Beijing’s Dilemma Over Hong Kong Protests
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is facing calls to step down over her handling of an unpopular extradition bill, huge protests against it, and its suspension last Saturday. (For a recap of these events, see CDT’s earlier posts or listen to a concise but thorough podcast account from The New York Times’ Austin Ramzy.) Even some local lawmakers who supported the initial legal amendments have become sharply critical of Lam. Beijing, however, is standing by her. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement on Saturday:
The Chinese Central Government expresses its support, respect and understanding for the SAR government’s decision [to suspend the amendments] and will continue its staunch support for Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the SAR government in governing Hong Kong in accordance with law and upholding the SAR’s prosperity and stability with people from all sectors. [Source]
The ministry’s Lu Kang reiterated this stance at a press conference on Monday, following the two-million-strong march the day before:
Q: Following further mass demonstrations in Hong Kong yesterday, does the Hong Kong Chief Executive still enjoy the support of the Central Government?
A: Since Hong Kong affairs and working relations between the central and SAR governments are entirely domestic affairs, this is not a question to be answered by the foreign ministry. I’d refer you to the competent authority for more information.
I’d like to bring to your attention to response by the Spokesperson of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council that the Central Government gives full recognition to and will continue its firm support for the Chief Executive and the SAR government in carrying out their work according to law. [Source]
Citing an anonymous Hong Kong official, Reuters’ James Pomfret reported that this “firm support” would likely involve blocking Lam’s exit even if she was willing to step down.
“It’s not going to happen,” said the official, who has been involved in meetings on the political crisis.
[…] Lam was voted in by an electoral college of Beijing-approved delegates, after Beijing rejected demands for universal suffrage in the city. Her resignation now, even if Beijing thought it was time, and the search for a new leader, would likely rekindle the debate about democracy.
“It would create more sorts of problems than it solves, at all sorts of levels,” the source said of the prospect of Lam quitting.
[…] The government official said the decision to postpone the bill had been made with Beijing’s consent, to the relief of many in the city administration.
But analysts said such a climb-down could undermine Xi’s image as a tough, unyielding leader who has overseen a drive against corruption and dissent since he became top leader in 2012.
[…] The official said the protests had probably damaged Lam politically in the eyes of Beijing and it was “doubtful” that she would seek a second term. [Source]
A New York Times editorial on Monday noted that Beijing now faces a broader predicament than the fate of their local representative:
To the Hong Kong people, [the amendments’ suspension] was no more than a tactical retreat. They demanded a full withdrawal rather than suspension of the proposed extradition law, an investigation into police tactics and official recognition that their demonstrations were not “riots,” a designation carrying criminal implications.
In effect, they demanded unconditional surrender. And that’s not in Mr. Xi’s playbook.
China’s secretive politics leave unclear the degree to which Mr. Xi is personally invested in the latest confrontation with Hong Kong. He was celebrating his 66th birthday with Vladimir Putin in Tajikistan when Ms. Lam retreated, and she insists the law was her initiative to begin with. But there can be little question that the Chinese leadership gave Ms. Lam the nod before she backed down, and none that the confrontation poses a grave challenge to Mr. Xi.
[…] Now that a tactical retreat has not worked, the Chinese government has some tough calls to make. More concessions could further embolden the protesters. But a direct assault on Hong Kong’s civil liberties would be far more difficult and costly than, say, suppressing the Uighur minority in their remote Xinjiang region in northwestern China. Hong Kong’s history as a commercial center, its proximity to the enormous Chinese market and its rule of law have made it a global financial hub, with a multinational population to match. If the many businesses headquartered in Hong Kong were to flee in the face of a Chinese crackdown on its freedoms, China would suffer a blow both to its economy and to its claims of Asian and global leadership. [Source]
William Pesek discussed this scenario in an op-ed at Nikkei Asian Review:
[…] President Xi Jinping, the strongest Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, wants the unruly city across the Pearl River Delta to know who is boss. On his watch, Beijing delayed promised suffrage for Hong Kong, ejected lawmakers, jailed 2014 demonstration leaders, sent a Financial Times journalist packing and saw fit to kidnap a billionaire, booksellers and heaven knows who else.
This reflects Hong Kong’s changing reality. When Hong Kong returned to mainland rule in 1997, China was much weaker in economic terms than today and inclined to protect the proverbial goose laying the golden eggs.
[…] But what of Shanghai, which China has been aggressively promoting over the last decade? Xi’s team might not want Hong Kong to die, but giving Shanghai a boost in the Asian corporate base competition might be worth the risk.
Hong Kong cheerleaders dismiss this suggestion out of hand. But Singapore and Tokyo may thank their lucky stars. […]
Beijing has previously proved it can triumph in street battles with placard- and umbrella-waving citizens. But Xi could lose the bigger war if multinationals flee his growing orbit. [Source]
At The Washington Post, Gerry Shih wrote that resistance to the amendments raised doubts “not only about Xi’s long-term strategy for Hong Kong but also about his overtures to Taiwan”:
“Beijing has misinterpreted Hong Kong’s culture, psyche and feelings,” said Anson Chan, the former No. 2 official in Hong Kong. “Hong Kong people will not bend to the will of the Communist totalitarian state. If only Beijing would understand what makes Hong Kong tick, what are the values we hold dear, then they can use that energy to benefit both China and Hong Kong.
[…] In response to Hong Kong’s defiance, the Chinese leadership appears likely to double down on patriotic education and hasten mainland investment and immigration into Hong Kong, said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong University.
It’s a familiar playbook, Lam said. One extreme example is the restive region of Xinjiang, where the party has sought to instill patriotism in ethnic Uighurs through forced indoctrination on a massive scale while promoting intermarriage and migration of Han, China’s main ethnic group.
“A ferocious confrontation is shaping up between the will of the Hong Kong people and the Xi Jinping administration, (which is) determined to be the arbiter of things in Hong Kong,” [Lam] said.
[…] Lam said while the central government in Beijing couldn’t be seen to back down, they would be wary of the possibility that ongoing protests could damage Hong Kong’s business sector at a time of growing pressure on China’s economy.
[…] “They need to give way to the fact that the Hong Kong economy will suffer tremendously, and hence the Chinese economy, if the protests continue,” said Lam.
[…] Failure to handle the protests would reflect “very poorly” on Xi, Lam said. “He has (already) been subjected to internal criticism by senior party members for failing to handle Donald Trump, for failing to handle the larger Cold War between China and the US.” [Source]
“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government and the authority of the Basic Law” — Hong Kong’s equivalent of a constitution — “or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible,” Xi said in July 2017 at a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the handover.
He called for stepping up “patriotic education” of young people, making clear an intention to integrate Hong Kong into the mainland.
[…] But he seems to have underestimated locals’ distrust in the mainland’s one-party rule.
Beijing backed Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam when she announced Saturday that the extradition bill would be delayed indefinitely. For Xi, this marked an unprecedented compromise in the city, and he likely hoped that it would calm things down.
Yet a quarter of the city’s residents again turned out Sunday to demand that the bill be scrapped altogether. Even those who had distanced themselves from politics after the Umbrella Movement failed joined in this time, worried that they would face the repercussions as well. [Source]
At South China Morning Post, Michael C. Davis argued that successive crises had been worsened by the local government’s role as Beijing’s representatives in Hong Kong, instead of Hong Kongers’ representatives to Beijing.
Autonomy regimes, wherever they exist, fundamentally depend on a local autonomous government committed to defending the autonomy of the community it is charged with governing. This is in the interest of both the central and the local governments. Central governments are generally prone to overreach even in a democracy. An authoritarian government, with repressive habits of strict control, is even more prone to do so.
It may be that a local chief executive, such as Lam, who owes her job to the selection and approval of the central government, is incapable of defending autonomy. One would hope she could at least find her voice to explain local concerns and offer alternatives.
If she and her predecessors are incapable of this, as so far appears, then this explains why Hong Kong people have been so passionate in their demand for the promised democracy. Presumably, a government actually chosen by Hong Kong people would at least find its voice to convey their core concerns.
Such a government, being committed to stability, is unlikely to pose such a confrontational threat as Beijing may fear. It would just be better equipped to represent Hong Kong, voice local concerns and seek alternatives. [Source]
True democracy for Hong Kong remains an almost certainly distant prospect, but the aspiration received encouragement on Monday from Taiwan’s legislature, which passed a cross-party resolution of support. From Taiwan’s Central News Agency:
“Hong Kong people have voiced their concerns through massive protests. The Legislative Yuan caucuses do not agree with the Hong Kong government’s forceful way of handling the mass movement,” the resolution said.
“We urge the Hong Kong government to listen to its people with humility and minimize conflict.”
[…] “Hong Kong people have the right to seek their own democracy and freedom. We will always support those universal values and oppose any violation of human rights and freedom,” the resolution said.
[…] Meanwhile, Legislative Speaker Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) said the resolution clarified the position of the legislature on the extradition bill controversy.
“You are not alone, Taiwan is with you,” Su said as he thanked the party caucuses for uniting to protect the value of democracy and freedom.
Su emphasized that as Taiwanese people sympathize with Hong Kong, they should also ask themselves: “what kind of future do you want?” [Source]
Another CNA report noted that the Hong Kong model of “One Country, Two Systems” is forcefully rejected even by a prospective rival of incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen who has been accused of “advancing China’s interests” and “put[ting] Taiwan’s democracy at risk”:
Kaohsiung mayor and presidential hopeful Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) vowed Saturday that China’s “one country, two systems” formula for unification with Taiwan will never be put in place in Taiwan if he is president.
“‘One country, two systems’ can never be implemented in Taiwan. Taiwanese people can never accept it, unless, unless, unless it’s over my dead body,” Han told tens of thousands of supporters at a rally in Douliu in Yunlin County, saying “over my dead body” in English.
At the rally, Han of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) led the crowd in chanting “reject ‘one country, two systems'” and asked his supporters to have faith in him.
“If I am given the opportunity to lead the Republic of China and become the president of the Republic of China, I promise that ‘one country, two systems’ will never be carried out on the land of Taiwan,” Han said.
It was Han’s most forceful public rejection of Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula. The mayor has been criticized by his opponents for what they perceive as his overly pro-China stance and reluctance to criticize Beijing. [Source]