BEIJING — When President Xi Jinping of China meets foreign leaders, he tends to recite talking points in a dutiful monotone, diplomats say. But when challenges to China’s sovereignty come up — like protests in Hong Kong — he roars to life.
“He read flatly from the script,” one Western official said of such a meeting. “But when it got to China’s core interests, these disputes, he put down his notes and spoke passionately.”
For anyone puzzling over why China reacted so swiftly and severely to block two pro-independence politicians from taking their seats in Hong Kong’s legislature, Xi’s expansive idea of sovereignty is a good place to start.
“He lets you know that this is what really matters,” said the Western official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a closed-door meeting with Xi.
China’s Communist Party-run National People’s Congress stepped in on Monday and effectively barred the two from taking office, saying they had slurred Beijing in their oath of office.
The politicians, Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching, were elected to the Hong Kong Legislative Council in September on a pro-independence platform.
In taking their oaths last month, they substituted a word for China that is widely seen as derogatory, and Yau added a common obscenity.
There were other, less Draconian ways to resolve the impasse. Leung, known as Baggio, and Yau, for instance, agreed to retake their oaths properly. The president of the council said it should decide its own affairs. Even Hong Kong’s chief executive, a loyal supporter of Beijing, was willing to leave the decision to Hong Kong’s judiciary.
But that was not to be.
“What could have been handled in a moderate fashion,” said Michael C. Davis, a former law professor in Hong Kong who is now a researcher in Washington, “became a constitutional crisis, affording Beijing an opportunity to advance its sovereignty agenda.”
Or as Richard C. Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, put it, “Instead of ignoring independence and localist sentiment, which Chinese leaders should have done, they shone a spotlight on” it.
Beijing decided it had to respond strongly and to make an example of the wayward politicians.
“Some people think there was no need to worry, that they could never win independence and their forces are too puny,” Zou Pingxue, a professor of law in Shenzhen, China, said by telephone. “But there was the dangerous tendency that the Hong Kong independence phenomenon could grow larger and spin out of control.”
A punitive response was in character for Xi, who has waged a blistering campaign against corruption that has jailed thousands of officials. Moreover, a tight grip on Hong Kong corresponds with his self-declared job as the leader of national rejuvenation, which he sees as a far-reaching mission.
Even before this dust-up, a string of actions since last year showed how Xi is willing to recast, override, or ignore laws and conventions that stood in the way of what he sees as China’s powers over its territory and citizens, wherever they may be.
Hong Kong booksellers peddling garish tales about China’s elite were snatched into the mainland. Chinese dissidents on the run were spirited back to their homeland from Thailand, despite United Nations protection as refugees.
Beijing has not recognized an international tribunal’s rejection of its claims over much of the South China Sea, although it signed the treaty behind the decision. Covert squads abroad have induced absconding officials to return to China from the United States and other states that have no extradition agreements with Beijing.