The rapid escalation of the pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong caught almost everyone by surprise.
Within a matter of days, after battling riot police and tear gas, the student-led movement succeeded in paralyzing key sections of Asia’s commercial hub and focusing the world’s attention on a political crisis that could cause a grave deterioration in relations between China and the West.
At the moment, the biggest worry hinges on whether Beijing will use force, Tiananmen-style, to crush the peaceful protest. The Chinese government could do so either by ordering the Hong Kong authorities to send in anti-riot police again or by deploying the Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops stationed in the former British colony. Based on the announcement made by Hong Kong’s chief executive CY Leung that he expects the protest to “last a long time” and the muted public response from Beijing so far, it appears that the Chinese government has adopted a different strategy, at least for now.
The centerpiece of this short-term strategy is to allow the protest to continue and hope that the leaderless movement will self-destruct by exhausting its energy, growing internal disagreement, and alienating the Hong Kong public through the disruption of traffic and business.
Beijing seems to have opted for this strategy in part because of the coincidence of the protest with a weeklong holiday celebrating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic (October 1). Chinese leaders do not want to have a bloodbath in Hong Kong when they are supposed to toast the Communist Party’s achievements or enjoy a relaxing break themselves. Also by pure coincidence, the party is to convene its annual central committee plenum between October 20 and 23. Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and his colleagues have no desire to sanction a brutal crackdown in Hong Kong before the conclave. The last thing they want is to have the plenum focused on the crisis in Hong Kong, which would reflect poorly on the leadership.
The Chinese government also seems to believe that the protest may hurt its image but does not pose a real threat. The immediate target is the Hong Kong government and, more specifically, chief executive CY Leung, who bears the responsibility for the initial mishandling of the protest and is the target of public anger in Hong Kong. This somehow insulates Beijing, which can claim with a straight face that it has full confidence in Leung’s ability to manage the protest. More importantly, Beijing holds the trump card: genuine universal suffrage and direct elections—the demands of the pro-democracy protestors—are impossible without Beijing’s consent.
So it is reasonable to assume that Hong Kong’s authorities will tolerate the protest and pray for its self-destruction until the end of the month. But after this grace period is over, things could turn very ugly very quickly.
The Chinese government is unlikely to give in to the demands of the pro-democracy protestors. Granting Hong Kong universal suffrage would not only be a humiliating loss for the Communist Party, it would also set a dangerous precedent that could encourage pro-democracy forces on the mainland to follow the example of Hong Kong’s students. The challenge for Beijing is to quash the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong in a way that does not bear any resemblance to the tragedy of Tiananmen in 1989.
If Beijing’s Machiavellian calculations are right, we could expect the leaderless student movement to lose momentum as protestors begin to disagree about their goals and as the effects of physical exhaustion and hardship take their toll. In the meantime, public opinion could turn against the protestors because of the seemingly benign tolerance of the authorities and the unreasonableness of the protestors and the disruption they have caused.
In this atmosphere, Beijing could organize counter-demonstrations, as it has on previous occasions. (After Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces held a huge rally on July 1, pro-Beijing forces orchestrated a march on August 17.) Should such counter-demonstrations take place, we cannot rule out violent confrontation between the pro-democracy forces and the pro-Beijing elements. Such an incident would provide a perfect excuse for the Hong Kong government to deploy a massive police force and crush the pro-democracy movement, all under the pretext of maintaining law and order.
If anything, the Communist Party has proved itself a formidable foe to those who believe that democracy is preferable to one-party rule. So the protestors in Hong Kong would be wise to have their own plan—just in case.
Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States