October 1 was meant to be a carefully choreographed showcase of China’s military and economic might on the 70th anniversary of communist rule, and a celebration of the strongman president, Xi Jinping.
But after a picture-perfect parade was beamed around the world from Beijing, the one part of the country that is not under his full control ripped up the playbook, with the people of Hong Kong pouring on to the streets to challenge Xi’s vision for China.
By mid-afternoon in Hong Kong an 18-year-old student had been shot point blank in the chest by a policeman, swathes of the city were engulfed in violent chaos and Beijing’s militaristic anniversary celebrations had been swept from international headlines.
“This was meant to be such a celebration but it’s really a PR disaster,” said Louisa Lim, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne and author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia, a book about the 1989 protests against the Chinese government.
She pointed out that as the streets of Hong Kong filled with teargas, water cannon and smoke and flames from the fires lit by protesters, senior leaders in Beijing were filing into a gala dinner. Among them was Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong.
“It makes China’s leaders look so heartless, watching violinists and fireworks and here the people of Hong Kong are demonstrating for their lives, and a kid is in hospital,” said Lim. “It really is a split screen.”
Individually the teachers, logistics workers, retirees, students and others who came out to demonstrate have very little power beyond the right to protest; under Hong Kong law they cannot even choose their own leader in elections.
But together they represent perhaps the biggest challenge yet to Xi, risking injury and arrest to denounce his “China dream” as a sham, expose the fragility of his claim to national unity, and fight for a different future.
China’s approach to National Day celebrations in Beijing and Hong Kong underscored how hampered the leadership is in its approach to tackling a popular uprising.
The party has years of practice at central planning, propaganda messaging and bruising political control, and almost no experience responding to popular pressure.
That meant details of the triumphant parade through Beijing were so meticulously planned that residents along the route were forced to move out and guidelines painted on to the road to ensure each inch driven by Xi’s limousine would be in perfect formation.
Yet faced with a surge of popular protest in Hong Kong, the Communist party appears helpless. Here the government can’t easily control messaging, use force to crush its opponents or the legal system to round them up, and officials seem unable or unwilling to come up with alternatives.
“The problem is that their playbook isn’t really equipped for a population like Hong Kong’s, and yet still they keep going with it, even as the situation gets more acute,” Lim said.
“It shows the limits of the strategy used towards Hong Kong. It seems the authorities believe brute force and intimidation would work, but if you look at the sheer numbers that came out today, even though the protests were not authorised, people are not intimidated.”