China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has warned against any “illegal” protests in Hong Kong. During a visit to Washington DC, Wang also said the matter was an “internal” affair and that, “all countries should respect China’s sovereignty”. Wang’s statement comes as the protests in Hong Kong drew huge crowds amid demands for the city’s chief executive to resign.
At the main protest hub on October 1, thousands of those working earlier in the week used the National Day holiday to show support for Occupy Central. The movement calls for Beijing to reverse its decision to limit Hong Kong people’s voting rights. Outside government offices, people strolled past signs stuck boldly onto the fence protecting the citadel of Chinese power from the hordes outside. They read, “I want the vote,” and “No violence, we love Hong Kong.”
The Admiralty district is the hub of the Umbrella Movement, so-called after protesters used them as protection against the pepper spray and tear gas fired by police at the weekend.
A short walk away was an orchestrated contrast to the easier atmosphere on the streets. Suited and speaking at the ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chief Executive C Y Leung defended China’s decision to vet candidates for the city’s first leadership election in 2017.
“It’s understandable that different people have different ideal proposals for political reforms,” said Leung.
Refusal to budge
Beijing is unlikely to compromise, let alone budge, on the National People’s Congress’ August 31 ruling.
Beijing views the protests as a threat to the concept of one China and Wang’s admonishment shows this to be true. With all the cards to play in Beijing’s hand, predicting the winner in this one-sided game is easy.
Why is this? For a nationalist like President Xi Jinping, saving face domestically and internationally is a priority. Given the images radiating around the world of the enormous crowds crippling parts of Hong Kong, backing away publicly from the NCP edict is not an option.
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Xi would be seen as weak if he relaxed the August 31 ruling. He’s broadly regarded as the toughest Chinese leader in decades, bent on advancing the “Chinese Dream” to boost his image and cement the Communist Party’s power. His co-opting of frontier regions like Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan into what he regards as China’s unstoppable rise is part of his grand plan. Dismantling the “one country two systems” formula under which Hong Kong is governed is not.
Xi appears ever prepared to take the Chinese Dream to new levels. After meeting a visiting delegation from Taiwan last week, the Chinese president suggested Taipei adopt the one country two systems model. Having split off from the mainland during a civil war in China in 1949, Taiwan, understandably rejected the offer.
A key reason for Beijing’s refusal to compromise is the likely unacceptable concept that a bunch of fresh-faced students with smartphones should play a part in shaping China’s future. The Communist Party is a profoundly hierarchical polity that rules China from the top-down. The appeal by Hong Kong’s demonstrators to be given a chance to mould their own destiny won’t be gaining traction in Beijing any time soon.
As veteran political analyst, Willy Lam, told me: “Since Xi Jinping came into power, we’ve seen an assertion of centralised control in the upper echelons of the party.”
Xi has secured top posts in the Communist Party, state and military. His high-profile anti-corruption drive is rooting out officials at the highest-level, the “tigers”, as well as lesser ones, the “flies”.
In his National Day speech, Xi pledged to underpin the Communist Party’s ability to rule. Framed in this way, it’s hard to imagine how power could be devolved to Hong Kongers to govern themselves.
Greater liberty to choose
But for Hong Kongers clamouring for greater liberty, the choice to choose is now a fundamental part of their core identity. It is 17 years since the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China and the world has moved on. Part of that self-image lies in the pride of having built one of the world’s leading international centres for finance and culture. This is not to deny that Hong Kong’s success is partly due to the deep commercial and financial interconnectivity the city has with the mainland.
Continued prosperity hinges on promoting these links, but this does not exclude the right to vote. Like many democratic movements which have swept across the globe, people want the choice to choose and to openly express their grievances. Hong Kongers don’t deserve the British to return as a colonial power any more than they merit a cohort of disconnected individuals in Beijing to tell them who should run their city.
At the protest site, HSBC employee Henry Sun told me: “Our own future also means our own leader. That’s important. Everyone knows this kind of selection methodology is not real democracy. I don’t think it is fit for Hong Kong as a modern city. Everyone is well educated. The decision makes it look like Beijing thinks we are stupid.”
Holding a black refuse bag in his right hand and picking up garbage with a gloved left hand, the 43-year-old father said he was determined to spend his first day off in the week doing good.
Spectre of Tiananmen
Evicting the protesters in Hong Kong by force would conjure up memories of the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on students. Thousands are thought to have been killed when the People’s Liberation Army fired on demonstrators calling for reform.
With the spectre of Tiananmen hanging over Hong Kong, protesters here remain overwhelmingly committed to continue rallying peacefully. Sending in the People’s Liberation Army to physically remove or even quash the movement would have massive repercussions for the Chinese government. These are not scenes that anyone with any sense is prepared to entertain.
Student leaders, Lester Shum and Joshua Wong are insisting Leung resign and threatening an escalation of action if he doesn’t do their bidding. This could mean occupying government buildings in a bid to compel leaders to change their mind about the right to vote.
Beijing and pressure from Hong Kong’s elite circles may serve up Leung’s resignation as a concession to the Occupy Movement. Even if Leung does go, people are questioning where the loyalties of his replacement would lie. Would the new chief executive side with Hong Kong, or with Beijing? For many, familiarity is better than an unpredictable alternative. Others are prepared to take the risk and roll with the punches to cap the summer of discontent.
As the confrontation brews, the more the protesters defy Beijing’s rule, the tougher the response may be. In the coming days, the best short-term outcome would be a peaceful diffusion of tension from either side. That’s a solution that would win the hearts and minds of many here and on the mainland.
Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific. She lives in Hong Kong.