16 February 2019
Beijing might be prepared to sacrifice Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (left). Chief Secretary Carrie Lam (middle) and Financial Secretary John Tsang (right) are more popular with the public. Photos: Bloomberg, HKEJ
Beijing might be prepared to sacrifice Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (left). Chief Secretary Carrie Lam (middle) and Financial Secretary John Tsang (right) are more popular with the public. Photos: Bloomberg, HKEJ

Hardline Beijing gives HK government time to clear the streets

“Occupy Central has turned Hong Kong into a complete embarrassment” screamed the headline on the front page of Global Times on Tuesday. “Every group there is enraged at this anarchy. Those who planned it refuse to accept responsibility.”

It is said the city had been thrown into chaos and that the government opposed “hostile foreign influences” coming into Hong Kong. 

On Sunday, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council called the occupation “an illegal gathering that is destroying law and order”.

It said that it had complete confidence in the SAR government’s ability to manage the situation, maintain social stability and protect the security of Hong Kong people and their assets.

That is Beijing’s view of what has happened since tens of thousands of protesters took over large areas of Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok at the weekend. It is the language ominously reminiscent of that used in 1989 to describe student-led protests that occupied Tiananmen Square for seven weeks.

Many people in Shanghai do not know about the protests. They receive their news from the television and radio which has not reported them and read social media where the news has been blocked. Wednesday was National Day, a time for celebration and festivities – the worst time for bad news.

But those who use VPNs (virtual private networks) and other means to get round the “great Chinese firewall” that controls the internet are able to read about it.

One of them is Wang Liming, who works in an environmental company. “My friends in Shanghai have a sense of resignation and passivity. They feel the Communist Party is too powerful and they can do nothing to oppose it. So there is no social activism.

“It is because Hong Kong people do not know the mainland well that they dare to protest. The party is very hardline. Only if you too are hardline will you get a concession out of them. I admire the protesters there. I wish we had their energy.”

Liu Hong, a taxi driver, said that he hated the party. “Since 1949, it has lied to and deceived the people. I strongly support what the protesters are doing. Of course, the government will send in the People’s Liberation Army as they did in Beijing in 1989. That is the nature of this regime. They do not care about foreign opinion; they only want to keep power by any means possible. In 1989, Shanghai was ringed by PLA units ready to enter the city. It was only a speech by [then Mayor] Zhu Rongji which calmed the situation and brought an end to the protests.

“They cannot allow one-man, one-vote in Hong Kong. If they did, we in Shanghai would demand it and so would people in other cities.”

I think Liu is mistaken, certainly in the short term. The PLA intervention in 1989 cleared the streets and ended the protests but at an enormous cost. This cost would be as high in Hong Kong, where such intervention would meet fierce resistance and be shown on live television around the world.

The government used the PLA because it did not have security forces trained to control civil disorder; now it has, in the People’s Armed Police. So have units of the Hong Kong police been equipped for dealing with exactly this kind of protest. 

So, in the short term, Beijing is content to allow the Hong Kong government and its police to manage the protests.

The job of C.Y. Leung is on the line; Beijing is angry with him for allowing the situation to deteriorate to this point and incurring such animosity against himself and the central government. If he clears the streets and ends the protests, he can save his job. 

Sacrificing him would be a major concession to the protestors and one which Beijing is ready to make. It has other candidates ready who are more popular with the public, including Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam and Financial Secretary John Tsang.

But it will never agree to a western-style election in 2017 with the public able to nominate candidates. This is a red line – a Chinese city cannot choose its leaders through such an election. The party believes a democratic system would bring anarchy, even civil war to China and that only strong, central control has created the stability needed for the remarkable growth of the last 30 years.

So the only room for negotiation is over the composition of the committee that selects the candidates in 2017, to enlarge it and make it more representative, and the composition of the Legislative Council.

The time for negotiation has not arrived yet. Beijing is hoping that the numbers will fall sharply after the end of the National Day holiday, when people should return to work, and the protests will peter out without police intervention.

For now, it is the irresistible meeting the immovable. 

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Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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