HONG KONG – President Xi Jinping’s uncompromising stance on limiting democratic reforms in Hong Kong marks a public show of strength that signals to the world — and China’s own citizens — that the ruling Communist Party won’t tolerate any challenges to its authority.
Xi incurred a rebuke from the U.S. government and the anger of pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong by insisting China effectively selects which leadership candidates people in the former British colony can vote for. The demands of even the most moderate advocates for greater democracy were rejected on Sunday as they were told to take it or leave it.
“Beijing has been quite obsessed with projecting a strong image to the world that it has a solid grip on power and its decisions mustn’t be challenged,” said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University. “Sometimes it looks more arrogant than strong, but the central government doesn’t care, because it would rather err on the side of looking strong than weak.”
From the jailing of dissidents at home to saber rattling against Asian neighbors over disputed islands and seas, Xi is showing an iron will that analysts say is to forge an image of a rejuvenated, powerful China that is intended to preserve Communist Party rule and lay the foundations for his own legacy.
Xi has a personal interest in Hong Kong affairs partly because he was the party’s top official in charge of policy for the city and for nearby Macau between 2007 and 2012. His intransigence on the election issue after months of talking with pro-democratic forces in the city left no room for negotiation, a posture that he has been adopting on domestic affairs and on the international stage.
“Xi Jinping is determined that China will keep Hong Kong within its own control,” said Wong Yiu-chung, head of the Department of Political Science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “He’s been tough on foreign policy. On the crackdown on corrupt officials he’s tough. And he’s tough on liberals and dissidents.”
China’s tougher-than-expected line shows the government has elevated Hong Kong’s stability to what it calls a “core interest,” which describes matters it regards as affecting national sovereignty and where it won’t compromise on its stated policy, according to Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing.
Other core national interests include Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and the South and East China seas.
“It sent a message, particularly to the U.S. and the U.K.: do not interfere with the 2017 chief executive election,” Shi said.
In Washington, a State Department official said in a statement that the U.S. supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong and that it would be “greatly enhanced” if the people get “a genuine choice of candidates representative of the voters’ will.”
According to Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, this is not the first time the two powers have taken hard lines with each other despite the risk of further straining their relationship.
“This is part of a pattern where China is very willing to do things that upset the U.S. and the U.S. is very willing to express its disapproval in pretty uncompromising terms.”
The risk to China is that its stance on Hong Kong prompts a mass sit-in by pro-democracy protesters, leading to potentially violent confrontations that feed domestic questions on the legitimacy of the Communist Party.
“I think they are worried,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. “They don’t want to take the risk of seeing Hong Kong becoming a place with more critical voices pushing for reforms in China itself.”
Promoting democracy for Hong Kong while denying its own citizens the right to vote in major elections is fraught with potential problems for China’s leaders.
Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of China’s legislature, which passed the law Saturday, was heckled by pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong on Monday as he told an audience that the plan for universal suffrage where a nomination committee vets candidates was a “historic milestone” in the city’s development.
State media, including the Xinhua News Agency, China News Service and broadcaster CCTV, echoed the message when reporting the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision for introducing “one man, one vote” for the election.
In an editorial, the Global Times, the sister publication of the state-owned People’s Daily, called Hong Kong’s radical opposition camp a “paper tiger” and warned against potential foreign interference, saying that “Hong Kong is not Ukraine.”
The decision also risked alienating people in Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory and which has been governed separately since the Kuomintang fled there in 1949 during the civil war with the communists. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said it “regrets” the trouble China and Hong Kong are having and hopes to see universal suffrage happen through rational, peaceful means.
China is seeking reunification with the island, while Taiwan’s government considers itself a sovereign state that includes mainland China.
“The nomination committee functions like a leash,” said Ding Xueliang, a professor of Political Science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “If Beijing loses this leash, Hong Kong would have a domino effect on other political issues Beijing faces: What if Taiwan declares independence under the impression that Beijing is incapable of controlling a city of only 7 million people?”