On October 1, China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China with national celebrations and an impressive military parade. The very same day, a high schooler was shot by Hong Kong police amid the worst turmoil the city has seen since it became a part of China in 1997. The stark contrast between the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power in the mainland and Hong Kong’s democratic revolution point to the weaknesses inherent in China’s increasingly authoritarian regime.
Hong Kong’s unrest began in response to a proposed extradition bill that would have made it possible for Hong Kongers to be taken to mainland China to be prosecuted under Chinese law. Its potential to erode Hong Kong’s independent legal system struck directly at simmering feelings that the city’s unique rule-of-law system was under attack by the Chinese government.
When Great Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, the Chinese government agreed that it would be ruled by its own system of law for fifty years in an arrangement called “one country, two systems.” However, the institutions underpinning Hong Kong’s liberties have been eroded over time. Efforts by Beijing to outlaw subversion against the central government, promote pro-regime attitudes in schools, and bring the Hong Kong government under its control have made Hong Kong’s legal independence seem tenuous at best.
Carrie Lam’s anti-extradition bill unleashed long-held anxieties about Hong Kong’s future. As the protests have continued for the past four months, the demands have grown from simply removing the anti-extradition bill to demanding a full-fledged democracy. In response, Carrie Lam formally withdrew the extradition bill, yet protests continue and have become more violent every weekend.
Throughout the crisis, the Chinese Communist Party’s ominous threats of intervention weigh on the minds of protestors. Party rhetoric has been sometimes aggressive, setting the stage for a crackdown from either China’s military or paramilitary police units. So far, the regime has stayed its hand for various reasons.
If the Chinese government were to directly intervene in the protests, it would likely be the end of Hong Kong as we know it. Its reputation as one of the financial centers of the world would collapse, as businesses and investment would flee to safer harbors. The Chinese government would have to expend tremendous resources quelling anti-regime sentiments for years to come. Perhaps most importantly, military intervention by the CCP would shatter China’s reputation abroad and accelerate an incipient backlash against China’s growing international influence.
Other explanations for restraint suggest that the Party has not cracked down because of its confidence in its long-term prospects in the city. First, Chinese leaders believe that while the protesters are fighting for democratic values, skyrocketing costs of rent and stagnating wages are the driving forces behind the crisis. The Party has cultivated an extensive influence network of business tycoons and CCP loyalists on the ground throughout the city that it believes will buttress the regime’s support, no matter what the protesters do. As a result, the CCP may think it can reduce rents and other costs of living and watch the crisis calm over time.
While mainland China is currently allowing the Hong Kong police to deal with the protests, the crisis is still a direct threat to the Communist Party’s legitimacy. As a one-party state, its claim to power rests on the belief that the Party has absolute authority over all matters of the nation. Every chant for freedom is perceived as a direct threat to the regime’s control over China. As a result, the Party has resorted to various measures to ensure Hong Kong’s revolution doesn’t spread to the mainland.
The crisis has prompted the regime to lean on nationalist rhetoric and centralize political control. State-controlled media has taken increasingly bellicose stances. News from the mainland regularly accuses the United States of being the “black hand” behind the protests and depicts Hong Kong as an angry toddler refusing to listen to the Party. A state-backed news outlet released the personal information of an American diplomat in Hong Kong, forcing a public response from the U.S. government.
Beyond nationalist media, the Party has also increased Xi’s grip on power domestically. Over the summer, the Communist Party held its yearly Beidaihe summit, during which the Party elite make important political decisions for the year. According to inside sources, Xi left the meeting having gained the honorific title of “People’s Leader,” further consolidating his power. Most recently, Xi announced a new phase of the battle against domestic opponents to his rule, foreshadowing another possible chapter of his famous “anti-corruption” campaign.
Crucially, the protests point to wider issues plaguing authoritarian systems like China’s. The central government has little space for the kind of conciliation that would be required to end the protests peacefully. Domestically, China’s Leninist political system shows little flexibility or creativity in shoring up its hold on power. Xi continues to take the same path that he has taken since his ascendance to power in 2013–aggressive nationalism and centralized authority. Faced with crises, authoritarian systems often fall back on tightening their hold on power at the top. Ideological zeal and hyper-centralization may prove to undermine China’s miracle ever since reform began forty years ago.