Hong Kong’s stunning show of people power this week dealt what may eventually be a fatal blow to the city’s leader Carrie Lam, who faces more protests Sunday after backing down on a Beijing-friendly bill that would allow extraditions to China for the first time.
But the biggest loser could be further to the north. President Xi Jinping just saw hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets on Chinese territory to effectively say they had no faith in the mainland’s system of governance — one he has pushed as a model for other strongman regimes around the world. Even worse for Xi: It actually worked.
China’s leader is currently engaged in a trade war with the U.S. that is evolving by the day into an
ideological battle: Democracy vs authoritarianism, market-led vs state-managed economies, and free speech vs reeducation camps. By hitting the streets en masse, Hong Kongers showed they didn’t trust the city’s dominant Beijing-controlled lawmakers to protect them from the mainland’s legal system, which ultimately answers to Xi’s Communist Party.
“What’s really at issue is people’s distrust in the Chinese judiciary and its legal system,” Claudia Mo, one of the most outspoken opposition lawmakers and a main protest organizer, said in an interview after Lam spoke. “As long as things remain the same as they are in China, nothing is going to change.”
For Xi, it comes at a terrible time. In the Trump administration’s push for the world to
reject Huawei Technologies Co.’s equipment in 5G mobile networks that will fuel the modern economy, the U.S. is essentially making the same argument: China can’t be trusted to uphold the rule of law. The topic is set to loom over the Group of 20 meeting in Japan later this month, with Trump threatening more tariffs if Xi doesn’t meet him.
“It is a blow to Xi and he will try to pin the blame on others — be it poor decisions by the Hong Kong government or foreign agitation,” said Dennis Wilder, managing director of the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University and former senior director for Asia on the National Security Council.
“Perversely, I think it makes getting a trade deal with Washington that much more important to Xi and the Politburo,” he said. “They will need to restore business confidence in China, and the most effective way to do that is to lower the trade tensions with the United States.”
American lawmakers have been vocal about the Hong Kong protests, even
threatening to remove special trade privileges if the bill passed, showing that broader relations with China will almost certainly be a key 2020 election topic. While Trump himself was relatively subdued, his administration has pounded China in recent months for human-rights violations in Tibet, Xinjiang and Tiananmen Square on the 30th anniversary of its deadly crackdown.
Apparently Xi didn’t ask for this fight. Lam has insisted it was all her idea, even though mainland officials supported it. Either way, it appeared to backfire spectacularly on Beijing: It showed just how many people in the financial hub wanted to keep the autonomy guaranteed for 50 years after the handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Saturday praised “the brave citizens who have stood up for their human rights.”
“It’s amazing to see,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, who teaches U.S.-China relations at Hong Kong Baptist University. “Trust in the Chinese government has gone down instead of increasing.”
After protests turned violent on Wednesday, with dozens injured by tear gas, rubber bullets and batons, Lam had few good options. Her move Saturday to back down on the bill proved better than risking even greater violence to push forward a measure that clearly had very little popular support.
“We will adopt the most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements so that we can continue to protect the people of Hong Kong,” Lam told reporters Saturday.
In many ways, the episode is similar to Hong Kong’s resistance in 2003 to a sweeping national security law that would’ve given Beijing even more powers than the extradition measure. Lam was aware of the controversy when she took office, and
vowed ahead of her appointment in 2017 “to be very careful in sort of taking on an issue which has a very strong potential of splitting the society again.”
Yet China has further tightened its grip over the city since she took office. Authorities have banned a party advocating Hong Kong’s independence and barred some pro-democracy lawmakers. A draft law now under consideration would criminalize disrespect of the Chinese national anthem.
That pent-up anger spilled over with the extradition bill. Protest leaders are now planning to push ahead with another massive march on Sunday to call for Lam’s resignation. She has vowed to stay on, insisting that the principle behind the bill was good while admitting failures in communication.
“I can’t see how Carrie Lam can get a second term,” Jimmy Sham, one of the main protest leaders, told reporters after her announcement. “She managed to get one million people in the streets.”
What this all means now for Xi is unclear. China’s foreign ministry quickly issued a statement supporting Lam’s move while noting that “Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability is not only in the interests of China but also in the interests of all countries in the world.”
At the same time, spokesman Geng Shuang took a dig at any western politicians who may want to gloat, saying “no country, organization or individual has the right to intervene” in Hong Kong’s affairs. On Friday, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned the U.S.’s deputy mission chief in Beijing to push back against “irresponsible” remarks American officials had made in support of the protesters.
Hearts and Minds
A bigger problem for Xi over the long term is the suspicion among Hong Kong’s young people, many of whom turned out in droves to participate in the protests. Like many residents of Taiwan, whose leader backed the protests, they show just how ineffective leaders in Beijing have been at winning the hearts of minds of people they view as compatriots whose territory must be reunited with the mainland.
Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu lashed out Saturday at Lam for saying the island’s reluctance to try a murder suspect who she cited as the impetus for the bill removed any urgency to pass it. In doing so he suggested Beijing’s system championed by Xi wouldn’t win out over time, calling on Lam to “Embrace democracy & stand on the right side of history!”
“I imagine that China’s leaders are both angry about and fearful at what had happened in Hong Kong this past week,” said George Magnus, an economist at the University of Oxford’s China Center and author of “Red Flags: Why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy.” “They certainly don’t want large Chinese cities to erupt like this, let alone face the music of having to use brute force or the People’s Liberation Army to quell it.”
— With assistance by Shawna Kwan, David Tweed, and Shuping Niu