Beijing will outwait Hong Kong’s protesters

Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution. Photo by Pasu Au Yeung, Creative Commons
The size of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution is not sufficient for China to take the protest seriously, predicts Jonathan Manthorpe. Chinese authorities will likely stand back, watch the protests run out of steam and wither of their own accord. Photo by Pasu Au Yeung, Creative Commons

October 1, 2014.

Tens of thousands of Hongkongers took advantage of today’s Chinese national holiday to join students who have clogged the city’s streets for four days demanding Beijing deliver on its promise to give the territory democratic autonomy.

But the numbers do not look large enough to prompt Beijing to rethink its decision to keep control of the process by which the head of Hong Kong’s government, the Chief Executive, is chosen. The likelihood now is that the authorities will stand back, watch the protests run out of steam and wither of their own accord. If the protesters do get re-energized, the authorities may well feel the bulk of Hong Kong’s citizens will accept police action to clear the streets, so long as it does not involve riot squads, tear gas and pepper spray used against the protesters last weekend.

For Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, a serious review of its objectives, strategy and tactics is clearly necessary if it has any hope of achieving its objectives. There has already been fracturing of the movement and more rifts are likely. This carries the danger of militant factions emerging. Until now the demonstrations in favour of political reform in Hong Kong have been almost universally peaceful and even astonishingly courteous, with demonstrators clearing up their own litter before going home.

But frustration with Beijing’s obdurate refusal to acknowledge the aspirations of its citizens may lead some to turn to violence, as is happening with increasing regularity in other parts of the country.

There was never much hope that the Hong Kong protests, mainly by students and young people, would force Beijing to compromise. There was little chance of losing face by climbing down after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced in late August that Hongkongers in 2017 can freely elect their Chief Executive, but only after Beijing has selected candidates of unimpeachable loyalty.

Sixty-five years after its 1949 seizing of power, the Chinese Communist Party has little legitimacy in power, and what right to rule remains could quickly disappear if it shows weakness. The majority of Hong Kong’s 7.2 million people seem resigned to the reality that Beijing is not going to live up to the promises it made in advance of the 1997 return of the territory to Chinese sovereignty after a century-and-a-half of British rule. The promise was that Hong Kong could administer itself “with a high degree of autonomy” and that there would be rapid progress to free and fair elections for the legislature and the Chief Executive.

But on reflection Beijing has balked at loosing the virus of democracy that could sweep, ebola-like, from Hong Kong across the country and herald the end of the one-party state.

In the 17 years since the handover, Hongkongers have learned how far they can push Beijing. They have had some victories, though they may be temporary. In 2003 Beijing relaxed pressure on the Hong Kong government to pass an anti-sedition law after more than 500,000 people protested on the grounds the law could be used to negate the territory’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression. And in 2012 plans to introduce “patriotic education” programs to Hong Kong schools were withdrawn after protestors claimed this amounted to the brainwashing of children to support the Communist Party.

Xo Jinping, official photo
Xi Jinping “is a man who likes to win” writes Manthorpe.

However, these compromises came before China’s new President and Communist Party boss Xi Jinping had established himself at the helm. In his nearly two years in power Xi has shown himself to be a far more aggressive and assert leader than the collegial men-in-suits who have ruled from the Zhongnanhai leader’s compound since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

Xi is a man who likes to win, wants his triumphs to be evident to all, and who does not shrink from delivering the coup de grace when he has his foot on an enemy’s throat.

The likelihood now is that a majority of Hongkongers will accept Beijing’s offer of free election of the Chief Executive in 2017, even with the condition that candidates are vetted for their loyalty to the Communist Party. The argument to support the changes is that it is an advance on the present system by which Beijing uses a front committee of its cronies and stooges to pick the Chief Executive. Once the precedent of universal suffrage is established in Hong Kong, there is always the hope it may blossom into full democracy in the future.

The students continue to demand Beijing withdraw its veto on candidates for the Chief Executive and today they have intensified their focus on the current holder of the job, C Y Leung. They are demanding his resignation and graffiti and signs reading “689” are plastered all over the protest centres in Hong Kong’s Victoria Island Central business district and the Causeway Bay shopping hub, and in Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Choi districts across the harbour on the mainland. The “689” signs are a classic Hong Kong joke. The point is there’s “no 7,” and the word for seven in the local Cantonese language sounds like the vulgar expression for male genitalia.

So Leung is being pilloried for not having the masculinity to stand up to Beijing and defend the hopes of Hong Kong people. He has rejected calls to resign and it is unlikely Beijing will want to lose face by ditching the man it appointed in July, 2012.

Yet he has undoubtedly botched the authorities’ response to the student protests, and left as a question Hong Kong’s future as a sound place from which to do business with China. After a decent interval, Beijing may well suggest to Leung, as it did to one of his predecessors Tung Chee-hwa, that he has a health problem that requires him to step down while he receives treatment.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014


Manthorpe B&W
Jonathan Manthorpe

Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has traveled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


Images of the Umbrella Revolution

photocrati gallery

Photos by Mario Madrona (Dreamer); Ansel Ma (Cry Harder); Chet Wong (Ladder); Leung Ching Yau Alex (Hands up), Creative Commons


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