We are still in the early days of the Umbrella Revolution, but the student demonstrations in Hong Kong already present the greatest challenge to the authority of the Chinese government since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement of 1989. There are major differences, of course, but in some ways, Hong Kong is an even greater threat to the continued power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Because of this, don’t expect that Beijing will back down soon or allow its proxies in the Hong Kong government to do so.
What Hong Kong represents is an alternate vision to political development in China. The 1984 agreement between Great Britain and China that paved the way for the end of British control over the island guaranteed Hong Kongers’ right to elect a chief executive democratically by 2017, a prospect that strikes a blow at the heart of CCP control of China. Allowing a successful democratic precedent to be set would raise the specter of other regions demanding similar rights, however unrealistic those hopes might be. Beijing’s paranoia over and increased repression of Buddhist monks in Tibet and Uighur separatists in Xinjiang means there can be no prospect of liberalization allowed anywhere that China claims territory.
Moreover, Hong Kong is supposed to represent the viable marriage of authoritarian government with capitalist economics. Westerners generally assume that the two systems cannot indefinitely survive together, even if short-run economic success is often possible and even impressive. Yet the CCP’s plan is to deliver economic growth for hundreds of millions while denying them any say in their political future, in perpetuity. Hong Kong occupies a unique place in this equation — China would like to incorporate it into the political system permanently, to prove the CCP’s approach superior. If the people of Hong Kong reject this arrangement, then the entire underpinning of the CCP’s political philosophy and the legitimacy of the government are publicly refuted.
Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping is only in his second year on the job. Given his hard line against Uighur separatists, aggression in the East and South China Seas, and anti-corruption campaign at home, it’s hard to envision how he could let the pro-democracy movement succeed in Hong Kong and still remain a viable leader. His own personal political survival is tied to retaining complete control.
The hierarchy of Beijing’s preferences probably runs in descending order something like this:
- The protests peter out on their own accord after a week or so.
- The Hong Kong government successfully marshals business and other public opinion against the protesters and isolates them, also leading to an end to the demonstrations.
- The Hong Kong government manages to reduce the presence of the protesters so that daily life can continue on the island.
- The Hong Kong government cracks down on the threat to public safety, dispersing protesters in a more dramatic fashion.
Only as a last resort would Xi want to send in the People’s Liberation Army units based in Hong Kong. Such an action would destroy the fiction of the territory’s independence and also rip the mask off of Beijing’s pretensions of being a normal and respectable power. The blowback could be severe, including diplomatic isolation and deterioration in relations with neighboring countries.
Yet Xi may well be willing to do that, especially under the following conditions:
- The protests grow and there is a successful link between the students in the streets and the longer-standing Occupy Central movement that advocates for 2017 democratic elections (this link-up appears to be happening).
- The business community begins to support the protesters, possibly leading to a general strike.
- Widespread sympathy protests erupt in sensitive areas, such as Xinjiang or Tibet (which would be immediately crushed but dangerous nonetheless), as well as in Taiwan.
- Protests or even the widespread dissemination of information on the protests takes root in mainland China.
There are already reports of censorship of Hong Kong websites in China, and at least one person has reportedly been arrested on the mainland for posting images of the demonstrations. The Chinese authorities’ greatest fear is the movement’s spreading to the mainland.
One Occupy Central leader reportedly called what is happening “Hong Kong Democracy Square,” consciously evoking memories of Tiananmen. Beijing will consider such comments treasonous and will not long permit them, especially given the visual images of swelling crowds.
Tomorrow, October 1, is National Day, a national holiday surrounding the foundation of the PRC, which may well result in even larger demonstrations in Hong Kong. Beijing may wait to see if the protests are cresting and starting to recede, but it may also feel threatened enough to intervene to nip a spreading movement in the bud.
Regardless, China, Asia, and the West should steel themselves for a more paranoid, repressive regime from the world’s second-largest economy, no matter whether Hong Kong’s protests umbrellas stay open or are folded up.
— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.