Beijing needs to change tack in wake of Hong Kong elections

THE STRATEGIST – Make no mistake about it; Hongkongers’ overwhelming vote on 24 November was a clear and unequivocal repudiation of Beijing and its appointed government here in the territory. It was a rejection of police abuses and repression, and an irrefutable popular endorsement of the demands of the protesters, if not their violent tactics.

But all spin aside, there is no mistaking that the pro-China bloc in Hong Kong took a drubbing of monumental proportions. The only question remaining is how Beijing’s communist rulers and their anointed minions running Hong Kong will respond to this expressed will of the true silent majority. The choice is either reform or further repression.

For many who know China and its rulers, the clear answer is repression—and they recall the brutal crackdown of June 1989, when troops of the People’s Liberation Army crushed the last major pro-democracy uprising by massacring hundreds, if not thousands, of young protesters who had occupied Tiananmen Square. The Tiananmen massacre, which Beijing has attempted to erase from the collective consciousness ever since, stands as a testament to how far a tyrannical autocratic regime will go to maintain power.

But another, more recent event in China offers a parallel path, showing that when faced with a challenge to its authority, China’s rulers can also be adept at accommodation and compromise to defuse a crisis. Instead of Tiananmen Square in 1989, I am thinking of Wukan in 2011.

Wukan is a small fishing hamlet in southern Guangdong Province where, in late 2011, villagers fed up over the seizure of their land revolted, chased communist party officials and police out of the village, and took control of the local government.

Rather than move in with force to crush the village uprising, the central government eventually sent in the provincial party secretary of Guangdong, Wang Yang, who was seen at the time as a leading economic reformer. Wang made significant concessions to resolve the weeks-long uprising, including freezing some of the land deals at the heart of the dispute, releasing jailed villagers from custody and sacking some recalcitrant local officials.

In other words, the central authorities admitted that the local officials had erred, launched an investigation and basically ceded to the protesters’ demands.

It was a pattern I had seen often while covering China as a correspondent from late 2009 until 2013. For example, when faced with a series of labour strikes and widespread worker unrest in 2010 and 2011, Chinese authorities responded first with the police, sparking violence clashes, but eventually urged localities and provinces to raise the minimum wage for workers. The unrest was soon defused.

In 2009, a 19-year-old man named Sun Zhongjie, working as a driver for a construction company, was fined for operating an ‘illegal taxi’ after giving a lift to a man who flagged him down on the road. The Shanghai traffic police were running a sting operation against unsuspecting motorists, and Sun—fined the equivalent of $2,000 and fired from his job—made a dramatic public declaration of his innocence by chopping off his little finger. After Sun’s case sparked an uproar on social media, he won his case and didn’t have to pay the fine, and hundreds of other drivers who had been ensnared in the scheme received refunds.

Since the Tiananmen massacre and the advent of the internet, China’s authoritarian rulers have held to power with far more than just the barrel of the gun. They have become adept at keeping track of public opinion through a vast network of monitoring centres at universities and state-run news agencies, following all the trending discussion online and trying to steer local officials to defuse potential crises before they erupt.

Of course, there are major differences between the situation in China now and even a few years ago. President Xi Jinping, who has eliminated term limits, effectively allowing him to rule for life, seems far less interested in compromise and concessions than his predecessor Hu Jintao. As seen by his actions in Xinjiang with the internment of a million Uyghurs in concentration camps, Xi seems more interested in ruling through power and fear than negotiation.

Also, since that relatively open 2010–2013 period, Beijing’s stifling of the internet has been nearly complete. Weibo, once a freewheeling platform for debate, is a shell of its former self. Online dissent can be more quickly snuffed out. The media is more strictly controlled than ever. Even virtual private networks used to bypass the censors are more difficult to use.

But that crackdown on the internet and the media brings its own problems for China’s leadership— like leaving them unaware of the depth of popular discontent in Hong Kong.

There has been some informed speculation that China’s leaders, and particularly Xi, were unpleasantly surprised by the outcome of the Hong Kong vote and the overwhelming defeat of the pro-China camp. According to this widely held view, officials in Hong Kong were assuring Beijing that a ‘silent majority’ was opposed to the protests and backed the government and police.

One thing that has become certain over the years is that China’s rulers do not like to be surprised.

With the depth of dissatisfaction in Hong Kong now made abundantly clear at the ballot box, China and Xi now face a choice—whether to double down on repression or listen to the people and opt for a new course that will require some compromise.

The contours of the compromise have been apparent for months. Hapless Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her incompetent cabinet and advisers must go. An independent commission must be empowered to investigate the violence and excessive force used by the Hong Kong police against the protesters. A ‘truth commission’ must probe the causes of the unrest and offer amnesty for any protesters who didn’t injure anyone or cause serious property damage—and that would mean releasing most of the thousands arrested on ‘rioting’ charges.

And finally, Beijing needs to respond to the people’s clear aspirations for autonomy by announcing a relaunch of the long-stalled political reform process, with a promise to eventually allow all Hongkongers a vote on their leader.

Whether Beijing will choose the reform path remains to be seen. Like with the change to the opening and reform policy in 1979, China’s communist leaders have shown they can deftly shift positions and adapt when they need to. And in Hong Kong right now, shifting and adapting is what they clearly need to do.

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Beijing needs to change tack in wake of Hong Kong elections