Beijing is likely to restore order in the short term. But does it have a long-term solution to the crisis of governability?
The pro-democracy demonstrations organised by students in Hong Kong seem to have peaked. But the crisis of governability in Asia’s vital commercial hub is far from over. When tens of thousands of protesters were blockading Hong Kong’s government offices and main shopping districts in the beginning of October, the question on most people’s minds was whether the Chinese government would sanction the use of force, Tiananmen-style, to disperse the protesters. Today, in the middle of a stalemate, the right question to ask is what the endgame is.
At the moment, nobody seems to know the answer. The negotiations between the Hong Kong government and the protesters have been cancelled because of deep mutual distrust. The protesters, fearing the loss of their bargaining power, have refused to call off their dwindling protest that is still causing traffic disruptions in the city’s commercial centre. They also believe that the Hong Kong government is merely acting as Beijing’s puppet and lacks the necessary authority to strike a meaningful deal.
For the Hong Kong government, its priority is to get the protesters off the street and restore the city’s life to normalcy — without promising anything in return.
This stalemate, of course, cannot last forever. The protesters have no desire to return home empty-handed. The demonstrations were sparked by Beijing’s refusal to honour its pledge of universal suffrage and allow Hong Kong’s voters to choose the city’s chief executive in 2017. The pro-democracy forces are demanding that Beijing retreat from its uncompromising position. If the protesters are unable to gain any meaningful concessions, they may be motivated to escalate their protests or, alternatively, they may decide to concede defeat and fold their short-lived movement.
The Hong Kong government also faces a dilemma. The longer the stalemate lasts, the more the erosion of its authority and the greater the impact on the city’s image and economy. While it has no real power to make any concessions to the students, it also has no desire to create an everlasting impression of political impotence and illegitimacy.
So for now, China’s short-term plan to deal with the protesters’ demand is to let the pro-democracy movement self- destruct. Chinese leaders believe that the student-led movement is not sustainable because of its lack of organisation and enduring mass support. They also assume that, given the generational split in Hong Kong’s society (the younger generation is much less identified with the mainland than the older generation), the pro-democracy movement will alienate a sizeable segment of Hong Kong’s public because of the disruptions to traffic and commerce the protests have caused. Finally, Beijing hopes that fissures will emerge inside the pro-democracy camp because of the differences in tactics and objectives among the diverse groups that form the protest movement.
Should Beijing’s cold calculations be borne out, we could expect the size of the protest to dwindle and public ire against the protesters to rise, thus making it both tactically and politically less costly for the Hong Kong authorities to clear out the protesters at a convenient time.
Under normal circumstances, Beijing would not have allowed the protests to drag on for so long. But this time, because of the coincidence of the annual plenum of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) Central Committee (October 20-23) and the Apec summit in Beijing (November 6-11), Chinese leaders obviously have little desire to spoil the two parties with a crackdown that could produce ugly pictures and cause international outrage.
In all likelihood, the most politically convenient time for Beijing to end the street protests in Hong Kong would be shortly after the conclusion of the Beijing Apec summit. After foreign leaders, including US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leave Beijing, China will have a much freer hand in dealing with the problem in Hong Kong.
The most sensible way of ending the stalemate would be offering face-saving, but mainly symbolic, concessions to the protesters so they could claim victory and go home. Technically, such concessions are not impossible. For example, the moderates among the pro-democracy forces are floating the idea of changing the rule that elects the committee that will screen the nominees for the chief executive (Beijing insists that only two or three candidates who have received more than half of the votes from this committee can run, thus effectively giving the pro-Beijing committee the power to disqualify candidates considered unfriendly to Beijing).
However, even a minor concession would be a bitter pill for the CPC to swallow. Ever since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, the party’s rule has been based on effective deterrence. It has painstakingly cultivated the impression that it will suppress any anti-regime movement regardless of costs or consequences. Therefore, making even the least substa ntive concessions risks undermining the party’s image of toughness.
If this is the case, even the short-term solution to Hong Kong’s stalemate could be quite ugly. We should expect to see — and, indeed, have seen — the use of anti-riot police, mass arrests and forcible clearing of the protesters. Such operations will be followed by the announcement of strict regulations that would make similar protests illegal or very difficult to stage in future.
But this pyrrhic victory for Beijing by no means ends the crisis of governability in Hong Kong. The protests have fundamentally altered the politics in the former British colony. The “one country, two systems” model that has governed Hong Kong is now all but dead. The leadership hand-picked by Beijing has lost credibility and significant public support. A very large section of Hong Kong society, most importantly its young people, is demanding their democratic rights and revolting against the CPC.
Beijing may have a clever plan to restore order in the short term, but it is doubtful that it has any long-term plan for ending the political revolt in Hong Kong.
The writer is professor of government and non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US