The Chinese world is at a critical juncture. Ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and looming cries for independence on Taiwan threaten the political stability of the People’s Republic and the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Of course, only time will tell how this all plays out, but Philadelphia Inquirer Worldview Columnist Trudy Rubinrecently took a trip to mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and came to CSCC to share her insights.
Rubin’s trip lasted 3 weeks around Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. In Hong Kong, what struck her the most was the disconnect of how Beijing understood societal dynamics in Hong Kong and how off base they were in describing the causes of the recent demonstrations. She claimed that the protests seemed to be about rule of law, while some one the mainland believe their origins to be economic. During a daily demonstration in Central, Hong Kong’s main business district, Rubin interviewed several people and common heard “we don’t want Beijing killing our children” and “we don’t want another Tiananmen.” Young people on university campuses talk about the rule of law as something sacred, yet continued violence does not seem like the way forward for a Pan-Democratic leadership in Hong Kong. Chief Executive Carrie Lam is refusing dialogue, and the mainland will not give in to conducting an investigation of police violence against demonstrators. Although the recent elections showed massive support for the pro-democracy movement, uncertain leadership may ultimately threaten democratic stability.
The situation in Hong Kong has markedly affected the situation on Taiwan. The current President, Tsai Ing-wen, had seen steadily decreasing approval ratings over the course of 2019, but her reelection campaign includes an openly pro-independence running mate. After this happened, Rubin noted, Beijing sailed its new aircraft carrier into the Taiwan Straits, showing the commitment to reunification under the PRC’s leadership rather than that in Taipei. Assuming now that Tsai will be reelected, how does Taiwan move forward? Chinese President Xi Jinping grows ever more impatient, while Tsai continues to espouse rhetoric about a sovereign Taiwan. Under U.S. President Donald Trump, American protection of Taiwan seems unlikely: can Taiwan rely on U.S. unpredictability?
Finally, Rubin recanted her experiences on the mainland, where Xi’s cult of personality grows stronger every day. She spoke with people at universities who said that professors spend up to 8 hours per week studying Xi Jinping Thought, the Marxist-Leninist philosophy that emphasizes a strong role for the Party within the state. Other academic debates center on China’s role in international affairs, and whether it has the DNA to dominate the world. The Chinese world thus rests on the backs of two unpredictable leaders: will Xi rule with an iron fist and assert dominance over areas bursting with cries for democracy? And will Trump be there to stand up for global democratic values?