Only three days before China’s ruling Communist Party was to unleash celebrations for the 65th anniversary of their victory over the Kuomintang on October 1, 1949 its leaders got an unwelcome early birthday present from an unexpected guest.
Tens of thousands of students and other supporters flooded the streets of Hong Kong once a small collection of fishing villages now Asia’s main international financial hub in support of a more democratic system promised to them as a key part of a deal struck by their former British masters as they handed back the territory to China. Beijing has effectively reneged on the deal betting that Hong Kongers care more about money than politics. Beijing may have its calculus horribly wrong.
As protests moved into its fourth day today, October 1, unhindered by stormy weather and garnering blanket international coverage, Hong Kong is quickly looming as the first decisive test for CCP Secretary General and Chinese President Xi Jinping. With holidays now upon the mainland and Hong Kong more protesters were set to join in demonstrations which the city’s widely loathed chief executive CY Leung admitted may go on for “a very long time”
Xi’s policy of economic reform, along with a harder line on crushing internal dissent and increased nationalism reflected by bolder moves against China’s neighbours in territorial disputes have created a heady, potential dangerous mix.
The protesters in Hong Kong have two very clear demands, they want Beijing to change its mind on its decision to have an appointed group of 1,200 “elders” controlled by the mainland select 2 or 3 candidates for election as the Special Administrative Region’s chief executive in 2017 – the timetable under which they agreed with the UK in 1984 they would give Hong Kong’s citizen’s universal suffrage.
They are now adamant that they want the head of Hong Kong’s deeply unpopular chief executive CY Leung who they hold responsible for police using tear gas, batons and pepper spray on protesters on Sunday. To counter the use of chemicals by the police protesters, have been using face masks and umbrellas – already the protests have gained the sobriquet the Umbrella Revolution.
Beijing made its decision on the 2017 chief executive election in June. On this it is highly unlikely that it will change its mind. The Party and particularly the tough minded Xi, who is emerging as the country’s most autocratic leader since Mao Zedong – for all his prominence Deng Xiaoping had a council of fellow elders he consulted – see any mind changing as weakness. And frankly, in this they are little different to politicians anywhere although they do not face the litmus test of elections to gauge the popularity of their moves.
Leung’s position may be more precarious, particularly as he was inherited by Xi from his predecessor Hu Jintao, despite Xi’s position as head of the Party’s Leading Committee on Hong Kong and Macau from 1997 when he was made Vice President. This makes his sacrifice the easiest way to reach a compromise, if Xi is minded to make one which is both unclear and, at this stage, not particularly likely.
But already the situation in Hong Kong has had collateral damage in Taiwan.
“We are closer to the goal of the great revival than at any other time in history. We have more confidence and ability than ever to realise that goal, which is good news and an historical opportunity for Taiwan ” Xi said in a meeting with pro-Beijing Taiwanese leaders last week. He either missed or ignored the point. Factions, ironically enough aligned with the same Kuomintang Nationalists Mao had driven to the island in defeat 65 years ago, were looking towards drawing Taiwan closer to the mainland with a “one country – two systems” form of government, as it is called in Hong Kong.
Increasingly a furphy as Beijing pushes towards greater integration; events in Hong Kong will have given supporters of unification some pause for thought. Others, already wary of Beijing will have had their worst fears confirmed. Already, Taiwan has had its own student-led “Sunflower Movement” earlier this year, occupying the country’s legislature in protest against closer ties with China; this will only give that impetus. Make no mistake, events in Hong Kong are a defeat for Xi in Taiwan and this will only make him angrier.
Still, the greatest threat to Hong Kong from Beijing lies not, in any real way, on its promise of “universal suffrage” whatever that may mean to various groups, but in Beijing’s veiled threat to Hong Kong, in its ill-advised White Paper further defining the nature of “one country – two systems”, without even a nod to the British legal system retained by Hong Kong. Beijing looks upon judges as mere administrators of its will and said in its white paper they must love the motherland. Yet Hong Kong’s legal system remains the bedrock of its financial system, the crucial feedstock of this golden goose. Leung’s predecessor Donald Tsang understood this while he, it seems, does not.
But, as the Party celebrates its birthday, although mutely now in Hong Kong with fireworks cancelled this evening and this morning’s flag raising ceremony rushed for fear of disruption, Hong Kong is only the most public of Xi’s problems as he approaches the second anniversary of his elevation to CCP Secretary General.
In the far flung western province of Xinjiang, home to the ethnic Muslim Uighur group that is widely seen to have been radicalised by Beijing’s own hardline policies following sectarian riots in its capital Urumqi in July 2009, hundreds have now been killed in a cycle of escalating violence that shows few signs of stopping. Tibetans continue to set themselves alight in horrific protest at Beijing’s policy of cultural destruction.
And then there is the economy. China’s growth is, finally slowing after its unsustainable double digit rates for almost two decades that has wreaked so much environmental damage to make large swathes of the country a very real health hazard. While this, initially was deliberately induced to end the country’s credit addiction and introduce reform policies there are growing signs Beijing is struggling to control its trajectory which may bring a fresh set of problems with unemployment to the fore.
Meanwhile, the Party’s environmental vandalism continues apace, again, despite rearguard actions to ameliorate water and pollution. It may be too late: cancer villages dot the countryside, respiratory ailments are climbing into the stratosphere, so to speak, potable water is almost non-existent in the north and the list goes on.
Xi was always facing a delicate tightrope act, courtesy of the state of affairs he inherited from his predecessors, and in which by dint of his membership of the previous Politburo Standing Committee he also shares the blames.
Events in Hong Kong this week have illustrated just how hard a task he has before him as he strives to advance China while keeping the Party very much at the front and center of every aspect of the nation.
Happy birthday, indeed.