WASHINGTON, December 11, 2014 —The Chinese government, through Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and its official media outlets, is signaling that its patience with the Hong Kong protests is wearing thin.
When the crackdown on Hong Kong comes, it will be swift and deadly. And it will come.
The Chinese Communist Party understands that compromise in Hong Kong means the end of the authoritarian regime, an outcome it is unwilling to accept. The lessons of Mikhail Gorbachev in the then-Soviet Union are fresh for China’s leadership, and Beijing has shown no intention of following the same path.
Under President Xi Jinping, the only ‘reforms’ have been those that consolidate Xi’s power and side-line potential challengers to his position. There have been no openings and no moves toward democracy, and Hong Kong will not be the first.
Xi has systematically reinforced his authority since taking over as president, becoming one of the strongest leaders in China’s history. He has asserted control over the government, the Party and the economy, consolidating power over all aspects of society.
Xi revealed a blueprint for ‘reform’ in November 2013, explaining his agenda for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” He has emphasized economic progress but carefully avoided any discussion of political opening.
Xi also has taken a preeminent role in international and domestic security. He has aggressively moved to assert Chinese control over disputed territories, raising tensions with Japan and neighbors in the South China Sea. Domestically, Xi has launched a strong anti-corruption campaign. Many of those targeted are affiliates of former head of security Zhou Youngkang, who was affiliated with former Politburo member Bo Xilai, serving a life sentence for corruption and abuse of power. Critics say Bo was removed from his position because he challenged the Party elites, and there are allegations that current targets are also political adversaries of Xi.
Political openness is not a part of Xi’s reform program, however, and he has displayed little inclination to allow democratic change. He has consistently supported the Communist Party’s power over the country and required party discipline. Xi is expanding Party control over the country and centralizing control in the government.
Hong Kong is a direct challenge not only to China’s central government, but also to Xi personally.
The Hong Kong protesters are demanding that Beijing allow direct election of the Chief Executive.
On June 30, Hong Kong democracy group Occupy Central held an unofficial referendum on political reform. The winning proposal, backed by a majority of Hong Kong residents, called for candidates to be nominated by 35,000 registered voters or by any political party which secured at least 5 percent of the vote in the previous election.
Beijing responded on 31 August by agreeing to allow direct election, but only after Beijing had approved the slate of candidates, effectively undercutting the democratic process. Activists rejected Beijing’s proposal, and Beijing refused to reconsider.
Pro-democracy groups then held peaceful protests pushing for democracy while pro-Beijing groups also peacefully demonstrated.
The situation escalated on 22 September, when student groups protested China’s involvement in the Hong Kong electoral process by boycotting classes. Occupy Central then joined the students on 28 September, and the combined group took over central Hong Kong.
On Saturday night, demonstrators again took to the streets in protest. The day before, demonstrations became violent, with protesters clashing with pro-Beijing demonstrations.
Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung responded by demanding that protesters disperse immediately. He also warned that the streets must be clear by Monday to allow commerce to continue unhindered. On national television, Leung warned, “The government and the police have the responsibilities and determination to take all necessary actions to restore social order.”
Beijing used its People’s Daily, to again label the protests as “illegal acts” and to condemn the actions of demonstrators. An editorial called the possibility of protests expanding to mainland China “no more than a daydream.”
Despite that statement, Beijing knows that allowing democracy in Hong Kong opens the way for democratic protests in Tibet, Xinjiang and potentially mainland China.
As with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, China’s government initially appeared to take a somewhat conciliatory approach toward the demonstrators, and has agreed to hold talks with the pro-democracy groups. Also like Tiananmen, however, the government ultimately will tire of the dissent and quash the protests.
Failure to take that action means the government is willing to transform to democracy, which it is not.
Hong Kong is China’s troubled step-child. The island was ruled by the United Kingdom for 155 years. China ceded Hong Kong to Britain in 1842, after it lost the First Opium War. The island was returned to China in 1997, after Margaret Thatcher negotiated its hand over.
When China took back the island, it systematically worked to destroy all vestiges of British rule. It replaced long-standing cricket clubs with garish glass and steel buildings, and bulldozed other British memorials.
It has also worked to end the British system of democracy and impose strict top-down rule from China.
While the latest protests are testing Beijing, ultimately, the central government will prevail. Xi cannot allow Hong Kong to distance itself from China. Continued unrest on the island will embarrass Xi and could jeopardize his position. His anti-corruption campaign has already created enemies for the President inside the party, and any additional discontent on Hong Kong could provide the opportunity to remove him from power.
Xi will take action before he is in danger, and democracy in Hong Kong will go the way of the cricket club.
This article was first published in the Communities in October, 2014.