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opinion | Anthony Saich

Hong Kong protests won’t change China

Talks of a “democracy contagion” are overblown

Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivered a speech outside the offices of C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong’s chief executive.
Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivered a speech outside the offices of C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong’s chief executive.Tyrone Siu/Reuters/REUTERS

Clearly not all Chinese people share the “China Dream” of President Xi Jinping. Following sporadic violence in the northwest province of Xinjiang, Beijing now faces a volatile situation in Hong Kong. Despite the vast geographic distance between these two areas, they share one common trait: All are shaped by a different history, culture, and tradition than the ones that dominate the rest of mainland China.

The Hong Kong protests surprised many by their speed and breadth, and undoubtedly they will have a profound impact on how Hong Kongers will view Beijing. Yet, will they have a long-term impact on how Beijing governs? It’s not likely.

Let’s start with what set off the protests in the first place: the decision by China’s National People’s Congress that candidates for the next elections for Hong Kong’s top official, the chief executive, would not be selected by the people of Hong Kong but rather that a slate of two or three candidates would be selected by a small group who are close to and sympathetic to Beijing’s wishes.

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Even this move by China marks considerable progress from the current practice of the highly circumscribed Election Committee, not to mention the situation under British colonial rule. Nonetheless, many in Hong Kong, especially the students, interpreted the decision as a step back from progress towards full democracy. What’s more, the decision seemed to awaken deeper concerns about where Hong Kong was headed 17 years after the 1997 handover. In an alarming survey for Beijing, 90 percent of respondents told the South China Morning Post that they would like to see the British back. Other surveys have shown an increasing number of residents identifying themselves as “Hong Kongers” and not as Chinese.

These developments surely have China’s leadership worried. It remains deeply suspicious of any democratic opening that it cannot control. An open election, under the best circumstances, may produce an unpredictable outcome. In the worst case scenario, it could lead to chaos if the result were to be disputed or the “wrong person” was elected — thus the decision to “cage” anything that could be discerned as “Western-style” democracy in Hong Kong.

Yet that concern is far broader-reaching than for just Hong Kong. A truly democratic process there might lead to stronger calls within parts of China for similar initiatives. Not surprisingly, Beijing is already trying to tamp down on any such conversation — its censors have kept a tight grip on information flow from Hong Kong to China’s citizens (although some does seem to have found its way in), backed up by relatively harsh editorials in its party-controlled press. Not surprisingly, the demonstrations have been blamed on a “small number” of bad actors, and the usual boogeyman of foreign interference has been raised. Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned Secretary of State John Kerry not to interfere in China’s domestic affairs.

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Student protesters sat on the main road outside Hong Kong’s government complex.
Student protesters sat on the main road outside Hong Kong’s government complex.AP

At times, it seemed there were some face-saving solutions to the Hong Kong protests: the removal of current chief executive C.Y. Leung or sending in Vice Premier Wang Yang, seen as more liberal, possibly to start negotiations for a more open candidate selection process for 2022 elections. (Wang successfully defused demonstrations in Wukan in 2011 and 2012 when he was party secretary in Guangdong province plus his presence would have meant the tough, North Korea-trained Zhang Dejiang, who oversees Hong Kong and Macau, would be moved aside.)

However, the main objective of the Chinese Communist Party is to stay in power, and it has shown in the past that it will do anything to maintain that reality. Beijing has expressed very strong support for Leung so far, and it is unlikely to change that stance now.

But Beijing will also not change its mind and allow full universal suffrage in 2017. President Xi has portrayed himself as a strong and decisive leader, a person who takes tough decisions and sticks with them. It is inconceivable that he would back down for fear that it might lead to pressure from others within China who disagree with his policy approach.

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Indeed, any fallout from the current unrest within China will be limited. It will not affect Xi and his rule. Longer term, however, that may not be the case.

Hong Kong, for one, will be significantly changed by this experience. As the Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan earlier this year highlighted, a younger generation in Asia is increasingly focused on reforming mechanisms of governance and willing to question the status quo. Beijing has taken the risk of losing the trust of the younger generation. It will be very difficult to woo them back.


Anthony Saich is a professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.