Hong Kong's umbrella protesters have all but conceded defeat, and China is taking a victory lap. The showdown offers a glimpse of Beijing's new use of smart power, and its deeper weaknesses.
BEIJING — Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests are in their death throes. The Occupy Central movement that has been paralyzing part of the former British colony since late September is ending. Encouraged by the population's weariness, the government played the legal card to clear the main protest sites.
Even Joshua Wong, one of the die-hard leaders of the student democracy movement, ended his hunger strike on medical advice 108 hours after it began. Without jumping to conclusions regarding the future of the fight for democracy, the vast majority of protesters are now bitterly acknowledging that they've lost the first battle.
It's now time for the rest of us to draw a few conclusions. Keeping in mind that Hong Kong authorities have been agents of Beijing in this affair, the uprising is very instructive for China observers. Indeed, if part of Hong Kong's population is clashing with China's political system, the world's democracies must learn to deal with it. The more China continues to grow in power, the more crucial it becomes for our countries to know how to maneuver against this giant, which regards any form of outside opposition an intolerable interference.
Beijing has, first of all, demonstrated exactly what the Chinese strategy is. Instead of wasting its energy against the enemy, it waited for the protestors to make a mistake and grow tired. The real strategy was in not fighting back. Or rather, in carefully picking the right moment to win the battle without a sweat. This implies not doing anything, which is not always easy to do.
The Hong Kong government learned that the hard way. For a time, heavy-handed police intervention only reinforced the protesters' determination and galvanized the democracy movement. But when police became more passive, they won the support of the rest of the population. And when the students lost their cool over the past few weeks, they alienated those who still sympathized with their cause.
Beijing's let-it-rot tactic was beautifully played. The students should have retired quickly from the streets, ending on a high note with a symbolic victory. But instead they fell into a subtle trap.
True, China could only dare to use this strategy because it was certain to be the stronger side. It knew the protestors wouldn't tire unless faced with a rigorous, unwavering opponent. And for China, rigor is never demonstrative. Everything that is slightly too outspoken is suspicious. To prove its strength, Beijing prefers to show an unshakeable serenity, something that President Xi Jinping perfectly embodies.
Dismantling Occupy Central — Photo: Robin Moyer/ZUMA
For instance, instead of explicitly threatening Hong Kong with canceling the planned stock exchange link with Shanghai, something the whole financial community had been anxious for, Beijing let weeks go by without working on the project, so as to let a gnawing anxiety develop. There's nothing quite like stoicism to create tension and antagonism with the young rebels paralyzing the city's streets.
Cracks in the colossus
But on the other hand, the strategy has its limits. The Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect was eventually launched in November, but so far it's been a disappointment. The expected rush of foreign capital didn't materialize. Behind the technical explanations, there are indications that investors are growing concerned with China's economic situation.
In truth, beneath the surface of Beijing's unshakeable peace of mind lies a certain worry over the economic slowdown. Real estate prices are falling, and so are imports. The Central Bank lowered its interest rates, proof that the highest levels of power believe there's an urgent need to help companies that are dangerously indebted. This happened despite China's founding economic principle to put reform before growth. The slowdown has tested and showed the limits of the authorities' tolerance.
In a system that is characterized by lack of transparency, there is an undeniable risk. In the face of an increasingly difficult economic equation, Beijing knows that its most potent weapon is communication. As long as its official position is credible, the opposition that may arise here and there will eventually wither and disappear. For investors, Beijing's firm grip at the helm is enough to reassure them. For now.
But the whole structure is far less solid than it appears — because information is biased and one-sided as a result of censorship, because even listed stock market companies are known for liberal bookkeeping, and because official GDP statistics are questionable.
If armored vehicles took the streets of Beijing in 1989, it's because the regime's anxiety was there for all to see. It was quite the contrary in Hong Kong, first of all because Beijing wanted to avoid a similar storyline, but also because it knows that it's the stronger side. That's the lesson to be learned from Hong Kong's misfortunes. We absolutely must decipher China's PR and identify the system's weaknesses.
The only battles that are worth fighting against the Chinese colossus are those for which it knows it's weaker and where it's playing against time. For the rest, any lasting power struggle is already a defeat.