Dennis M. Sabangan / EPA

China's weakness on display in stalemate over Hong Kong protests

Holding pattern sets precedent for Beijing's response to instability on multiple fronts

October 8, 2014 6:00AM ET

For the past two weeks, the world has been riveted by massive street demonstrations in Hong Kong on the heels of a weeklong student strike. In the last couple of days, however, these pro-democracy protests appeared to be losing steam. Talks between activists and the Hong Kong government have yet to begin.

Though several Hong Kong districts were blockaded, the demonstrations’ real target was the Chinese leadership in Beijing. The Hong Kong government lacks the legal authority to make the changes that protesters demand, and everyone knows it. China’s leaders remain firm in their determination to postpone open nominations for Hong Kong’s elections for chief executive. No one wants to see the demonstrations violently repressed, but even though protesters are unlikely to be satisfied with what the Hong Kong government can offer, they are not strong enough to force more substantial concessions. This leaves the two sides at an impasse. But both should pause to consider longer-term goals and strategies — and Beijing must realize that how it deals with the Hong Kong protests sets a highly publicized precedent for its responses to other manifestations of instability around the country.

China's tied hands

A key Chinese objective under the “one country, two systems” policy is to keep the political and institutional distance between Hong Kong and the mainland from widening and, if possible, to help the two systems gradually converge as Hong Kong is integrated and the mainland proceeds with political reform at its own (according to critics, often glacial) pace.

What’s more, Hong Kong’s Basic Law is vague on exactly the points that are most in contention, precipitating a genuine constitutional crisis. Beijing has insisted that only a select committee will be allowed to choose candidates for the city’s chief executive in the 2017 election, even though thousands of local elections with open nominations are conducted (using a one-person, one-vote model) across China every year — but not above the village level. China is many years away from allowing open nominations and free elections for provincial governors (equivalent in rank to Hong Kong’s chief executive), though it could eventually get there.

Contrary to some reports, the Chinese government’s intransigence on the Hong Kong front is not a sign of strength or resolve but an indication of weakness. In China strong states bargain with protesters by offering concessions. Weak states resort to repression in an attempt to send a signal that they hope will deter other potential challengers. But the weakest local governments stand by and do nothing, waiting for higher levels to intervene. But there are some instances when those higher levels, in this case Beijing, cannot figure out how to respond or muster sufficient economic or political capital to do so effectively. This is when we see protracted stalemates, like those we saw a decade ago in workers’ protests across China’s deindustrializing northeast and not unlike what we are seeing in Hong Kong. Unable to give the protesters what they demand and (rightly) leery of employing a harsh signaling strategy on the world stage in Hong Kong, the central leaders’ hands are effectively tied.

Despite China’s massive investment in the instruments of a security state, myriad serious threats to stability continue to escape its grasp.

Such stalemates often facilitate attacks by violent nonstate actors, such as the gangsters who assailed protesters in Mong Kok, a Hong Kong neighborhood, over the weekend. Whether the thugs were working with city authorities, with hidden connections to Beijing, on behalf of local businesspeople or on their own, their presence highlighted the state’s inability to maintain control of the situation or preserve its monopoly on the means of coercion.

But the Hong Kong stalemate is not the only indication of state weakness lately. Uighur separatists have launched attacks against many Chinese cities, gun battles have erupted in various parts of Xinjiang, disruptive environmental protests have broken out from Xiamen to Chengdu, and massive coordinated labor actions and strikes have hit the world’s workshop in Guangdong. In nearly every case, the state has opted for forceful yet ultimately unsuccessful repression or has simply failed to respond. This despite China’s massive investment in the instruments of a security state: a nationwide network of surveillance cameras and human “grids,” Internet and telecommunication monitoring and blocks and the addition of tens of thousands of police and security personnel. Rarely has the fist of any government clenched as muscularly as China’s in the new millennium. Yet myriad serious threats to stability continue to escape its grasp. Hong Kong’s issues are intensely local, and there is little direct risk that the protests will spread to the mainland. But Beijing’s systemic weakness and palpable uneasiness are undeniable.

A way forward

Against this bleak backdrop, there is still a way forward (on which the parties appeared to be converging by Tuesday evening). The protesters should accept the Hong Kong government’s offer of dialogue in good faith, and the government must in turn engage in good-faith dialogue with the protesters. Chief Executive C.Y. Leung and other Hong Kong civic leaders must consult with Beijing to work out exactly what kind of concessions can be offered, and activists must appreciate that they are unlikely to achieve either Leung’s immediate resignation (though he still may step down before the end of his term) or open nominations for the 2017 election. Beijing can be flexible about the membership of the nominating committee, perhaps even inviting individuals recommended or respected by protest leaders to serve. Credible guarantees of true inclusiveness for the nominating committee, a promise to nominate no fewer than three candidates for chief executive in 2017 (rather than just two) and meaningful assurances of progress toward open nominations before 2022 — the earliest year it is likely to happen — would be real concessions that many of the protesters could probably accept as a victory. An agreement on such terms would strengthen the Chinese state and Hong Kong’s government as they move into a critical period over the coming years while keeping Hong Kong on an increasingly democratic path.

William Hurst is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. He is the author of “The Chinese Worker After Socialism” and a co-editor of “Laid-Off Workers in a Workers’ State: Unemployment With Chinese Characteristics.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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