Uprising against Beijing's grip may harden Xi Jinping's resolve to squelch dissent

President Xi Jinping has not publicly commented on the protests in Hong Kong.
President Xi Jinping has not publicly commented on the protests in Hong Kong.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - Since he took power seven years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping has faced mass protests in the streets of Hong Kong, a trade war that has sapped China's strength, and a growing din of foreign condemnation over his government's human rights record.

Yet again and again, instead of moving towards compromise or change, Mr Xi and his subordinates have made hardline decisions that have compounded and complicated pressures on the ruling Communist Party. They have stood by those decisions even after they have blown up into unexpected crises, like this week's tumultuous demonstrations in Hong Kong against a plan to allow extraditions to mainland China.

"Xi Jinping has been a very good student of Machiavelli - it's better to be feared than to be loved," said Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan from Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of China Tomorrow: Democracy Or Dictatorship?.

Mrs Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's Chief Executive, has said she decided to pursue the extradition law herself, without any prodding from Mr Xi or other Chinese leaders. But several senior Communist Party officials have endorsed the proposal, and it is clear that Mrs Lam's move would please Mr Xi's government, which wants greater influence over the city.

Beijing appears to be hunkering down for confrontation. The chances of a retreat by the authorities in Hong Kong seem low, because succumbing to public pressure would show them "in a poor light at a time when Xi Jinping wants to assert his authority", said Prof Willy Lam, a political analyst who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

In some ways, each crisis makes it less likely that Mr Xi will compromise during the next one because every new challenge feeds an official narrative that China's foes are circling and the country must dig in. Early in the trade war with the United States, for example, some in Beijing tried to use the conflict to coax Mr Xi into adopting market-friendly policies that the party has resisted, Prof Cabestan said.

"Now with the level of friction and tensions with the US, it has, on the contrary, played in favour of Xi Jinping as a nationalist, so everyone should toe the line," he said.

 
 

And that also makes concessions in Hong Kong less likely. Under such conditions, subordinates like Mrs Lam seem more committed to demonstrating loyalty to Mr Xi and his authoritarian agenda than pushing options for compromise, several experts said.

After a day of clashes between protesters and the police in Hong Kong, the legislature on Thursday delayed its consideration of the extradition Bill, and protest leaders called on the public to keep up the pressure on the government with more protests this weekend.

The proposed legislation would for the first time allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, with only limited safeguards. Mrs Lam has argued that the legislation is needed to close a loophole that has allowed people to evade justice and made Hong Kong a safe haven for criminals.

But the pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong says the measure would accelerate the erosion of civil liberties in this former British colony, which was granted a high degree of autonomy when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Many residents are sceptical of the Chinese mainland's courts and police forces, which are controlled by the party and have a long record of abuses. They are worried that Beijing will use the new extradition powers to target political dissidents and others in Hong Kong who run afoul of Chinese officials.

Mr Xi has not publicly commented on the protests in Hong Kong, and he left China on Wednesday (June 12) on a previously scheduled trip to Central Asia. But the party-controlled news media has accused opponents of the legislation of acting as stooges for foreign enemies trying to foment disorder and humiliate and weaken China.

"The radical opposition in Hong Kong is not seeking the greater good of all of Hong Kong society, but instead is being driven by selfish political interests to gang up with foreign forces hostile to mainland China," Global Times, a widely read nationalist news outlet, said in an editorial. "Hong Kong residents must grasp clearly that these forces are trying to swindle and mislead them."

Such denunciations echo the views of Chinese officials who believe that hawks in the US are determined to challenge China on every front to thwart its rise as an economic, political and military superpower. The rhetoric of confrontation may make it harder for Mr Xi to explore compromise.

"It is during the Sino-US trade war; therefore, it will be understood as an act of playing the Hong Kong card by the United States," law professor Tian Feilong at Beihang University in Beijing said of the protests in Hong Kong.

 
 

Even before the crisis in Hong Kong, Mr Xi appeared in no mood for concessions to opponents at home or abroad. For much of the past year, he has been preoccupied with a spiralling trade fight with the Trump administration, which some critics say he has mismanaged and perhaps exacerbated.

Mr Xi has also presided over a prolonged crackdown on both official corruption and political dissent. The anti-corruption drive appears to have reduced official graft, but the pressure for conformity has also stifled policy debate among officials and academics.

In Xinjiang, a region of north-west China, Mr Xi has presided over a sweeping drive to wipe out resistance among Muslim minorities, whom the government has cast as reservoirs of potential terrorism. Hundreds of thousands, and possibly more, have been interned in indoctrination camps that have been condemned by human rights groups, United Nations experts and Western leaders say.

"I suspect there is a certain feeling of being under siege at the moment," said Mr Ryan Hass, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who formerly served as director for China at the National Security Council. "Xi's response to uncertainty is to grip the reins of control ever harder."

Mr Xi might yet nudge Mrs Lam to delay the extradition Bill or even abandon it if the crisis worsens and the economic costs prompt members of Hong Kong's pro-Beijing business establishment to break ranks, as some did during a similar showdown in 2003 in which half a million people marched against proposed national security legislation in Hong Kong. The authorities withdrew the Bill soon afterward.

But such an outcome would be unusual for Mr Xi, and perhaps risky, because it would pierce the hardline reputation he has cultivated and used to reinforce his authority.

"Walking the Bill back would send a powerful signal to other groups on other issues that the party will back down in the face of public pressure," said Mr Jude Blanchette, China practice lead at Crumpton Group, a geopolitical risk advice firm based in Arlington, Virginia. "This is not a message Xi nor the party in general wants spread."