Tea Leaf Nation

Why China’s President Wants to Save Hong Kong, Not Destroy It

To secure his own legacy, Xi Jinping has every reason not to send tanks into the city.

AF/Getty Images
AF/Getty Images

Contemporary Chinese history tells us that many Chinese leaders are as known for the stains on their transcripts as for their historical achievements. There’s no way that current Chinese President Xi Jinping wants his legacy similarly sullied. That’s why there’s no way he’ll reprise Tiananmen Square by sending tanks into Hong Kong, even as pro-democracy protesters continue to surround government headquarters and to occupy major shopping districts. In fact, the Hong Kong crisis is handing Xi a rare opportunity to demonstrate his political wisdom — if he can end it without a bullet. 

Some have compared the current demonstrations — which call for the resignation of Hong Kong’s head of government, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, and true universal suffrage in electing the next C.E. — to the 1989 student protests in central Beijing, which ultimately suffered a bloody crackdown. But if tanks were seen on the streets of Hong Kong, the former British colony and current special administrative region of China, it would spell not only the end of Hong Kong as the world knows it, but also the end of a China story that has remained popular in the global business world for the past three decades as the country has enjoyed incredibly rapid economic growth. Although Hong Kong is no longer the only wealthy Chinese city, it remains economically significant as the biggest offshore renminbi trading center outside mainland China, one that can help Beijing globalize its currency. It also remains the first stop for many Chinese state-owned enterprises looking to expand worldwide. If Xi sends in the People’s Liberation Army to crack down on protesters, all of this will be imperiled. 

Xi knows that past Chinese leaders are remembered as much for their blunders as their accomplishments. Founding Communist Chairman Mao Zedong led the Communist Party to victory in China’s civil war and helped most of the country unite to found the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. It’s a stunning achievement, but whenever people talk about Mao, they never forget to blame him for the disastrous Cultural Revolution, an effort to remake Chinese society that became the most horrible 10 years in the history of the People’s Republic, which pushed the country to the edge of dissolution and sowed a sense of mistrust that permeates China even today.

Or take Deng Xiaoping, widely recognized as the paramount leader in contemporary China, who had the courage to turn away from failed, Soviet Union-style socialism. Deng opened China’s door to foreign capital, and the lifting of once tight controls over the economy and everyday life has rocketed the country to prosperity Mao could only have dreamed of. But Deng’s legacy is marred by the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 in Beijing, in which hundreds, if not thousands, of students and citizens were killed and wounded.

Then there’s Deng’s successor Jiang Zemin, widely criticized for his treatment of Falun Gong. Jiang paved the way for entrepreneurs to join party ranks and got China into the World Trade Organization, despite internal opposition. But he’s also remembered for his treatment of Falun Gong. Founded in 1992, Falun Gong attracted tens of millions of followers in China before Jiang’s administration banned it as an "evil cult" in 1999. The Chinese government may have very solid realpolitik rationales for banning a spiritual practice that became a threat to party rule. But the way Jiang handled the crisis — a nationwide persecution of Falun Gong members, sometimes without a strong legal basis — exacted a huge toll on China’s international image, and on Jiang’s legacy. 

For Xi, those are enough historical data points to allow him to avoid the same trap. Commentators both at home and abroad have suggested Xi is keen to be remembered as an active leader in Deng’s mold — a reformist with real impact — not a do-nothing president like Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Xi’s not going to let Hong Kong ruin all that. That’s particularly true given that Beijing’s promise to allow universal suffrage in Hong Kong was made by Deng, not Xi. The so-called "one country, two systems" approach, which allows Hong Kong to operate under a different set of laws until 2047, is widely recognized as one of Deng’s biggest achievements. Even to this day, about 17 years after Deng’s passing, his ideas remain highly influential among top leadership in Beijing. If Hong Kong collapsed politically or economically during Xi’s administration, he would be written into party history as the one who let Deng’s biggest policy achievements fail. 

Unfortunately, time is not on Xi’s side. So far, most of the missteps in Hong Kong have appeared to be Leung’s. Support for Leung has continuously hit new lows in various public polls conducted since he took office in July 2012. Opposition leaders, student leaders, and protesters have repeatedly urged Leung to step down so the trust between society and government can be rebuilt. He has refused.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Beijing ordered Leung to settle the situation without opening fire. It’s unclear when this dictate was handed down, but it strongly suggests the decision to fire tear gas at protesters on 87 occasions on Sept. 28 was made by the C.E., and not in Beijing. That fateful choice only escalated protests, and made Hong Kong look like a battlefield in pictures and reports on the Internet, on television, and in print worldwide. Hong Kong, once the best evidence Beijing had to convince the world that socialism and capitalism can coexist under the "one China" umbrella, suddenly became the latest and biggest challenge for Xi, on top of rising social unrest in the two nominally autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. Now Leung must hope his softer approach — with police reverting to a gentler stance, and Leung’s deputy, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, planning dialogue with protesters — gets the job done. My sources in Beijing have suggested Xi is personally monitoring the situation, given that delegating it to his subordinates in Beijing has backfired. That’s a headache for Xi, but it also puts him in a position to help walk back the conflict and be remembered as the one who saved Deng’s famous promise. 

Of course, Xi also refuses to lose face and be seen as soft in the eyes of the world. Xi’s determination to keep Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty can be discerned in an Oct. 4 editorial in the official mouthpiece People’s Daily, negating any chance for the so-called "color revolutions" that have already shaken some countries in the Middle East. But that doesn’t mean Xi will send tanks into Hong Kong to show his strength.

Hong Kong’s protest movement already has achieved a measure of a victory — it has forced Beijing to have a more pragmatic approach rather than a quick military crackdown, and it has won support and respect for Hong Kong from around the world. But the past several days have also showed Beijing’s restraint. If a similar protest took place in a big mainland city like Shanghai or Guangzhou — where local residents, in particular the fast-growing middle-class, have been also increasingly concerned about their rights — Beijing would not be nearly as tolerant. That echoes what Anson Chan, former Chief Secretary for Hong Kong and now a leading voice in the pro-democracy camp, wishes for Hong Kong: That it not become "just another Chinese city." At least not yet. On this point, Xi would likely agree.  

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