In a June 1997 interview at the Mandarin Oriental overlooking Hong Kong’s Central district, Margaret Thatcher deflected worries over the Crown Colony’s impending reversion to China with breezy unconcern. A local journalist had asked whether the Communist Party, eight years out from a bloody televised crackdown in the streets of its own capital, could be trusted to honor an international agreement like the Sino-British Joint Declaration and its untested “one country, two systems” formula. Lady Thatcher handbagged the host. “Go through that Joint Declaration, look at the freedoms it guarantees, use that Joint Declaration to raise these points with your Chief Executive! … Because that’s what they have to live up to, because that is a treaty … registered with the United Nations. Use the powers you have to see that it’s lived up to. China … knows that she will be judged in the eyes of the world.”
Late last month, a citizens’ coalition led by Hong Kong students and academics looked at the freedoms they were guaranteed and took to Hong Kong’s streets to raise their concerns with their Chief Executive. The world watched. Four weeks later, they have shown more staying power than anyone, including themselves, imagined—but they are still outmatched by the Communist Party, snubbed by foreign governments, undercut by much Western press coverage, and reliant on local politicians’ clumsy missteps for new leases on life.
In reading Hong Kong, Beijing’s rulers hold two key advantages over Western governments and news outlets. First, the Party has decades of experience calling Westerners’ bluffs on “human rights.” Second, the Party has decades of experience weighing public moods at home and abroad and calibrating responses to preserve its monopoly on power.
When Britain bowed out of Hong Kong on June 30, 1997, the Chinese Communist Party inherited a political liability and an economic boon. Looking and feeling like a city-state with its own currency, police, courts, free press, and legacy of social protest, Hong Kong came with no shortage of worrisome deviancies. But the world-class financial center also offered China’s elites huge benefits: under “one country, two systems,” state-owned enterprises could raise capital on a world-class stock market, sign contracts under a respected legal system, build a global springboard for the Renminbi, and afford Party bosses a discreet offshore haven to park fast-accumulating assets.
From day one, image management was critical. PLA trucks rumbled triumphantly over the border as dawn broke that July 1—a domestic propaganda windfall—but have stayed inconspicuous in their garrisons since. Despite some menacing hints, Beijing has never invoked the Basic Law’s vague “security” exceptions to “one country, two systems.” The global business community consensus on Hong Kong remained consistent: despite its political irritants, the Party can’t stomach killing the “golden goose.” At least not yet.
Nor, with savvy and a bit of luck, will they have to. Away from the arc lights and cameras of downtown Hong Kong, where fluctuating thousands of protesters—mostly students from upper-class backgrounds—are still camped out, Beijing and its local allies have placed their chips on Hong Kong’s silent majority: the less educated, less cosmopolitan, less media-savvy middle and lower classes who make up most of Hong Kong’s 7 million people.
Officially, there is no Communist Party in Hong Kong—given that most Hong Kongers descend from the Revolution’s traumatized refugees, it likely wouldn’t be well received. Yet blandly named pro-Beijing parties like the “Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong” dominate the political scene, routinely beating authentic suffragist candidates in open elections for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s mini-parliament. (Just to make sure, Beijing stacks the deck using the quota of unelected Council seats allocated to industries like banking and real estate, whose tycoons cozied up to the Party before the 1997 handover.) Beijing’s local allies are disciplined, well funded, focused on citizen services like health checks and legal advice, and enjoy solid grassroots popularity.
Most pollsters agree that had Beijing kept to both the letter and spirit of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and allowed an open election, Hong Kongers would have likely elected a pro-Beijing candidate to the Chief Executive post. But the Party, a paranoid and illiberal organization, judged even these slim odds too risky, opted instead for a closed election process, and wagered it could weather the backlash, as it has the annual Tiananmen and July 1 protests.
Beijing and its local allies have placed their chips on Hong Kong’s silent majority: the less educated, less media-savvy middle and lower classes who make up most of Hong Kong’s 7 million people.
The backlash—in the form of Occupy Central—was more dramatic than expected, however, and in its obsession with control, the Party lost it—but only briefly. The September 28 tear-gassing of protesters, which threatened to pull moderates off the fence, was not Beijing’s order. Such an escalation of force went by a Western-style policing playbook inherited from the Royal Hong Kong Constabulary and recently on view in Ferguson, Missouri, with equally provocative effects. In the Party’s eyes, tear gas billowing into foreign news cameras signals incompetence and indiscretion—a police force too used to polite, orderly protesters and out of its depth at the first hint of disarray. (The Wall Street Journal and New York Times have since documented Beijing’s efforts to advise behind the scenes.)
Mainland China itself is roiled by thousands of “mass incidents” each year, offering vast datasets for social scientists in Beijing’s elite universities; these protests are usually divided, conquered, and smothered with well-rehearsed authoritarian finesse. Since Tiananmen, the Party has come to invest sums greater than its annual defense budget in a sprawling apparatus for “stability maintenance”: surveillance, nonlethal riot gear and tactics, a spectrum of detentions classed from “soft” to “hard,” and a finely honed sense of whom to bribe, whom to jail, and whom to disappear. Grievances must be kept local and economic; political reform is never on the table.
Such tactics are impractical in Hong Kong, where Beijing affects a light touch to give the Chief Executive’s government some credible autonomy. Instead, the Party has long cultivated a dense underbrush of informants and allies through organs like the United Front Work Department. The United Front’s guiding policies flow from candid four-character aphorisms like “encircle politics through commerce,” and its toolbox is versatile. Prominent Hong Kongers visiting the mainland on the United Front’s junkets, or simply routine business, know to watch their conduct. Journalists, lawyers, and other potential troublemakers, if issued travel permits at all, are heavily surveilled and sometimes entrapped—a useful precaution should, say, sexual blackmail someday help mitigate a muckraking human rights story in Hong Kong’s uncensored press. But most of the time, a demographically targeted blend of economic inducements and nationalist blandishments suffice to sway enough Hong Kongers towards sympathy, or at least skittish neutrality.
The last Sunday of September, as images of umbrella-wielding protesters drew foreign correspondents from around the globe, the United Front Work Department and a galaxy of other official and semi-official bodies—the People’s Political Consultative Conference, the All-China Hong Kong-Macau Study Association, the Party’s Publicity Department, and others—had already mobilized to ensure enough Hong Kongers kept one key article of faith: that they had more to lose by joining protests than sitting on the sidelines.
In a city with a long history of protests but little of civil disobedience, the months preceding the current eruption left its organizers facing accusations of recklessly endangering Hong Kong’s economy and rule of law. Even foreign banks were seen as cajoled by China into feeding the narrative that the protests threatened economic havoc. Meanwhile, Party-aligned papers fed a steady stream of anti-Western conspiracy theories to the “15 percent or so of the population that are hardcore nationalists,” according to Michael DeGolyer, a professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, who has studied and lived in Hong Kong for decades. Counter-demonstrations were organized. Even innocuous information was spun and leaked to discredit leaders like teenager Joshua Wong.
When student protests kickstarted Occupy on September 26, social media quickly filled with misinformation and seeded mistrust. Social media postings circulating among older and more conservative Hong Kongers claimed to show protesters spoiling for a fight, prepared with umbrellas and cling-wrap, intending to provoke tear-gas attacks.
Hong Kong has a worsening inequality problem, but as long as the blame is pinned on local leaders and not their Party patrons, few residents will channel their economic woes into street protests against Beijing. The Party’s strategy aims to keep it that way. If it fails, protest leaders can thank tone-deaf local officials like Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, who in a rare interview this week disparaged poor Hong Kongers’ ability to govern themselves. Nor have the worst-case economic scenarios come to pass. Protesters’ polite behavior may have even given civil disobedience a better name; this week saw the first poll to suggest that more Hong Kongers may support Occupy than oppose it.
For a minority movement, Occupy Central is setting a high-water mark for Hong Kong’s civic consciousness and may yet extract some back-channel concessions.
For a minority movement, Occupy Central is setting a high-water mark for Hong Kong’s civic consciousness and may yet extract some back-channel concessions. Its achievements should dispel the myth that Hong Kong is a politically apathetic “cultural desert” whose citizens care only for money. Considering the cynicism of a month ago, even a stalemate may count as a victory.
As multiple front-page editorials in the People’s Daily (the main Party mouthpiece) attest, the Politburo is too paranoid to tolerate any public political concessions. While delicately managing the situation in the streets to avoid making any such concessions to Occupy, Beijing is also buttressing its popular support in mainland China by forging a new nationalism amenable to anti-Western conspiracy theories. Chairman Xi Jinping, in particular, takes a dim view of glasnost-style reform and its cheerleaders in foreign media and governments.
Nearly a month later, Hong Kong has mostly slipped off the front pages. The Western media crews are packing up. The coverage they’ve left behind, of an attempted “revolution,” has become Exhibit A for the propaganda ministry’s spin doctors in tarring protest leaders as “anti-China” “black hands” of shadowy Western forces. Albeit believed by only a credulous few, the smear will exert its desired effect on many: irradiating activists as too “controversial” for most local media coverage or business support, essential protest oxygen. Vulnerable protest leaders have already distanced themselves from the “revolution” label, even quoting the mainland’s Constitution in their debates with government officials.
This crisis will hopefully never live up to its breathless billing as the Party’s worst “since Tiananmen.” (The 2012 Politburo rift and fall of Bo Xilai, which flirted with military mutiny and sent a frisson of credible coup rumors through the élite, was a more perilous tremor.) The Party is not a monolith, but on Hong Kong democracy, its top leaders are in the same boat, and their handling of Occupy Central has so far largely hewed to the Central Committee’s main policy aphorism: bu tuoxie, bu liuxue (no compromise, no bloodshed).
If Occupy does manage to extract tangible concessions from local officials, it will have achieved more than expected. But if it convinces ordinary Hong Kongers that their economic interests are aligned with democratic reforms rather than challenged by them, then Occupy will have won a more lasting victory still.
Nick Frisch worked as a writer and policy researcher in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Beijing. He is now a Chinese studies doctoral student at Yale University.