President Xi Jinping has made a lot of enemies at the helm of China’s Communist Party, and they could use the slightest misstep in his handling of the Hong Kong protests for electoral freedoms as an opportunity for payback. Analysts say Xi’s position in the opaque politics of the ruling party is more precarious than it seems from the outside, and his potential vulnerability further complicates the challenges of responding to a stubborn democracy movement that drew thousands on China’s National Day.
Although Xi is the party’s top leader, without the support of key factions in its 25-member Politburo — the country’s primary executive decision-making body — he risks a sort of political paralysis not unlike the gridlock in Washington with President Barack Obama and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
While the Communist Party holds a monopoly on power in China, at the very top — behind closed doors — it operates by consensus.
“The person at the top has a lot of say,” said Lynette Ong, a political science professor and China expert at the University of Toronto. “But he also has to consult extensively with a wide range of people. His decision is important, but he has to weigh the opinions of the hard-liners and the liberals.”
Given the stakes for China’s leadership — which worries that being too accommodating to the protesters risks sending a sign of weakness that could invite other restive regions to press their own causes but fears the consequences of any violent showdown in Hong Kong — achieving a Politburo consensus on handling the crisis would be a tough challenge under the best circumstances. For Xi, however, the legacy of his sharp-elbowed rise to the top could make matters even more problematic.
Xi has used his office to mount an anti-corruption campaign that has unseated powerful officials as well as the heads of major companies, including scores of previously untouchable state-owned enterprises. His crusade comes after numerous calls from the ruling Communist Party’s elder members to root out crippling corruption, which one noted economist told Al Jazeera costs the People’s Republic 10 percent of its gross domestic product annually and threatens to bring simmering popular resentment against the party to a boiling point.
But some China watchers say the graft campaign has focused largely on those rumored to be Xi’s adversaries in the party, reflecting a bitter power struggle behind the scenes.
And although he has been described as a hard-liner, Xi is by no means untouchable.
“Xi Jinping is China’s No. 1. That doesn’t mean he’s strong,” said Gao Wenqian, senior policy adviser with international advocacy group Human Rights in China. His rivals in the political elite are “gathered around, intently waiting for the slightest misstep.”
If Xi mishandles Occupy Central in Hong Kong — either by sparking chaos through a violent crackdown on the demonstrations or by appearing weak in an apparent compromise — it could hurt him politically and in terms of his legacy.
Gao cited the example of Deng Xiaoping, the leader who succeeded Mao Zedong and led China on the path of economic reform that turned it from a developing country into the world’s second-largest economy but who fell from grace after the 1989 massacre that ended the Tiananmen Square protest movement. “Deng Xiaoping opened many doors for China,” said Gao. “[But] when blood was spilled on June 4, it was all over.”
If avoiding bloodshed and its economic aftershocks is a priority, so too is avoiding sending a signal that civil disobedience can effectively wrest concessions from Beijing.
“China can block the Internet, [but] everyone in [the southern business hub cities of] Shenzhen and Guangzhou can watch Hong Kong television,” said Richard McGregor, author of a comprehensive book on Beijing’s leadership, “The Party.” “So any concession in Hong Kong can easily have a spillover effect.”
“The political culture in China simply does not allow for any leader to even appear to tamper with issues of sovereignty for them to find a flexible way out,” he added.
Some analysts like Ong suggest that reverberations from Hong Kong could reach farther than Shenzhen, as far as the western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, where ethnic tensions have long been a perceived threat to Beijing’s rule.
But Choy Chi-keung, a government professor at Chinese University in Hong Kong, said that’s not very likely. “The government structure of Hong Kong is different from Xinjiang and Tibet,” he said. Hong Kong still enjoys at least a nominal “high degree of autonomy” from Beijing, according to an agreement signed in 1997, when Britain returned the territory to Chinese rule.
Taiwan — the territory China’s leaders have long promised could enjoy a similar degree of autonomy promised to Hong Kong if returned to Beijing’s control — is a more analogous circumstance, Choy said. Beijing’s handling of Hong Kong’s electoral process has likely dashed hopes of convincing Taiwan that it could keep its democratic system in a reunited China.
“Beijing has told Taiwan, ‘You can preserve all your democracy, your freedoms’ … No one believes that” after Occupy Central, said Gao.
Although the odds that Hong Kong’s challenge will spill over into China’s other hot spots seem relatively long, authorities in Beijing appear to be taking no chances. China’s heavily censored media have published scant information on this week’s events in Hong Kong, and terms related to the demonstrations have been blocked from the social media site Sina Weibo.
China’s beleaguered minority ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang are unlikely to have their views of Beijing affected one way or the other by the Hong Kong situation because their region has seen far more intense and violent confrontations with the state. Watchers of China’s Uighur-language media told Al Jazeera that they have seen nothing about Hong Kong over the past week.
It was “highly unlikely” any Hong Kong movement would inspire Uighurs because Xinjiang’s “situation is vastly different from Hong Kong’s,” said Swedish-based Uighur rights advocate Dilxat Rexit.
For Xi, though, the handling of the restive populations on China’s periphery — from Tibet to Hong Kong — presents not only a long-term challenge of statecraft but also a short-term challenge of maintaining his authority in Beijing’s corridors of power.