The peaceful demonstrations in Hong Kong on Sunday might just usher in a different scenario for the city. Before the march took place, Hong Kong appeared locked in a vicious circle of violent protests and bloody repression by the authorities.
But all that changed when a reported 1.7 million people gathered in a violence-free protest, which did not end in running battles with the police.
This came after protests had been held peacefully for three days and the airport, blocked by protesters earlier last week, started to get back to normal.
For Beijing, this illustrated that the situation in Hong Kong can be addressed without military intervention, which would, in turn, cause problems for China. A move in that direction would exacerbate relations with the United States and wreck the chance of solving the ongoing trade dispute.
The prospect of a kind of “Qiao Shi solution” for the protests is therefore possible. In 1989, during the Tiananmen Square protests, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, Qiao Shi, according to rumors at the time proposed a median solution between those who lined up with demonstrators, such as then-Communist Party secretary Zhao Ziyang, and those who wanted army intervention, such as then-premier Li Peng.
Qiao wanted to let the protesters vent their anger and then clear the square, unilaterally accepting some of the students’ requests. In fact, on the evening of June 3, when the troops moved to Tiananmen, the square was practically abandoned by the students. There were no toilets and the heat was relentless. Perhaps, after a few days, a few agents would have been enough to get the situation in hand.
But this would have given Qiao an important political victory against the hardliners in the Communist Party. Military intervention changed that.
The same logic infected Hong Kong in recent weeks with fierce clashes between protesters and the police. There were fears of a bloody confrontation that would start a revolution by the protesters or a violent crackdown by hardliners in Beijing.
Yet this is only a part of the story that is unfolding in Hong Kong today. It does not exclude those hardline protesters who want to ratchet up the temperature until it reaches boiling point.
But there is also another side, which involves listening to the protesters’ demands and taking part in constructive talks. In short, negotiations.
At the same time, Beijing should also seek political dialogue among protest leaders and legitimize them by giving them credibility.
In the 1970s in Italy, when extremist fringes pushed for the radicalization of demonstrations, those in power sought and found protesters and accepted part of their demands in a move to isolate the most violent elements. The situation was not resolved in one day, but they avoided a dramatic political upheaval, which even then would have been possible.
Moreover, with the recent stimulus plan for poorer sections of Hong Kong, Beijing appears to realize that there are two dramatic social problems that fuel the protests. They must be resolved beyond the demands of greater democracy in the city.
At the heart of the matter is the overwhelming power of a group of the super-rich, blocking the social advancement of the middle class.
In practice, there are no longer the opportunities for the young, which existed up until a decade ago. Furthermore, there is a polarization of society between the wealthy and the rest of Hong Kong, which has been hit by rising living costs and sky-high property prices.
These issues do not appear to be included in the demands released by the protest movement. But they have become crucial issues for China’s special administrative region.