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The upcoming G20 summit is a powerful symbol of China’s rise. But the struggles of pro-democracy forces ahead of Hong Kong’s elections are a reminder that China’s increasing international integration has not brought political liberalization at home.

Ready for the big stage: Hangzhou in 2016. Image by Imagine China

If Deng Xiaoping were alive to attend the G20 summit in Hangzhou this September, he would probably conclude that things have gone according to plan. The 21st century was supposed to be the time when China would join the club of wealthy nations and return to the international stage – having been preoccupied with wars, revolutions and the recovery from all this frenzy throughout the previous century.

China is now the world’s second largest economy – or even the biggest, if its GDP is adjusted for purchasing power parity. As the host of the upcoming G20 gathering, China finds itself at the center of international attention. Isolated no more, the Chinese Communist leadership now shapes the international agenda in concert with the powers that dominated the 20th century. These “old powers” may not agree with China on many issues, but they would certainly agree that effective global governance is no longer possible without China’s contribution.

But if this weekend offers visual proof of China’s global standing, it will also be a reminder of what the country’s rise was not about. As international diplomats and journalists descend on Hangzhou, the elections in Hong Kong 1,000 kilometers further South are likely to receive much less attention. The recent rise of a new independence movement in the former British crown colony – as well as Beijing’s efforts to nip it at the bud – shows that China’s international integration has not increased democratic rights for its citizens. Instead, Beijing’s leaders have reduced the space for public participation in Hong Kong, which had been promised a high degree of autonomy from the mainland after its 1997 handover to Beijing.

Economic success buffered China from calls for political reforms

Political developments in Hong Kong – as well as within China proper – have proven the argument wrong that economic opening and international integration would lead to political liberalization in China. At the turn of the century, this argument was used to assure Hong Kong’s residents that after 50 years of “one country, two systems” there would no longer be a need for protecting their civil liberties against the authoritarian system next door. More than 19 years down the road, freedom of speech and political participation have been curtailed despite the two systems compromise – and many in Hong Kong’s younger generation feel sold out to China.

China’s leaders believe that their country’s economic success provides a buffer against demands for political reforms and shields it from destabilizing social movements like the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Republics or the Arab Spring in the Middle East. Its economic rise resulted in ever greater global integration – from joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001 to hosting the Olympic Games in 2008 or the World Expo in 2010 – while its tightly controlled political system remained intact.

Western crises sped up China’s global integration

China is evolving from a passive “observer of global governance” to a reluctant, but increasingly active participant at a faster pace than planned by its leaders who traditionally put their country’s domestic development first. Unforeseen crises in the old power centers – from 9/11 to the global financial crisis in 2008 – were important catalysts for speeding up this transformation. Western nations needed China’s help and called on it to play a bigger role even though it may not share their democratic values.

Of course China had to make concessions – it had to accept greater scrutiny of its trade practices and to further open its economy to foreign investment, and it bowed to international pressure to let its currency appreciate, to name just a few examples. China is also on the defensive on a number of issues – from tensions in the South China Sea to international accusations of unfair trade practices. But one topic remains off limits: China’s one-party system and societal controls may be the subject of occasional ritualized criticism by foreign leaders, but they are not up for debate.

At least so far, Beijing’s leaders were able to build a rather effective firewall around their authoritarian system. From their perspective, this firewall has to include Hong Kong, especially if this Sunday’s elections should lead to a strengthening of the radical pro-independence forces. So as China basks in national pride as host of the meeting of the world’s largest powers in Hangzhou, the residents of Hong Kong will be left to worry about their own future. For the international community, this weekend is a reminder that China has joined the club – but that it wants to be a member on its own terms.