China is at a loss as to what to do about peaceful Hong Kong protesters, and thus far its attempts to handle the situation have been disastrous. But whatever the outcome, Beijing will never be the same.
The Chinese government’s move to send in triad-linked thugs on Friday night to try to break up protests in Hong Kong, the most significant seen in the country since the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations, was yet another example of Beijing blinking first.
And in sending in thugs to the commercial district of Mongkok on the mainland side of Hong Kong after waiting and watching all week, Beijing ham-fistedly reinvigorated waning protests widely known as Occupy Central, which have drawn hundreds of thousands of supposedly politically apathetic citizens to the streets. Their clear aim is to overturn the Communist Party’s August 31 decision that the long-promised universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s chief executive election in 2017 -- agreed with Great Britain in 1984 -- would simply be a choice between two or three China loyalists chosen by Beijing.
After last Sunday’s use of tear gas and pepper spray by police, protesters added the resignation of the city’s loathed chief executive CY Leung to their short list of demands.
It was the Hong Kong police, admirably, who announced “at least eight” of 19 people who were arrested for fomenting violence were connected with the triads and as of last night, 37 people had been arrested and 275 complaints made against the police by protesters, according to the South China Morning Post
Friday’s display of Communist-sponsored violence underscored that what the world has witnessed in Hong Kong this past week is a colonial power trying to assert its authority on one of the regions that lie within its borders, yet are essentially colonies. China’s peripheries, where Beijing has, with barely a pause, continued the colonial ambitions of the old Qing Empire since coming to power in 1949, are causing growing headaches for Beijing, but Hong Kong represents a very particular problem. Asia’s most international financial hub is the main funnel for trillions of dollars each year in and out of China. It has not been superceded by Shanghai, China’s main domestic financial hub, for the very simple reason that it has an independent legal system, based on Britain’s, which is steeped in the rule of law. China does not; its courts, prosecutors and police are all controlled by the ruling Communist Party’s Political and Legal Committee, which is judge, jury and executioner.
Hong Kong and its baby sister Macau are the newest of China's colonial acquisitions, with the British handing back Hong Kong in 1997 and the Portuguese following suit with Macau in 1999. They may look and feel Chinese, or rather Cantonese, but they have a century or more apiece of a different cultural, economic and political environment than mainland China. It is these elements the "one country, two systems" deal was supposed to preserve, but that is looking increasingly shaky.
Beijing’s other colonies, particularly Xinjiang, are proving problematic as the Communist Party drives ever harder its program of cultural vandalism and radicalising minorities, driving the Muslim Uighurs into the arms of neighbouring jihadists and Buddhist Tibetans to horrific acts of self-immolation.
"For now, the protests will likely die down and Hong Kong will get back to business, but as Bao Tong, secretary to former Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang put it: 'The seeds have been sown.'"
There is also an emerging narrative that pitches the situation in Hong Kong as part of the ongoing battle between reformers and hardliners within the party, and even these lines are blurred. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s unprecedented campaign against corruption appears to be intensifying rather than fading away. It is increasingly clear that Xi’s efforts are aimed at a hitherto untouchable group: the people surrounding former party chief Jiang Zemin, who re-emerged in 2012 at least in the public eye as the kingmaker in the party’s new leadership announced in November that year. In pushing forward with this, some analysts believe Xi may have helped force the issue in Hong Kong.
Aligned against Xi, according to some analysts, are Jiang proteges Zhang Dejiang, who heads the Party Committee on Hong Kong and Macau as well as chairing the National People’s Congress, Executive Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, and propaganda chief Lui Yunshan. This narrative continues that it was Zhang Dejiang pushing buttons in Hong Kong to create problems for Xi.
Beijing fears that Hong Kong could foment a much-feared “colour” revolution, such as the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia, among others. Already at least eight mainlanders have been whisked away by authorities for supporting Hong Kong protests. They won’t be the last.
So what happens next? At this stage, it appears that the Occupy protests will not morph into another Tiananmen. Leung's deadline for clearing the streets Sunday night came and went with little incident -- and protesters have now agreed to have talks with the Hong Kong government. Still, that’s not to say that such a tragedy might not lie in the future -- since 1997, the People’s Liberation Army has had a Hong Kong garrison.
As Hong Kong University Professor Fu Hualing wrote on its faculty blog
“A more likely scenario, if it is to occur, is the application of Article 14 of the Basic Law through which the Hong Kong government would seek military assistance from the garrison force on the ground of assisting to restore public order before full-fledged turmoil appears in Hong Kong.”
But this is the beginning rather than the end. For now, the protests will likely die down and Hong Kong will get back to business, but as Bao Tong, secretary to former Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang (who was sacked and banished by Deng Xiaoping to house arrest for 16 years until his death) put it: "The seeds have been sown.” Bao wrote
“Actually, if the National People's Congress refuses to rescind its [Aug. 31] announcement; if 'one country, two systems', becomes 'one country, one system', then Hong Kong's political and economic system will certainly be damaged, and that thing we fear the most, that damage to and loss of confidence in Hong Kong's markets, will come about.
“I have no doubt that one day, this view will have become the consensus view of history. But saying it out loud now, I don't think it has much chance of being heard. This will take at least a little time. If I were one of the protesters, I would probably want a rest from the debate for a while. The seeds have already been sown, and they need time to lie fallow.
“No great task can be achieved all at once; they all need some time to gestate. There's no need to keep digging up the seeds to see if they're still growing every day. Take a break, for the sake of future room to grow. For tomorrow.”
That’s the optimistic view, and it’s clear that in from its uncompromising ideological heights, Beijing will do its best to poison those seeds. But the shame of it is right now is that Beijing could, as Tiananmen activist Han Dongfang says
, use Hong Kong as a test bed for the political reform that will, inevitably, come.
Yet the Communist Party has shown time and again, as it is doing now, it cannot help itself. Friday’s thugs -- whether they were sent by Zhang Dejiang or Xi himself -- were just the latest move in a clear program of bringing Hong Kong to heel: increased censorship, selected brutal attacks on independent media proprietors, the slow creep of Communist-centric curricula in schools and the incremental growth of the party’s sway. But Beijing risks killing its golden goose in the process. The Communist Party’s propaganda machine, quiet for most of last week, is now accusing protesters of endangering Hong Kong’s prosperity when in fact they are doing quite the opposite. But for a party hell-bent on bringing its colonies to heel at all costs, the question is: does it care? If it doesn’t, it will be an own goal from which it may never recover.