No exit

  • Hong Kong protests
  • Days of student-led unrest in Hong Kong are a crisis for China’s Communist Party
No exit

Oct 7, 2014-

IT IS a challenge unlike anything Chinese leaders have seen since Tiananmen Square in 1989; a city roiled by days of unauthorised protests led by students demanding democracy. On October 1st, the 65th anniversary of Communist rule in China, anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong, which had begun nine days earlier with class boycotts, swelled to include well over 100,000 people. Protesters, conveniently armed with the umbrellas that have become their rallying symbol, endured downpours of rain to jeer the territory’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, as he presided over the raising of the national flag.

A few raised their middle fingers towards it.

The “umbrella revolution”, as the movement has been dubbed, is the nightmare Communist Party leaders in Beijing have long feared from Hong Kong and the “one country, two systems” arrangement it has enjoyed since its handover from Britain in 1997. It is the first large-scale student-led protest for democracy to erupt in any Chinese city since 1989. And it presents unusual challenges. The authorities in Hong Kong are reined in by a legal system bequeathed by the British; they cannot, as officials commonly do in mainland China, handle unrest with a combination of astute bargaining, thuggish violence, ruthless treatment of ringleaders and tight controls over media and the internet. Xi Jinping, China’s president, is constrained by a desire to keep Hong Kong stable and prosperous: a botched response could badly damage one of the world’s wealthiest economies and China’s image.

But if the protests continue far beyond the public holiday on October 1st and 2nd, leaders in Beijing will doubtless become impatient for tougher action. On October 1st the party’s newspaper, the People’s Daily, called on Hong Kong residents to support “resolute” action by the police against the demonstrators, who it said would “reap what they have sown”. The party does not want Hong Kong’s protests to fan dissent elsewhere. Chinese censors on the mainland have been working hard to make sure they do not. So too have China’s police, who have rounded up dozens of activists on the mainland for expressing sympathy with the protests. Some tour groups have reportedly been denied permits to go to Hong Kong on their usual shopping extravaganzas. Despite the party’s efforts, however, news of Hong Kong’s defiance is spreading in China.

The protesters’ main demand is that the people of Hong Kong be allowed to vote for any candidate of their choosing in elections for the post of chief executive in 2017 (the first in which citizens would have such a vote). Mr Xi has made clear he does not want any Western-style democracy within China’s borders. The current election plan, which China proposed on August 31st, calls for candidates to be screened by a committee stacked with party supporters.

Several protest movements have converged to challenge this. Until recently the best-known was Occupy Central with Love and Peace, which is modelled on Occupy Wall Street and named after an important business district in the heart of Hong Kong. But even Occupy Central’s leaders, who teach at local universities, wondered whether they could muster meaningful numbers. Then came the students, both from universities and schools, thousands of whom began boycotting classes on September 22nd. On the evening of September 26th the police inflamed their passions by arresting Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of a movement called Scholarism, which two years ago led successful protests against an effort to introduce party-backed “patriotic” teaching in schools. Mr Wong was released on September 28th, but in the early hours of that day Benny Tai, one of the leaders of Occupy Central, announced that its protest, which had been scheduled for October 1st, would begin immediately.

Not just the ballot

The protesters’ grievances stem from more than a lack of democracy. Many young people in Hong Kong are dissatisfied with the economy, and see a system rigged against them by the territory’s wealthy tycoons. They also resent the creeping influence of the mainland over a place they feel is special. Educated mainlanders take jobs sought by Hong Kong graduates. Hong Kong’s media often shy away from criticism of the party. There is nothing that Mr Leung can readily offer that would be certain to pacify the students. Twice this century protesters in Hong Kong have forced the authorities to back down: in 2003, over plans to introduce a tough security law, and again in 2012 with Mr Wong’s protest over education. Those concessions were over things the masters in Beijing wanted but did not absolutely need. This time is different.

Mr Leung has shown no sign of bending. On the afternoon of September 28th, at a press conference held inside the government headquarters while thousands of protesters surrounded the building, he repeated his endorsement of the election plan. (Mr Leung is himself a beneficiary of manipulated elections: he was chosen by a largely pro-party committee in 2012, collecting 689 votes along with the derisive nickname “689”.) Mr Leung acknowledged that the plan may not have been the “ideal” that some had wanted, but he said it would give Hong Kong citizens the “universal suffrage” they had been promised.

Asked whether the Chinese army would ever be used, Mr Leung expressed confidence in Hong Kong’s police. On the streets, tear-gas canisters began flying shortly afterward, surprising protesters who shouted back at police: “Are you kidding?” and “Shame on you”. The riot-police tactics encouraged more people to join the students in sympathy, many of them wearing the yellow ribbons which students had adopted as a symbol of their desire for democracy. The protests did not become violent, but they spread to other areas. Calls for Mr Leung’s resignation grew louder. In placards and cartoons drawn by demonstrators, he is often portrayed with fangs.

But this crisis is a test less of Mr Leung than it is of his boss in Beijing. Mr Xi has consolidated power more effectively than any other leader since Deng Xiaoping, who in the 1980s struck the deal with Britain under which Hong Kong was returned to China. He has tightened controls over the media and cracked down on independent intellectuals and activists. His government has been tough in restive border regions, including Xinjiang, where ethnically charged violence, terrorist acts and suppression by police of Uighurs, a mostly Muslim minority, have led to hundreds of deaths in the past two years (50 of them just a day before Hong Kong’s students began their class boycott). As the boycott began, a court in Xinjiang sentenced Ilham Tohti, a university professor and moderate voice among Uighurs, to life in prison for “separatism”—the harshest punishment a dissident has received for many years.

Given all this, there seems no chance that Mr Xi will allow free elections in Hong Kong, and with them the possibility of a friend of the West running a part of China. Surrendering the head of Mr Leung might be a short-term concession that could send protesters home. But as Mr Leung himself has noted, he would merely be replaced with another appointee of the central leadership’s liking. This point is not lost on Hong Kong’s democracy activists. Albert Ho, a respected pro-democracy politician who stood for chief executive in 2012 (with no chance of success), says the resignation of Mr Leung would “cool the atmosphere”, but that it would not be enough. He admits there is little hope of the government giving ground on free elections. “Nobody can really see what the exit is”, he says.

As The Economist went to press the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities appeared to hope that the two-day public holiday, when many had time on their hands to join demonstrations, would mark the protest’s peak and that it would begin to dissipate without the need for force. On September 29th riot police pulled back and have continued to keep a low profile. Their restraint has paid off: in most neighbourhoods people are going about their business as usual. Even near the areas of protest the city continues to function. This is partly a testament to the sense of civic responsibility of the demonstrators, who have been picking up their own rubbish, and sorting it for recycling.

Without a political resolution in sight, however, there is a strong possibility that at least a core of demonstrators will remain on the streets. The protest has been evolving with an unpredictable power of its own, without clear leadership (even if helped by the charisma of the teenage Mr Wong). Some students now say they want to step up the pressure by occupying government buildings. If such tactics were to go on for long, they would very likely be met with force. But even if the protest were to die down after the holiday, the resentments of many in the territory would continue to fester. There is no clear end in sight to Mr Xi’s crisis.

 

Published: 08-10-2014 09:47

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