How Hong Kong’s protests weaken Xi Jinping’s strongman image

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How will Xi Jinping get out of the quandary he has put himself in? That is the puzzle presently discussed among observers of Beijing politics, Chinese and non-Chinese alike. This is the burning question behind protests in Hong Kong and Europe should be discussing it.

Over decades, the People's Republic has moved away from the one-man-dictatorship of Mao's days. Deng still had supreme authority, but he set in place the mechanisms of collective leadership, which were later fine-tuned during Hu Jintao's rule. Then, in November 2012, Xi as the new secretary-general of the Party came in and claimed for himself the head of not only the Party and the state, but also of the Central Military Commission and a number of newly created “Commissions” that steer all of the crucial government institutions. Xi likes to compare himself to Deng, but his subjects increasingly compare him to Mao. A man with a smile and an iron fist, not given into negotiations or compromises. Xi has famously expressed regret that as the Soviet Union crumbled, no one stood strong and defended the Party and the Communist system.

He, in contrast, will stand strong in times of crisis, that is his message. On the celebration of China's National Day, 1 October, Chief Executive Leung exclaimed that China and Hong Kong grow together, and together they will realize the Chinese Dream – quoting the famous catch phrase for Xi's policy for the People's Republic.  But obviously many Hong Kongers have a different dream. They have experience with (at least semi-) democratic institutions and the rule of law. They watch as repression elsewhere in China under Xi increases, as Francois Godement has pointed out in his piece 'Hong Kong Central vs. China's centre'. They fear for the measure of freedom they enjoy, and that fear is enhanced by the Hong Kong’s current economic problems. This is why they are calling for Beijing to allow a free election of the next Chief Executive. And it’s why they want the current one to resign immediately. The people don’t trust the politics or the economics; something that proved so fatal a mix in 1989.

So, will Xi call the army to crush the protests in Hong Kong's Financial District? It would turn Hong Kong against him, and the reaction in the world can be imagined: it would ruin the present cooperative relationship with China's Western partners for a long time to come. And it would likely makes Taiwanese voters withdraw their support of President Ma's policy of rapprochement with Beijing? On the other hand, can Xi really relent and permit free elections of the future Chief Executive? This would work doubly against him. It would make him seem weak, especially when measured against his self-produced image. And relenting would lead mainland residents to wonder why Hong Kongers are allowed to have what they cannot. A risky strategy.

The most likely short-term tactic therefore is to wait things out. It could be that the protesters, confronted with Beijing's intransigence, will gradually disperse. Also, Hong Kongers might turn against them after the holidays. After all, the majority of Hong Kong's media, close to Beijing as they are, report daily how much the protests are damaging the local economy, including a 3.2 percent initial fall in the stock market. A large part of Hong Kong's business community does not support the protesters. We may assume that Xi will not respond to the ultimatum of the protesters, and surely not positively. He will wait for the protests to unravel, and his patience may well be rewarded.

Thus, things might yet turn out well for Xi Jinping and the Polit Bureau. Only, some lasting damage has already been done. The mere fact that we wondered if he will send in the army, that his resolve was doubted is itself harmful to the new strongman in the Forbidden City. And if protests drag on just a bit too long in Hong Kong, there is the risk that the Hong Kong peoples' discontents echo with the dissatisfied in China's provinces and lead to protests on the mainland.

Naturally the Party is aware of the threat and is tightly controlling the internet and other media – in cases even news simply containing the words “Hong Kong” have been blocked, and during the past few days there were on the average 152 censored posts per 10,000 on Weibo, twice as much as during the last anniversary of 4 June 1989. An internet campaign is being waged against the initiators of the Hong Kong protests; the smart phones of the protests' organizers are infiltrated by Trojans seemingly originating in China. But in Shenzhen and other parts of the province of Guangdong, Hong Kong TV can easily be received. What is happening in Hong Kong will not remain a secret in the mainland for long. Xi Jinping, the man who came into office with the ambition to prove that China stands strong, is now, not even two years in office, facing a bigger crisis then his last two predecessors ever did.

“Will China break apart?” was the topic last Monday at a Koerber Foundation debate in Hamburg. Of course China will not simply “break apart”. But this weak has shown more clearly than any time since 1989 just how fragile the present status quo in China is. In 1989, China was not the major economic partner for the EU that it is today, nor was it of the same strategic importance for the political and economic development of Asia and many countries in the world. It therefore is of vital concern to Europe whether fragility turns into instability, and, as a consequence, China becomes less of a partner. The importance, however, cuts both ways: China is at least as dependent on the EU as the other way round. Both sides need each other. Emily Lau, the Chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, understands this. That is why she suggested that the German Chancellor reach out to her interlocutors in Beijing. Whether Angela Merkel should do this may be a matter for discussion. But definitely the looming crisis over Hong Kong is a matter that EU representatives – perhaps the outgoing HR should address with their Chinese counterparts and make clear that what is happening in Hong Kong, and how things turn out, is not simply a domestic matter. A crisis is not in Europe's interest – and neither is ignoring or steamrolling over the interests of Hong Kong's people.

Volker Stanzel is an ECFR Council member and Senior adviser for the China & Asia Programme.

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