In the past few days, the situation in Hong Kong has created a new and unpredictable challenge to the overall stability of China. The two relatively fast and easy ways out of the siege that Hong Kong students have laid on the local government both bode ill for Beijing.
If Beijing were to crack down violently on the students, this could prove to the world that the 1989 repression in Tiananmen was not an isolated episode, almost an accident, as the official version practically goes, but a pattern of behavior unfit for a global superpower, and thus proof that China must be sanctioned and stopped.
Yet, Beijing may have a hard time now agreeing to some of the demands from the demonstrations. It has already made concessions to previous democratic demonstrations; namely, it scrapped its former plans for indirect elections of the head of the territory, and promised that after 2017 there would be more political reforms. If now, after just a few weeks, Beijing were to make further concessions it could start a never-ending game in which students in the streets of Hong Kong actually dictated the policy agenda to Beijing on matters like political reforms, extremely delicate for the future of the whole country.
Either outcome could then spark a violent internal power struggle at a time when many in the party are extremely unhappy because of the tough ongoing anti-corruption campaign. In fact, in China's devious and contorted politics, it cannot be ruled out that those opposed to the current party policies are helping and abetting the ongoing protests. In fact, problems in Hong Kong are bound to refocus the attention of party chief Xi Jinping at the next party plenum.
Protesters occupy Harcourt Road, Hong Kong on September 29, 2014, in front of Admiralty Centre and the Central Government Offices. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
President Xi originally wanted to focus on the rule of law, aimed at eliminating corruption in the Communist Party and reforming the often overbearing state-owned enterprises. Now the plenum is bound also to address rule of law in Hong Kong and the future of the territory, thus giving breathing room to corrupt officials and state-owned enterprises. The Communist Party has a long history of using popular demonstrations to as part of infighting within the leadership.
Actually, only a few weeks ago the situation in Hong Kong seemed to have been brought under control (see "President Xi calls the election tune"), and Xi appeared to have scored a major success in handling the political crisis in the territory. How things got completely turned around in just a few days is not clear.
The protesters definitely reorganized and reconsidered their strategy and tactics. Students are much better protesters than are middle-aged, middle-class people. But most importantly, in a matter of days local Hong Kong authorities squandered the advantage they had achieved with the Beijing concessions. Rather than reaching out to the common people and increasing the divide between the more moderate and more radical protesters, apparently their actions caused the democratic camp to close ranks again and reorganize. Moreover, certainly local authorities did not serve Beijing well when they vetted the White Paper on Hong Kong that at the beginning of the summer kindled this wave of demonstrations.
So now what is there for Beijing to do? This is certainly the main question nagging Chinese leaders in these hours.
In any event, there are still a few elements to consider. The students are and have to be considered good, and so are their aspirations for democracy. After all, even the party now claims to aspire to democracy.
Moreover, it is clear—to various degrees—what the protesters want; it is not clear what Beijing wants for the political future of Hong Kong, and the White Paper is objectively outdated now.
There is another element surfacing in Beijing in these days. Unlike what happened 25 years ago in Tiananmen Square, people in Beijing are not sympathetic with students in Hong Kong. The current protestors are not their children -- they are different from those in Beijing. Beijingers often say that many people in Hong Kong do not like mainlanders, a feeling warmly reciprocated. Mostly, however, it is because Beijingers often say: 'You in Hong Kong already have far more democracy than us, what else do you want?' That argument does not trigger a movement of contagion for democracy but resistance and opposition to the demonstrations. Somehow, many people in Beijing do not appear too eager to move towards democracy and certainly not under the leadership of people in Hong Kong, who until recently, they say, cared only about money: squeezing profits out of poor people from the mainland.
Lastly, it is clear that if Beijing, as is likely, chooses neither to crackdown nor cave in, Hong Kong will still face a long-term crisis. Even if demonstrations are allowed to continue and then subside, they might restart at any moment before or even after the controversial 2017 elections. This may drain enormous amounts of energy from Beijing at a crucial time in Xi's rule, and also create snares and traps to ambush Xi and his plans for reforms. In turn this may increase the temptation for a quick solution in Hong Kong. Resisting the temptation will not be easy.
As in the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square, the center of the drama is not in the streets, among the students, but in the hidden plots secretly unfolding in the corridors of the palaces of power in Beijing. Who is using the students to undermine the enemy and buttress his position? The real target might well be President Xi, while the effect on foreign relations of a crackdown against the Hong Kong students might trigger a new cold war.
These contradictory elements simplify politics in China, as fear of the spread of Hong Kong's protests is for the time contained. However it also complicates matters with Hong Kong: it may break the unity of Chinese people. But these are complicated times.