Rush Job: Did Xi Jinping Overplay His Hand on Hong Kong?

Surya Gangadharan New Delhi 19 June 2019

At the height of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing 30 years ago when the People’s Liberation Army cracked down on its own people, the Indian government’s response was to instruct state-run broadcasters Doordarshan and All India Radio to reduce coverage of that tragic event. No official comment of any kind was deemed necessary.

Cut to the demonstrations in Hong Kong over the last week; it was a seminal event for the former British territory, a massive and largely voluntary mobilisation by its citizens concerned over Beijing’s steady encroachment into their lives. Again, no comment from India with government sources telling SNI it was an “internal affair”. The point is not whether India was right or wrong. In both instances, the government of the day made a considered judgement based on what they saw as “India’s interest”.

Would India’s stance have mattered to the million demonstrating in Hong Kong’s streets? Unlikely. It’s not that they were fighting for the independence of Hong Kong from China’s control and were seeking external support. They did not want their government to adopt a Beijing-backed extradition law which could have been used against them and the freedom they enjoyed.

Professor Madhu Bhalla, a New Delhi-based academic specialising on China, also points out: “Hong Kong is a financial hub, its fortunes are tied to the dynamic Chinese economy and the business generated in the mainland. So beyond a point, the demonstrators would not have wanted to endanger that.”

They went home on Tuesday even though their last demand, that Hong Kong administrator Carrie Lam resign, has not happened. This is not to say the demonstrations will not resume. Nevertheless, an important point has been made, that Hong Kong’s seven million-plus people will defend the Basic Law signed by China at the time of the handover of the territory from Britain to Beijing in 1997. The Basic Law enshrined the “One country two systems” philosophy propagated by late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, whereby Hong Kong would retain its British institutions and freedoms for 50 years. But President Xi Jinping appears to be in a hurry, and the push for the extradition law was seen as a deliberate attempt to go back on those commitments.

So is this a defeat for President Xi? “It’s a defeat and humiliation for his representative Carrie Lam,” says Jayadeva Ranade, who runs an independent think-tank on China in Delhi. “Beijing has kept quiet letting her carry the can but this has implications for the region notably Taiwan, where the sentiment against any takeover by China will only grow stronger.”

“There are domestic implications for President Xi,” says Prof Bhalla, “people are waiting for him to blunder. Opposition to him has been growing since he removed any limits to his tenure as president in March last year. His centralisation of power is unprecedented and seen as not good for the party and the public. The surveillance machinery coming up all over China could even enter homes.”

The only word from Beijing so far on the demonstrations is the claim that they were inspired by “foreign agencies”. It’s hard to imagine any foreign agency being able to mobilise a million people on the streets. The claim clearly is a reflection of Beijing’s paranoia. The leadership knows Xinjiang is simmering after the incarceration of thousands of Uyghurs and the curbs on their faith. Tibet is another concern.

Even so, Bhalla believes Xi Jinping is in no immediate danger. He has the backing of the party and could ride out this defeat, his first. But it comes at a delicate time when he is locked in a trade war with the U.S., the economy is slowing and there is the push back against his Belt & Road Initiative is gathering strength. He can’t afford more missteps.

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