President Xi Jinping’s uncompromising stance on limiting democratic reforms in Hong Kong marks a public show of strength that signals to the world - - and China’s own citizens -- that the ruling Communist Party won’t tolerate any challenges to its authority.
Xi incurred a rebuke from the U.S. government and the anger of pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong by insisting China effectively selects which leadership candidates people in the former British colony can vote for. The demands of even the most moderate advocates for greater democracy were rejected on Aug. 31 as they were told to take it or leave it.
The decision also seems to be deflating the Occupy Central movement, which had pledged to organize 10,000 people for a prolonged sit-in in the city’s financial district if China didn’t permit full universal suffrage. The group won’t be able to change the new “political reality” and probably won’t be able to attract the number of supporters promised, Benny Tai Yiu-Ting, one of its founders, said in an interview today.
From the jailing of dissidents at home to saber-rattling against Asian neighbors over disputed islands and seas, Xi is showing an iron will that analysts say is to forge an image of a rejuvenated, powerful China that is intended to preserve Communist Party rule and lay the foundations for his own legacy.
“Beijing has been quite obsessed with projecting a strong image to the world that it has a solid grip on power and its decisions mustn’t be challenged,” said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University. “Sometimes it looks more arrogant than strong, but the central government doesn’t care, because it would rather err on the side of looking strong than weak.”
Xi has a personal interest in Hong Kong affairs partly because he was the party’s top official in charge of policy for the city and for nearby Macau between 2007 and 2012. His intransigence on the election issue after months of talking with pro-democratic forces in the city left no room for negotiation, a posture that he has been adopting on domestic affairs and on the international stage.
“Xi Jinping is determined that China will keep Hong Kong within its own control,” said Wong Yiu-chung, head of the Department of Political Science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “He’s been tough on foreign policy. On the crackdown on corrupt officials he’s tough. And he’s tough on liberals and dissidents.”
China’s tougher-than-expected line shows the government has elevated Hong Kong’s stability to what it calls a “core interest,” which describes matters it regards as affecting national sovereignty and where it won’t compromise on its stated policy, according to Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing.
“It sent a message, particularly to the U.S. and the U.K.: do not interfere with the 2017 chief executive election,” said Shi.
China warned U.K. politicians not to interfere in China’s internal affairs and to halt a parliamentary inquiry into the situation in Hong Kong, according to a report on the BBC’s website that cites a letter from China’s Foreign Affairs Committee to its U.K. counterpart. British lawmakers are looking into how the U.K. is monitoring the treaty it signed with China 30 years ago to transfer sovereignty in 1997.
In Washington, a State Department official said in a statement that the U.S. supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong and that it would be “greatly enhanced” if the people get “a genuine choice of candidates representative of the voters’ will.”
“This is part of a pattern where China is very willing to do things that upset the U.S. and the U.S. is very willing to express its disapproval in pretty uncompromising terms,” said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.
The risk to China is that its stance on Hong Kong prompts mass resistance from pro-Democracy forces, leading to potentially violent confrontations that feed domestic questions on the legitimacy of the Communist Party.
“I think they are worried,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. “They don’t want to take the risk of seeing Hong Kong becoming a place with more critical voices pushing for reforms in China itself.”
That risk may be diminishing with Occupy Central’s Tai saying the group would choose a date for its protest that would minimize the impact on the city, hinting the demonstration might be held on a weekend or holiday.
When business executives “know the details of when we will organize this event, they will know we have no intention to damage the economy of Hong Kong,” Tai said.
Promoting democracy for Hong Kong while denying its own citizens the right to vote in major elections is fraught with potential problems for China’s leaders.
Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of China’s legislature which passed the law Aug. 31, was heckled by pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong yesterday as he told an audience that the plan for universal suffrage where a nomination committee vets candidates was a “historic milestone” in the city’s development.
State media including Xinhua, China News Service and state broadcaster CCTV echoed the message when reporting the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision for introducing “one man, one vote” for the election.
In an editorial, the Global Times, the sister publication of the state-owned People’s Daily, called Hong Kong’s radical opposition camp a “paper tiger” and warned against potential foreign interference, saying that “Hong Kong is not Ukraine.”
The decision also risked alienating people in Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory and which has been governed separately since the Nationalists fled there in 1949 during the civil war with the Communists. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said it “regrets” the trouble China and Hong Kong are having and hopes to see universal suffrage happen through rational, peaceful means.
China is seeking reunification with the island, while Taiwan’s government considers itself a sovereign state that includes mainland China.
“The nomination committee functions like a leash,” said Ding Xueliang, a professor of Political Science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “If Beijing loses this leash, Hong Kong would have a domino effect on other political issues Beijing faces: what if Taiwan declares independence under the impression that Beijing is incapable of controlling a city of only 7 million people?”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at email@example.com Neil Western, Tony Jordan