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Geopolitics

Hong Kong Protests And Xi Jinping's First Big Failure

The Chinese leader may officially defend the idea of 'one country, two systems', but in fact his management of the crisis in the archipelago is in total contradiction with this principle. And the protests continue to grow.

Aug. 18 protests in Hong Kong
Aug. 18 protests in Hong Kong
Frédéric Lemaître

-Analysis-

The demonstrations that have been taking place in Hong Kong for more than two months are Xi Jinping's first major failure since coming to power in 2012. It is difficult to hold the Chinese president responsible for the trade war triggered, for many reasons, by Donald Trump. But Beijing is clearly responsible for the events in the semi-autonomous territory.

At the last Communist Party Congress, in October 2017, the Chinese number one was very clear. "Since Hong Kong and Macao's return to the motherland, the practice of "one country, two systems' in both regions has been a resounding success," he explained. The leader went on to call it "the best solution" to the conundrum and "the best institutional guarantee for the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macao after their return."

And yet, less than two years later, it is precisely because they feel that this principle is not being respected that the people of Hong Kong are rebelling against Beijing. How did it come to this?

Clearly, neither Xi Jinping nor his local representatives were able to see the warning signs of this crisis. In March, Han Zheng, first deputy prime minister, expressed confidence: "The political atmosphere in Hong Kong is changing, and for the better." What he meant is that the memory of the 2014 umbrella revolution had faded, or so he thought.

How did it come to this?

In fact, the exact opposite has happened. For the people of Hong Kong, frustration and resentment against power is growing. Not only does Xi Jinping's China not grant them the universal suffrage to which they aspire, but it also curtails their freedoms at every opportunity, not hesitating to use subterfuge to invalidate the election of opposition deputies, abduct opponents in Hong Kong who are then found in Chinese prisons, or expel a British journalist who had the misfortune of chairing a press conference with an independence political leader.

Faced with a Chinese power bent on limiting freedom, and a local executive power that defends Hong Kong's interests less than it carries out Beijing's orders, a spark is enough for anger to explode.

A comedy of errors

The spark, as it turned out, was a controversial extradition bill that was quickly rolled out — an error on top of an error — and would allow extraditions to mainland China not only of Hongkongers, but also foreigners to mainland China.

For the Hong Kong people, this reform calls into question the very foundation of their city's identity: respect for the rule of law, meaning the famous British "rule of law," to which they are so attached. In their view, the proposed reform is the proof that Beijing, despite Xi Jinping's rhetoric, does not intend to wait until 2047 — as China agreed to do when the megalopolis was returned by London in 1997 — to impose its law and put an end to the principle of "one country, two systems'.

July 7 protest in Hong Kong — Photo: Geovien So/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Unless you are cynical and imagine that Xi Jinping caused the current crisis or intends to exploit it to accelerate the recovery of this rebel city, his handling of the crisis has been nothing less than sequence of absurd decisions.

After failing to achieve anything despite its obvious popular success, the protest movement became explicitly anti-Beijing. On top of that, the demand for universal suffrage — which did not appear during the first demonstrations in June — is now one of protestors' five official demands. As a result, in the span of just two months, a minor bill, probably drafted by a handful of short-sighted bureaucrats, turned into a major crisis for the world's second leading power.

Procrastination and propaganda

And it's not over yet. After a month of procrastination, Beijing presented its response the week of Aug. 5: It reiterated its support for Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive; called on businessmen, "patriots' and local politicians to step into line; green-lighted increased police repression; and issued explicit threats to companies and Hong Kong residents who participate or even simply support the anti-Beijing demonstrations.

Moreover, the propaganda that until then had reduced the protest now amplifies it. Chinese audiovisual media are even starting to produce "fake news' worthy of Russia Today. Above all, the Chinese must not be able to identify with the Hong Kong people. The focus is therefore on the violence (which is in fact minor), on the alleged desire of the Hong Kong people to proclaim independence, and on a supposed Western plot behind it all.

The gap between Beijing and Hong Kong continues to broaden, and quickly.

It doesn't matter that the American president, Donald Trump, has only contempt for those he calls "rioters." While this propaganda seems to be effective among the Chinese population, it only reinforces resentment towards China among the people of Hong Kong.

Not only is the gap between Beijing and Hong Kong wider now that at any point in memory, but it continues to broaden, and quickly. While Xi Jinping claims to want to "build a community of destiny for humanity," the Hong Kong crisis reveals, on the contrary, a leader unable of building bridges even among the Chinese.

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