What Holds China Together?

Protesters outside the Hong Kong Space Museum holding illuminated cell phones as part of the ‘Hong Kong Way’ human chain, August 2019
Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Protesters outside the Hong Kong Space Museum holding illuminated cell phones as part of the ‘Hong Kong Way’ human chain, inspired by the 1989 ‘Baltic Way’ protests against the Soviet government, August 2019

As another humid Beijing summer passes into a crisp autumn of wind-swept skies and chrysanthemum-decked parks, it’s easy to put oneself in the minds of government propagandists and feel that things are going quite well in China. Yes, faraway Hong Kong is in crisis, with huge antigovernment protests going on since March. But it was always going to be tough to absorb the former British colony; we’ll give them a bit more leeway but if necessary will crack down hard. And perhaps the distant territory of Xinjiang has required a firm hand, but have any countries done anything about our reeducation camps there? As for the trade war with the United States, it causes some pain, but it doesn’t matter because we’ve convinced most people that it’s all the Americans’ fault. The world is tumultuous, but we remain a bastion of stability. Our economy and military are growing steadily. Nothing really challenges Communist Party rule. And soon we’ll have a chance to show our dominance to everyone when we celebrate the seventieth birthday of the People’s Republic on October 1.

This reverie isn’t entirely delusional. But it’s fair to say that today China faces its biggest set of crises in the forty years since Deng Xiaoping began economic reforms after the death of Mao. The most vexing are Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The former has seen regular demonstrations, some involving more than one million people, against efforts by Beijing to impose its legal system on the territory. That’s forced the government to launch a huge disinformation campaign at home and abroad against the protesters, some of whom are violent but who mostly reflect middle-class worries about Communist Party rule. And in Xinjiang the situation is even more dire, with more than one million Muslims being sent to reeducation camps for not following the government line on everything from alcohol and pork consumption to the historical inevitability of Chinese rule.

Although well contained thanks to China’s gargantuan security and information-control apparatus, this unrest is in some ways more significant than the other great crisis of the post-Mao era: the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, when the government sent the army into Beijing to suppress pro-democracy protests, killing hundreds and resulting in international opprobrium, economic stagnation, and widespread alienation among the Chinese. The Communist Party addressed those fateful events with a set of technocratic policies that set the country on its current course: it allowed people a greater degree of freedom—to travel abroad, make money, live and work where they wanted, and…

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