History suggests that one the most perilous moments for an authoritarian regime comes when it tries to reform itself. For many reasons, such regimes can struggle to accommodate the forces which they unleash, whether it is the aspirations of a new middle class, nationalist movements, or the heightened political expectations of highly literate intellectuals.

Now, in the vast Leviathan that is the modern Chinese state, the ruling Communist Party has found that the process of “opening and reform” begun under President Deng Xiaoping in 1978 has also begun to unleash unforeseen dynamics within the country. The Chinese transition from a poor, agrarian communist backwater to a “command and control” form of state-run capitalism has amazed the world. The process has forged one of the world’s leading economies over a period of forty years of hyper-industrial growth.

However, it has also heightened anxieties in Beijing. China’s rulers remain alert to potential movements for political reform which may accompany this economic miracle. Such anxieties led to the fierce state response to the pro-democracy protests which took place in the capital city’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, at a time when pro-democracy movements  and demonstrators under Europe’s Iron Curtain were gaining ground and momentum. The Tiananmen protestors were silenced just before the high tide of Europe’s summer revolutions, which eventually led to the fall of the Berlin wall and the USSR along with it.

The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party remain haunted by the history of the late USSR. The Soviet Union unravelled and dissolved across 1989-91, very shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev, a leading advocate of perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“opening”) , came to power. It has invited parallels to be drawn with the process of opening and reforming unleashed by China’s own Communist Party since 1978. In the demise of the Soviet Union, many in Beijing believe, resides a modern parable of tremendous political significance. It is the tale of how a once mighty Communist state lost control of the reins of political reform and, in so doing, brought about its own dissolution.

The significance of this grand unravelling has not been lost on President Xi Jinping. His own analysis of the fall of the Soviet Union is a profound expression of a general unease which has gripped the highest circles of Beijing’s political elite on this question. He, as much as any of his contemporaries, has sought to decipher political portents and draw lessons of statecraft from the dramatic decline of the Soviets.

In a speech delivered in Guangdong in December 2012, which was leaked by a Chinese journalist, Gao Yu, President Xi asked “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse?”  Xi answered that “An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken…It’s a profound lesson for us!” He also added that another “lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union” was that “within days” the Communist Party lost “the instruments to exert power” because “nobody was man enough to stand up and resist”.

These remarks are echoed by several other key speeches delivered by President Xi. In April 2019, the contents of an address delivered by Xi to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) upon his appointment as General Secretary in January 2013 were leaked.  In extracts from this address, which were published in the CCP’s journal, Qiushi (“seeking truth”), President Xi said that the Soviet Union fell because it lost  ideological control.

April 2019 was a fitting moment for this document to appear, because this month also saw the emergence of the current protests which have now engulfed the island city of Hong Kong. Understanding President Xi’s reading of the history of the fall of the USSR  helps to provide some perspective on the cold brutality with which Beijing has tried to break the city’s pro-democracy demonstrators.

The crackdown on Hong Kong’s protestors is also rooted in President Xi’s deep mistrust of democracy. In May 1989, while the demonstrations were ongoing in Tiananmen square, Xi, who was then a relatively unknown party official in Fujian, drew comparisons between the protests taking place and the anarchy of China’s Cultural Revolution. He is reported to have said that “This kind of “big democracy” is not in accord with science, not in accord with the rule of law, but is instead in accord with superstition, in accord with stupidity, and the result is major chaos.”

Now, the determination of the protestors in Hong Kong has inspired the disaffected on the Chinese mainland. The blaze of revolt has spread to Guangdong province. Here, as much as in Hong Kong in the east and Xinjiang in the remote northwest, people are coming into contact with the paranoid and punitive streaks of Beijing’s police state.

Yet while Hong Kong’s protests are centred around preserving the city’s democratic institutions as well as its historic common law freedoms, Guangdong is slightly different. The province is part of the story of China’s rapid industrial and economic expansion since 1978. Its capital city, Guangzhou, has been one of the leading cities spearheading China’s rise to economic greatness. In the space of a generation, it emerged as a centre of new mechanised industry, a net consumer of people and capital, the home of the factories and workshops fuelling China’s industrial expansion.

Guangzhou and the surrounding towns of Guangdong have recently become a hotbed of unrest amongst workers who are now demanding better standards of living. China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a Hong Kong-based organisation who analyse workers’ rights across China, have recorded 129 instances of industrial strikes and protests this year. These are being led by many workers of retiring age who feel that they have contributed to China’s economic miracle over the last generation, but who now face an uncertain retirement.

The events taking place in Guangdong are a microcosm of wider changes which have been rumbling beneath the surface of the Chinese economy since at least 2014. In that year, when GDP growth began to slow to more modest levels, China reached a “turning point” in which the pool of excess labourers from the countryside began to dry up. Demand for migrant labour in the industrial towns has continued to grow, but the supply of labourers has not kept pace, a situation which has led to a rise in strikes for higher wages in manufacturing centres across the country. A shift in the balance of power has occurred, providing workers with greater leverage over their employers in many regions.

The protestors in Guangdong, with their specific grievances against their local government, are not fighting exactly the same struggle as their counterparts in Hong Kong. But what will cause anxiety in Beijing is the extent to which to previously localised and separate causes are now trying to share a common political language and use it defy the dictates of the Communist Party. It is fitting that, in the very province where Xi Jinping declared that lessons must be learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the forces of order are now coming onto a collision course with the discontent created China’s extraordinary economic expansion since 1978.

Beijing’s response to these protests reveals something important about the trajectory of the Chinese state since 2015. There is a sad symmetry of a kind between the persecution of Muslim minorities in north-eastern Xinjiang and the demonstrators in the East. Xinjiang’s Muslims, Guangdong’s workers, and Hong Kong’s democrats are besieged by a  regime seeking to root out those whom it sees as ideological nonconformists.

These are the authoritarian measures of a central state which has been progressively tightening its grip. For, although events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang are separated by the vast landmass of mainland China, they are all  indicative of the centralisation of power pursued under President Xi in the second half of this decade. They are both driven by a paranoia which plagues the minds of those running China’s police state, one which associates divergence with dissidence, and opposition with subversion.

Across this decade, China’s President Xi has wielded a series of anti-corruption trials against powerful rivals in order to slowly concentrate more political power in his own hands. He has also overseen the establishment of new forms of surveillance software and data collection technologies, which are now being used by Beijing’s intelligence services to screen entire populations for signs of political dissidence. Such is Xi’s determination not to follow the fate that befell Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.

At the same time, however, Xi’s government has in another sense  been continuing the work of Deng Xiaoping, further  liberalising the management of the Chinese economy by devolving powers for economic decision-making to provinces and local governments. It has been trying to strike a balance between centralised political power and economic growth, while maintaining ideological control of China’s expanding population across a vast landmass.

A truly terrifying police state has emerged from the pessimistic and paranoid reflections of President Xi and his acolytes in Beijing. Throughout China’s regions, Xi has made the calculation that, if his regime cannot be loved, then it must be feared. But power based only upon fear is rather brittle – and, in the end, that may prove to be his undoing.