By George Friedman and Jacob Shapiro
Demonstrations broke out in Hong Kong after police shut down unlicensed food stalls that popped up in the Mong Kok area during the Chinese New Year celebration. It appears as though these food stalls are a normal part of this celebration and police usually look the other way. But this year, the police shut them down, sparking demonstrations that are being called the “fishball revolution” on Chinese social media, named after the food some of these stalls sell.
Clashes between police and citizens erupted after activists tried to defend the vendors. It appears that people had advance notice that the police were going to clear these stalls, because according to BBC, hundreds of people had gathered in the area to support the vendors. Clashes lasted about six hours, and while there were calls on Chinese social media and messaging service WhatsApp to “eat fishballs” again, by Tuesday evening things had calmed down. Ninety people were injured and 61 people were arrested. No fatalities were reported. However, Chinese police fired warning shots into the air. They would not have done that if they did not fear the situation might get out of hand.
It is important to keep this in perspective. Anything that happens in Hong Kong is magnified simply because global media is more present there than on the mainland. There are many foreigners willing to be interviewed and news can be readily transmitted. In 2014, hundreds of thousands of people, also in Mong Kok, demonstrated against proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system. In December 2015, a group called the National Independence Party is suspected of having planted a bomb in a garbage can outside the Legislative Council’s building. So the tension is not new and is focused on political issues more than economic ones, although the demonstrators defending street food vendors was an interesting dimension of the rights movement defending the relatively poor.
At the same time, this event should not be dismissed simply because it is not new. The economic situation in 2016 has worsened throughout China and, although Hong Kong is enormously better off, it has not been immune. Other demonstrations have occurred in China that were not chronicled by the mainstream media. The China Labour Bulletin has reported at least three incidents involving between 1,000 and 10,000 people. One was a strike in Shenzhen, Guangdong province of workers demanding compensation at a toy factory after being fired on Jan. 5. Another in Jiangxi province on Jan. 11 consisted of thousands of taxi drivers striking against high fees and competition from rideshare apps like Uber. A third was protests on Jan. 20 at a steel company in Hefei, Anhui province, against an unfair compensation plan.
Such demonstrations are normal in any country during times of economic decline and even in relatively prosperous times. The biggest problem concerning China is a massive decline in the economy driven by forces that are not easily altered by authorities. Lack of competitiveness of Chinese goods in the global market, rising unemployment partly as a result, the government’s failure to improve the lots of hundreds of millions of people living in the interior and the loss of remittances by unemployed migrant workers cannot be easily reversed. These problems and others took a generation to emerge and will take a great deal of time to be fixed.
It is clear that the Hong Kong government is worried because of the clampdown in China and this shows in the police’s reaction to a demonstration in defense of fishball vendors. Firing shots in the air is not the response of a confident regime, particularly when it is done in a media-intense place like Hong Kong. While not making too much of it, it has to be said that the gunfire would have been far less significant in a town that is not dealing with Hong Kong’s media. That it took place where the government knew it would reverberate around the world, and that people like me would now be speculating on the stability of the government, means it should neither be overemphasized nor dismissed. We don’t know if the shots were triggered by a police officer who is now being brought up on charges or senior Chinese officials who were following a well thought out response. There was time for thought between the start of the demonstrations and the shots, so either scenario is possible. The police did say a full investigation will be opened to determine whether the officer who fired the shots did so for justifiable reasons.
China has a tradition of revolution. I don’t simply mean the Communist uprising, but the overthrow of the Chinese monarchy and the Maoist-inspired revolutions against the Communist bureaucracy in the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The concept of revolution is perhaps less alien to the Chinese tradition than others. Things are bad economically, and I believe will get much worse. In bad times anger rises, and the possibility of an uprising is possible. In China, that is less improbable than other places.
But revolutions are not created by disgruntlement, no matter how deep. They are not made by scattered demonstrations or even uprisings. These are easily crushed. Two things are needed for a successful revolution: a broad organization mobilizing the dissatisfied and the army itself either fracturing or coming over to the revolutionaries’ side. In the Russian revolution, organizations had been in place for decades working to turn dissatisfaction into revolution. It took World War I and the disasters that befell the Russian army for the soldiers to turn on the government and, joined by a reasonably well-organized mass, overthrow the regime. In the Chinese revolution, the Communists had spent decades organizing a vast revolutionary force. Meanwhile, in World War ll, the Japanese shattered Chiang Kai-shek’s credibility as well as his army.
There is disgruntlement in China. But the government is doing everything it can to shatter any attempt at organization. No organization, religious or secular, outside the framework of the Communist Party is permitted and any attempts to organize are nipped in the bud. That may explain what happened in Hong Kong. The party knows in its bones how to make a revolution and therefore it knows how to stop it. Similarly, the People’s Liberation Army is not going to fracture – certainly not for now. Therefore, this cannot result in regime change.
In China, the only thing that can shake the foundations is a split in the party itself. That kind of split overthrew Maoism and replaced it with Deng Xiaoping and the regime that is still in place. The cracks are obvious. The coastal region is wealthy and does not want to be controlled by Beijing and forced to transfer money inland. The local party organizations are managed by Beijing, but their interests co-mingle with those of the financiers and industrialists. And the same is true in the interior. If there were to be a party split, it would not be in the Central Committee, but would start with the regional parties. And of course this is why anti-corruption purges are underway. The party is making it clear who decides who has what job.
All this means is that barring this kind of split, dictatorship is the future of China. You need an effective dictatorship to make revolution ineffective. And the Chinese, so far, have an effective dictatorship, to say the least.