We still don’t have a name for it, but before long the media and academics will start referring to this moment in 2017-18 as Xi Jinping’s ‘Red Restoration’, ‘Counter-Reformation’, ‘Grand Centralization’, ‘Revenge of the Princeling’, or something (presumably) catchier. It will be portrayed as the turning point that led to… whatever history brings next – the rise of China as the planet’s sole superpower, or the collapse-coup-mayhem that ended the world’s last empire.
The term-limits Emperor-for-Life thing will be part of it. But the commentators will probably put greater weight on other moves to concentrate power. There’s the new anti-graft system – an inquisition that can purge or discipline anyone for anything with no due process. And a consolidation of ministries that enables tighter Communist Party rule, including what Anne Stevenson-Yang calls a return to a ‘pre-98 financial system that is the handmaiden of politics, re-centralizing pricing and standards management’.
While we are waiting for the zippy slogan to describe this new era, a new sub-genre of China-watching commentary has emerged, about how China is really, seriously, deeply not going the way Western and other optimists supposedly expected back in the 80s and 90s (today’s example).
Few places are finding it as hard to come to terms with this disillusionment as Hong Kong. People in the city fervently wanted to believe that ‘One Country Two Systems’ meant complete insulation from Mainland politics and culture, that ‘high degree of autonomy’ meant self-rule in domestic affairs, and that Beijing would keep its apparent promise to allow democracy.
The mainstream pan-democrats still believe these fantasies. Beijing’s local puppet-officials and shoe-shiners awkwardly clarify or re-define the promises, or cheerfully claim everything’s fine. Grim-faced Mainland officials despise them all, and get on with converting a pluralist society into a Leninist system with as little fuss as possible.
Thus the Hong Kong Bar Association warns the Legislative Council against passing a bill to allow Mainland immigration to operate at the cross-border high-speed rail station. The lawyers’ arguments that the plan is not Basic Law-compliant look persuasive – Beijing’s (National People’s Congress) edict authorizing the arrangement contradicts and disregards the local constitution’s wording. This is neither legally nor logically possible. Unless, of course, the party-state is above the constitution. The co-location case will end up establishing this, neatly diminishing local rule of law. Which is where we came in.