Sat, Oct 19, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Why China fears sending the tanks into Hong Kong

A crackdown could alienate China’s middle class and damage Xi Jinping’s standing

By Howard W. French  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Lance Liu

Two decades ago, many scholars began predicting that as China’s creation of wealth continued to speed ahead, the country would cross a threshold. Once a substantial new middle class had been created, they reasoned, politics would tip decisively in a more participatory, possibly even democratic, direction.

While robust economic growth continued, the first decade of this century came and went with no severe challenge to China’s authoritarian model. Under China’s present leader, Xi Jinping (習近平), who took office in 2013, it has only become more entrenched: Last year he changed the longstanding rules of succession to allow himself to remain in charge for life.

Now, however, this long-expected revolt of the middle class has arrived — not from China itself, but from Hong Kong. More than any other problem China faces, the ongoing crisis in the territory could determine Xi’s standing and his country’s direction over the next few years.

The problem of open-ended civil unrest in Hong Kong, which has been punctuated by rising acts of violence and vandalism carried out by a distinct but hardline minority, is a reflection of China’s new assertiveness under Xi — an assertiveness that marks a break with the caution of the post-Mao Zedong (毛澤東) era.

It could be seen in Xi’s signature undertaking, the Belt and Road Initiative — an infrastructure building project with global ambitions. Most recently, it was apparent in the flaunting of new weapons systems during the military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule — a declaration of China’s intention to rival US military power more openly than at any time in the recent past.

Under Xi, China has been intervening much more directly in the governance of Hong Kong. The most notable example of this was the abduction to China of Hong Kong booksellers who traded in titles critical of Beijing or historical accounts that undermined Chinese orthodoxy.

Beijing has also given quiet but clear support to a variety of restrictions on the territory’s democracy that have strongly eroded Hong Kong’s sense of generous if limited legal and political autonomy — a notion captured by Beijing’s own slogan for the territory’s dispensation, “one country, two systems.”

Most notably, these have included the banning of pro-democracy political candidates and the proposal in February by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) of the measure that sparked the ongoing protests: a law that would allow for the extradition of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to China.

Public approval of Lam has plummeted since then, and her position has not been helped by her acknowledgment that many of her options are determined by Beijing. This has effectively meant refusing concessions on the protesters’ main demands — such as for direct election of the territory’s leaders and an independent investigation of violent abuses by the police — and only recently grudgingly offering to formally withdraw the extradition proposal.

Notably, she has also said that Beijing would not allow her to step down, another of the demonstrators’ key demands.

This blocking of any path forward that would permit more self-determination under Chinese sovereignty — as promised when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 — has led to a marked radicalization of Hong Kong’s population this year, and created a revolt of the middle class.

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