Hong Kong Protests: All Eyes on Xi Jinping

As protests continue in Hong Kong, many observers are speculating over potential outcomes of the movement and how Beijing will respond to a sustained challenge to its authority. In the Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor writes:

The protests appear to be growing. Wednesday and Thursday mark a national holiday in China, and many expect what takes place on those days to define the current unrest. If the sit-ins and demonstrations continue with the intensity they’ve already shown, there’s a chance that local security forces could crack down more violently than they have so far, including perhaps using rubber bullets. That sort of violent response could be a disaster for Hong Kong’s government, which would face mounting pressure from the territory’s voluble civil society and media.

For China’s rulers, the choices seem more clear. They’ve already signaled their lack of interest in allowing a true democracy to flourish in Hong Kong. State media in the past have pointed to the arrogance and “racism” of Hong Kong’s anti-Chinese activists; an influential Chinese commentator notoriously labeled Hong Kongers “dogs of British imperialists.” China is unlikely to allow the protesters to win many concessions. [Source]

Few expect the Beijing government to back down, yet how that could play out remains to be seen. As Tania Branigan points out in the Guardian, these protests are unprecedented for Hong Kong, even considering large-scale protests which successfully tabled planned anti-sedition legislation in 2003:

While the movement appears to be largely middle class to date, many of those involved say daily life is increasingly tough for ordinary people in the city, citing issues such as rising property prices.

Such concerns have been developing over recent years, along with unhappiness about large-scale migration from the mainland.But the movement sparked by all these factors has been a shock to a city which sees itself as conservative and law-abiding. Even the keenest supporters of the protests are taken aback by their scale and self-confidence.

“This is a watershed,” said Hung Ho-fung, of Johns Hopkins University. “This time people are using civil disobedience and setting up barricades. There’s also the disruptive aspect; in the past, they emphasised that demonstrations would not affect everyday life. This time they really don’t care. I really haven’t seen anything like this in Hong Kong history.”

But, he warned: “Beijing has put itself in a corner and I don’t think it can back down.” [Source]

In the New York Times, Louisa Lim argues that the protests have more at stake than just electoral reforms, as Hong Kong people are trying to forge their own identity, which Beijing is determined to oppose:

For China’s leaders, the accusation that foreign forces are manipulating students is easier to countenance than the idea that Hong Kongers are standing up for the high degree of autonomy promised to them. As students and activists faced off riot police amid the canyons of skyscrapers, one popular chant was simply, “Hong Kong People! Hong Kong People!”

Such an assertion of a separate and distinct identity is anathema to President Xi, whose xenophobic nationalism can accept only one state-approved version of what it means to be Chinese.

But even as the protests continue to swell, Beijing seems to hold all the cards. Yet even if it succeeds in tamping down the anger in Hong Kong — which is unlikely — its gains can be fleeting at best.

The moment that Hong Kong citizens have been dreading for 17 years has finally arrived. And the ramifications will ripple out, to Taiwan, whose residents are increasingly wary of the idea of reunification, as well as to the fringes of Beijing’s empire, where it is struggling with suicidal Tibetan protests and a murderous ethnic insurgency in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. [Source]

For , the protests present a major dilemma that is positioned to define his tenure. In the New York Times, Edward Wong and Chris Buckley write:

Hong Kong has been under Beijing’s sovereignty for long enough now that even modest concessions could send signals across the border that mass protests bring results — a hint of weakness that Mr. Xi, a leader who exudes imperturbable self-assurance, seems determined to avoid, mainland analysts say. And small compromises are unlikely to placate a good many of the Hong Kong residents who have filled the streets.

Yet any attempt to remove protesters by force would inevitably raise parallels with the killing of democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989, an event that split the Communist Party and poisoned China’s relations with the outside world for years.

Hong Kong’s future, therefore, may rest heavily on whether Mr. Xi has the clout, skill and vision to figure out a solution that somehow keeps the territory stable without sparking copycat calls for change closer to home — and without dealing a heavy blow to his own prestige or his standing among the party elite. [Source]

In the Globe and Mail, Mark MacKinnon writes about Xi’s position in relation to his father, who was considered a moderate and who is rumored to have opposed the June 4th military crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square:

What happens in Hong Kong over the coming days will tell us a lot about where China is heading in the era of Xi Jinping. A negotiated solution that appeases some or all of the protesters would suggest China finally has the kind of leader that the Communist Party’s undemocratic “meritocracy” was supposed to produce. The sidelining of Mr. Xi’s enemies – and his own genuine personal popularity among ordinary Chinese – gives him the power to surprise everyone in how he handles the movement.

A crackdown, particularly one that involves use of the People’s Liberation Army, would tell us China is in for another dark decade of stifling repression.

Once more, the early signs aren’t good. Hong Kong police have already used tear gas and pepper spray in failed efforts to disperse the crowd, which has instead continued to grow. Classic Chinese information-control measures have been deployed, with the terms Occupy Central and Umbrella Revolution (a moniker gained as protesters used their umbrellas to deflect tear-gas canisters) now blocked on the Weibo social network. Instagram – where photos of the umbrella-wielding protesters defying police were rapidly spreading – is no longer accessible in mainland China, consigning it to the same virtual prison as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

In another sign of the government’s thinking, China’s state-controlled media has condemned Occupy Central as an “illegal pro-democracy movement” responsible for “undermining social stability” in Hong Kong. Those are heavy words in the People’s Republic. [Source]

But not everyone believes a crackdown is inevitable. Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin tweeted:


Video of Bequelin and Schell on Charlie Rose is here:

On Vox, Zack Beauchamp interviews historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom about the protests and asks him to put them in a historical context:

ZB: Is this part of why these protests are so concerning from the Chinese government’s point of view? You’ve got something that seems like it has a lot of resonances with a deep tradition of protest in China, so it can’t easily be dealt with by force.

JW: That’s a concern. But I think we should also see it as related to other things that are haunting the Chinese Communist Party right now.

Moves away from authoritarianism in parts of the world other than China, for example, that involve large gatherings in central squares. There’s a way in which this links up to things from the specifically Chinese past, but it’s also something that links to the images of crowds in squares, whether in Ukraine or in Egypt. Those kinds of images are also on the minds of Chinese leaders.

It’s also a moment where there’s unrest across and all around the edges of China. You have a very funny moment now where Beijing has been making these efforts to expand the edges of the territory they control, with moves towards asserting control over islands that other countries claim. But at the same time, you have the edges of what they think of as Greater China plagued by discontent of other kinds: places like the [heavily Muslim Chinese province] Xinjiang or Tibet. There were also protests in Taiwan last spring that were in part pushing back against efforts to bring together Taiwan and the mainland at least in economic terms.

So the Hong Kong movement is linked to long-term traditions and history within China, it’s connected to things in other parts of the world, and it’s connected to quite different but simultaneously occurring challenges around the territory the Chinese government wants to claim authority over. [Source]