China celebrates its 71st National Day on 1 October. The event marks Mao Zedong's 1949 proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. Xi Jinping, the current leader, has transformed the country into a global superpower. But his repressive policies are increasingly reminiscent of those of Mao – and Hong Kong is feeling the heat.
Beijing is staging meticulously choreographed performances under Mao’s portrait overlooking Tian’anmen Square. However, in Hong Kong, apart from an official flag-raising ceremony, all demonstrations have been outlawed.
On Monday, Hong Kong authorities outlawed a planned protest rally by a pro-democracy group, the latest refusal in a city where protest has been all but forbidden.
Traditionally, many Hong Kong people have used the day to take to the streets and protest against Beijing’s increasingly intrusive policies.
“The main reason given is not political,” Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist with Hong Kong’s Baptist University, told RFI. “It’s Covid.” The public is not welcome either at the 1 October flag-raising ceremony “in view of the current public health risk,” according to a Hong Kong government statement.
National Security Law
Since June, the city’s protesters were muzzled by a sweeping national security law that has criminalised calls for “Hong Kong independence” and made many think twice about expressing opinions in a region that used to be known as an island of freedom.
More than 10,000 protestors have been arrested over the last 16 months, and the courts are overwhelmed. Many prominent protest leaders face prosecution.
Meanwhile, China seems to have become more and more isolated.
“It looks like China is pushing its envelope everywhere and having difficulty is keeping good relations with its neighbours and its major partners like the United States,” says Cabestan, mentioning China’s border skirmishes with India, its increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and its interference in Hong Kong’s politics, in spite of “guarantees of autonomy”.
“China is unhappy to see India moving closer to the US and being less cooperative than before with China,” says Cabestan.
At the same time, according to Jean-Pierre Cabestan, China is making an effort to minimise tensions with countries and blocs with which it wants to have partnerships, including the EU, pointing out that the government’s actions are “much more subdued and cautious” than hardline rhetoric from the Global Times and other communist media outlets would suggest. Beijing is also keen to strengthen ties with developing countries that don’t want to get caught in the looming cold war between Beijing and Washington.
“China is trying to take advantage of this in order to not to be perceived as too isolated,” says Cabestan.
But the crucial reason for China’s increasing assertiveness and nationalism is to be found at the core of government: CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping.
Return to Maoism?
Since Xi came to power, his general policy seems to resemble more that of Mao Zedong than of Deng Xiaoping, the master reformer, who opened China’s doors to western investment in 1978 and raised hopes of a more liberal atmosphere.
“Since the Deng Xiaoping era, the theory prevailed that China is fully pragmatic, and that it shed its ideological heritage from the USSR,” Alice Ekman, a Senior Analyst with the EU Institute for Strategic Studies, told RFI.
But Ekman, author of the book Rouge Vif, which analyses Xi Jinping’s major policy speeches, says that Deng “never fully turned the page of Maoism,” and that Xi Jinping has brought Mao’s ideology back to a level not seen in decades.
“China has become the second biggest economy in the world,” says Ekman. And party ideologues, led by Xi Jinping, see the Deng Xiaoping era as a transition period.
“The mix of opening up to the outside world, capitalism and pragmatism was helpful to recover from poverty in the post- revolution period,” she says.
But now it’s time for a new set of guidelines, based on Xi Jinping’s broadly socialist theories of the “Chinese Dream,” supposed to launch China on the road to becoming the most powerful country in the world.
It remains to be seen if party members are happy with the policies, some of them modelled after the brutal 1942 Yan’an rectification campaigns, which cost the lives to countless party members who refused to toe the line.
“There is much resentment against Xi Jinping after he decided, two years ago, to revise the constitution, and extend the tenure of his presidency at least beyond 2023,” says Cabestan.
“That caused quite a few ripples within the party,” he says.