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Hong Kong Protests: What it means for the Chinese leadership?

Avinash Godbole was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • October 10, 2014

    Hong Kong is slated to have elections for the post of Chief Executive (CE) in 2017. However, there is a disagreement between sections of the Hong Kong civil society and Beijing on how these elections are to be conducted. In a nutshell, Hong Kong wants a free and fair democratic elections and not be told the list of candidates it can choose from. Beijing wants that it vets the final list of candidates, fearing probably a CE, who would be critical of government policies. Beijing’s desire to manage the political process in Hong Kong stems from the ‘one country two systems’ model whereby it continues to retain its influence. In all likelihood, it appears that the Occupy Central protests demanding the resignation of the present CE CY Leung would not end in a hurry. These popular protests are not only massive, involving between 20,000 and 50,000 people, but also peaceful drawing inspiration from one of the movement leader’s commentary last year highlighting the utility of civil disobedience. In addition, there are also “Global solidarity with Hong Kong” marches planned across Australia and North America.

    This movement is led by a group of faculty from Hong Kong University and a teenager Joshua Wang Chi-fung, who has become the global face of Occupy Central. Its participants come from university students and the middle class. The pro-Beijing groups such as the Alliance for Peace and Democracy have undertaken initiatives like March for Peace to divert attention away from Occupy Central groups. Hong Kong business community, with their business linkages with the mainland, have stayed away from the movement and even criticised it from time to time for fears of its impact on their business. Therefore, it is crucial to see how Beijing responds to the developments. There are three factors that deserve attention; First, the legitimacy of the leadership, second, Chinese nationalism and third, the regional implications.

    The recent official policy guidelines such as ‘China Dream’ and the ‘Great Chinese Rejuvenation’ are based on the revival of nationalism and form the principal pitch of Xi Jinping, the Chinese President and Secretary General of the CPC. Among other things, the ‘China Dream’ expresses an economically, militarily stronger and unified China. However, the recent unrest in Hong Kong is perhaps as big a challenge to this dream as the unrest in Xinjiang.

    Political reforms in China have always been initiated and led from the top. The middle and lower rung leaders take the flak for any failure while maintaining the hallowedness of the top leaders. By challenging the idea of the ‘China Dream’, the protests in Hong Kong is being perceived as a threat to the leadership in Beijing. The ‘China Dream’ and the revival of the Chinese nation are now seen in conjunction with Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland. For President Xi, Occupy Central is undesirable.

    China’s understanding of the wrongs in history involves foreigners’ conniving with the anti-national elements from within to weaken the country. If the developments in Hong Kong are to be interpreted on this line, it can be used to charge domestic anti-western nationalism in the mainland sending across a message that “China is angry”. There is a pattern of Chinese nationalism whereby outsiders seem to become easy targets if Chinese national identity is seen as being threatened. Beijing has drawn the red line on Hong Kong. The White Paper released in July 2014 says: “It is necessary to stay alert to the attempt of outside forces to use Hong Kong to interfere in China's domestic affairs, and prevent and repel the attempt made by a very small number of people who act in collusion with outside forces to interfere with the implementation of "one country, two systems" in Hong Kong”.1 It will not take much time for mainland to see a foreign hand in the islanders’ pro-democracy movements. China has also already warned not to get close to the Occupy Central in anyway. Such pronouncements are a clear sign that while the news about Occupy Central will be restricted, it will be used selectively to revive anti-western nationalism in China.

    China had reacted extremely cautiously during the colour revolutions and during the more recent jasmine revolution that rocked the West Asian regimes. Some reports even suggested that mainland websites restricted the unfolding of events in West Asia. The same is the case with Occupy Central as Instagram and South China Morning Post have been blocked. It is important to note that the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has already called these protests “illegal” and reiterated that Hong Kong remains China’s internal affair.2

    The critical question is whether such development could lead to a hardened approach by the Chinese leadership. China’s territorial competitions of claims and counterclaims with a large number of its neighbours on land and at sea are linked with its domestic nationalism, in particular, the East China Sea. In this context, it remains to be seen whether the leaders feel threatened and weakened due to Hong Kong protests and western support for these or whether China would respond by hardening its security posture in some of its territorial disputes.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India