Thursday, February 25

‘Clean Up This Mess’: The Chinese Thinkers Behind Xi’s Hard Line


HONG KONG — When Tian Feilong first arrived in Hong Kong as demands for free elections were on the rise, he said he felt sympathetic toward a society that seemed to reflect the liberal political ideas he had studied as a graduate student in Beijing.

Then, as the calls escalated into protests across Hong Kong in 2014, he increasingly embraced Chinese warnings that freedom could go too far, threatening national unity. He became an ardent critic of the demonstrations, and six years later he is a staunch defender of the sweeping national security law that China has imposed on the former British colony.

Mr. Tian has joined a tide of Chinese scholars who have turned against Western-inspired ideas that once flowed in China’s universities, instead promoting the proudly authoritarian worldview ascendant under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leader. This cadre of Chinese intellectuals serve as champions, even official advisers, defending and honing the party’s hardening policies, including the rollout of the security law in Hong Kong.

“Back when I was weak, I had to totally play by your rules. Now I’m strong and have confidence, so why can’t I lay down my own rules and values and ideas?” Mr. Tian, 37, said in an interview, explaining the prevailing outlook in China. Witnessing the tumult as a visiting scholar in Hong Kong in 2014, Mr. Tian said, he “rethought the relationship between individual freedom and state authority.”

“Hong Kong is, after all, China’s Hong Kong,” he said. “It’s up to the Communist Party to clean up this mess.”

While China’s Communist Party has long nurtured legions of academics to defend its agenda, these authoritarian thinkers stand out for their unabashed, often flashily erudite advocacy of one-party rule and assertive sovereignty, and their turn against the liberal ideas that many of them once embraced.

China’s authoritarian academics have proposed policies to assimilate ethnic minorities thoroughly. They have defended Mr. Xi’s abolition of a term limit on the presidency, opening the way for him to stay in power indefinitely. They have argued that Chinese-style “rule by law” is inseparable from rule by the Communist Party. And more recently they have served as intellectual warriors in Beijing’s efforts to subdue protest in Hong Kong.

“For them, law becomes a weapon, but it’s law that’s subordinated to politics,” said Sebastian Veg, a professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris who has studied the rise of China’s statist thinkers. “We’ve seen that at work in China, and now it seems to me we’re seeing it come to Hong Kong.”

For Hong Kong, these scholars have supplied arguments advancing Beijing’s drive for greater central control.

Under the legal framework that defined Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy after its return to China in 1997, many in the territory assumed that it would mostly manage its own affairs for decades. Many believed that Hong Kong lawmakers and leaders would be left to develop national security legislation, which was required by that framework.

But Mr. Xi’s government has pushed back, demanding greater influence. The authoritarian scholars, familiar with both Mr. Xi’s agenda and Hong Kong law, have distilled those demands into elaborate legal arguments.

Several Beijing law professors earlier served as advisers to the Chinese government’s office in Hong Kong, including Jiang Shigong and Chen Duanhong, both of Peking University. They declined to be interviewed.

“I don’t think they’re necessarily setting the party line, but they’re helping to shape it, finding clever ways to put into words and laws what the party is trying to do,” said Mr. Mitchell, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “This is all happening through legislation, so their ideas matter.”

A Chinese government paper in 2014, which Professor Jiang is widely credited with helping write, asserted that Beijing had “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, dismissing the idea that China should stay hands off. The framework that defined Hong Kong’s status was written in the 1980s, when China was still weak and under the sway of foreign liberal ideas, he later said.

“They treat Hong Kong as if it were part of the West, and they treat the West as if it were the entire world.” Professor Jiang recently said of Hong Kong’s protesters. “China’s rise has not, as some imagined, drawn Hong Kong society to trust the central authorities.”

After protesters occupied Hong Kong streets in 2014, he and other scholars pressed the case that China had the power to impose national security legislation there, rejecting the idea that such legislation should be left in the hands of the reluctant Hong Kong authorities.

“The survival of the state comes first, and constitutional law must serve this fundamental objective,” Professor Chen, the Peking University academic, wrote in 2018, citing Mr. Schmitt, the authoritarian German jurist, to make the case for a security law in Hong Kong.

“When the state is in dire peril,” Professor Chen wrote, leaders could set aside the usual constitutional norms, “in particular provisions for civic rights, and take all necessary measures.”

Professor Chen submitted an internal study to the party’s policymakers on introducing security legislation for Hong Kong, according to a Peking University report in 2018, over a year before the party publicly announced plans for such a law.



Source link