In Hong Kong, China’s leaders are confronted by an old truth, familiar to more securely established governments, that with power comes responsibility. There is no doubt Beijing has the brute strength to crush pro-democracy protests in Britain’s former colony. Equally, there is no doubt it would be irresponsible and self-defeating to do so.
Satellite images of motorised units of China’s People’s Armed police holding drills across the border in Shenzhen last week have heightened a sense of foreboding among demonstrators, who have nevertheless been on the streets again this weekend. This threatening build-up is accompanied by shrill warnings of grave consequences from officials and state media.
China’s intensifying propaganda offensive is apparently intended to pre-emptively convince a watching world that any action it may take to quell the unrest would be justified. Maybe it hopes to convince itself, too. For weeks, Chinese media ignored the Hong Kong turmoil. Now, everybody in China knows what is happening – and what is at stake.
Perhaps for this latter reason, a fake narrative has been confected, intended to mislead public opinion. It is claimed, falsely, that the demonstrators are a violent, subversive minority, that they are “terrorists” and that they take orders from foreign “black hands”, meaning the US, Britain and Taiwan. These are the chimeras of a paranoid state.
This sense of rising insecurity at the top, coupled with evident uncertainty over what to do, was inadvertently confirmed last week by Liu Xiaoming, China’s unusually undiplomatic ambassador to Britain. He warned that China had the power to stop the protests and would not indefinitely “sit on its hands and watch”.
But Liu offered no suggestions about a peaceful way forward. Instead, he took a lazy swipe at unnamed British politicians who, he said, cling to a “colonial mindset”. This was an instructive choice of words, given that China’s high-handed behaviour in Hong Kong since 1997 carries more than a whiff of that same objectionable colonialism.
The stakes are indeed high. In question now, by some estimates, is the authority of China’s president for life, Xi Jinping. Under renewed scrutiny, thanks to the pro-democracy focus of the protests, is the unelected, arguably illegitimate nature of the Communist regime and its increasingly illiberal hold on Hong Kong.
The implications for China as a whole, where social unrest is more common than is often supposed and where an economic slowdown is causing hardship, are surely not lost on Xi and his fellow cadres. Donald Trump’s inane intervention, linking a “humane” solution to a US trade deal, further confuses the issue.
Lest it be forgotten, China fiercely opposed the limited democratic reforms championed by Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor. Since taking over, Beijing has gradually tightened its political grip. In 2003, it provoked large-scale protests by trying to enforce a treason and subversion law. Its unbending resistance to pressure for greater democratic choice brought more trouble in 2007 and 2014. There has also been a spate of highly publicised cases of apparent human rights abuses.
Concerns about an extradition law proposed by the chief executive, Carrie Lam, have brought these unresolved issues back to the surface, reinvigorating a broader movement to defend Hong Kong’s freedoms. Meanwhile, harsh police tactics have produced just demands for an independent inquiry and the release of people arrested since June.
It should be clear to cooler heads in Beijing that this post-1997 legacy of rising discontent and disenchantment, and the party’s failure to deal with it, lies behind the current turmoil. If they are honest, they will admit, too, that while there is sympathy for the demonstrators in western capitals, the idea of a wicked foreign conspiracy is mere fantasy.
This problem is of China’s own making – and it is China’s to resolve. Typically, authoritarian governments like Beijing’s, lacking a democratic mandate, cannot tolerate opposition for fear it will expose their innate weakness. A similar state versus people stand-off has paralysed Moscow in recent weeks.
China must overcome its fears. The only sensible, mature way forward is to forswear the use of force, stop shouting and begin an open-ended, unconditional dialogue with its critics. It’s what strong, responsible leaders do.