(Written by: Steven Lee Myers)
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, was in Tajikistan on Saturday, celebrating his 66th birthday with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the political crisis in Hong Kong took a dramatic turn with an unexpected retreat in the face of mass protests.
Xi’s trip fortuitously gave him some distance from the events in Hong Kong, where the leadership Saturday suspended its push for legislation to allow extraditions to mainland China. But the measure had been backed by Beijing, and there was no mistaking that the reversal was a stinging setback for him.
The move, the biggest concession to public pressure during Xi’s nearly seven years as China’s paramount leader, suggests that there are still limits to his power, especially involving events outside the mainland, even as he has governed with an increasingly authoritarian grip.
“This is a defeat for Xi, even if Beijing frames this as a tactical retreat,” said Jude Blanchette, a consultant and author of a new book on the revival of revolutionary ideology in the country, “China’s New Red Guards.”
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people marched again in Hong Kong despite the government’s concession a day before, insisting that the legislation be withdrawn while making new demands, including for an investigation into the use of excessive force by police in clashes with protesters. The large turnout was a surprise, and it means the crisis is not over for Xi. Given how he has consolidated power in China, he might find it increasingly difficult to avoid blame.
The risk for Xi is not limited to Hong Kong. Though he has no visible rivals, he could face criticism in the leadership. And the mainland government’s censors, at least, are clearly concerned that the extraordinary events might inspire Xi’s beleaguered critics in mainland China, and they have been working vigorously to block the news from spreading.
“This further chips away at the image of Xi as an all-powerful, omnicompetent and visionary leader,” Blanchette added.
The demonstrations also made clear that after 22 years, Beijing has had minimal success in weaving Hong Kong into the country’s central political, economic and security systems, all dominated by the Communist Party. But if Xi and his cadres want to proceed more forcefully to bind Hong Kong to the mainland, they must also see how that could invite new waves of protest.
“This is an important time to see whether Xi is a rigid ideologue like Mao, or the pragmatist that previous Chinese leaders like Deng, Jiang and Hu were,” said Susan Shirk, chairwoman of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California, San Diego, referring to Xi’s predecessors.
As evidence of a pragmatic tinge, she cited recent adjustments that Xi made — at least cosmetically — to his signature “One Belt, One Road” international infrastructure initiative following criticism that it was ensnaring countries in indebtedness to Beijing.
“Pragmatic leaders adjust their policies when they become too costly,” she said.
Still, the controversy over the legislation has hardened views around the world toward Xi’s China, particularly regarding the lack of judicial independence or basic rights for defendants plunged into the Chinese judicial system.
The idea of a law that would allow transfers of criminal suspects into the Communist Party-controlled system provoked fear among Hong Kong’s 7 million residents, including business executives, consultants and investors who have made the city a global hub of finance, trade and transportation.
“The proposed law, the protests and the Hong Kong government’s response has heightened international awareness of the repressive policies of the Xi era,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, adding that China was not living up to its pledge to honor Hong Kong’s autonomy for 50 years after the 1997 takeover.
During Xi’s four-day trip for previously scheduled summit meetings in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the events in Hong Kong were portrayed in China’s state media not as a retreat but as a well-considered move receiving Beijing’s full support.
“Sometimes we have to be on duty on our birthday,” Putin told Xi in a carefully choreographed exchange at a hotel in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, even as Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, prepared to announce the suspension of the legislation.
Putin presented the man he has taken to calling a dear friend with a decorative vase, a cake and an entire box of ice cream that Xi had previously pronounced as the most delicious in the world.
Putin’s party for Xi was broadcast on China’s state television network, which had not even mentioned the protests in Hong Kong — some of the largest since Britain handed over the territory in 1997 — until Friday night. It described them as riots sponsored by foreign actors.
Both men are of similar age and temperament, sharing an abiding fear of foreign efforts to undermine their rule. Both have experienced the simmering fury of constituents nonetheless, suggesting that popular sentiment still plays a role in the era of strongman leaders. Putin, too, had to bow to public pressure in the past week following protests over a false arrest of a prominent investigative journalist, Ivan Golunov.
In the end, Beijing and Hong Kong decided that they already faced enough challenges with the economic headwinds and trade tensions with the United States heading into the Group of 20 summit in Japan this month, according to a person in Hong Kong with detailed knowledge of local policymaking, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities inflamed by the protests.
President Donald Trump and Xi are expected to meet in less than two weeks at the summit, in Osaka, although formal trade talks between them have not yet been confirmed.
Xi has never publicly commented on the Hong Kong matter, but two of the seven members of the governing Politburo Standing Committee that he presides over — Wang Yang and Han Zheng — expressed their support for the legislation.
On Friday, a vice foreign minister in Beijing summoned the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy to complain about a congressional bill, drawn up in support of the protesters, that called for a broad review of Washington’s relationship with Hong Kong.
The suspension of the legislation in Hong Kong — which stopped short of dropping it altogether — has fueled concerns that Lam’s retreat was a tactical one, probably endorsed at least tacitly by Beijing. She met with senior Chinese officials Friday before announcing her decision the following day, a person with knowledge of the government’s policymaking said. She declined to comment Saturday on any private meetings she might have had.
Xi is not prone to concession or compromise, especially when under threat, as Trump has learned during his public efforts to negotiate an end to the trade war between the United States and China. This latest setback, analysts said, could be merely temporary.
“Postponement is not withdrawal,” said Ryan Hass, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as director for China at the National Security Council during the Obama administration, in an email. “Beijing likely will be willing to let Lam take heat for mismanaging the process of securing passage of the bill, bide its time, and wait for the next opportunity to advance the legislation.”