For the past month, citizens have Hong Kong have been protesting an extradition bill which would allow the city's Chief Executive to transfer criminals to other jurisdictions. Some observers see the possibility of another Tiananmen Square incident; others wonder if they will pose a major challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In reality, these protests are nothing like the Tiananmen protests of thirty years ago. Instead, they reflect growing political discontent in Hong Kong, but not necessarily across China. At the same time, however, Xi cannot view them with equanimity.
The recent protests broke out because the bill raised the specter of arbitrary extradition of citizens to the PRC. They are the product of not simply this bill, but a growing sense of frustration and concern among the population that China is increasingly infringing upon their freedoms and rights, as guaranteed under the Basic Law negotiated between the UK and PRC before the 1997 hand-over. Under that agreement, China committed to granting Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. This included the provision that "the socialist system and policies shall not be practiced in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years." This was supposed to mean that China would not interfere with Hong Kong's courts, free press, or criminal justice system.
In recent years, however, this commitment has steadily eroded. In 2014, during debates over Hong Kong suffrage, Chinese officials indicated that, while Hong Kong citizens would be granted voting rights as promised under the Basic Law, Beijing reserved the right to determine who could run for office. In effect, the PRC was declaring that it would have the final say over whom Hong Kong citizens could cast votes for. The result was nearly three months of peaceful protests, known variously as "Occupy Central" and "The Umbrella Movement."
In 2015, several booksellers disappeared from Hong Kong, reappearing in China where they were charged with various crimes. It is widely believed that they were seized by Chinese security organs because their book shops sold materials that discussed the Chinese leadership. Such items are illegal in China, but not in Hong Kong, and under the Basic Law, the Chinese had no right to prevent such sales. While several of the booksellers were subsequently freed, one, Gui Minhai, was subsequently removed from a Chinese train while in the company of two Swedish diplomats.
In 2018, Victor Mallet, correspondent with the Financial Times, chaired a session at the Foreign Correspondent's Club (FCC) in Hong Kong with Andy Chan of the Hong Kong National Party, which advocates for Hong Kong independence. When the FCC rejected a Chinese demand to cancel the session, Mallet, in turn, found his application to renew his working visa in Hong Kong denied. This is widely viewed as retaliation by the Hong Kong government, at Beijing's behest, for the FCC talk. More broadly, press freedom in Hong Kong has been seen as under attack by Beijing, with various newspapers and other outlets under a variety of pressure.
That same year, the Hong Kong legislature agreed to allow the creation of a joint border checkpoint at a major Hong Kong railway station. While easing travel along the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, it also meant that, for the first time, Chinese law would be enforced within Hong Kong itself (the co-located border control zone).
Exacerbating this has been an increasingly open dismissal of the entire "one country, two systems" concept by Beijing. Most notably, in 2014, the Chinese National People's Congress issued a white paper on the principle of "one country, two systems." The white paper makes very clear that whatever rights and autonomy Hong Kong enjoys are not rooted in the Basic Law, but at the sufferance of the authorities in Beijing. "The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership. The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power. It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership." Furthermore, "one country" takes precedence over "two systems." "The 'one country' is the premise and basis of the 'two systems,' and the 'two systems' is subordinate to and derived from 'one country.' But the 'two systems' under the 'one country' are not on a par with each other." (Emphasis added.) Beijing has essentially made clear that Hong Kong's autonomy is conditional. It is in this context that the decision by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to push through the extradition bill was seen as opening the door to further dilution of Hong Kong citizens' rights, leading to the massive protests. But for the same reason, there is at most a very limited parallel to the events in Tiananmen Square thirty years ago.
The protests that eventually led to the violent Chinese suppression on June 4, 1989 began with demonstrations expressing posthumous support for Hu Yaobang, the more liberal Chinese premier who had been forced to step down for those positions in 1987. His death in April 1989 precipitated major protests across China, especially by students. Those protests gathered momentum, reflecting broader unhappiness with the economic situation, and groups of workers joined in protest across the nation. At present, there is little evidence that there is a broader protest movement gathering strength in China. Indeed, it is unclear how sympathetic the broader mainland population is to the cause of Hong Kong.
At the same time, the Chinese leadership undoubtedly recognizes the risks associated with a violent crackdown on the Hong Kong protestors. In 1989, China was not as dependent on trade as it is today. A bloody crackdown like that 30 years ago would undoubtedly lead to the imposition of sanctions and other measures that would further constrain the Chinese economy, already under pressure from the ongoing trade war with the United States. Indeed, many of the international sanctions imposed then, including limits on the sale of high technology to the PRC, remain in place.
Xi Jinping's Worries
This is not to say that Xi Jinping will necessarily have infinite patience, however. For Xi, Hong Kong represents an additional burden in a time of troubles. Responding as Deng and Li Peng did thirty years ago will tar his reputation, even as he will remain in power for an extended time, having eliminated term limits on his role as Chinese president.
Xi also wishes to resolve the situation promptly. As the trade war drags on, Chinese factories, and workers, are likely to suffer economic hits. The spread of African swine flu and fall armyworm will affect food prices. Protests in Wuhan over a new incinerator plant are a reminder of other chronic problems that undermine the Chinese Communist Party's image. For Hong Kong, with its massive Western media presence, to have constant protests can only add to Xi's headaches.
A desire for a rapid resolution may not lead to a peaceful one, however. Xi likely wants to demonstrate that it is he, not Hong Kong, that determines the fate of the Special Administration Region. This will become more pressing as the current protests now include not only students but workers, shop-keepers, and mothers. If a broad cross-section of Hong Kong moves to oppose him, maintaining control could become more difficult. The use of violence in some of the most recent protests, including the storming of the Legislative Council's offices, unfortunately provides Xi with an excuse to suppress the protests, possibly forcefully.
Finally, with Taiwan elections in 2020, how Xi approaches the Hong Kong situation will likely have repercussions on the island. China has long touted "one country, two systems" as a possible solution to the Taiwan issue. The Chinese National People's Congress' white paper reinforced skepticism about the credibility, never mind viability, of that approach. Xi's actions in the coming weeks will have a huge impact on cross-Straits relations throughout the next Taiwanese president's term.
This piece originally appeared in Newsweek