PRESIDENT XI JINPING will not want a photograph of even a single Hongkonger facing down a line of PLA tanks to be the iconic image to emerge from the current Umbrella protest in the city. However, sending in the tanks, whether metaphorically or not, remains an option for the Party leadership in Beijing which has to suppress this protest against its monopoly on political power in short order.
While Hong Kong in 2014 is in a different time and place to Beijing in 1989, Beijing’s combination of cajoling condemning and cudgeling hasn’t yet done it. Xi may be prepared to wait out matters in the hope that the internal divisions among the demonstrators will eventually break their protest apart. Yet, as our man in Tiananmen Square in 1989 pointed out to us, there is a terrible symmetry taking shape: a tidy protest (demonstrators street sweeping in 1989; plastic bottle recycling in 2014) turning violent and unruly before being brought to a forceful end by the authorities.
The Party has to weigh the internal and external costs of shutting the protest down forcefully. One external consideration is the international sanctions it would bring. Beijing has been carefully following the response of the U.S. and Europe to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. It may conclude from that that those are the least of its worries. More concerning would be the effect of international confidence in Hong Kong as a place where China business can be done with Western legal safeguards. That would be shot, at least for a while, but there are internal municipal constituencies within China that would be happy for Hong Kong to be taken down a peg or two.
All of that pales against the internal calculation. Hong Kong is both a part of China and apart from it. One country; two systems. If its 50-year post-colonial assimilation agreement was seen from the south side of the Sham Chun River as prologue to the future — a chance for Beijing to experiment along the well-trodden development path of industrializing nations, letting the Party learn how to handle a growing middle class developing expectations of a greater voice in how they are governed and more say over their economic interests — then from the other side of the river that has just become to look like an existential threat. The further north you go, the acuter that threat seems.
The tinder that sparked the current demonstrations is Beijing’s requirement that no candidate may run in a Hong Kong election who has not in effect been nominated by the Party. Protesting Hongkongers want anyone to be allowed to stand. That is a long way from demanding reform to the elections themselves, which are a limited expression of popular democratic will at best. But it is a direct challenge to the Party’s notions of tight political control. And Hong Kong provides a beacon for the millions of urban middle class Chinese on the mainland where there is widespread dissatisfaction about the way they are governed, especially by local and municipal officials.
That, in turn, is a long way from saying that there is a groundswell of support for U.S. or European style democracy in China. There is not on any great scale, anymore than there was in Japan and South Korea at a similar stage of their economic development, even if democracy becomes shorthand for political reform, and a shorthand that is often misread in the West. But the bargain of rising economic prosperity in turn for docile political compliance no longer looks as attractive to many Chinese as it once did when they were poor.
The experience of industrialization has always been harsh for those living through it. For most, it is a hard daily slog in large, crowded cities with all the accompanying quality of life issues from adulterated food to killingly dirty air. Officials living high on the hog from corruption and cronyism sits ill with that. For Party bureaucrats the change is no less unsettling as they lose control of their economic levers of command and control.
Attempts by authorities to censor news of what is happening in Hong Kong are being only partially successful at best. How Xi settles his current Hong Kong issue will reverberate in the mainland for years to come, and especially if it is with tanks.