20 May 2019
A young protester cries after clashes with the police. Hong Kong's youths are blaming their elders for not pursuing democracy early on. Photo: Bloomberg
A young protester cries after clashes with the police. Hong Kong's youths are blaming their elders for not pursuing democracy early on. Photo: Bloomberg

How Beijing is benefiting from the democracy protests

Many believe that the Umbrella Movement is nearing an end and that there is no hope that the political impasse can be resolved through dialogue between student representatives and the Hong Kong government.

Is there any room for maneuver or compromise, or is the months-long protest to no avail?

Simon Shen Xuhui, an associate professor in the Chinese University of Hong Kong and project coordinator of the Hong Kong Economic Journal’s weekly international news feature EJ Global, argues for a broader view of the movement.

Underlying cause

Shen notes that the key issue is no longer genuine universal suffrage but a conflict inherent in the “one country, two systems” principle.

Beijing regards anything related to “national interest” – no matter how ambiguous – as part of its suzerainty over Hong Kong.

This is the typical thinking of an authoritarian regime. The concept of “national interest” can be redefined to suit its needs.

By contrast, Hong Kong people value the spirit of contract and they work and play by its rules. They expect other parties to behave in a similar fashion.

This is the basis of Hong Kong’s promised right to run its affairs as an autonomous region. The Basic Law defines the scope of that autonomy.

Thus, Hong Kong people resent any form of interference by Beijing in their internal affairs but this mindset is at odds with that of the central government.

Under President Xi Jinping, Hong Kong affairs relating to national security are the remit of the newly founded National Security Commission.

Shen says there’s a world of difference between the two sides of the issue which means there’s little room to ease tensions between them.

The central government is using the democracy protests to test the will of their supporters and gauge the commitment of Beijing loyalists.

Beijing’s main concern is no longer its preferred method for electing Hong Kong’s next leader in 2017 but a comprehensive overhaul of its political and administrative structure.

In a worst-case scenario of the Hong Kong government being paralyzed, Beijing will remain steadfast. If chaos and anarchy erupt, it will be justified to act with force.

Youth power

The movement has seen an astonishing number of previously politically apathetic young people coming forward.

They are deeply unhappy about the political and social status quo and think their elders should have done more to pursue democracy early on.

Some people have warned that this disaffected generation will become ungovernable.

The Hong Kong government’s initiatives to enhance social mobility are not enough for these young people. Also, their vision of a democratic future and that of Beijing are poles apart.

Some of the student protesters come from middle class families who are beginning to see that economic sweeteners and social welfare fixes don’t work.

The government’s response is to play them off with their own peers.

It will seek support from non-aligned youth sectors by inviting them to join pro-establishment associations. Some patriotic young people will be offered public posts as proof of social mobility.

Legco veto

Meanwhile, some pro-Beijing politicians are worried that a Legco veto of Beijing’s election proposal would undermine “one country, two systems”.

That suggests such an outcome should be avoided even at the cost of universal suffrage.

Shen cautions against such a “black or white” conclusion.

Under the pretext of national security, Beijing could tighten its grip on Hong Kong and use the ambiguities of the Basic Law to justify its actions.

Already, Beijing has condemned the street protests as a threat to social stability.

Shen is equally wary about idealizing the protest movement, saying it is only a means, not a concrete strategy, for achieving genuine democracy.     

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


A phalanx of policemen on the move in Admiralty. Under the pretext of national security, Beijing can further tighten its grip on Hong Kong. Photo: Bloomberg

Protesters rest in the middle of a subway outside government headquarters. This disaffected generation is unhappy about the political and social status quo. Photo: Bloomberg

EJ Insight writer

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