Hong Kong: 10 things Xi Jinping might be thinking

  • 28 September 2014
  • From the section Asia

Tensions are rising on the streets of Hong Kong. Back in Beijing, what might China's leader be thinking about the scenes on the streets?

1) 'I brought this on myself'

Beijing gave Hong Kong democrats not even a fig leaf of cover over the rules for nominating election candidates. Some warned that there would be trouble, but Xi Jinping clearly decided facing down protests now was preferable to risking the emergence of a local leader with real legitimacy. Today is the inevitable consequence of last month's announcement from the Chinese parliament about restrictions on universal suffrage, but it is also a direct political challenge to Beijing - and therefore a defining test for China's promise on one country, two systems.

2) 'I have to win'

Image copyright AFP
Image caption China's leaders will not want to give in to the protests

Two years since coming to power at the head of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping has amassed unrivalled personal power and made it clear that it's he who makes all the decisions that matter. His anti-corruption campaign has made him powerful internal enemies, and they are biding their time and waiting for him to make a false move. So what happens in Hong Kong is about more than Hong Kong. The demonstrators want Beijing to reverse the rules on elections but Xi Jinping will not want to back down, nor can he afford to.

3) 'Idealistic students our Achilles heel again'

The middle-aged academics who lead the Occupy Central movement are easier for Beijing to predict and pre-empt. The real threat is the university students who started their class boycott last Monday saying they wanted to stand up and be counted, even if Beijing remained deaf to their demands.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Xi Jinping believes in strong leadership to tackle China's ills

Through its uncompromising stance on electoral reform, China has distilled an opposition movement with a clear sense of purpose - no small feat from a constituency normally focussed on their books and career prospects. By the weekend, the students were still making their voices heard, despite pepper spray, kettling and the detention of their leaders. At which point their elders in the Occupy movement felt they had to muster their own masks, goggles and biscuits and jump on board.

4) 'The tail will not wag the dragon'

As of Sunday afternoon there is a news blackout on the Hong Kong demonstrations in the rest of China. Beijing does not want its citizens getting ideas. There are 7.2 million people in Hong Kong and there are 1.3 billion on the mainland. Xi Jinping needs to show both groups that he is in charge of the script.

On the mainland, an overtly political demonstration would have been broken up within minutes. Hong Kong is different by virtue of the one country two systems formula, which guarantees it autonomy and freedom of speech. But a colour revolution is one of Beijing's worst nightmares and images of idealistic young Chinese citizens with placards and yellow headbands present the Chinese government with a "damned if I do, damned if I don't" dilemma.

Put pressure on the Hong Kong police to act tough and thereby risk provoking more citizens to come out in support of the students? Or play it low key and risk emboldening the more cautious democrats to conclude that it's safe to join in after all?

5) 'Find me the key to Hong Kong hearts and minds'

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The security forces have a tough role to play to keep the situation from spilling out of control

It's difficult to know whether to cajole, threaten or charm at this point. But the key constituency is the public. Beijing will try to persuade Hong Kong's citizens to stay home by painting the protesters as dangerous hotheads and warning that the economy will suffer. But if Beijing is to win this battle for hearts and minds, it will have to hold its nerve and let the demonstrations play out with light-hand policing. Something it finds hard.

6) How many police cells do they have in Hong Kong anyway?

About 500 I believe - but Xi Jinping will know better than I. This demonstration is unauthorised and therefore illegal. The Hong Kong police could try to arrest everyone. But once the cells are full, there's nowhere obvious to put them. So this demonstration has a tipping point below which exhaustion, pepper spray and the threat of jail may drive the protesters home, but above which safety in numbers and the sight of fresh joiners may generate their own feedback loop and harden defiance.

7) 'How dare they fling Deng Xiaoping in my face?!'

The demonstrators have laid claim to the legacy of the Chinese Communist patriarch, who died just before Hong Kong's return to China in 1997 but who negotiated the handover with the British 30 years ago. A strange choice of patron saint given that it was Deng Xiaoping who ordered troops to quell the student democracy protests in Beijing in 1989.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption There is a media blackout in mainland China over the Hong Kong protests

But Hong Kong's democrats point out that it was Deng Xiaoping who came up with the "one country, two systems" formula which guarantees Hong Kong's way of life for 50 years. By that stage, they say, he believed China would be more liberal and the ideological gap would have narrowed. If he did believe that, he was wrong. Xi Jinping's China is moving in the other direction, towards ever firmer one-party control. And if Deng Xiaoping was looking down now, I'm not confident he'd be cheering on the demonstrators.

8) 'Let's blame the foreigners'

In the weeks running up to Hong Kong's protests, China's representatives have increasingly claimed that the democrats are being whipped up by foreigners who wish to damage Hong Kong's stability and prosperity and to use the territory as a bridgehead to subvert the mainland.

Over the weekend, pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong published allegations that 17-year-old student leader Joshua Wong had links with the American government. But the US and UK governments have tried to keep out of the argument, and it's hard to see how subverting the Chinese government would be in their interests anyway. The real problem for Beijing is foreign ideas rather than foreign governments.

9) 'I didn't get to where I am today by backing down. I won't start now.'

The Chinese president is reported to have said that the reason the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 was that no-one "had the balls to stand up for it". Since coming to power two years ago, it's become increasingly clear that he sees himself in the patriarch mould and believes robust leadership is the answer to China's ills. Hong Kong listen up.

10) It's shaping up to be a lousy birthday

This weekend a fresh new portrait of Chairman Mao was hung on Tiananmen Gate in preparation for China's National Day. 1 October is the 65th anniversary of China's communist revolution, a moment when Chairman Mao declared: "The Chinese people have stood up" and the crowd cheered for real.

Sixty-five years later, Xi Jinping leads a very different party and country. Rich, yes. Powerful yes. But on its 65th birthday, the People's Republic of China has no unifying message beyond xenophobic nationalism. Xi Jinping urgently needs to define his "China Dream" in a way that inspires his fellow citizens, whether in the mainland or in Hong Kong.