The swelling protests in Hong Kong that have gripped the world’s attention are Xi Jinping’s and the Chinese Communist Party’s worst nightmare. The fear is that if not properly contained, the street protests could flare into China’s own version of a color revolution (like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine) and prove an existential threat to the leadership.
“Street movements can evolve into revolution when more demonstrators become embroiled in them,” wrote the English edition of the People’s Daily-owned Global Times today. “However, Hong Kong is not a country; it neither has the conditions for a ‘color revolution,’ nor are the forces on the street influential enough to mobilize its entire populace.”
But even without such a dramatic and still probably very unlikely outcome, equally damaging is what the protests are doing right now to the standing of Xi and the rest of the top Chinese leadership.
Just as Xi wants to demonstrate to all that he’s the most forceful and effective leader in decades, that the party is fully in charge despite China’s myriad problems, including corruption, income inequality, and social unrest, and that he has an inclusive vision for all Chinese people, including those in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the protests are sending just the opposite message.
So far, and as expected, the message from Beijing has been carefully controlled. A spokesperson for the top body responsible for Hong Kong issued a turgid statement yesterday saying the central government “firmly opposes all kinds of illegal behavior in Hong Kong that undermines social order and stability” and it is “fully confident that the Hong Kong government can handle the situation in accordance with the law and resolutely supports such handling.”
Meanwhile, a less dull but more inflammatory article whose author argued that the People’s Liberation Army could be sent to Hong Kong if local police prove incapable, only lasted a few hours on the Global Times Chinese website before it was taken down earlier today. (Other Chinese websites including Sohu.com have picked it up, and it was still available on websites as of Monday evening.)
“All websites must immediately clear away information about Hong Kong students violently assaulting the government and about ‘Occupy Central.’ Promptly report any issues. Strictly manage interactive channels, and resolutely delete harmful information. This must be followed precisely,” said a directive issued yesterday to Chinese media by the propaganda authorities, reported the China Digital Times, which monitors censorship instructions.
In trying to predict what steps Beijing might take next to deal with the unfolding drama, it’s important to remember how deeply elitist Xi’s political outlook is. Whether one looks at the ongoing crackdown on civil society, including rights lawyers, the harsh sentence imposed on moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, the Mao-style internal party rectification campaign, or arguably even Xi’s recent shout-outs to the teachings of Confucius, it’s obvious China’s new paramount leader favors power exerted from above and is deeply hostile to grassroots efforts for change.
The idea that a bunch of unruly students, from Hong Kong of all places, should play a key role in helping sort out one part of China’s political future is likely deeply anathema to Xi. Throw in the now obviously resurgent paranoia about “hostile foreign forces,” working to undermine China, and Xi is likely to be even more ill-disposed toward any efforts to change Hong Kong from within.
That bias, and indeed disconnect with what people on the ground actually want, was painfully obvious in Xi’s meeting with Taiwanese reunification supporters in Beijing, which occurred just as the Hong Kong protests started. China will take “a firm and unwavering stance” on national reunification, Xi told the visiting delegation last Friday, the Xinhua News Agency reported. “No secessionist act will be tolerated.”
At the same time, Xi tied reunification with Taiwan into his Chinese Dream: “We are closer to the goal of the great revival than at any other time in history. We have more confidence and ability than ever to realize that goal, which is good news and an historical opportunity for Taiwan.” Xi’s comments seemed oblivious to the fact that Taiwan had its own student-led Sunflower Movement earlier this spring, protesting against too close ties with China.
The Hong Kong protests also come as Xi seems intent on building a cult of personality around himself, in part by touting his skill in governing. On Sunday, the Xinhua News Agency announced that a new book titled Xi Jinping: The Governance of China has been translated into “at least” nine languages. The book, which has 79 articles, highlights “Xi’s speeches, answers to questions, conversations and instructions” and “also includes 45 photos of Xi,” Xinhua wrote.
Ultimately, if it were deemed absolutely necessary, Xi and the rest of the top leadership probably would not shrink from aggressively squashing the protest movement—the likely economic and business fallout would be unfortunate but a cost worth accepting to ensure China’s continued authority over Hong Kong. Xi is remembered for some ominous lines he delivered in an internal speech in late 2012, on the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
“Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered,” Xi said. “Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone. In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.”