The escalating protests in Hong Kong pose a personal challenge to the autocratic rule of Xi Jinping, whose implacable domination of Chinese public life since 2012 has drawn comparisons with Mao Zedong.
Xi has distanced himself from the turmoil so far. But the scale and persistence of the unrest, combined with growing street violence, may force him to get involved – or risk losing his “strongman” image.
Probably to Beijing’s surprise, the demonstrations over a proposed extradition law have continued despite an unusual, albeit partial government climbdown. That points to deeper grievances about Beijing’s slow-burn attempts to curb Hong Kong’s freedoms, the lack of full democratic rights and, more generally, the threatening atmosphere created by Xi’s aggressive authoritarianism.
This wider context, particularly unsettling for Hong Kong residents, encompasses Xi’s record of unbending hostility to political pluralism in mainland China, ever more pervasive internet and media censorship, increased social regimentation, and human rights abuses – notably the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities such as Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighur community.
In a keynote speech in December, Xi reasserted the leading role of the Communist party in uncompromising terms. “Whether it’s the government, the army, ordinary people or students, the east, the west, the south, the north or the middle, the party leads everything,” he said. This sort of language must appear oddly anachronistic to many in Hong Kong, a former British colony steeped in western liberal traditions.
Chinese officials are fond of saying Hong Kong benefits from China’s economic strength and “the affluence of the motherland”. But many in Hong Kong take the opposite view, noting that under Xi’s centralised, dirigiste policies, China’s economic growth has slowed significantly. Critics claim Xi has been blindsided by Donald Trump’s trade war and weakened by problems with his ambitious Belt and Road initiative.
Xi’s failure to set out a new direction in his December speech, and his insistence on doing things the party way (meaning his way), suggested a degree of stubborn inflexibility that could prove dangerous for Hong Kong. Xi must fear the dissatisfaction becoming contagious and rising unemployment caused by the slowdown increasing social unrest. In the past year there has been public protests and strikes over layoffs, faulty vaccines, air pollution, inadequate pensions and other issues.
In a candid speech to the National People’s Congress in March, the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, warned of the dangers of rising discontent. “There is still public dissatisfaction in many areas, such as education, healthcare, elderly care, housing, food and drug safety, and income distribution. Last year saw a number of public safety incidents and major workplace incidents,” Li said.
Xi will also worry that the turbulence in Hong Kong could take on an insurrectionary nature, especially if – as state media have already claimed – it is fomented by external actors. One obvious scapegoat is Taiwan, with which tensions have been steadily rising due to Xi’s tough reunification stance.
The prosperous, democratic and de facto independent island nation of Taiwan, supported by Washington, stands as a permanent rebuke to China’s autocratic ruler. Xi would do almost anything to prevent Hong Kong following its example. Another related concern is that Hong Kong could be caught up in escalating rivalry with the US and its allies over control of the South China and East China seas.
Yet Xi probably has little cause to worry about meddling by Trump. The US president rarely shows any interest in human rights or pro-democracy struggles, and has other fish to fry with China. Britain, too, has mostly kept its voice down. In need of China’s goodwill post-Brexit, it worries about upsetting a relationship already strained by the Huawei row. On Monday, Beijing bluntly told London to keep its nose out.
The greatest fear of all, if the Hong Kong crisis deepens, is that China’s leaders may resort to brute force, as happened in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago. One reason why Xi will want to avoid a repeat is the storm of international condemnation, and the damage to China’s expanding power, reputation and economy that could ensue.
The Tiananmen massacre took place under a virtual media blackout. Mass murder would be harder to hide this time around.