Background of the Issue
Over the past 10 days, international news agencies such as CNN, BBC and other similar networks have been covering the rallies that have been occurring in Hong Kong. The reason behind the actions of thousands of local citizens can be traced to the events of 1997 when Hong Kong, a British territory at the time, was turned over to mainland China. During the period of transition, the Chinese government stated that by 2015, Hong Kong would be able to elect their own officials under a democratic process instead of utilizing the party electoral system that was currently in use within mainland China.
Unfortunately, by 2014 it was announced that while the people of Hong Kong could elect an official into office, they had to pick from a list of candidates that had previously been vetted and scrutinized by the governing body of the mainland. From the perspective of the democratic process of elections, it can be stated that the act of selecting from a list of candidates that was chosen for you instead of those that you want in office, goes completely against the concept of a fair electoral process.
It was due to this that several thousand people within Hong Kong rallied in front of the main government building of the city in order to showcase their ire and displeasure over the actions of the mainland government. In this incident, there are two exercises of power that were utilized by the Chinese government in order to control the population.
The first centers around the preselected candidates that could run for office while the second relates to the aftermath of the protests wherein the mainland government subsequently implemented a broad censoring initiative throughout the local media and on the internet wherein it clamped down completely on news relating to the protests. When examining both actions of the government, it must be questioned whether the government is going to far when it comes to the denial of rights that they are implementing (i.e. preventing the freedom of speech and preventing the use of a fair democratically elected constituency to represent the will of the people).
Within this context, it must be asked: to what extent is the exercise of power used to control a subject population rational? It is the belief of this paper that the exercise of power to control a subject population can be categorized as being rational only when it serves the needs of the people and not primarily the government.
Understanding the Rationale behind Control
First and foremost, it is important to note that this is not the first instance that China has implemented a systematic means of controlling the actions and perspectives of its native populace. The so called “Great Firewall of China” is a regional internet censoring initiative within the country that severely restricts that capacity of local Chinese citizens to access foreign websites that the government has deemed as “subversive” (Lumby 586).
The reasoning behind this is connected to the fact that the internet has transformed over the past few years from “the information superhighway” to a gateway for change and transformation. Evidence of this can be seen in the recent Arab Spring uprisings that occurred in the Middle East wherein the various rebellions and protests within local populations that resulted in a change of government for numerous Middle Eastern countries were influenced and coordinated through the internet. Social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter were at the forefront when it came to organizing protests and disseminating information.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of people from different regions were able to rally behind a single cause and were able to oust dictators and governments that had been in power for decades. This shows that the power of the internet to influence people and organize rebellions is a real threat to the stability of China, especially when it comes to a possible change in government brought about by internal dissent (Duchâtel 92). It is important to note that governments are fearful of change due to the potentially adverse ramifications this could have on elected officials.
Present history is rife with such instances as seen in one case in Asia where Philippine President Benigno Aquino had his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, brought up on charges of corruption which resulted in her being placed under hospital arrest due to her failing health (Wells 18). Ousted leaders have not fared well when the governments they presided over are subject to sudden change (i.e. through open rebellion or through protests). It is due to this that they become entrapped by their current actions and method of governance to the extent that it becomes normal to pursue a hard line stance against change despite the need for it (Wells 18).
This level of “entrapment” can be seen within the story “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell wherein the main character shot the elephant just so that he would not be portrayed as a fool (Tyner 263). The same can be said about governments wherein they strive to maintain power just so that the officials will not be subject to undue harassment or persecution once they are out of office.
This is due to the fact that those that come after them continue to maintain the same “status quo” with the government resulting in a repetition of the same cycle of oppression just to prevent change from taking place. This cycle can clearly be seen within the context of the protests within Hong Kong wherein despite the demand for change being espoused by the people, the government is taking a hard line stance on it due to the potential for such change to adversely affect the officials later on.
For instance, one possible ramification of the Hong Kong protests is that should the mainland government give in and actually allow Hong Kong to have a democratically elected independent government, this could result in other regions within China wanting the same system being implemented within the mainland. This would destabilize the current one party system that has been utilized as the primary government body within China for the past several decades.
It should also be noted that there is also the very real possibility that should the current one party system be replaced, the new government may in effect pursue a stance where it would blame the current problems of the country on the mismanagement of the previous government (Vidmar 197). The end result would be a political “witch hunt” so to speak wherein members of the previous government that contributed towards the problems of China would be placed on trial and subsequently imprisoned. It is due to such potential ramifications that the concept of change within a country often frightens a government (especially its officials) resulting in them exercising power in order to prevent it.
Beneficial Effects of Control
It should also be noted though that the exercise of power within the context of government operations can also be considered as beneficial for the local populace. What must be understood is that the primary role of a government is to ensure the continued existence of the state (i.e. the country that it manages). The viability of a state to continue existing is often tied to its demographics (i.e. the amount of people that are being born versus those that die) and the health of its economy. Rebellions and mass protests can have a detrimental impact on the health of the local economy as seen in the case of the Hong Kong protests where business transactions have gone to an all time low.
Not only that, violent rebellion, as seen in the case of Syria, can result in thousands of deaths and mass migration by people that are looking to escape the carnage of civil war. When taking all these factors into consideration, it can be seen that the use of power to quell such instances can be justified depending on the situation in which a government finds itself. However, the problem when it comes to the exercise of power is that there is often a gray area where it must be questioned whether power should be utilized or not when it comes to controlling a subject population.
For instance, if it is the will of the people to for a change of government to occur, then should not the government acquiesce to the wishes of the people that want such change to occur. Yet, when looking at the case of China, it is clearly evident that the mainland government is going completely against the wishes of the people of Hong Kong. The reasoning of the Chinese government in this instance is that it is doing this for the sake of stability; however, as explained within this paper, the reason behind their actions is more along the lines of maintaining the status quo so that they will not be subject to reprisals later on.
While it is true that there is a logical rationale behind why the government officials are doing this, the fact remains that it is the role of a government to serve the people and not necessarily serve the will of politicians. It is based on this that it can be stated that the exercise of power to control a subject population can be described as rational only when it serves the needs of the people. When the exercise of power to control a population is done merely due to the self-serving interests of a governing body in order to maintain control due to fear of reprisal later on, it can be stated that this is not rational since it completely goes against what a government stands for (i.e. serving the needs of the people).
When the Exercise of Power Goes too Far
In order to better understand the context of the usage of power, it is important to delve into when the exercise of power goes too far. One way to see this can be seen within the context of the actions of the North Korean government wherein it has systematically abused its power to apply stringent levels of control over the population that it presides over. People within North Korea can be described as living within a prison that describes itself as a country. The right to free speech is severely curtailed, the right to do business is limited by the government, people are systematically tortured in their various prison camps for speaking out against the actions of the government and the “elections” that it holds are nothing more than a complete farce.
While it may be true that North Korea has been successful in creating a “cult of personality” surrounding the Kim family, the fact remains that should its prolific denial of rights in comparison to other countries be known to the North Korean people, it is obvious that some form of uprising would occur (Vidmar 197). However, to prevent this, the North Korean government places strict protocols in preventing people from accessing information from outside of the country and often depicts North Korea as a “utopia” when compared to countries such as the U.S.
From this example and the fear that the North Korean government has placed on the possibility that its people would rebel against it as a result of the internet and free speech, it can be seen that the power of free speech is truly profound, however, based on the example of Egypt and the Middle East, unmitigated free speech can be a cause for concern for various governments since such methods of communication can and will result in actions which may disrupt various plans that the government has set into motion.
To prevent this from happening, a systematic denial of rights is implemented in order to ensure that the population complies with the wishes of the government. This example clearly shows an irrational exercise of power wherein the government denies the people their inherent and inalienable rights in order to pursue a path that is purely for the interest of those in power. With the Kim family being vilified internationally for their actions, it is not surprising that Kim Jong Un would attempt to hold onto power as much as he can and perpetuate the same systematic abuses that his father and grandfather had implemented in the past (Vidmar 197).
This primarily out of fear due to what would happen if the North Korean people rose up and ousted him from power. When looking at this example, it can be seen that abuses of power to control a population is often done out of fear. Simply put, officials abuse their power when they are backed into a corner and have no choice but to go along a certain line of actions due to their need for self-preservation. This particular facet oddly resembles the logic behind the character of the government official in George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” since he shot the elephant just to save his own public reputation (Tyner 263).
Based on what has been presented so far, it is the belief of this paper that the exercise of power to control a subject population can be categorized as being rational only when it serves the needs of the people and not primarily the government. If a government utilizes power for self-serving ends, then it can be stated that the exercise of power in this case is irrational since a government is meant to serve the needs of the people and not the needs of politicians.
Duchâtel, Mathieu. “The Human Rights Clause In China-Europe Negotiations.” China Perspectives 2008.4 (2008): 91-94. Print.
Lumby, Jacky. “Distributed Leadership: The Uses And Abuses Of Power.” Educational Management Administration & Leadership 41.5 (2013): 581-597. Print
Tyner, James A. “Landscape And The Mask Of Self In George Orwell’s ‘Shooting An Elephant’.” Area 37.3 (2005): 260-267. Print.
Vidmar, Jure. “International Community And Abuses Of Sovereign Powers.” Liverpool Law Review 35.2 (2014): 193-210. Print.
Wells, Paul. “The Great Call Of China.” Maclean’s 125.6 (2012): 18-19. Print.