Despite its roots in the Marxist-Leninist system, the Chinese Communisty Party (CCP) borrows many tactics from China’s imperial past for tackling a wide range of issues, from controlling political power dynamics to managing border regions. 

During the last imperial dynasty the Qing (1644-1912) the minority Manchurians or Manchus ruled the majority Han and aggressively expanded the borders of the empire into frontier regions inhabited by ethno-religious minorities.

China flag CCP
Photo: Pxhere.

While the recent school of New Qing History views the dynasty through the lens of the Manchus , seeing it as an “Inner Asia Empire,” the CCP characterises it as a period of power centralisation and rule by the tactics of divide and conquer— a viewpoint that sheds light on Beijing’s attitude and policies towards Hong Kong in the post-National Security Law era.

“One hand hard, one hand soft” – carrot and stick against Han Chinese

In the mid-17th century, following decades of invasion, the Manchus, a Tungusic people from Northeast Asia, conquered China proper. Faced with a majority population of ethnic Han Chinese, the Qing court adopted draconian measures. It forced all citizens to adopt Manchu-style clothing and appearance and executed those who refused.

Han Women during the Manchu Qing dynasty. File photo: Wikicommons.

Large numbers of people were persecuted for their writings in what were known as “literary inquisitions,” sometimes just because of the “wrong” use of a single word or phrase. On the other hand, in order to keep intellectuals in their pocket, the Qing greatly expanded the civil service examination (keju), offering them a path to wealth and social status.

In Hong Kong, similar “stick” tactics were put in place after Beijing realised that 23 years of Chinese rule had only fostered a stronger Hongkonger identity, widespread dissatisfaction even among the historically pro-Beijing crowd, and anti-government protests attended by millions in 2019.

National security law
Photo: GovHK.

Police violence has escalated, social distancing laws have been abused to restrict protests, political dissidents have been arrested en masse, with their speeches scrutinised –“literary inquisitions” style – under the National Security Law. By contrast, those who willingly cooperated with the regime were offered “carrots” —being policed laxly or even given high honours such as the Bauhinia Medal. This award, intended to honour individuals who made significant contribution to society, has become a tool in China’s divide-and-conquer strategy.

Southwest China: “Remove tribal leaders, replace with imperial officials”

Traditionally, the southwest was inhabited by ethnic minorities governed by hereditary tribal leaders known as Tusi. Fearing that the tribal areas would become hotbeds of local resistance or even rebellion, the imperial court replaced Tusi with non-native officials parachuted in by the court, even though many of the Tusi had toed the line. 

In the case of Hong Kong, Beijing sees the 1997 handover as a failure since much of the establishment, even though ostensibly pro-Beijing, are far from being Beijing’s puppets and have held tight to their long-term vested interests, much like the Tusi. These include real-life tribal leaders like the Heung Yee Kuk (a council representing rural villages and market towns), as well as powerful real estate developers and British-trained senior government officials.

carrie lam oath ceremony civil servants
Top officials take oaths of allegiance in December 2020. Photo: GovHK screenshot.

To re-engineer the local power structure in a so-called “Second Handover,” Beijing imposed the National Security Law. Soon, civil servants will not only have to swear an oath of allegiance, but those in high-ranking positions will be gradually replaced by mainlanders. The power held by real estate developers will also be replaced by vested interest groups from the mainland, such as the newly formed Bauhinia Party which was founded by mainland Chinese businessmen with strong ties to the CCP.

Tibet: “Respect local religion, suppress local power”

The Qing had a different approach in Tibet. Its leaders displayed great respect for Buddhist Lamas and endorsed Tibetan Buddhism as one of the official religions. However, to assert its sovereignty, the court reformed the process by which religious leaders (reincarnated Lamas) were selected: traditionally, the Tibetan officials and the oracles searched and identified reincarnated Lamas using signs and prophecies. Emperor Qianlong institutionalised a device— drawing names from a golden urn — to break the Tibetans’ monopoly on the procedure.

In Hong Kong, the “faith” being instilled is patriotism, preached and promoted by groups such as the radical pro-establishment camp and the Bauhinia Party. However, just as in the case of the Qing court and the Tibetan aristocracy, Beijing is not entirely comfortable with these groups made up of Hong Kong and mainland elites, fearing that they will disobey orders once they gain power (Chinese billionaire entrepreneur Jack Ma is an example). Ultimately, Beijing will likely infiltrate different sectors with its own trusted party officials.

Mongolians: “Use their strength, limit their thinking”

As the Qing Dynasty extended its conquests of the Mongolian people, the captives were grouped into companies called “banners” – military and administrative units for the purposes of taxation, conscription and registration of population.

Policies to divide and conquer this ethnic group and its powerful cavalry were put in place such as restricting meetings of people from different banners and forcing alliances between certain banners to stoke disagreements. Moreover, Mongolian nobles were banned from interacting with Han people and from learning about their culture, a move to keep the Mongolians uneducated. 

Hong Kong has one particular group whose power the CCP wants to leverage — the elites in the financial industry. They are well connected internationally, especially with vested interests, and can ease trading between the Chinese and international markets. Having these people at their disposal, even if all other elements of the “Hong Kong system” fade away, is still in Beijing’s eyes a form — perhaps the best form — of “one country, two systems.”

As such, the Chinese regime allows the financial elite to continue their extravagant lifestyle just as the Mongolian nobility did, while propagating the idea that calling for sociopolitical change would not only be futile but also hurt the economy and their own well-being. If the elite come to their senses, they may begin to understand the power they have to bring about change.

Hui people: “Suppress their religion, divide their populace”

The Hui people are Muslims living mainly in western China. Since Islam had the potential to unite Muslims inside China, such as the Uyghurs, as well as those outside, the Hui became a target for suppression, most notably in the massacres during the Panthay rebellion and the Dungan revolt. The imperial court also stoked division between different sects as a preventative measure. 

In Hong Kong, the “unifying religion” is made up of westernised values and ideologies, such as Christianity and democracy. These values are constantly under attack to prevent resistance from taking shape and from “colluding with foreign forces.”. Now even moderate democrats have become Beijing’s enemies. With democratic ideals branded as separatism, the majority of native Hongkongers are pitted against China; the creation of such an enemy aims to propagate nationalism across the country.

Westerners: “Anti-foreigner regulations”

After a brief period of openness, the Qing pivoted to a closed-door policy against westerners. Emperor Qianlong wrote into law “anti-foreigner regulations” which required regular inspections of westerners‘ dwellings and banned them from a wide range of activities including hiring messengers, receiving loans, spending winters in the major port Guangzhou, and (in the case of women) visiting China altogether. The same anti-west spirit resurfaced in the National Security Law, cutting off Hong Kong from the international community. 

It would be an oversimplification to expect a match between Beijing’s policies for Hong Kong and the tactics of imperial China’s tactics. However, the history of the Qing Dynasty can help us understand many events in Hong Kong which appear to defy common sense and give us a glimpse of the regime’s mindset — a strong desire for complete control coupled with insecurity about its power.

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Dr Simon Shen is the founding chairman of Glocal Learning Offices (GLOs), an international relations start-up company. He also serves as an adjunct associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.