Wherever the Hong Kong protests end up, whether in some minor concession by Beijing, direct intervention by authorities or, most likely, the gradual retreat of the demonstrators, the street action will leave the political career of Chief Executive CY Leung on the brink of ruin and that of President Xi Jinping damaged.
Leung has long been in a no-win situation. For sure he lacked political experience before being chosen as chief executive in 2012 when the leading candidate self-destructed. He has made many missteps in office, but ultimately his situation was impossible. His ideas for changes that would have helped mitigate income inequality and dilute tycoon monopoly profits were stymied by the influence of the mega-rich who enjoy Beijing’s support and by a civil service susceptible more too small interest groups than the common weal.
Then came Beijing’s refusal to offer any olive branch to democracy advocates, which would have split the pro-democracy camp by providing at least a theoretical possibility that one of them could be elected chief executive in 2017 when Leung’s term expires.
Instead Beijing announced a system, duly approved by the rubber stamp National People’s Congress, which was an almost laughable version of promised “universal suffrage.” It was closer to the North Korean model than anything viewed as democratic in other countries.
Now Leung is left appearing responsible for the result – hundreds of thousands on the streets every day. The early police use of tear gas merely brought more people to the streets. This attempt at strong arm tactics is also being blamed on Leung. He ordered it on the advice, he says, of the chief of police. What is unclear is to what extent Beijing ‑ either directly or via the central government’s increasingly interventionist Hong Kong Liaison Office ‑ spurred the decision.
Of course, President Xi can also place the blame on Leung. Chinese municipal and province leaders who find their entities in turmoil can expect no sympathy from the center, regardless of Beijing’s role in stirring the pot. Xi can also claim that Leung was appointed by his predecessor not himself.
Nonetheless, Xi cannot escape the embarrassment – to put it mildly – of such a well known Chinese city being in a state of semi-rebellion, least of all on China’s National Day.
The fact that the demonstrators are mostly students cannot hide the fact that they enjoy widespread public support. Even many who doubt the wisdom of the demonstrations are sympathetic to the view that the current system of government in Hong Kong is rigged in favor of a moneyed oligarchy.
Xi’s tough stances in other situations in China where change is demanded have not had the desired result. Uighur unrest in Xinjiang has not abated despite many killings of alleged terrorists, a recent life sentence given to moderate intellectual Ilham Tohti and a ban on officials observing Ramadan. Xi’s internal enemies will surely use Xinjiang and Hong Kong as evidence that his autocratic and authoritarian ways are damaging the party and nation. The same might be said of episodes such as Chinese troops crossing into disputed territory on the Indian border at the very time Xi was being hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Leung cannot be removed any time soon if only because the demonstrators are demanding it. But he was out of favor with Beijing even before the protests as indicated by the return to the spotlight of Tung Chee-hwa, the first chief executive of the Hong Kong SAR who was sacked after a decent interval following earlier mass demonstrations.
Then as now Beijing faces the lack of credible candidates to lead Hong Kong. Several of its best known supporters in Hong Kong are aging relics either of the Cultural Revolution era or colonial era appointees who changed their stripes quickly enough to gain favor with the new bosses after the 1997 handover.
What people on the mainland make of Hong Kong events is as yet unclear because an official news blackout means that word filters in slowly via the Internet or text messages from mainland students and tourists in Hong Kong. Beijing has now halted tour groups from the mainland partly, it seems, to punish Hong Kong and partly to limit the flow of information. Many mainlanders may be unsympathetic because they already view Hong Kong as rich and spoiled. But China’s modern history has been marked by student-led movements that leave indelible marks into the future – Tiananmen Square in 1989 is one, as was the May 4 Movement that fanned the fires of nationalism in 1919. This “umbrella revolution” of 2014 may well have consequences that cannot be foreseen.
Certainly this week’s events will damage Hong Kong’s economy in the short term but the pain could be more permanent if Beijing seeks to punish the territory by diverting financial business elsewhere. On the other hand, if Hong Kong people do not stand up against increasing Beijing interference, it is unlikely that the autonomy that it has in law, finance and administrative practices can survive for very long. Without this autonomy, Hong Kong will soon become just another second-tier Chinese city.