The Slatest

China Put on a Show for the World in Beijing. But the World’s Eyes Are on Hong Kong.

Photo illustration of Beijing's pageantry and Hong Kong protests
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images and Chris McGrath/Getty Images.

The cities of Beijing and Hong Kong marked the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in very different ways on Tuesday. In the capital, President Xi Jinping, clad in a Mao-style suit, presided over a parade featuring 100,000 performers and 15,000 troops extolling China’s achievements and promising an “even brighter future.” (The authorities did their best to manufacture blue skies for the event, but the pictures still look pretty smoggy.) Meanwhile in Hong Kong, a different kind of power was on display. As authorities battled with protesters—demonstrations are now in their 17th week—Hong Kong police shot a teenage protester with live ammunition. It was the first time a protester had been shot with a live round: Police has previously relied on rubber bullets and beanbags.

In his speech, Xi referred to the situation in Hong Kong in very general terms, saying,

On our journey forward, we must uphold the principles of “peaceful reunification” and “one country, two systems,” maintain lasting prosperity and stability in Hong Kong and Macao, promote the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, unite all Chinese sons and daughters, and continue to strive for the motherland’s complete reunification.

The latest unrest in Hong Kong—like all the protests so far— is unlikely to receive much media coverage on the mainland. But international observers may have trouble reconciling this vision of peace and prosperity with clear evidence that the “Chinese sons and daughters” who live outside the party’s direct control have absolutely no desire to live under it. The protests, which began in response to a controversial extradition bill, have expanded into a broader movement for democracy and autonomy from Beijing.

In his speech, Xi emphasized the party’s favorite theme of “peaceful rise,” telling the crowd, “We will continue to work with people from all countries to push for jointly building a community with a shared future for humanity.”

Despite the undeniable achievements of China’s economic development, the image it presents to the world is often defined more by street battles in Hong Kong and the high-tech Orwellian prison state in Xinjiang than the country’s glittering skyscrapers and growing middle class.

For all the paeans to humanity’s shared common destiny in the speeches of Xi and other Chinese leaders, China itself is a highly divisive topic. China’s emphasis on national sovereignty and divergent economic and political paths certainly has its adherents, particularly in countries that have benefited less from economic and political liberalism.

A recent Pew survey, taken before the recent Hong Kong protests, shows China is deeply unpopular with people throughout Western Europe and North America, as well as China’s neighbors in East Asia, even as there’s widespread agreement that its global influence is growing.

But China’s message is getting through to other audiences. The same survey showed strongly positive—and improving—views of China throughout Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. This divide is reflected in the global response to last summer’s mass detentions in Xinjiang. In July, 22 countries at the U.N. Human Rights Council—nearly all Western democracies, as well as Japan—issued an unprecedented joint statement condemning China’s human rights violations against Muslims. That same month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had condemned the situation in Xinjiang as a “genocide” and a “great shame for humanity” in the past, visited China and brushed aside the issue while touting the benefits of economic cooperation. Other governments in the Muslim world have been even more circumspect.

Despite low approval among Americans, Xi is also getting through to the president of the United States. President Donald Trump’s statement in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week that “The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique,” could have been lifted from the speech of any senior Chinese official.

The world’s two preeminent superpowers may be locked in a bitter and destructive trade war, and Trump constantly accuses China of taking advantage of the U.S. But he also goes out of his way to express his admiration for Xi, and praise him specifically for, not despite, his authoritarian consolidation of power. The president’s objections to China do not extend to its political system. (He conspicuously did not mention the Chinese government’s treatment of Muslims or Christians during his recent address on “religious freedom,” in stark contrast to both Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence—who have frequently condemned it.) At this point, it wasn’t exactly a shock to see Trump congratulate “President Xi and the Chinese people on the 70th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China!” The president generally doesn’t appear to object to authoritarian communism, as long as it’s in Asia.

Trump shares with the current Chinese leadership an obsession with national sovereignty, a hostility to notions like universal human rights, and a hostility to territorial ambiguity. It’s one of the more interesting features of the era we live in that the world has two bitterly divided, fiercely competitive superpowers led by leaders who see the world in such fundamentally similar ways.