Hong Kong: Beijing's Plan; Attrition and Restraint

Published on September 30, 2014

Tomorrow, October 1, will mark the celebration of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and along with that national holiday, officials in Hong Kong are bracing for an even higher turnout in the massive street demonstrations that have gripped the city for the last five days.

Those demonstrations are the culmination of a growing protest against the announcement in August that the new system of universal suffrage for electing Hong Kong’s leadership after 2017 that was promised by Beijing on the handover of Hong Kong from British rule in 1997, will, as now envisaged, require candidates for the office of Chief Executive first be vetted by a “nominating committee,” presumably under the heavy oversight of Beijing.

Over these last few days students and other citizens have flooded the streets to join an already established “Occupy Central” protest movement, demanding an amendment of that vetting requirement, and with it now also demanding the resignation of Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive. Those protests culminated on Sunday in clashes with security forces that resulted in the use of tear gas against the demonstrators.

*** Beijing has been cautious not to antagonize this tense standoff further and is therefore attempting to avoid signaling any unnecessarily overt signs of heavy handed intervention in its Special Administrative Region. But from what we understand, China’s Vice President Li Yuanchao, a powerful member of the Politburo and close confidante of President Xi Jinping, was authorized on Sunday evening by Xi himself to call Hong Kong’s Leung to provide clear and explicit parameters for dealing with the protests. ***

*** As things stand, we are told there is little to no interest in amending or any prospect for compromise on the already announced process for the future selection of Hong Kong’s leadership. Beijing maintains the process is fully compliant with Hong Kong’s Basic Law and in fact more democratic than the current system, where the leadership is voted in by an “election committee” with fewer than 1200 members, with no popular vote at all. It remains to be seen if Leung himself is replaced as a gesture to the demonstrators, many of whom have turned the focus of their anger on his person as a symbol of Beijing’s influence, but that also seems highly unlikely from what we hear for now. ***

*** Beijing appears rather to be braced for a longer term standoff which it hopes can turn into a war of attrition it can win. The policy, after Sunday’s tear gas incidents, is to very deliberately avoid unnecessary confrontations or provocations that can escalate the situation further, and to position Beijing on the side of stability and prosperity with the hopes that the sudden surge in energy behind the movement may dissipate over time. Whether it will be successful remains to be seen, but this war of attrition is being carried out with a keen eye not just to limiting any damaging spillover of the Hong Kong protests to the mainland, but to unification prospects with Taiwan as well. ***

When it comes to concessions, Beijing and the leadership in Hong Kong will continue to reiterate that the new electoral process in indeed one that is based on universal suffrage and consistent with Hong Kong’s Basic Law, and that the nomination of the candidates will be by a committee that is purported to be, in fact, “broadly representative.”

Leung will continue to stress his role in maintaining peace and prosperity in the region, and the Occupy Central movement will not be legitimized through any talks or negotiations, despite its claims to being a non-violent civil disobedience movement.

By the same token, despite the presence of Peoples’ Liberation Army troops in Stanley Fort in Hong Kong, Beijing wants to send a clear message – while reserving the right to manage its own internal affairs as it sees fit – that there is no likelihood whatsoever of PLA involvement against protesters, and security operations in response to the protests will be carried out strictly by the HKSAR Police Authority.

The Police Authority have been prohibited from using guns but have been  given the go ahead to respond “appropriately” otherwise, which presumably may include further use of tear gas and other crowd dispersal techniques if needed.

And Beijing has expressed confidence that the police force of up to 20,000 officers will be able to manage any situation on its own, but the game plan is clearly to try and carefully avoid more serious clashes for now even while taking a hard line on the political demands. That, in turn, is hoped to settle into a more protracted strategy of diffusing the protests through time. We shall see.

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