SINGAPORE: Oct 1, 2019 marks a huge milestone in China’s history, as the country crosses the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
In 2015, China celebrated another 70th anniversary, commemorating its victory over Japan in World War II.
If that event is any guide, expect a massive pageantry this year that showcases the world’s largest armed forces as well as its impressive arsenal of advanced weapons.
PULLING OUT ALL THE STOPS
October will be a golden opportunity to reaffirm the fruits of China’s modernisation and China’s standing as a rising superpower.
Indeed, to make this Chinese National Day the biggest celebration ever seen, Beijing is already pulling out all the stops.
It has curbed petrol sales, the flying of drones, and even the presence of pigeons to ensure a perfect blue-sky backdrop against which Chinese President Xi Jinping will deliver a stirring speech to audiences at home and abroad.
However, as much as the Chinese Communist Party wishes to play its favourite track about the dramatic transformation of an economic backwater into the world’s second largest economy, it knows 2019 has not been a great year – to say the least.
Already hurt by an economic slowdown caused by the ongoing trade war with the US, Beijing is facing unwanted international attention over its policies in the country’s periphery.
In recent months, the country has come under greater scrutiny over the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the persistent Hong Kong protests.
Washington, in particular, is expected to call Beijing out at the UN General Assembly.
The US Congress is also expected to debate and pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy bill this week, which would empower the administration to impose sanctions on officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong.
What has certainly come into sharper focus as China approaches the momentous occasion of its 70th anniversary is a brewing US-China rivalry. Recent actions by Washington have been perceived as particularly unfriendly efforts to contain China’s meteoric ascent – including the fighter jet sale to Taiwan, imposed trade tariffs and the Huawei ban.
In this context, China surely sees shadows in any further US action over Hong Kong.
THE HONG KONG RAIN ON BEIJING’S PARADE
The political trouble that is Hong Kong is threatening to rain on Beijing’s parade.
To limit the damage potentially inflicted by protests, the Hong Kong government has already called off the fireworks, readying itself for “a modest, but solemn type of celebrations” on Oct 1.
The protesters, on the other hand, are considering wearing all white on that day to “mourn” the “passing” of rule of law and democracy in Hong Kong. The Chinese national anthem will also likely be drowned out with the singing of their latest protest anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong”.
On top of these are possible random acts of desecrating the national flag and symbols. Beijing will no doubt see all this as a form of huge disrespect.
Still, the possibility of armed intervention to suppress the Hong Kong protests remains distant.
THE SPECTRE OF 1989
2019 also marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen incident. A repeat of the events would be a deeply tragic irony. The CCP has been keen to rid itself of the spectre of 1989.
The Chinese leadership is unlikely to take drastic actions that add another stain that mars the remembrance of the founding of the republic.
The memory of the immediate aftermath of the tragic turn of events in 1989 will surely be etched deeply in the minds of many Chinese decision makers – which included a flagging pace of economic reforms and plummeting growth.
READ: Commentary: The ghost of Tiananmen Square hovers over a 'fragile superpower' even after 30 years
Beijing then had to spend the next few years repairing trust and reintegrating into the international community.
With the economy already taking a toll from the US-China trade war, and all eyes on Hong Kong, Beijing simply cannot afford the economic price and diplomatic backlash of a military option.
Doing so ahead of the Chinese National Day celebrations would also mean playing into the hands of Washington. For a political regime that stakes its legitimacy on maintaining sustained growth and a harmonious society, this would be bad news.
PRESERVING NATIONAL SOLIDARITY
Xi Jinping’s recent speech at the Central Party School to rising officials foreshadows Beijing’s possible response.
Acknowledging growing complications ahead in various areas including the governance of Hong Kong, he called for a “struggle” (douzheng) – a word that appeared nearly sixty times in the speech - against “any risks and challenges to the party's leadership, the country's sovereignty and security and anything that threatens the country's core interests”.
“As long as [the threat] comes, we must carry out a resolute struggle, and we must achieve victory,” he added.
The Chinese leadership will likely seize the Oct 1 commemorations to rally the nation and emphasise national unity.
Chinese commentators may also continue to highlight an imagined foreign threat that is envious of China’s accomplishments and intends to disrupt China’s rise.
This is congruent with Beijing’s current attitude toward the Hong Kong unrest. Beijing had previously expressed the view that foreign forces and “black hands” are seeking to wound China by fomenting a “colour revolution” in the special administrative region.
Furthermore, as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam acknowledged in a leaked recording, Beijing already views Hong Kong through the lens of national security and sovereignty.
Earlier this month, protesters have rallied near the British and US Consulates in Hong Kong. This, combined with appeals for external pressures on Beijing by Hong Kong’s activists such as Joshua Wong and Denise Ho, also amplifies Chinese fears of foreign interference in its domestic affairs.
MAINTAINING POSITIVE ATMOSPHERICS AND A CELEBRATORY MOOD
To a domestic audience, Beijing will likely play up its besieged status and an unapologetically nationalist narrative that demands a unified collective response.
To an international audience, Beijing will attempt to project confidence that come what may, it will achieve “great dreams” through “great struggles” – a trajectory that it will claim characterises the last 70 years of China’s history.
Hong Kong may then at worst blemish but not ruin the celebratory mood in Beijing.
But the call to “struggle” implies not only a fierce defence of national interests, but also a determination to root out “domestic and foreign enemies”, and prioritise national order over local interests.
After all, the historical baggage that the word carries harks back to one of the most divisive periods during the 1960s and 1970s in China.
While China has pledged commitment to the arrangement that ensures freedoms in Hong Kong under “One Country Two Systems, Beijing will likely continue to hold the line over the current impasse in Hong Kong protesters.
Yet, it will unlikely soften its stance any further – not when the stakes have been framed as issues of “national sovereignty”.
What this means is that on the momentous occasion of what should signal unity, jubilee and great triumph for the country, many Hong Kongers may instead find themselves increasingly left out from China’s national agenda by the day.
Dr Yew Wei Lit is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale-NUS College.
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