing for the return of Hong Kong to a Chinese government, the Party has moved to get the city’s elite in line. It becomes clearer every day how many heavy-handed CCP attempts there are to force in line community leaders, unofficial organisations, media, publishing, mainstream celebrities, and local politicians. The result is double blindness. When Beijing turns on official television, it will only hear the reality it has itself created. Real Hongkongers love China, One Country Two Systems is the best, rule of law depends on following the government, the people of Hong Kong are upset by the damaging of national symbols, the police is only fighting rioters, there was no gang attack. Local elite starts spreading non-sense about foreign agents instigating protests, because they seemingly cannot conceive a reality where these protests come from genuine popular sentiment.
Meanwhile, the common people of Hong Kong—no matter to what degree they support protest and democratisation—see a surreal spectacle when they look at their own leaders. Rather than a serious appraisal of the teargassed reality outside their own window, they hear their Chief Executive and celebrities echo inane CCP-approved speaking points. There is no official actor left in Hong Kong that has not been reduced to spreading the official lies.
How can Hong Kong reconcile the conflict in its society when the people are worse off than lacking representation? The daily observations of an average city-dweller are so out of the CCP-approved reality that they cannot even be mentioned by those in charge. The Party’s ontology is such that every ‘fact’ has to comply with the Party’s unquestioned correctness or it cannot be observed. The result is that the PRC’s only solution will be suppression. Admitting the equal standing of the truth in which Hongkongers live will damage the lie that upholds the system.
We saw a different iteration of this problem on Taiwan under then-President Ma Ying-jeou. The KMT’s platform now consists of the promise that only its appeasement of the PRC can give Taiwan safety and dignity. With this agenda, President Ma sought to increase economic integration with China, most notable under the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). However, this led to great alienation among the Taiwanese public. As part of its appeasement of Beijing, the government in Taipei had to make statements about Taiwan’s international situation that were obviously at odds with its de facto independence. Moreover, both the KMT and CCP were ontologically unable to admit the reality of continued Chinese aggression against Taiwan. All of this came to head during the violence of police and unidentified gangsters against peaceful demonstrators during the Taipei visit of the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office head Chen Yunlin, which also saw the government remove ROC symbols along Chen’s route. This made a mockery of the KMT’s claim that only accepting the 1992 Consensus would give Taiwan respect, driven home once more by the public humiliation of Taiwanese K-Pop star Chou Tzu-yu for daring to wave an ROC/Taiwan flag on a live broadcast in South Korea.
In 2016 the people of Taiwan resoundingly rejected the KMT and its presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, who had gone so far into accepting the CCP’s system of lies that she seemed to be speaking about a different Taiwan altogether. However, the CCP’s United Front tactics have since continued to gain ground in Taiwan, even giving it some hard power. Most notably, it shapes public discourse in Taiwan through Tsai Eng-meng’s Want Want China Times Media Group. Both Reuters and the Financial Times have argued that the Taiwan Affairs Office (partially) controls the coverage of part of the popular press. Because of this, the lies of KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu might not be as alienating to some members of the public, since so many have already been drawn into the falsity.
However, polling data shows that Han Kuo-yu is not universally popular on the island. Although many Taiwanese are eager for the economic benefits of cooperation with China, they are not ready to suspend belief in reality. Similarly, survey data from Hong Kong shows that over the past years—when Beijing’s control of the SAR’s elite only increased—the number of Hongkongers identifying as Chinese only has decreased. Its heavy-handed attempts at exporting its version of reality has only fed alienation. Without complete hard power, elite capture in Hong Kong and elsewhere only works to estrange the public from its rulers. That is dangerous, because it leaves few people to control the resulting popular dynamic. It is the cause of what Western press agencies call China’s ‘restive regions’. Xinjiang and Tibet show that once a separate identity has taken root, even inhumane usage of extreme hard power is often not enough to make the people follow their subjugated elites.
If you are not used to it, to understand what it is like to live under a system so radically different as the PRC’s, you have to read widely, preferably authors who do have that direct experience. Some suggestions:
Havel, Václav. 2010. ‘The Power of the Powerless’. In The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, edited by Steven Lukes and John Keane, translated by Paul Wilson, 10–59. London: Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203857229.
Salecl, Renata. 1996. ‘National Identity and Socialist Moral Majority’. In Becoming National: A Reader, edited by Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny, 418–24. New York: Oxford University Press.
Scott, James C. 1998. ‘Chapter 5: The Revolutionary Party: A Plan and a Diagnosis’ in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Selznick, Philip. 1952. The Organizational Weapon: A Study of Bolshevik Strategy and Tactics. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Walder, Andrew G. 2015. China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.