China's Credibility Gap

The umbrella is mightier than the sword.

Photographer: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

No one ever doubted that the Chinese authorities could clear protesters from Hong Kong's streets if and when they chose. It hasn't come to that. With support for the demonstration ebbing and the leaders of Occupy Central calling on the movement to stand down, the government may be congratulating itself for winning this battle without the need for further brutality. It would be deluding itself.

This is no win. The government has failed to recognize the complaints not just of the democracy activists but also of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Hong Kongers, who feel that their interests have been sacrificed to Beijing and its obedient circle of local cronies. This won't be forgotten.

Hong Kong's Autonomy

To see how little such supposed victories are worth, look at Tibet and Xinjiang, which remain deeply unsettled despite a massive security presence and outward calm. At least 175 people have died in attacks in Xinjiang in the past six months, including one last week that claimed 15 lives.

These sullen internal stalemates impose heavy costs on China. Most obviously, anti-Chinese sentiment is spiking in Taiwan. The pro-Beijing Kuomintang party suffered a drubbing in local elections last weekend, partly because Taiwanese can now plainly see in Hong Kong what reunification with the mainland would mean. They fear being drawn any more tightly into the mainland's embrace.

Other Southeast Asian nations -- several of which aren't terribly concerned with their citizens' civil liberties -- are watching how China treats its outlying regions. Beijing officials approach their hotly disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea the same way they do Hong Kong or Xinjiang: as "core interests" in which they will brook no outside interference or mediation.

With his new, more ambitious Chinese foreign policy, President Xi Jinping has promised to play nice, pressing officials to put forward a "good Chinese narrative" and to seek "win-win" relationships abroad. The facts suggest otherwise. If Xi really wants to reassure China's neighbors and the rest of the world, he needs to do more than give a few friendly speeches.

When discussing Hong Kong, Chinese officials insist they're being reasonable and standing up for what's lawful. But they have failed to offer specific measures to democratize the committee that will nominate the city's next chief executive. While concessions of that sort would fall short of the protesters' stated demands, they would at least suggest the system is capable of reform. The government sent the opposite message.

In Taiwan, mainland officials should be looking for ways to open a dialogue with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which could well regain the presidency in 2016. Across Southeast Asia, Xi cannot expect simply to buy loyalty with billions of dollars in infrastructure investment. China would do better to reinvigorate and bring to a swift conclusion the negotiations over a binding code of conduct for claimants in the South China Sea -- a necessary precursor to the joint development of resources there. Chinese reclamation of land atop disputed reefs, possibly for military use, hardly comports with Xi's agreeable tone and should be halted.

Xi seems to think that China has a public-relations problem. It does, but the cause goes deeper: lack of credibility. The only way for Beijing to inspire trust is to show flexibility and a greater willingness to embrace alternative viewpoints, both within and outside its borders.

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