The unexpected outbreak of massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong has presented authorities in Beijing with a pivotal challenge. China’s ambitious and very powerful president, Xi Jinping, faces a host of options, each loaded with heavy risks.
The choices present three possible paths. Beijing can compromise; it can crack down; or it can watch and wait, hoping the protests will die down.
Whatever path Xi chooses — and make no mistake, it is the Chinese president who will personally decide on a response to the Hong Kong challenge — this is a major test. If Xi chooses the wrong path, the consequences will be severe.
At this moment, Xi is calculating which course of action is most likely to lead in the direction he wants China to move. Beijing has three fundamental, mutually reinforcing goals. It wants to ensure political stability, preserve economic growth and retain full control in the hands of the Communist Party. Every tactical decision it makes regarding Hong Kong will be guided by those objectives.
There are other considerations, in addition to Beijing’s traditional growth and stability imperatives. Xi has a personal stake in seeing that the process of handling the challenge in Hong Kong does not weaken his hand within the Chinese power structure. He also wants to prevent the unfolding domestic crisis from undermining China’s regional and global aspirations.
Yes, the whole world is watching, particularly international investors. But so is all of Hong Kong, as well as Taiwan, China’s neighbors and even much of mainland China, no matter how much censors block information about the demonstrations or reshape the message about what precisely the protesters of the “umbrella revolution” are demanding.
Street protests erupted in response to a decision from Beijing that betrays a central promise made in 1997, when Hong Kong stopped being a British colony and returned to Chinese rule. The “One Country, Two Systems” policy vowed to let the people of Hong Kong preserve the political freedoms they had enjoyed. Under the plan, on the foundation of the Basic Law, voters would be allowed to choose their own chief executive through a direct vote by 2017.
But China reneged, at least on the spirit of the promise. The recent plan approved by Beijing lets voters choose only among candidates approved by Beijing, an idea portrayed as a step forward from the current system in which a 1,200-member election committee of Chinese loyalists vote, which is how the current chief executive, Leung Chun Ying, was elected.
Rumblings of discontent had emerged before the recent decision. Activists say China has been gradually eroding freedoms in the city.
Already a year ago, reading the tea leaves on the 2017 vote, members of the pro-democracy group Occupy Central warned of a scenario that looks very much like what we see now. The group’s name foreshadowed the gridlock of major Hong Kong thoroughfares now paralyzed by massive protests.
And yet, young activists in Hong Kong most likely did not foresee the extent to which authorities would unwittingly boost their movement’s fortunes.
Initially, many stability-minded Hong Kongers did not support the protests. Some still do not. It was the police action in response to the initial protests that stoked popular support. When police attempted to remove protesters last weekend, firing volleys of tear gas against a nonviolent group in a city accustomed to free speech and open protests, the mood changed, and the demonstrations exploded in size.
The sheer enormity of the protests catapulted the crisis into the global headlines, caused major logistical headaches and affected the financial markets.
China intensified censorship, blocking Instagram and blacking out broadcasts of CNN, CNBC and others. Now protesters have upped their demands, saying Leung must step down.
The question now is whether Xi, with the knowledge that a mild effort at cracking down served only to stoke popular anger, will risk a replay of Tiananmen Square in Hong Kong, or whether he will choose a different path.
Xi has become one of the most powerful leaders in recent Chinese history, and he appears to covet the support of the people. He has also made his mark stepping up censorship and repression of political dissent.
Of his three choices — compromise, crackdown or patience — he has already indicated that he has no intention of compromising, but he could still talk tough and forge a face-saving compromise. After all, Hong Kong already enjoys freedoms that the rest of China does not, and compromise would reassure investors that Hong Kong will remain a safe haven, while bringing a quick end to the protests without risking escalation in Hong Kong and elsewhere. It would also send a reassuring signal to Taiwan about the prospects for reconciliation.
But compromise could also trigger new demands elsewhere in China, and Xi might worry that it would signal weakness within the Communist Party and regionally. Instead, Xi may conclude that the reason the protests intensified is that police did not push hard enough. The Chinese leader has shown that he is not shy about pursuing his goals, and his goal is to solidify his own, the Party’s and Beijing’s hold on power. For that reason, he may decide that a harsh crackdown is the best path ahead.
Beijing does not want to lose the international financial power of Hong Kong. If anything, it would like to see it extend into Shanghai. A major crackdown would not send a message of stability to global investors, but it is very likely that Beijing does not see it that way.
We should be under no illusions that a repeat of Tiananmen is off the table, even though the authorities in Hong Kong have very specifically said “this is not Tiananmen.” They have also declared that “Hong Kong’s basic stability will not be broken.”
For the moment, Beijing appears to be giving the authorities in Hong Kong the opportunity to resolve the standoff without giving them much leeway to negotiate. “The radical activists are doomed,” said the Beijing-controlled Global Times. “Opposition groups know well it’s impossible to alter [Beijing’s] decision” on the political reform.
China will watch and wait, but not for very long. Every day that the protests continue without any sign that they are about to fade away, the pressure will grow to take action.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.