What’s happening right now on the streets of Hong Kong is not, as the Chinese regime seems to think, a law-and-order crisis. It is a political protest – and that’s how officials in Beijing need to respond to it.
When the pro-democracy group Occupy Central began to talk about paralyzing Hong Kong’s central business district last summer, it had a very specific aim: to persuade China’s top leaders to allow citizens for the first time to vote directly for chief executive in 2017.
The protesters’ strategy backfired. Echoing Beijing, local and Western businesses warned that unrest would disrupt Hong Kong’s economy, and many citizens took those fears to heart. By the time China’s rubber-stamp legislature rejected Occupy’s demands a month ago, only about a quarter of Hong Kong residents supported the group’s brinksmanship.
Over the weekend, Hong Kong authorities overplayed their hand. Responding to the peaceful protesters with tear gas and pepper spray, they mainly succeeded in spurring thousands of Hong Kong residents watching on TV to get off their couches and into the streets.
Riot police partially withdrew Monday afternoon in an attempt to defuse tensions, leaving an almost impossible standoff. Beijing cannot afford to back down for fear of encouraging dissent on the mainland. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has been re-energized, with thousands crowding the streets again Monday night.
Only a political accommodation can break this deadlock. Rather than repeating that their decision about the CEO election will not be reversed – something even most protesters acknowledge is desperately unlikely – mainland authorities would do better to look for ways to reassure Hong Kong residents that their other cherished freedoms are secure.
Beijing’s requirement that Hong Kong leaders “love China,” for example, seems to foreclose the possibility of disagreeing with Communist Party policies. Yet local party officials make accommodations to protesters virtually every day on the mainland, over things such as factory conditions or pollution. Negotiating with the protesters over Hong Kong’s new election procedures shouldn’t be out of the question.
Supporters of the regime in Beijing might well ask, Why bother? China is hoping to build Shanghai as an alternative financial center to Hong Kong. But this argument is short-sighted. Shanghai is a long way from matching Hong Kong’s transparent judiciary, free press and regulatory oversight. Over time, if it wants to become a truly global financial center, Shanghai will have to become more like Hong Kong, not the other way around.
Most important, by refusing to address the legitimate grievances of Hong Kong’s citizens, Chinese authorities are only postponing the inevitable. Sooner or later, if they want to fulfill their vision of a powerful and united country, Chinese leaders are going to have to embrace and manage differences not just in Hong Kong but also in places such as Xinjiang and Tibet. Until then, tensions in all of them will only grow.