Shadow Government

Beijing’s Allies in Hong Kong Are Only Adding Fuel to the Protesters’ Fire

The Hong Kong protests have kept us guessing as to their intensity and longevity. Last week it appeared that they just might fade into oblivion. Then ham-handed police were caught on video brutally beating a bound protestor and that brought out thousands again. At this writing, the Occupy Central movement, having revived itself and gotten ...

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The Hong Kong protests have kept us guessing as to their intensity and longevity. Last week it appeared that they just might fade into oblivion. Then ham-handed police were caught on video brutally beating a bound protestor and that brought out thousands again. At this writing, the Occupy Central movement, having revived itself and gotten the authorities to talk with them formally, seems to be a long term effort. They have had continuing support among many frustrated sectors of society, not just students, even if some Hong Kong citizens oppose them as disruptors of the economy. Politicians, office workers, religious, young, old, students (and some parents), and professionals: the protests were started by students but they cut across Hong Kong’s demographics.

Most interesting is that the mainland now has a great test on its hands. What the Chinese government dearly wanted — for Hong Kongers to act like mainlanders so that this problem would fade away — was thwarted by the Hong Kong authorities using Tiananmen tactics. One would think that all authorities both on the mainland and in Hong Kong would have accepted by now that the digital revolution and a greater number of wealthier and more independent-thinking people in the world combines to make old fashioned authoritarianism very difficult, unless of course you are willing to embrace the tactics of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad against your opponents.

For a prolonged citizen uprising to be happening in Hong Kong over the most fundamental questions of self-government is likely to be a transformational event for both Hong Kongers and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Whatever the outcome, it seems that one side is bound to lose and one side is bound to win. The PRC doesn’t think it can back down after it provoked this crisis by reneging on a deal that is supposed to continue for another several decades. And the protestors are not easily cowed given it is the freedom they are already used to that is in jeopardy. This is zero-sum time for the principals, but also for Taiwan and the United States. Moreover, countries in the region are watching closely to see what the rise of China means under President Xi Jinping.

Conventional wisdom has long posited that as a people grow richer they will demand more political freedoms from their governments. As the thinking goes, if they see themselves as confident in their ability to do commerce, then they’ll see themselves as capable of asserting themselves in other arenas, such as politics. Sometimes an added incentive to self-government is rather practical: they want the power to oust corrupt officials who use an authoritarian state to enrich themselves at the hands of the producers.

Just how valid this theory is can be questioned; the mainland has grown far wealthier and there is plenty of corruption, yet self-government has not broken out yet.

But how does this idea relate to Hong Kong, which has been wealthy for a long time? The mainland is sending no signals that it intends to harm the prosperity of Hong Kong: On the contrary, both the mainland and Hong Kong are cooperating on wealth creation with investment, and significant trade and commerce. Of course the island could fear that with more political control they’ll see an increase in corruption.

But I think that something more interesting than "prosperity leads to a political opening" is going on. What we are seeing here is quite simply that the culture of Hong Kong is too open and conducive to democracy for the mainland to easily squelch. Its institutions — which spring from its culture — are free institutions. People on Hong Kong have been for a long time enjoying a society of freedom; it is a legacy of the United Kingdom but also of a thriving market economy that has kept it continually and intensively connected to the outside world. In addition to a free economy, their press has been free and their politics has been comparatively free for the region after the British turned them over to China and established a form of self-government.

If the PRC government wants stability, it couldn’t have chosen a better way to provoke a crisis. It allowed hopes to build for a first-ever election by universal suffrage only to end up curtailing who could stand for the post — as the mullahs do in Iran. They should have known with whom they are dealing. Besides, China has had the upper hand all along because the body that has actually always chosen the executive is dominated by legislators loyal to Beijing.

So the PRC-backed administration moved from a system it was effectively controlling to one that provoked a crisis. And it has taken several steps to make the situation worse. It insulted the Hong Kong population as one having the mentality of "peasant farmers," blaming the crisis not on its changing of the rules for electing its chief executive but on Hong Kong fears over its waning economic strength. Then it allowed the reigniting of the protests when the Hong Kong police turned brutal. While those police are not PRC agents, the PRC is pulling strings sufficiently that one would think it would have forbad such violence.

And now the mediator chosen for the talks between the Hong Kong government and the students is a university president close to the current hated chief executive. Leonard Cheng Kwok-hon served as an advisor to CY Leung. The students naturally see the choice as cynical.

Having made a bad situation worse, the Hong Kong authorities and their supporters in Beijing face what could well be a turning point in their relations with Taiwan, the United States, and their neighbors. What is at issue is not the status of Hong Kong as independent or not; that is a settled question in Beijing’s favor. What is at issue is how the PRC plans to achieve ultimate sovereignty over the island, and what that action tells us about how the PRC plans to achieve its long-sought goal of sovereignty over Taiwan. Taiwan cannot view the events in Hong Kong with anything but foreboding. Reneging on promises, countenancing violence (especially if the Hong Kong protests end in another Tiananmen-style horror), and basically strong-arming outcomes do not fit with the so far rather successful theme of the "peaceful rise of China," a theme to the benefit of China’s stability, its economy and continuing welcome into world leadership. And then there’s all that activity in the South China Sea.

Like all Chinese leaders, Xi is not easy to figure out: the contours of his thinking as well as the pressures on someone leading such a nation-state as China are hard for outside observers to divine. We know he is one of the most powerful leaders in the PRC’s history; we know that his crackdown on corruption is a mixture of sincere attempt to quell public disgust with corruption along with an excuse to wipe out opponents. But what does this turn of events in Hong Kong tell us? Is he willing to risk China’s image and sow greater angst among those impacted by China’s rise, all to get more control of Hong Kong faster than what is due to Beijing in time? And that is a question of how wise he is, another variable we must consider when analyzing the politics of any nation’s leaders.

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