The past weekend marked an apparent turning point for the protests in Hong Kong. A wave of unprecedented violence by groups of radical protesters engulfed the city. Subway stations have been attacked and set on fire, helping the authorities’ case for a crackdown. Even off-duty policemen and businessmen from mainland China have been assaulted – all while the young protesters yelled for “revolution.”
Still, as revolutions are no tea party, one should tread carefully. Does the majority in Hong Kong want a revolution? If not, they may support a counter-revolution.
One perhaps should ask also whether people in mainland China want a revolution in Hong Kong – or whether they’d rather support a “counter-revolution” in the territory.
Whatever is happening in Hong Kong, perhaps one should remember that most revolutions fail.
Short of this awareness, are the radical protesters playing at revolution, rather than devising a suitable strategy to achieve some reasonable goals and then withdraw?
Revolutions, in fact, fail for many different reasons but all such failures have a common denominator: the superficiality of the revolutionaries.
Moreover, many of the leaders in Beijing went through two failed revolutions, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the Tiananmen movement of 1989. They arguably have a better understanding than people in Hong Kong of why they failed as young revolutionaries. Therefore, they might also know a thing or two about how to win against the revolutionaries now.
From what we can see, the best policy for Beijing is not a crackdown but to let the movement eat itself from within, and thus show to the domestic Chinese public and the world the results of unrestrained “democratic” demands and wanton violence. We could call it an evolution of the “Qiao Shi” method.
In the face of this “revolutionary chaos,” Beijing conversely will show restraint and benevolence in not deploying tanks for a bloody crackdown, and yet firmness in not giving in to extremists.
Who will win the battle for hearts and minds in Hong Kong and, more important, in China? In contrast to the events in 2014, now the Chinese public is selectively following events in Hong Kong and siding with Beijing’s government and against the protesters, who are guilty (in their minds) of the worst crime: wanting to wrest the territory from the Chinese embrace.
The radical protest could be thus isolated and allowed to bleed out. Eventually everything could peter out in months or years. In time, this could all play out in favor of the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing. And perhaps it is right to be so.
In a revolution, the government needs only to hold out and keep its nerve; it is the protesters who have to think of ways to score a victory.
Moreover, there are regional considerations, too. Fighting what can be perceived or presented as random and mindless chaos wins points in most of Asia, a continent wary of riots started under the flag of democracy.
These advantages in Hong Kong double up a growing sentiment in Beijing about trade war with the US. Rightly or wrongly, China feels it’s getting the upper hand in trade talks as Americans are very divided about President Donald Trump, who openly asked for Chinese support against his rival, the Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden.
“China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the US, and we trust that the American people will be able to sort out their own problems,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said.
That is: The Chinese want a bipartisan agreement on trade, not one that could be partly or totally reneged by one side.
All of this is a major domestic victory for Xi Jinping, who may have had a very difficult task implementing the idea of peaceful development mentioned in his October 1 speech. The idea is very controversial internally, as many hardliners oppose it as too soft. Besides, many officials hoped Xi would stumble as being too soft or too hard, and thus be blamed for it. Xi managed to gain the upper hand both with the US and in Hong Kong by staying a middle course – toeing Qiao Shi’s line.
But this is not the end of the game. Ultimately, it brings the situation back to 1989, and Tiananmen: What was Qiao Shi’s plan for China if he had prevailed?
This might also be of help in the next few months and years.