At the start of the 12th week of protests in Hong Kong, it becomes more evident by the hour that the future of Xi Jinping and his regime in Beijing are riding on the outcome just as much as is the fate of the territory.
And the indications at the moment are that Xi will use the confrontations with the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters to enhance his power at home and abroad. He will also reaffirm that the Chinese Communist Party regime is now so confident on the world stage it can ignore international criticism if it plays rough.
Xi was handed an unexpected gift on Wednesday when Donald Trump, every dictator’s most avid groupie, tried to promote himself as a conciliator in the Hong Kong crisis.
Trump tweeted “I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?”
All this piece of silliness managed to achieve was to provide more grist for the Beijing propaganda machine’s narrative that the Hong Kong protests, and especially the increasing violence, are being driven by the United States.
There is some suspicion that Trump’s Tweet was aimed at making Hong Kong an element in the Washington-Beijing trade war. If that is so it will be counter-productive. Xi cannot risk the suggestion that the US president influences his domestic policies.
The cherry on the cake
So Trump’s twittering has both pushed and enabled Xi to take a tough line on Hong Kong. If the Chinese President is looking for an excuse to send the security forces massing in Shenzen across the border to take control in Hong Kong, then Trump has handed it to him.
The tweet is the cherry on the cake of the accusations of US involvement that Beijing has been peddling since the protests started at the beginning of June.
There is clearly documented evidence of the protest groups seeking and getting support from the US. The Civil Human Rights Front, the group that organized the mass, peaceful marches, gets funds from the US National Endowment for Democracy.
There is also a campaign underway among Hong Kong pro-democracy groups both in the territory and among its widespread Diaspora of emigrants to get the US Congress to enact its proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.
This legislation would enable the US to place sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland officials who undermine the high degree of autonomy, partial democracy and the independent judiciary the territory was promised when Beijing regained sovereignty from Britain in 1997.
To this end, and in the quest for broader support for Hong Kong and its people, several well-known pro-democracy activists from the territory have lobbied in the US. Among them are Anson Chan, the former head of the Hong Kong civil service who was the popular favorite to be the territory’s governor after the British departed, but who was ignored in favor of a Beijing loyalist.
Both Chan and the fearless pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai have had meetings with Vice-President Mike Pence.
None of this is real evidence of Beijing’s claims that the US is orchestrating the Hong Kong protests, but it provides a solid base on which the propaganda machine has built an outraged nationalist message.
The protests started as opposition to a proposed extradition bill that many Hongkongers feared would be used by Beijing to grab political dissidents and take them to China where there is no rule of law or independent judiciary.
In one of the early marches about two million people – almost one-third of the population of Hong Kong – came out to peacefully protest the bill. In response, the territory’s governor, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, announced she would shelve the bill, though she has refused to take the legally binding step of withdrawing it.
There was a significant change in the situation on June 12, the day the bill was meant to be debated in the territory’s legislature. The police used tear gas and fired rubber bullets at demonstrators, and since then the level of violence has increased.
Protesters insist it is the police that are instigating the violence, and that they are no longer under the control of Lam’s enfeebled administration. There’s a good deal of evidence to support those claims.
As the days and weeks have come and gone, the whole nature of the confrontation has changed.
The readiness of the police to use extreme anti-riot tactics has prompted the large proportion of Hong Kong’s seven million people who support the protests to stay home.
Rise of the young
The demonstrators are now almost exclusively young people and they have developed an array of protest tactics. One is pop-up protests whereby a large crowd of demonstrators suddenly appear and occupy busy crossroads in the city. And when the police riot squads appear, the protesters disappear just as fast.
Another highly effective protest seen earlier this week was the peaceful occupation of the arrival and departure halls at Hong Kong’s international airport.
The demonstrators, for the most part, followed a tightly choreographed game plan of simply offering travelers their views on the threats to Hong Kong’s liberties. But this prompted the authorities to close the airport for two days, a major hub for air travel in Asia as well as being one of the major gateways for business in China and the region.
As the protests have evolved from peaceful marches to occupations and confrontations with the police, so have the views of Hongkongers towards the protests.
There is no doubt that a majority of the territory’s people continue to support the cause of defending the civic rights they were guaranteed for 50 years after the 1997 handover, and which Beijing is charged with steadily eroding.
But the violence by the police and the upheaval to daily life caused by occupations and disruptions of the city’s transport system have led many to withdraw and hope it all ends soon.
At the other end of the spectrum, the militants, who are mostly young, born since the handover and who identify as Hongkongers rather than Chinese, have become ever more firmly committed.
No room for compromise
Their quest now has gone well beyond the question of the extradition law that set off this chain of events. It has returned to the fundamental issues of democracy, the rule of law and Hong Kong’s self-governing autonomy that have lurked just below the surface since the handover.
On this there does not appear to be any room for compromise with Beijing. Xi and his regime have made it clear time and time again that they have no intention of letting anyone govern Hong Kong who is not loyal to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The central questions now are how and when Xi brings the confrontation to an end. Beijing’s campaign to portray the protesters as wild, violent militants have been reasonably successful. Xi may be happy to let that story continue to undermine the cohesion of Hong Kong dissenters until the protest campaign withers and dies.
However, what Xi cannot and will not countenance for very long is Hong Kong being made dysfunctional as a reliable hub for travel and business.
A very high proportion of foreign trade and investment in China still comes through Hong Kong. With the Chinese economy suffering from the trade war with the US, and indications of a coming global recession growing by the day, Xi needs to get Hong Kong back to normal.
Several commentators have noted the similarities between Hong Kong today and Tiananmen Square in Beijing when it was occupied by pro-democracy student advocates in 1989 and the People’s Liberation Army rode into the city to clear them out.
Those similarities are largely visual, however. The Tiananmen Square students spawned a national uprising against the CCP regime in cities all over China. The Hong Kong protests haven’t and couldn’t do that.
But Xi needs to shut down the Hong Kong unrest. And, Trump, the ignorant, dotard narcissist, has given his approval for the Chinese president to do it.