26 April 2019
A young protester enjoys a moment of peace inside a tent in Admiralty district. Beijing feels that the worst has passed in the pro-democracy Occupy campaign. Photo: Bloomberg
A young protester enjoys a moment of peace inside a tent in Admiralty district. Beijing feels that the worst has passed in the pro-democracy Occupy campaign. Photo: Bloomberg

HK tensions may cool as Beijing focuses on key events at home

A decision earlier this year to switch the venue of the APEC Finance Ministers’ Meeting from Hong Kong to Beijing has proved to be the right call, given that the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong — which are now into their fourth week — have created bigger ripples and acquired larger dimension than what some had anticipated previously.

Just imagine the chaos and embarrassment if the APEC meeting was held in Hong Kong in September as was originally planned and Occupy Central organizers launched their protests concurrently.

Top delegates from the US and its allies would have had problems getting to the summit venue due to road blockades. Media reports of police using tear gas and pepper spray on protesters and scuffles between the demonstrators and security personnel would have also left a damaging impression on the high-ranking officials.

By changing the venue, the central government may have dodged a bullet. However, that doesn’t mean that the move hasn’t benefited Occupy participants.

In the next few weeks, starting from the fourth plenum of the Communist Party’s central committee — which began on Monday — to the kickoff of APEC leaders’ annual meeting early November in Beijing, central authorities would try to keep the rhetoric down to avoid inflaming public passions. Thus, protesters can expect a safe period if they choose to remain in the streets.

It is the Communist Party’s tradition to whitewash and paint an illusion of peace and prosperity every time the country hosts any mega event. In this sense, any harsh crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong would jeopardize Beijing’s mission.

At the plenum, senior communist cadres will deliberate on initiatives to promote the rule of law in governance and discuss investigation reports on the disgraced former security tsar Zhou Yongkang. At the APEC summit, President Xi Jinping will hold talks with his US counterpart Barack Obama, and is also expected to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after a prolonged diplomatic stalemate between the two countries.

Meanwhile, a de facto bilateral meeting between Chinese officials and Taiwan envoys will be another top agenda. Given all these, Beijing would be unable to spare extra time to deal with Hong Kong protests. Its bottom line for the territory will be to just ensure that things do not go out of hand.

Quoting a source close to the central authorities, the Hong Kong Economic Journal, EJ Insight’s parent publication, reports that in Beijing’s latest assessment, it concludes that the worse moments have already passed in the Hong Kong protests. Other than some scattered, isolated brawls in Mong Kok, it’s unlikely that the movement will cause full-scale turmoil. Beijing is also confident that the Hong Kong police will make sure that the situation remains under control.

The source also reveals that while Beijing rules out scrapping the National People’s Congress’ ruling on the chief executive election framework, it may allow, through the Hong Kong government’s second phase consultation, a more liberal regime regarding the composition of the nomination committee.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam will also promise, apparently with Beijing’s consent, at talks with student representatives that future elections — beyond 2017 — can be enhanced with more democratic elements.

All these are a renewed effort to push Hongkongers to “take it first”. Without some sort of formal communication with government officials, most of the protesters won’t accept a pullback. The first dialogue between the government and the pro-democracy student leaders this afternoon will provide a chance for peaceful ending of the demonstration.

Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the two groups that have been spearheading the rallies, are also keen to explore a way to pull out from the current situation, observers say.

Media reports, including one by the International New York Times, suggest that Beijing has been pulling strings with regard to the Hong Kong government’s handling of the protests and that chief executive Leung Chun-ying himself reports to the central government on a daily basis.

But since the movement has already peaked and as Beijing has other priorities after laying out broad policy strokes for the territory, Leung and his cabinet will have more say in the aftermath of Occupy, on matters such as tactics for the talks with student representatives and clearance of protest zones in Mong Kok and Admiralty districts.

As for mainland mouthpieces’ all-out media war to condemn Hong Kong protests, it is said that accusations — such as meddling by overseas powers in Hong Kong’s political development — are all coordinated by the party’s propaganda department to depict hypothetical enemies in the former British colony so that people in the mainland won’t demand similar rights to a free vote.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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