The Hong Kong Moment: Trouble on China’s Periphery

Students in Hong Kong packed their tents, said goodbyes, and ended their occupation in the center of the city. Moments later, some seven thousand police officers, working two shifts over the course of seven hours, dismantled barriers, removed debris, and arrested two hundred and forty-seven protesters who chose to make a final statement by remaining. By the end of the seventy-fifth day of the noisy pro-democracy demonstrations, traffic was flowing by government headquarters on Connaught Road, where once more than a hundred thousand Hong Kong residents congregated in defiance of China.

Some were disappointed as they left the protest site for the final time in the second week of December, but the mood during the last hours was generally upbeat. “We’ll be back” was chalked everywhere and displayed on banners, many of them yellow, the color adopted by the movement that became known as “the Umbrella Revolution,” a reference to rain apparel used against police pepper spray. Near the headquarters of China’s People’s Liberation Army, a large orange banner was draped across barricades, emblazoned with these words: “It’s just the beginning.”

“The movement has been an awakening process for Hong Kong,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a Labor Party lawmaker, as the demonstration ended. “People who weren’t interested in politics before are now and aren’t afraid to get arrested, especially the young people.” Said Alex Chow Yong-kang, a protest leader, “I don’t think we have failed.”

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At critical moments last year, the pan-democratic movement in Hong Kong looked to be on the verge of failure. Yet Beijing, by fundamentally misunderstanding the people of the city, continually revived it with misguided actions. As a result, the Communist Party of China, for all its power, is losing control over Hong Kong and fueling opposition to its rule in other parts of China’s periphery.

Since July 1, 1997, Hong Kong has been a “special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China. At first, the transition from British colony to semi-autonomous unit of a Communist superstate looked seamless, and the territory, freed from years of pre-transition apprehension, enjoyed a boom.

The framework for the success was Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula, which was enshrined in a Chinese statute, the Basic Law. This legal architecture was in turn underpinned by the landmark 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, a promise to Hong Kong that it would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy” for fifty years. For Beijing, this framework was the model for the absorption of Macau, which became China’s second special administrative region in 1999, and Taiwan, still democratic and independent.

Since the 1997 “handover,” Chinese moves to encroach on Hong Kong’s autonomy, such as the attempted passage of “national security” legislation in 2003 and the failed introduction of “patriotic education” in 2012, have met stiff resistance from society.

Yet one area where Beijing seemed to be prevailing was its attempt last year to impose its procedures for election of the chief executive, Hong Kong’s top political official. The Basic Law, known as the territory’s “mini-constitution,” states that the “ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

Apparently, late last spring Chinese officials thought it was their time to press Hong Kong’s divided and floundering democracy movement. On June 10th, China issued its “white paper” on governance of the territory. Instead of re-affirming Hong Kong’s autonomy as outlined in the Basic Law, Beijing essentially declared that the people there had no rights. That view clearly violated the central government’s 1984 promise in the Joint Declaration and undermined the one country, two systems concept.

It was China’s hard-line position, in essence a claim of unlimited power over Hong Kong, that moved hundreds of thousands of its residents to participate in the annual July 1st democracy march. Beijing, however, ignored the implications of the large turnout and followed up its stark June 10th declaration with an August 31st proposal for the 2017 election of the next chief executive that included a nominating procedure so restrictive that only China’s handpicked candidates could ever qualify to run.

Although people in Hong Kong began to speak of “fake democracy,” Chinese stubbornness at first seemed to work, as activists, who had earlier threatened to shut down the city’s main business district with peaceful sit-ins, folded in the face of Beijing’s intransigence. Chan Kin-man, a co-founder of the Occupy Central with Love and Peace group, for instance, announced in early September that the movement was “close to failure.”

In reality, though, it was only getting started. By the end of that month, younger activists, mostly students, started a series of boycotts and protests. After “occupying” busy streets and public areas with tens of thousands of residents, the protests grew even larger as authorities overreacted, creating sympathy for the pro-democracy forces. The tear-gassing of demonstrators, brought into Hong Kong living rooms by television, prompted ordinary residents to immediately join the protesters. Fifty-three-year-old Michelle Chow was speaking for this part of the citizenry when she told the South China Morning Post, “The government must be scared if it uses such irrational force.”


Who was responsible for the decision to attack the students? Most likely Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who held the Hong Kong portfolio from 2007 to 2013 and was briefed about the protests at least once a day at the height of the tensions. And he apparently meddled to an extraordinary degree. According to the New York Times, authorities in Beijing sent orders to Central Liaison Office personnel in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, where they were given to Hong Kong officials who drove up periodically to receive them.

“They treat it as a challenge to Beijing’s governing power in Hong Kong,” said Brian Fong Chi-hang of the Hong Kong Institute of Education to the Times, referring to the Beijing leadership’s view of the unrest in the city. “Because of this, I’m sure that the Chinese government has basically controlled the whole process.”

Beijing’s hand has also been revealed in subsequent events. For instance, just when protests were once again waning at the beginning of October, gangsters from triads (organized crime groups) attacked demonstrators at the same time in multiple locations, using similar tactics. The police at one of the sites—the Mong Kok shopping district in Kowloon—helped the criminals escape after they had attacked pro-democracy protesters, and there were other instances of what appeared to be official cooperation with the thugs. But Beijing’s apparent use of the triads, which have been allied with the Chinese government for decades, was a tactical failure: the Mong Kok crowd, just a few dozen at the time of the gang attack, swelled to over a thousand in response to the violence.

The central government showed its hand again later in October, when it commanded the Hong Kong government to unexpectedly break off talks with the protesters even before they began, thereby publicly rejecting an opportunity to defuse the situation. This decision made the Hong Kong government—and by extension Beijing itself—look hardheaded, which reinvigorated the protests. When that decision had to be reversed because of growing demonstrations, it made both governments appear weak as well as inflexible.

After numerous failures to influence events from the sidelines, Beijing resorted to talking to Hong Kong through the megaphone of state and Communist Party media. Especially prominent in this effort was the party’s People’s Daily, the most authoritative publication in the country, which issued dire threats, for instance labeling the protests a “color revolution” and an independence movement. Beijing also used code words like “unrest” that, in the party’s view, justify the use of deadly force. Global Times, controlled by People’s Daily, even mentioned that Beijing might send the People’s Armed Police, effectively an arm of the military, across the border into Hong Kong. Beijing also began referring to “turmoil,” a term found in Article 18 of the Basic Law, which essentially allows China to impose its own laws in Hong Kong and rule directly. Older Hong Kong activists then began to use the word “ominous” when referring to China’s warnings.


Beijing, acting through the Hong Kong government, may have been able to clear the streets without resorting to the army, but Chinese leaders certainly lost influence during the protests. Once the Communist Party made the decision that the protesters—many of them the sons and daughters of Hong Kong’s middle class—posed an existential threat to its rule, it left itself almost no room to compromise. With almost no room to compromise, it became difficult for the party to win popular support.

The arrogance of Chinese leaders had fortified the opposition in Hong Kong. Losing the city would be bad enough, but the territory has always been the bait for something far more important and elusive: Taiwan. By making Hong Kong a showcase, China’s leaders had hoped to entice people on the self-governing island to voluntarily join the People’s Republic of China.

Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, had been working toward unity with the mainland, but the troubles in Hong Kong forced its leader, President Ma Ying-jeou, to back away from his long-held goal. Most of the people on Taiwan, wary about unification to begin with, became even more suspicious of Beijing authoritarianism because of what had occurred in Hong Kong during the preceding months.

Xi Jinping, however, proceeded with his plans for Taiwan as if nothing had happened in Hong Kong. Just as the street protests there began to swell at the end of September, the Chinese supremo hosted Yok Mu-ming, chairman of Taiwan’s New Party, and his delegation of some twenty pro-unification political figures, none of whom have ever managed to attract a following on the island. “Xi abandoned all subtlety and affirmed his view that ‘one country, two systems’ was Beijing’s ‘guiding principle’ in solving the ‘Taiwan issue,’” wrote the Taipei-based journalist J. Michael Cole at the time.

Xi’s insistence on one country, two systems for Taiwan left Taiwan’s President Ma no political choice but to distance himself even further from China. “Taiwan has sent a clear message that we do not accept the concept,” Ma told Al Jazeera at the end of September. Ma’s words, however, did not work. In the November 29th island-wide elections, voters, in part reacting to events in Hong Kong, overwhelmingly rejected Ma’s Beijing-friendly policies as the Kuomintang suffered its worst electoral defeat since 1949. The drubbing paves the way for China-skeptic opposition to win the presidency in January 2016.

Losing first Ma and then Taiwan’s electorate is a blow for Xi, who last October essentially promised to annex the island at some point during his tenure. As a result of the demonstrations and the Hong Kong government’s response, Beijing seems incapable of directing the course of events in two important parts of what it considers to be its periphery.

Yet Beijing’s border problems are not confined to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Chinese leaders also appear to be losing their grip on the two “autonomous regions” making up China’s western frontier—Xinjiang, the home of the Muslim Uighurs, and Tibet. In both areas, Beijing is trying to rule peoples who do not consider themselves “Chinese,” and in both places policies designed to suppress local religion and culture look to be fueling increasingly frequent outbursts of violence, especially in the northwest, what the Uighurs now call the East Turkestan Republic.

As Xi and other Chinese leaders look out from their magnificent capital, they see on their periphery an arc of disobedience and discontent. It is an especially disturbing prospect because they know that Chinese regimes have almost always failed from the outside in, and they know too that Hong Kong is the one outside problem particularly capable of shaking the inside. As soon as the protests started there, China’s censors began an unprecedented attack on social media. They blocked Instagram, for example, presumably to stop images of the protests from circulating widely inside the country. They also took down more postings on the Twitter-like Weibo service than ever before.

And the censors had good cause to be nervous about “democracy contagion.” Almost as soon as the protests erupted in Hong Kong, a few residents in Shanghai’s People’s Square, in the heart of the country’s most populous city, photographed themselves holding placards showing their support for the students in Hong Kong. In a related social media posting, they asked for the vote for themselves—and they dared the authorities to come get them by listing their names.

The Shanghai protest was replicated around China as inspired citizens took to the Web to post photographs of themselves holding similar banners and signs. Authorities have detained more than a hundred demonstrators in Anhui, Guangdong, Hunan, and Jiangxi provinces as well as the provincial-level cities of Beijing, Chongqing, and Shanghai. Most of the detained are from China’s capital.

There is now great concern over the fate of the mainland demonstrators. In the middle of November, as the Hong Kong government prepared to clear protest sites, Chinese police arrested Wang Mo, a leading activist from Guangzhou, and charged him with “inciting subversion,” presumably for posting a photo of himself and three others holding a banner in support of the Hong Kong demonstrations. Said William Nee of Amnesty International, “The fear is that this could mark the start of a wave of similar charges against the scores of mainland supporters of the Hong Kong protests.”

It is only a matter of time before already sullen mainland citizens also demand a more open political system. Perhaps that is why Leung Chun-ying, the hapless chief executive of Hong Kong, periodically warned his city that Beijing would soon lose patience with the democracy movement and tighten its grip.

The best China obtained by clearing protest sites in Hong Kong is a tactical, short-term gain. Most people in the city, it is clear by now, believe they should have a greater say in how they are governed, and, whether or not they approved of the methods of the protesters, they support the political liberalization that Beijing adamantly rejects. Now that protest sites have been cleared, conversations in Hong Kong will focus on questions for which Chinese leaders have no answers.

In short, the Communist Party has lost the argument in Hong Kong. That’s not a good way for Beijing to begin the century it is supposed to own.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and a blogger at World Affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.

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