Many people view the current Hong Kong democracy movement as a confrontation between the people of Hong Kong and Beijing over universal suffrage and who controls the nomination. Not that many have realized that it also represents in-fighting within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself.
Regarding the in-fighting, Zhang Dejiang, the Chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, along with Hong Kong’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying (C.Y. Leung) lead one side. On the other side is China’s top leader Xi Jinping.
From the beginning, Xi has remained quiet on the Hong Kong issue. He has focused on his anti-corruption campaign. He recently took down two “big tigers,” Xu Caihou and Zhou Yongkang, both key members of the political faction of former CCP leader Jiang Zemin. Many media have reported that he is working on hunting down other heavyweights from Jiang’s faction and possibly even Jiang himself.
In spite of Xi’s silence, Zhang Dejiang and C.Y. Leung stirred up the Hong Kong issue.
Zhang’s NPC Standing Committee issued a White Paper on June 10. It interpreted the “One Country, Two Systems” structure as one in which the central government (meaning the CCP) has the final say over Hong Kong’s autonomy. This triggered the mass “Occupy Central” protest on July 1.
In response, on August 19, which is Jiang Zemin’s birthday, Zhang Dejiang organized an “anti-Occupy Central” parade. People from the mainland were bussed into Hong Kong. Some of them didn’t even know why they were at the parade. All they knew was that they got a free trip, a free lunch, and some money. One person, when asked why he was participating in the parade, mistook “anti-Occupy Central” (the Chinese sound is “Fan Zhan Zhong”) as “anti-war” (the Chinese sound is “Fan Zhan Zheng”) and replied, “I love peace. I am against war.”
Zhang’s NPC further escalated the issue on August 31 when it finalized the chief executive’s nomination procedure. It decided that the candidates must be nominated by a 1,200-member nominating committee that Beijing controls with a majority of the votes.
This triggered the large scale protest and the standoff between the police and students. Starting on September 22, students and other Hongkongers took the issue to the streets. They held protests in front of the government building and at a few other places. The police fired tear gas and pepper spray on the protesters. The protesters defended themselves with umbrellas. Hence, this democracy movement came to be called the “umbrella revolution.” On October 3, anti-Occupy Central activists, including triad members attacked the protesters while the police made little effort to stop them.
Step by step, Zhang and Leung escalated the Hong Kong issue to a crisis while the world watched, creating a big headache for Xi Jinping.
Initially, Xi may not have realized the severity of the trap. In a meeting with a Taiwanese delegation in September, he told them that China would use the “One Country, Two Systems” model to solve the Taiwan issue. What happened later in Hong Kong was a slap in his face.
Why is it a trap for Xi?
The Hong Kong issue has become a crisis that threatens the CCP’s survivability. If Xi does not handle it carefully, he might fall.
The CCP’s survivability is based on its ability to reign. It cannot tolerate a true democratic election in Hong Kong for the following reasons:
First, the Party has always wanted to control Hong Kong, not give Hong Kong more freedom and democracy. Remember the CCP’s attempt to push through Article 23 of the Basic Law?
Second, even if the Party is willing to give Hongkongers some freedom, it will not be an open nomination and election. In any real election, the CCP-backed candidates would be likely to lose. The Party would never accept the result.
Third, even if the Party were willing to give Hong Kong free elections and were able to handle elections in some way, it still would not yield to the protesters. If it were to yield, other groups in China would be encouraged and would also demand that the CCP yield. This would be the start of the Party’s nightmare.
So to the Party, Hong Kong can only have a “controlled” election under its will.
To protest its “core” interest, the Party might even approve the use of guns and tanks. China has grown substantially more powerful both economically and militarily than it was in 1989. Since it dared to carry out a massacre in 1989, what could stop it from doing so today? It can easily figure out that the consequences from the international community would be insignificant. If the Western world can’t take effective action to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, how could it take China’s internal affairs seriously?
As the Party has a tough stand on the issue, the trap to Xi comes from two sides.
If Xi settles with the protesters and decides on some softening of the CCP’s position, he will be criticized for selling out the Party’s interest and jeopardizing the Party’s survivability. He may even be removed from office.
If the situation continues to escalate and Xi ends up taking a hardline approach to smash the protesters, the world will blame him. Again, his political opponents within the Party can blame him for not handling the Hong Kong situation properly and push him out of office.
Therefore, Zhang and Leung created the crisis and used the Party’s survivability to trap Xi. Why did they do this? Both of them are in Jiang Zemin’s faction. As Xi is cleansing the Party of Jiang’s faction, they fought back against Xi by using the Party as a hostage.
Xi’s graceful exit is to resolve the issue peacefully without losing much ground. He needs to apply some political wisdom to get out of the trap.
As for the Hong Kong democracy defenders, since their democracy appeal conflicts with the CCP’s desire to control Hong Kong, their best chance of success is to encourage people inside the CCP system, including CCP officials, to forego the CCP’s interests for the sake of the long-term interests of China.