As China's National Day approaches, Hong Kong protests cast a shadow

Why We Wrote This

As Beijing watches Hong Kong’s protests, what does it see? In part, a threat to the Communist Party’s – and the country’s – hard-won image of stability. 

Jorge Silva/Reuters
A protester protects himself with an umbrella during a demonstration near Central Government Complex in Hong Kong Sept. 15, 2019.

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Oct. 1, China’s National Day, is an opportunity to showcase the Communist Party’s strength. 

But this year, there may be some rain on Beijing’s literal parade.

In the last two weeks, pro-democracy demonstrators have booed the national anthem and burned Chinese flags, even waved American flags and the Union Jack. More protests are planned for Oct. 1 – an embarrassment to Beijing. But they also feed the party’s view that China faces a series of escalating risks, and must aggressively combat efforts to undermine its system. 

Beijing has described protesters as “thugs” conspiring with “black hands,” as activists seek support from Western countries. But as the movement persists, leaders have adopted a new strategy of “divide and conquer,” aimed at driving a wedge between peaceful and violent demonstrators. 

The crisis poses unique risks for Xi Jinping, who has centralized power to a degree not seen since Mao Zedong.

“By collapsing the boundary between the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping himself, Xi has gotten himself into a very messy situation with regards to Hong Kong,” says Charlie Lyons Jones, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “If the protests don’t subside before the anniversary of the 70th year of the People’s Republic, then that could be seen as a significant failure.”

China’s leaders plan to celebrate 70 years of Communist Party rule on Oct. 1 with a huge military parade showcasing tanks and missiles, a pageant of flag-waving youths, and a speech by party General Secretary Xi Jinping. But they are unlikely to stop a ragtag contingent of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong from raining on Beijing’s parade. 

In Hong Kong, demonstrations against the party’s encroachments on local autonomy are planned for National Day. As China’s flag rises over the territory to the strains of the national anthem, some citizens are likely to boo – as they did when the anthem played at a World Cup qualifying soccer match last week – or sing the ballad of their protest movement, “Glory to Hong Kong.” Already, this Sunday, protesters burned Chinese flags and ripped down banners congratulating the party for 70 years in power. Meanwhile, some waved American flags and British Union Jacks.

The clash of symbols and narratives could embarrass Beijing on a day meant to highlight the party’s success in modernizing the nation of 1.4 billion people. But it also feeds into the party leadership’s mantra that China faces a series of escalating risks – from the U.S.-China trade war and slower economic growth to unrest in Hong Kong – and must aggressively combat efforts to undermine its system and thwart its rise as a world power. And the crisis poses unique risks for Mr. Xi, who has purged rivals and centralized power to a degree not seen since Chairman Mao Zedong.

Warning of “unthinkably challenging” tests ahead, Mr. Xi stressed in a speech earlier this month that young officials must prepare for a long period of “struggle” – using the word scores of times in the speech at a party school. Doubling down on his priority of strengthening party rule, Mr. Xi used military metaphors to call for an “absolute determination to fight … any risk or challenge that endangers China’s Communist Party leadership and the socialist system” or “harms China’s sovereignty, security and development interests,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Hong Kong’s mass protests have been denounced as a threat to China’s sovereignty by Chinese officials and the party-run media, which describe the demonstrators as “radicals” and “thugs” terrorizing the city and conspiring with “black hands.”

Beijing’s warnings against foreign interference are growing as Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists have sought support from Western countries, including the United States, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers are advancing a bill – the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act – that would give the U.S. government tools for pressuring China to uphold Hong Kong’s promised autonomy.

“We are expecting this [bill] to be passed within this year,” said Nathan Law, one of several prominent Hong Kong activists who on Tuesday launched the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a nonprofit organization in Washington advocating for Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” model established in 1997, when China reasserted sovereignty over the former British colony.

“Now is the time for the free world to stand in solidarity with Hong Kong,” said Joshua Wong, a student leader during the 2014 Umbrella Movement who has been jailed repeatedly for his activism.

Hong Kong’s protests were triggered this spring by a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed individuals to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the party. The bill, since withdrawn, was seen as a threat to the rule of law in Hong Kong and part of an overall tightening of China’s grip on the territory. Protesters’ demands have expanded to include an independent investigation of police violence, amnesty for protest-related arrests, and universal suffrage.

Xi “on the defensive”

Mr. Xi has recently been hailed in party propaganda as “The People’s Leader,” with “leader” a title of high esteem previously used for Chairman Mao. But his unparalleled stature also means singular responsibility for both successes and failures.

“By collapsing the boundary between the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping himself, Xi has gotten himself into a very messy situation with regards to Hong Kong. There are few off-ramps if any, and Xi Jinping, I suspect, will have to shoulder some of the blame, if not all of it, himself,” says Charlie Lyons Jones, who researches China’s Communist Party and military at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank in Barton, Australia. 

“If the protests don’t subside before the anniversary of the 70th year of the People’s Republic, then that could be seen as a significant failure, not just for the Chinese Communist Party but for Xi Jinping himself,” says Mr. Lyons Jones. 

China watchers say Hong Kong is one of several issues that have stirred internal dissent against Mr. Xi’s hard-line approach. “It has put Xi Jinping on the defensive,” says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, saying that Mr. Xi was already facing criticism from moderates for mismanaging the trade war, stalling economic reforms, and removing term limits for China’s presidency, an office he also holds.

Change of strategy

Both Beijing and Hong Kong’s leadership initially took an uncompromising stance toward the protesters’ demands, based on what Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam later admitted was a miscalculation of the depth of opposition to the extradition bill. 

“We were not sensitive enough,” Mrs. Lam told a private gathering of businesspeople last month, a recording of which was leaked to Reuters. Mrs. Lam admitted there exists a “huge degree of fear and anxiety amongst people of Hong Kong vis-à-vis the mainland of China.”

“The protesters have demonstrated more resolve than the Chinese Communist Party has, so the initial strategy of not acquiescing to the protesters’ demands seems to have backfired,” says Mr. Lyons Jones. “Xi Jinping is left with very few options on the table.”

Beijing moved to soften its stance toward Hong Kong, backing Mrs. Lam in announcing on Sept. 4 that she will formally withdraw the widely unpopular extradition bill. Meanwhile, Beijing modified its strategy, adopting a “divide and conquer” approach aimed at driving a wedge between peaceful and violent demonstrators.

“They think they can substantially reduce the popular support for the protests, then the people using force can be isolated, and … the authorities can use even stronger force to crush them,” says Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Signaling this shift, a spokesman for China’s government office that oversees Hong Kong affairs, Yang Guang, stressed at a press conference that “many young students are involved in peaceful procession gatherings” in contrast to “a small number of thugs” and “militants” who have committed “horrendous acts.”

Since midsummer, clashes between Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists and Beijing supporters have been increasingly breaking out, such as at a Kowloon Bay mall on Saturday. 

Uncertain impasse

Still, experts question whether Beijing’s modified approach will succeed, especially given the widespread concerns in Hong Kong about escalating police brutality amid more than 1,400 arrests.

Hong Kongers’ aspirations for greater self-government make it likely that some level of protest will continue, while rising nationalist sentiment among mainland Chinese leaves Beijing disinclined to approve more concessions, analysts say. The impasse, they say, could have a greater impact on China’s future than Beijing’s leaders appreciate.

“The situation now is a bit dangerous, and everyone has to handle it very carefully,” says Yik Chan Chin, lecturer in media and communications studies at the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China.

Mrs. Lam’s leaked comments alleviated fears – stoked by widely publicized Chinese troop maneuvers and official warnings – that Beijing was preparing to use emergency powers to dispatch People’s Liberation Army troops to try to quell the demonstrations.

“They know that the price would be too huge to pay,” Mrs. Lam said on the leaked tape. Beijing’s leaders “are willing to play long ... so you have no short-term solution. Hong Kong suffers” economically.

“Maybe they don’t care about Hong Kong,” she added. “But they care about ‘one country, two systems.’ They care about the country’s international profile.” 

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