A new generation believes it can succeed in something its predecessors could not.
It has been 25 years since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests were crushed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Since then a new generation of activists has reached maturity. It believes it can accomplish what the last generation could not, using the same tactics.
The only revolution the leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC) recognize is the one that succeeded in seeing the Party take control over China in 1949.
The current, so-called “umbrella revolution” in Hong Kong has no chance of liberalizing the local political system. Every political action the CPC has taken in Hong Kong since 1997 has moved in the opposite direction.
Protesters led by Occupy Central and two different student groups began a new round of demonstrations over a week ago. They want something that never existed during the period of British colonial rule.
They want a free and open process for selecting candidates to run for the position of chief executive of the semi-autonomous territory. They want the right to elect that person and other members of the territory’s government by means of universal suffrage.
Beijing has agreed to the latter demand, but drew the line at letting an independent committee select the candidates. It cannot afford to see any political leaders in Hong Kong that are hostile to China and the CPC.
Concessions allow the protest to expand
Protesters in Hong Kong have continued to defy authorities. Meanwhile, speaking at a National Day reception in Hong Kong on October 1, the current Chief Executive Leung said that, in order to sustain its development, Hong Kong must capitalize on the combined advantages of the “One Country Two Systems” policy.
Created by then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s to smooth the 1997 transition from Hong Kong being a British colony to being a part of China, the territory of Hong Kong was allowed to operate its capitalist system relatively independent of Beijing for 50 years.
Article 46 in the agreement, signed by London and Beijing, did call for the territory to hold elections by universal suffrage. It also called for a committee to be set up to select candidates, but it did not state who would create the committee.
The ongoing protests have led to tourists cancelling trips to the territory and the protests have virtually killed business.
The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the CPC, wrote in a defiant front page editorial on Friday that the authorities will not make concessions to the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong and that their cause is “doomed to fail.”
The paper also said the protestors’ demands for unfettered elections are “neither legal nor reasonable.” It added, “There is no room to make concessions on important principles.”
Détente in Hong Kong?
Late on Sunday, fearing an impending crackdown, pro-democracy protestors began withdrawing from the Mongkok neighborhood and from outside Leung’s office and the police began removing barricades.
Using social networks and word of mouth, the protest groups ordered their members to dismantle barricades in front of key government offices. The goal is to allow civil servants to get back to work on Monday.
While standing firm on its position regarding the elections, Beijing apparently ordered the media to take a softer tone. The People’s daily said in a Sunday editorial that there had been misunderstandings about Hong Kong’s democratic process.
“This is not a struggle between democracy and non-democracy, but merely different misunderstandings on the realization and implementation methods of democracy. In the final analysis, the central government is the most powerful supporter of democracy in Hong Kong.”
Get The Globalist’s latest headlines in your email inbox three times a week. Sign up here.
Leung took a softer tone as well, saying he was willing to hold talks with the protest leaders, but only if their members dispersed.
Hong Kong today is not like Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. Xi Jinping is as intolerant of dissent as Deng Xiaoping was in 1989. Mind you, it was Deng who overrode the majority vote for of the CPC’s ruling Standing Committee of the Politburo for the PLA not to intervene to end the pro-democracy protests.
Xi has been much more creative in trying to suppress the protest by withdrawing the police from the streets in hopes the protests would peter out. When that didn’t work, he ordered Leung to offer to hold talks.
Three cycles of protest management
There is a three-phase cycle of violent internal instability: Underestimation, overreaction and concession. Two full cycles have just been completed.
The Hong Kong government underestimated the determination of the protesters. The police charge and tear gas attack were overreactions. The police disappearing from the streets was a concession that allowed the protests to expand.
Leung’s offer of talks is a standard concession move. Its purpose is less to solve problems than to co-opt the opposition into becoming a dialogue partner and thus compromised. In this instance, it was also a stalling tactic.
This led to Beijing once again underestimating the determination of the demonstrators leading to overreaction from Beijing. It took advantage of the locals who were sick of the demonstrations and inserted thugs into their counter-protests to beat up the demonstrators.
Consequently, Leung issued the ultimatum, which had the desired effect of seeing some protestors quit the demonstrations.
The softer tone by the Chinese media and Leung once again offering to hold talks are stalling tactics, but this time they appear to have worked. The move was helped by the warning that the protests would be ended by force if necessary.
Xi Jinping will offer no real concessions, because he cannot afford for activists on the mainland to think they could mount similar protests and succeed.
However, Xi cannot afford to crush the demonstrations in Hong Kong in the same fashion as did Deng.
If that were to happen, not only would it give China a black eye because it would be seen on global TV screens. It would also severely damage Beijing’s efforts to get Taiwan to peacefully return to being part of China.
The pro-democracy protestors will not achieve their goals. But they could risk destroying Hong Kong in their attempts to do so.
Xi will not send tanks into the streets, but he will see that the protests are ended as quickly and as bloodlessly as possible. It seems as if he has worked the right strategy and the protests will come to an end for now.
Xi’s next step will be to remove those that let the situation get out hand.
Later, when Xi deems the time appropriate, Chinese security agents will make the movement’s leaders disappear.