What Happens When Hong Kong Protests End?

The streets will empty one day. 

The protests that have rocked Hong Kong for the past five days and nights have sparked understandable fears of a Tiananmen-style crackdown. The more likely worst-case scenario is that the unrest will peter out, having done nothing to ease people's many frustrations with their government. Both sides would be wise to work toward a better ending.

While Hong Kong officials and their superiors in Beijing want to get the Umbrella Revolution off the world's TV screens, protesters must know that time is not on their side. Large crowds are expected again tonight and tomorrow, both holidays in China. But then many demonstrators will inevitably drift back to their offices and universities, and sympathy for the idealistic young core of protesters will be replaced by frustration with blocked roads and lost sales.

QuickTake Hong Kong's Autonomy

The authorities, for their part, shouldn't think it will be enough to simply wait out the demonstrators. The tens of thousands of Hong Kongers who have flooded the streets aren't only expressing anger at China's decision to restrict candidates for the city's top political post in 2017. They're driven by frustrations over soaring inequality, unaffordable housing and a general sense that the local administration caters to the city's tycoons rather than its struggling middle class. A government that disregards these concerns will find its legitimacy under constant challenge.

At home, ironically, the Chinese regime seems to understand this perfectly well. In recent years, Chinese leaders have sought to peacefully resolve most of the estimated 180,000 "mass incidents" (demonstrations involving more than 500 people) that take place on the mainland every year. In most of these cases, of course, the protests have to do with local grievances and the ill-doings of petty officials; by showing themselves to be responsive, higher-level authorities enhance the legitimacy and popularity of the Communist Party and central government.

In Hong Kong, in contrast, the protesters are challenging decisions made by top Chinese leadership, and in full view of the world. China's President Xi Jinping seems less inclined than his predecessors to pacify such opposition. He's made it clear that he believes a tougher leader -- a "real man," in his phrase -- might have been able to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union. And he has displayed no tolerance for criticism, whether from microbloggers or from constitutional lawyers and professors.

Still, if the party never admits mistakes, it often tries to correct them. In Hong Kong, a huge march in 2003 prompted authorities to withdraw a draconian security law. In 2012, protests pushed the government to roll back plans to introduce pro-China "patriotic education" into local schools. Xi, who took power soon afterward, reportedly disagreed with the latter decision. But he hasn't publicly ruled out replacing Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who is a focus of protesters' ire.

Although that may not happen for a while, officials could find other ways to ease public frustration. At the least, Leung's administration could commission an independent investigation into police use of tear gas and pepper spray over the weekend. That action, more than anything else, infuriated ordinary Hong Kongers, and the government has every reason to show concern for the feelings of this moderate majority.

Officials could also work harder to open a conversation on ways to improve the electoral system after 2017, including by making the legislature fully elected, and by making the candidate-nominating committee more representative. This falls far short of protesters' demands, but would at least demonstrate some degree of flexibility.

Xi is unlikely to push any of these measures on his own. But the Hong Kong tycoons who recently met with the Chinese president should recognize that an uncompromising line will only fuel future tensions. That would erode Hong Kong's still-critical reputation for stability and the rule of law -- and further alienate Taiwanese, who are growing more wary of China's embrace. The possibility should give authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing alike reason to see that the Umbrella Revolution ends well.

--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Mary Duenwald

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net