“It’ll be very hard for the Communist Party to say ‘Okay, there will be open and free elections,'” Wasserstrom says. “That’s unlikely to happen.”
That prediction fits with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s general policy. “Commentators have painted Xi Jinping into a corner: back down and be seen as weak, or stand firm and be seen as reneging on ‘one country, two systems,'” Jessica Chen Weiss, an expert on Chinese nationalist protest at Yale, writes, referencing China’s “two systems” policy of allowing Hong Kong special autonomy.
Xi is something of a hardliner on protests and democratic reform (he does not care for either), so it he’s likely to try to stand firm for the time being unless there is significant pressure from other Chinese elites. “The outlook for ‘gradual and orderly progress’ toward a more democratic Hong Kong appears bleak,” Weiss concludes.
So a partial victory is definitely possible, though by no means guaranteed. And as for the movement’s biggest demand, full and free elections in 2017, it’ll take a significant, long-term struggle to make that happen — even though Beijing has nominally promised full democracy to Hong Kong. Xi and the rest of the CCP seems totally uninterested in a concession that sweeping in the face of the current protest movement. In the unlikely event that they were forced to choose between full democracy and another Tiananmen right now, it seems possible that Beijing could opt for blood.
The protest will reach a crisis point, one we cannot win alone. In order for us to attain the rights that Beijing has promised, the rest of the world has to stand with Hong Kong. That includes the many multinational companies whose prosperity depends upon our free markets and open-and-honest society, but more important, it includes the world’s free democracies. Hong Kongers deserve more vigorous backing from Washington and London, which pledged to stand by us before the handover in 1997, when Beijing made the promises it is now so blatantly breaking.
Both Washington and London, in their failure to come out strongly in favor of the peaceful democracy protesters, have effectively sided with Beijing in a disgraceful display of power politics.
My biggest fears are twofold. If Beijing, in an attempt to defuse the situation, steps back from confrontation, offering a few meaningless carrots to the demonstrators and diplomatic bromides to the international community, the demonstrations — and the media attention so necessary to keep them going — may lose force. In that case, time is on Beijing’s side.
What would be worse, of course, is if the mandarins in Beijing conclude that global censure is meaningless, that overreacting with tear gas and violence against peaceful protesters will cost them nothing but a few weak protestations from the world community.
Why the US has avoided talking about it
When pro-democracy movements break out, the United States tends to show them a lot of at least rhetorical support. America sees itself, and often is seen, as a champion of democracy, sees the spread of democracy as in its interest, and believes it can often exert a little pressure on authoritarian government to respect those movements.
But the United States government, right up to President Obama, has been conspicuously quiet on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
So even a gentle hint of a suggestion of a whisper of rhetorical American support for protesters in Hong Kong risks being heard in Beijing as “the Americans are covertly backing a dangerous rebel movement that is seeking to plunge us into chaos and will succeed if allowed the slightest opportunity.”
That same thinking drove China’s response to the pro-democracy protests in Beijing and elsewhere in 1989. State media and official government rhetoric accused the peaceful demonstrators of being a foreign-backed rebel movement — which also became the official justification for the military-led massacre that killed an estimated 2,600 peaceful protesters. It wasn’t just rhetoric: internal Communist Party documents released years later showed that senior Chinese leaders — smart people — earnestly believed their own conspiracy theories.
Fast forward to 2014, and Chinese state media are already accusing Hong Kong’s protest leaders of being foreign-backed agents.
Were the United States to offer louder public support for the Hong Kong protests, yes, this would put the Chinese government under a bit more pressure to handle those protests responsibly, maybe even give in to some of the (relatively modest) protester demands. But it would also seriously raise the risk, already dangerously high, that ever-paranoid and ever-insecure Beijing could come to see the peaceful protests as a foreign-backed threat so existential that they have to be put down at any cost. That would doom the movement. The best thing that Obama can do now, unfortunately, is probably to keep quiet.
China frequently accuses the West, and the United States in particular, of stirring up trouble and fanning fears of China. From foreign-funded NGOs that spread ideas about human rights and constitutional government to Western journalistic exposes of the wealth of Chinese officials, the West seems bent on humiliating China, as it has since the early 19th century. Last week, the pro-Chinese Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po identified “a wide range of evidence” that purportedly shows that Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old organizer at the center of the current Hong Kong protests, is controlled by the “black hand of U.S. forces.”
But fear of China is not a Western machination. In the span of six months, massive protests in Taipei and Hong Kong show that fear of China is most acute along its own borders. The Chinese might reasonably expect demonstrations in Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and other countries with which it has maritime disputes. But the thousands of students occupying central Hong Kong, and the hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese citizens who protested in March in Taipei, are not CIA operatives. Rather, it is the inhabitants of greater China — the ones whom Beijing hopes one day to incorporate into a unified motherland — who fear China the most. They are protesting Chinese encroachments in far greater numbers than either the Vietnamese or Japanese.
Young people in Hong Kong, like pretty much anywhere these days, are recognizing that their future has been looted and are attempting, through whatever means they have available, to both reach some understanding of how they have come to be in this position and how they might fight back. In Hong Kong, China is very much “the future,” as the small city-state is integrated more and more into its massive mainland neighbor. This means that the sense of a doomed future among youth translates into the intuition that China is also the origin of that approaching doom.
There are plenty of young protestors who are frustrated with the inactivity of the movement, but feel isolated and incapable of pushing anything forward themselves. More importantly, even these protestors tend to translate their discontent into the language of “democracy” and “universal suffrage,” and they fail to look across the border to find allies among the factory workers of the Pearl River Delta.
But despite the fact that the pan-democrats’ terminology is the lingua franca of the movement, it’s clear that the movement itself is, for many people, hardly about liberal “democracy.” In fact, most discussions of what protestors actually want quickly jump into entirely different terrain. When asked what their goals are, many will respond with the parroted list of demands—this is incredibly consistent across social strata and different age groups. But when pressed about why they want these things, most protestors then immediately jump to economic, rather than purely political, problems.
People bemoan skyrocketing rents, the inhuman levels of inequality, inflation in the price of food and public transport, and the governments’ tendency to simply ignore the vast swaths of people sitting at the bottom of society. One speaker at an open mic made the common—if simply wrong—argument: “Why is Hong Kong just a couple of rich people and so many poor people?! Because we have no democracy!” Many claim—with abysmally poor awareness of how liberal democracies actually function in places like Greece or the United States—that once they are able to “choose” their own leaders these leaders will be able to fix widespread problems of inflation, poverty and financial speculation. Democracy has thereby come to designate less the practical application of a popular voting system and more a sort of elusive panacea, capable of somehow curing all social ills.
Interviewees have expressed the fear that the movement will get “confused” and “watered down” by many of the new protestors, who have come out to protest against the police attacks on students more than they are protesting for electoral reform. But it’s just as possible that the new demands may actually re-ignite the movement itself, pushing it beyond the domain of mundane electoral demands. Generally, when class strata far distant from those that initiated the movement begin joining in, it signals a sort of phase shift in what is going on and amplifies the movement’s power, rather than watering it down.
All the Chinese regime is demonstrating, however, is why Shanghai will probably never replace Hong Kong as a global financial hub. The clampdown in Hong Kong comes just as Xi’s government is tightening the screws on the global media on the mainland, investigating a fast-growing list of foreign companies and making it harder to discern which politicians’ families own which assets. For all the talk of bold reforms and accepting a “new normal” of lower growth, Xi has tightened rather than loosened the government’s hold over the economy and society.
China should be learning from Hong Kong’s first-world institutions. It should emulate the laissez-faire ethos, rule of law, open capital accounts and free-wheeling media environment that underpin Hong Kong’s success – not stamp them out. Instead, Xi’s government appears to be intent on remaking Hong Kong in China’s deteriorating image.
If Beijing continues to erode the liberties and institutions that have made Hong Kong such a great place to do business, multinationals aren’t suddenly going to shift base to Shanghai. Indeed, by the time the mainland’s favored hub reaches Hong Kong’s current level of transparency and financial sophistication – if it ever does – all the banks and household corporate names would’ve already moved to Singapore, or elsewhere in the region.
Those asking what’s next for China’s “one country, two systems” doctrine are pondering the wrong question. This pipedream, one that seduced Margaret Thatcher into returning Britain’s former colony to Beijing, is unraveling before our eyes. China’s decision to renege on its promise to let Hong Kong pick its own leader by 2017 comes as political frustrations rise in Macau as well. One can only imagine how darkly Taiwanese now view the prospect of the mainland’s embrace.
The use of tear gas by riot police over the weekend, unprecedented in recent times, has already elicited strong criticism. Consequently, they have largely withdrawn from the street. The political costs of a violent crackdown, both for Beijing and Hong Kong authorities, are simply too high; the economic shock alone counsels against such repression.
Beijing could also choose to accept the main demands of the protesters and allow direct nomination of candidates for the 2017 election. After all, the contest is still three years away, and the Chinese government could use other means to select its preferred candidates. But in the face of an emboldened democratic movement, the room for Beijing’s future maneuvers would likely be restricted.
Moreover, acceding to protesters’ demands would be a humiliating admission of political weakness that Beijing may judge it can ill-afford. As China maintains a tough and uncompromising posture in dealing with maritime disputes and internal unrest in ethnic regions, appearing weak would likely be seen as compounding these situations.
The safe option for Beijing is to let the Hong Kong authorities wait out demonstrators in the hope that the movement will dissipate or sufficiently alienate the public, particularly small business owners affected by the protest. This is the strategy that Beijing is currently betting on, but whether it will work depends on how the protest movement evolves.
At bottom, the direction of the movement is contingent on its class composition. Trade unions and workers must play a decisive role if protest demands are to go beyond electoral democracy. Political rights alone won’t secure the structural economic changes necessary for a more democratic workplace, and a more equal and just society.
Statements made by Chinese officials indicate that national security factors have been key in shaping electoral reform in Hong Kong. Their concerns are that western countries would take advantage of any liberal legislation to help support parties and individuals in Hong Kong that would antagonize Beijing.
Activists will write off Western support for pro-democracy movements in China as pro-Beijing spin, accusing the central government of using foreigners as scapegoats to avoid the wider issue of full universal suffrage, but the concerns of the Chinese government are legitimate and valid in any case. The state-owned Global Times newspaper cautioned against foreign support for the protests, saying, “Hong Kong is not Ukraine.”
While the pro-democracy movement commands a high degree of public support, Hong Kong society is highly polarized. Tens of thousands have also protested against the Occupy Central movement, on the basis that mass demonstrations will generate social discord and instability. There is no indication that the pro-democracy movement represents the majority opinion of Hong Kong residents.
Occupy Central activists held an unofficial referendum that saw the majority of 800,000 people support reform packages that would allow public nomination. The Alliance for Peace and Democracy, backed by pro-Beijing groups, collected close to 1.5 million signatures of residents opposed to the Occupy Central movement. The divide speaks volumes of the generation gap facing residents, as the majority view Beijing as a political anchor and guarantor of prosperity.
The pro-democracy movement should acknowledge that the proposed reforms are a shift in the right direction. Activists should know when to compromise and call attention to issues that will plague the city irrespective of whether democracy is achieved: Hong Kong’s obscene income disparity, the widest in Asia; the influence of wealthy tycoons and property developers who set pricing through short supplying; protecting the region’s unique historical and cultural identity. Democracy will never be an end-all solution.
Chinese State Media
Hong Kong is not Ukraine, a fact the whole international community comprehends quite well. The central government has made rather a solemn decision. If radical opposition groups fail to understand this and believe they play a dominant role in Hong Kong’s political reform, then facts will give them a lesson.
Their demands run counter to the Basic Law and go too far. It has been expected that the central government would reject them. Only a minority of Hongkongers are willing to support them and confront the central government, much fewer than the number of people that constitute the social foundation for the pan-democratic camp. It is a mere illusion to drag all the pan-democrats and the whole of Hong Kong society onto their chariot.
The decision made by the NPC has demonstrated the bottom line of the central government. The Western powers will endorse Hong Kong’s radical opposition groups but the publicity and degree of such endorsement will be in no way comparable with their support for the Ukrainian opposition party. Hong Kong is a society ruled by law and the force against the NPC decision is quite weak. China’s national strength means the West will not easily interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs.
Hong Kong boasts a benign legal foundation and is backed by a powerful mainland. Its SAR government enjoys perfect harmony with the central government in political reform, inevitably making a dramatic political upheaval a daydream of a minority. They should wake up now.