By Professor Stan Grant Jnr, Vice-Chancellor’s Chair of Australian-Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University.
In 1982, China's Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping was running out of patience, locked in negotiations with the Iron Lady, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, for the handover of Hong Kong.
He leaned across the table and bluntly said he could always send in his army and take the territory back in a day. Thatcher replied that yes, Deng could do just that and there was little Britain could do to stop him, but it would mean the collapse of Hong Kong itself.
That exchange was recounted in the late Lady Thatcher's memoir. She went on to say how depressed she was about Hong Kong's fate under China mainland rule. That moment is a window into history that reveals everything about our present: how far the Chinese Communist Party would be prepared to go to take back what is theirs.
Secret documents of those meetings, later declassified, revealed that Thatcher remained "seriously disturbed by the Chinese insistence on recovering sovereignty over Hong Kong". And for good reason. Deng's deputy China's Premier Zhao Ziyang had warned Thatcher that in a choice between Hong Kong's stability and prosperity and China's sovereignty, the Party would put sovereignty first. Hong Kong would be no Singapore.
China's leaders had always put the state first and warned against any move to democracy in Hong Kong. In 1958, then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai warned Britain that any move to allow the people of Hong Kong to become self-governing would be considered by Beijing as "a very unfriendly act".
Western leaders have been stubborn
Anyone who is the least bit surprised at Beijing's latest Hong Kong crackdown has not been paying attention. Chinese President Xi Jinping is doing precisely what the ghosts of past Chinese leaders have told him to do: keeping faith with Communist Party authoritarian tradition by imposing on Hong Kong new security laws targeting sedition, treason, or secession targeting pro-democracy protesters.
How many times does the Communist Party leadership have to tell the West that it rejects liberal democracy before we believe them? Western leaders have stubbornly held on to the belief that the Party would collapse or become like us. Just three years after Deng Xiaoping ordered the army to massacre Chinese people protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, US President Bill Clinton was lecturing China's leadership that it was "on the wrong side of history".
Clinton, like so many others, believed that China would soon embrace democracy. Even Thatcher, for all her well-placed concern, still believed Chinese communism would fall just like the Soviet Union.
In her memoir she wrote that the "Chinese belief that the benefits of a liberal economic system can be had without a liberal political system seems to me false in the long term". Just how long was she thinking? It hasn't happened yet.
Fast-track to 2020: the Communist Party has lifted more than half a billion people out of poverty and has transformed a nation that couldn't feed itself into the second-biggest — soon likely to be the biggest — economy on the planet and the party rules with increasing ruthlessness.
Hong Kong is another flashpoint
Xi Jinping is a Party princeling — son of a revolutionary hero — now 'President for Life' and a leader determined to crush dissent. His political rivals — journalists, lawyers, artists, activists — are locked up in ever greater numbers. Ethnic Uighur Muslims, as many as a million of them, are held in re-education camps — human rights groups call them brainwashing camps — their land and homes seized, their religion described as a "mental illness".
Hong Kong is now a flashpoint: To the Communist Party it is not simply an irritant, it is an insult. Xi sees the territory — seized by Britain in the 19th century Opium Wars — as a symbol of China's humiliation by foreign powers. This narrative of victimhood and vengeance binds the Chinese people to a fierce nationalism. It has a powerful hold: a story told in ever more assertive patriotic films, books and songs.
Any Chinese schoolchild can recite the history of Japanese occupation and foreign invasion, exploitation and massacre. Even the fight against COVID-19 has been drafted into service of this defiant nationalism, with Xi declaring victory in "the people's war" against the virus. Foreign criticism of China's handling of the outbreak of COVID-19 is used to bolster support for the Party.
A fragile superpower
This is a high-stakes game. Xi is walking perilous fault lines: a weakening economy, rising unemployment, the impact of COVID-19, and a protest movement in Hong Kong that will not die. It could all threaten the future of the Party. Not for nothing has China been called a "fragile superpower", one that fears collapse from within as much as attack from outside.
Can nationalism hold the country together? Xi thinks so. China's elite owe their wealth and privilege to Party patronage. His strongman image is popular with many ordinary mainland Chinese, and Xi has cultivated that persona by inspecting troops wearing revolutionary era-style military uniform.
He's often described as the most powerful leader since the man he models himself on — Mao Zedong. Xi has learnt much from Mao, he knows the strongman must appear strong and be strong, this helps explain why Xi has decided to risk a more direct confrontation with Hong Kong protesters.
Xi's strongman strategy doesn't stop at Hong Kong but extends to China's territorial claim to the disputed islands of the South China Sea and doubling down on warnings against any independence moves by Taiwan. If the party falls, Xi falls and China as we know it falls. Just like Zhao Ziyang, Xi would put sovereignty before stability, he would sacrifice people and prosperity to preserve the Party.
But if Xi comes down hard in Hong Kong, how will the world respond? As this is a test for Xi and the Communist Party, so too is it a test for liberal democracies, Australia included. Will we stand with the protesters of Hong Kong? Crucially would Australia, among others, be able to keep talking to Beijing, to keep diplomatic channels open?
The COVID-19 crisis has brought front-and-centre the question of how the world lives with an increasingly-powerful authoritarian China. We have already seen a descent into insult and threat — from both sides. It has been called a new Cold War. Perhaps so, but China is far more critical to the global economy and more interconnected with our lives than the Soviet Union was.
The China challenge also comes at a time when freedom and democracy is weaker in the West. The world was always heading to this moment.
The return of an old battle
At midnight on July 1, 1997, in Hong Kong's driving rain, the British flag was lowered and the five-star red flag of China raised: history began again; it marked the return of something we thought had ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall: the ideological battle between authoritarianism and democracy.
On that night Hong Kong's Democratic Party Chairman, Martin Lee, vowed that "the flame of democracy" would never be extinguished. I stood on the mainland China border and watched the People's Liberation Army roll in to take back its territory, as Deng Xiaoping threatened he could do all those years earlier.
Xi Jinping will not relinquish it. Xi does not believe in Hong Kong autonomy. There is no "one country, two systems", just one ruler, one party.
This article was originally published at ABC News here