The crowds of protesters in the streets of Hong Kong, which spread beyond Central (the business district) to Kowloon and Causeway Bay, do not mean it’s exactly Armageddon, but it’s the most serious organised protest that China has seen since the pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square was drowned in blood 25 years ago.
Hong Kong isn’t exactly China, of course, in the sense that it doesn’t live under the same arbitrary dictatorship as the rest of the country.
While it has been under the ultimate control of the Communist regime in Beijing since Britain handed the territory back to China in 1997, the deal London made before the hand-over guaranteed Hong Kong’s existing social system, including freedom of speech and the rule of law, for another 50 years.
Indeed, the “one country, two systems” deal even stipulated that the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” would get more democratic as time went on. There was already an elected Legislative Council when the British left, but by 2017, Beijing promised, there would also be a democratically elected chief executive. (The holder of that office is now chosen by a 1 200-person “Election Committee” that is packed with pro-Beijing members).
But free elections for the chief executive turned out to be more democracy than the Beijing regime could swallow, mainly because it’s terrified of the example spreading to the rest of China.
So it broke its promise: late last month the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing declared that it will allow only three candidates to run for chief executive, and that all of them must be approved by a nominating committee chosen by the regime.
That’s what triggered the current wave of demonstrations. As Martin Lee, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said at a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong: “What’s the difference between a rotten orange, a rotten apple and a rotten banana? We want genuine universal suffrage, not democracy with Chinese characteristics.”
Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the NPC standing committee that wrote the new rule, said that opening up nominations would cause a “chaotic society”, and that the chief executive must “love the country and love the party.”
It’s the classic Communist mind-set, and it left Hong Kong democrats with no options other than surrender or popular protest. Now thousands of people are out in the streets. Where does it go from here?
This confrontation comes at a particularly unfortunate time for Hong Kong’s pro-democratic movement, because the relatively new supreme leader in Beijing, President Xi Jinping, cannot afford to make any concessions.
Since he came to power two years ago, Xi has launched a massive anti-corruption purge that has made him a lot of enemies. At least 30 senior officials and hundreds of their family members and associates have been put under investigation or taken into custody.
Thousands of other officials might also face arrest (and rightly so) if the purge spreads. About 70 officials have actually committed suicide in the past year and a half.
The campaign against corruption is necessary and long overdue, but it is widely resented by those who fear that they and their families might also be caught in the net (including the family and associates of former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin).
The resentment is all the deeper because Xi’s own family and associates are magically untouched by the purge.
Many powerful people in the Communist Party hierarchy would therefore be greatly relieved if Xi lost power, or at least was forced to end the anti-corruption campaign. If he were to surrender to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, he would be giving those people an excuse to unite against him in defence of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power, and not just of their own personal interests.
Using excessive force to quell the protests, up to and including massacres, would also leave Xi open to criticism, of course, but mainly to criticism from abroad. As we saw in the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, in the end Communist Party cadres will usually support the use of violence in defence of their power and privileges.
As for the general public in China, the events in Hong Kong are already represented in the state-controlled media (to the extent that they are reported at all) as the anti-patriotic actions of people who are being manipulated by hostile foreign powers.
Many ordinary Chinese people won’t believe that, but they probably won’t risk much to support the people of Hong Kong. (If the protests spread to the mainland, of course, it’s a whole different game.)
Xi would doubtless prefer to win his confrontation with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement peacefully, but he will use as much violence as necessary to suppress it.
Massacres would do great damage to China’s relations with the rest of the world, but he knows where his priorities lie.
Dyer is a London-based independent Canadian journalist.