The almost three-month-long struggle of the people of Hong Kong has become the biggest crisis that Xi Jinping has faced since he took office. Since the beginning of the year, the highest authorities in Beijing have been aware that China's overall situation is far from favorable, as a multitude of conflicts that have accumulated over the years are pressing toward the critical point of a full-blown eruption. In light of this, the authorities have proposed to take strict precautions to closely guard against "gray rhinos" and "black swans." However, the focus of this concern has been mainly on domestic issues, specifically the potential of economic deterioration intensifying social conflicts. But as it turns out, even the most careful calculation is vulnerable to a sudden twist of events. With Hong Kong emerging as the biggest black swan of the year, the authorities are caught off guard.
When Xi Jinping first came to power, I analyzed the challenges he faced and the possible outcomes. I pointed out that Xi, who took over a regime at a perilous time, has neither the luck of Jiang Zemin to rule thirteen years in peace nor the opportunity of Hu Jintao to pass the problems down to the next administration. It is inevitable that, during his rule, China will see large-scale street protests that will force him to make impossible choices: if he can suppress the unrest by military force while surviving international sanctions, he will become Deng Xiaoping No. 2 and save the Communist Party of China once again; but if the military refuses to obey and turns against him, he will become Ceausescu No. 2, disgraced and may even be sent to the guillotine.
This is precisely the predicament Xi is facing now. To make the matter even thornier, Hong Kong is not a mainland city, but an international financial center, a goose that lays golden eggs. If the government were to unleash a killing spree in Hong Kong in the same vein as the June Fourth crackdown in 1989, the action would unquestionably clash with the entire international community and incur sanctions, forfeiting the main channel through which to acquire foreign exchange. This would worsen the already troubled economy, particularly in the midst of China's escalating trade war with the United States. But if Beijing were to let the Hong Kong unrest continue in the lead up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, it would not only mar the celebration, but also risk funneling the information of Hong Kongers' struggle into the mainland. This would, in turn, exacerbate simmering grievances on the mainland and trigger a massive revolt. The two equally formidable evils make it impossible to find a win-win way to dissolve the situation—to cut the Gordian knot.
In desperation, Beijing is going with the two-pronged tactic of propaganda and intimidation by force. Specifically, it has resorted to bluffing, threatening, smearing, and framing suspects, pitting mainlanders against Hong Kongers. It has even used various dirty tricks such as directing Hong Kong police disguised as protesters to throw petrol bombs, and it has sent mobs to assault innocent citizens. The central government is stopping at nothing in its attempt to neutralize the situation without direct military intervention. In response, the people of Hong Kong are fearless and have been adapting to the ever-changing tactics by creating new models of resistance. With their hi-tech savvy and ingenuity, protesters have waged a battle of wits and bravery against the Hong Kong authorities both in the streets and online. Beleaguered and struggling to cope, the local government now finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place. This is why Hong Kong's anti-extradition bill protest has dragged on.
It has recently been reported online that Xi Jinping wants Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, to take the blame by saying, "Whoever starts the trouble should end it." But the puppet on stage is refusing to take the blame, as is revealed by the leaked audio recording of Lam’s speech last week: that the matter is not up to her. In fact, Xi is the originator and ultimate decision-maker of what triggered the Hong Kong unrest. A few years ago, the cross-border seizure of Hong Kong booksellers by mainland authorities that shocked the international community was triggered by Xi’s anger that the Hong Kong Causeway Bay Books was planning to publish a book called Xi Jinping and His Lovers. The Hong Kong SAR government’s introduction of the extradition bill was a way for it to ingratiate itself to Beijing—using Poon Hiu-wing's murder case as a pretext in an attempt to remove legal obstacles and facilitate China's future capture of any person from the city “legitimately.” But the move crossed the bottom line of the Hong Kong people. Everyone—from ordinary citizens to intellectuals, in all walks of life, including members of the elite from the mainland—saw the danger. As a result, the suppressed anger over the years has erupted uncontrollably.
While Xi Jinping is cold-blooded and imperious, he is not stupid. He knows that once the slaughter in Hong Kong begins, the domino effect cannot be contained. And he would live in eternal infamy, along with Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng. So, he would only risk this as a last resort. On the other hand, Xi is the CPC’s helmsman and, in his own words, "safeguarding the CPC legacy" is his bottom line. Based on the logic of the CPC leadership of “one step back will lead to two steps back and, ultimately, a total collapse,” Xi will therefore never make any substantive concessions to the five demands of the Hong Kong people.
From the party's standpoint, granting universal suffrage to elect both the Chief Executive and Legislative Council members is tantamount to surrendering Hong Kong—a non-negotiable. The basis for Xi’s removal of the term limit for the presidency was his pledge to the Party's top leadership to take over Taiwan and achieve the great task of unification. This is a great ambition of Xi—a feat that would enable him to surpass Mao Zedong and firm up his place in history. But as it turns out, he is losing his grip on Hong Kong when the Taiwan initiative has barely begun. There's no way Xi could withstand the damning criticisms from within the Party if anything untoward happened to Hong Kong on his watch: the Second-Generation Reds would not allow this, nor would the political elite. Such is Xi Jinping's unbearable burden. To Xi's great embarrassment, the tenacious struggle of the people of Hong Kong has caused him a major setback and put him at his wit's end, threatening to expose his ignorance and incompetence beneath the image of "political strong man" that he has worked so hard to cultivate. Regardless of how the situation in Hong Kong will play out, it has become Xi Jinping’s biggest nightmare—and a historical juncture that may well turn out to be Xi’s Waterloo.
The predicament of Hong Kong today has undoubtedly been brewing over a long period. Some online comments have criticized Xi Jinping for violating Deng Xiaoping's principle of "one country, two systems" and keeping the city's way of life "unchanged for 50 years.” In fact, it has its origin in Deng's very design of the system. Deng was not a full-fledged reformer: although he ushered in the era of Reform and Opening Up for China, his other foot remained planted in the Mao era. When it came to saving the Party and preserving its rule, he was, just like Chen Yun, a most prominent conservative within the Party. Deng's one-sided reform—seeking only economic development while refusing political change—has spawned China's model of authoritarian capitalism and created more problems than it has solved. The June Fourth crackdown was the inevitable result of that inherent imbalance, and its ramifications are still evident today.
Furthermore, Deng's Hong Kong principle is not so much a farsighted system design as an act of expediency made necessary by the circumstances. It was a sloppy plan without a concrete, actionable road map, let alone a thoughtful deliberate step to seize the opportunity to push for political reform on the mainland so as to align with the system of Hong Kong. On the contrary, Deng's initiative paved the way for intervention and laid down restrictions. One of the well-known examples is the issue of the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong. When Geng Biao, then vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, made an ambiguous declaration of his position, Deng, being the strongman that he was, threw a tantrum with other officials present and called Geng's comment "nonsense." Geng was so intimidated that he immediately retracted his words and admitted that he had "misspoken." The garrison in Hong Kong that Deng had insisted on is precisely what Xi Jinping would rely on to bring about a massacre in Hong Kong today.
On top of all this, members of the mainland elite who have benefited from Deng's policies have swarmed into Hong Kong and leveraged their massive capital for Hong Kong's resources over the years, squeezing the opportunities for ordinary Hong Kong citizens. It is safe to say that the locals have suffered this for a long time. This is especially true for young people, who face insurmountable obstacles in access to education, employment, housing, and promotion, teetering on despair. This is why they are willing to put their life on the line in this fight. Even the business magnate Li Ka-shing, who had been among the first to cooperate with Beijing after June Fourth and benefited financially, cannot stand by anymore. He quoted a classic Chinese poem in newspaper ads, "How could the melon on the Huang Terrace withstand another plucking?" in a tactful expression of his discontentment.
Deng Xiaoping is already dead, and his political legacy cannot excuse Xi Jinping's action and behavior. Xi is the paramount leader of China today. The central government's indecision and foot-dragging in dealing with the Hong Kong crisis is not due to any bad-faith actor setting Xi up for failure, nor is it a stalling tactic. Instead, this is because it is a tough dilemma with no desirable options. Nevertheless, something has to be done eventually, and, given the current touch-and-go situation, the final showdown is increasingly imminent. The latest indication is that Beijing might instruct Carrie Lam to activate an emergency ordinance and deploy the "Hong Kong police force" to quell the unrest, with Xi himself hiding behind the scenes. By doing so, the central government can not only effectively conceal its intervention from the international community, but also shift the blame to the government of Hong Kong when things go sour. This move would be Xi Jinping's most favorable maneuver as well as a high-stakes gamble. We'll have to wait and see if he can dodge the bullet in the crisis he's destined to face.
The article was first published in HRIC Biweekly on August 30, 2019, with a slightly different title.
2019 Anti-Extradition Protests
2014 Occupy Movement