Could the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong spread to the mainland? The choices taken by the Chinese Communist Party could have long-term implications.
Hong Kong is seething. But no, this does not mean that all Hongkongers are rising up in pro-democracy protests against Beijing. Hong Kong's entrepreneurs, some of whom are worth billions, are showing solidarity with China's leaders. There's a good reason why Beijing has made partners of these rich elites: They all have business interests in China, and no doubt they can be bought or blackmailed.
What's more, the coalition — which is remarkable only at first glance — shows what China's Communist Party, formerly a vanguard of the disenfranchised, has become. Not long ago, a Beijing delegation informed Hong Kongers that they unfortunately couldn't guarantee the desired democracy because it is Beijing's job to safeguard "capitalism" in Hong Kong.
Even if Beijing is serious about that, protecting capitalism and protecting its richest representatives are two different things. Hong Kong in particular is a good place to observe how bad governance can slowly break a former model of efficiency, constitutionality, and free and fair enterprise.
When school kids and university students boycott their classes, when the good people of Hong Kong take to the streets, it is because they feel betrayed. Beijing doesn't want to keep the promise it made in 1997 when Hong Kong was returned to China — the promise of free, general elections.
But it's not just an abstract love of democracy and idealistic demands that are driving Hongkongers into the streets. It is the concrete experience of the past few years. They feel they are being miserably governed. Beijing appoints marionettes as government heads, and they are beholden to the Communist Party, not Hong Kong's citizens. Encroaching nepotism and corruption have by now become widespread. Real estate tycoons will get a hearing, but not the simple citizen. Social inequality has increased inordinately.
It's a David-and-Goliath fight. Beijing has the power, and Beijing has the arms. The question is going to be just how wisely it reacts. Everything is possible. On other fronts, Chinese President Xi Jinping's leadership is currently showing a frightening lack of willingness to compromise. In Hong Kong, his administration's harsh rhetoric and threats have in the past few months mobilized citizens and turned a whole generation of young people into opponents. It is the young people who are driving the protests.
It's worth asking what's driving the Communist Party, which is in the process of making itself new enemies for several decades to come. And what is it capable of? Is there the threat in Hong Kong of the sort of violence seen in 1989 in Beijing's Tiananmen Square? The answer will depend on just how contagious Beijing believes the protests can be. Hong Kong has in the past been a test lab for China, and that's exactly what the Communist Party now fears.