The number one problem in Beijing is reestablishing the Communist Party’s unity after the purges, not the ex-colony. But, if political unity is not found, violent repression of the protests could result.
The most cynical people already know how the protests will end: they will dissolve, victims of forces stronger than them: fatigue, repression, and isolation. In the end, order will be reestablished and Hong Kong will go back to sliding into China’s grasp. “The factories will reopen, they’ll arrest some students,” sang Fabrizio De André. In any case, the demonstrators are not leaving. They’re braving the rain and tear gas.
They’re withstanding threats, and they don’t believe in blandishments. They even asked the local government to resign. They demonstrated an unexpected idealistic tension, tied to an acute realism. They know they can’t strike China, and they’re aiming at its guardian, Governor Leung Chunying (called “C.Y.”). It will be difficult for Hong Kong to persist in chaos; it found its raison d’etre and prosperity in the rule of law, its exposition abroad, and the regularity of its business.
The most open analysts, intellectually curious, and networks specializing in breaking news hope that the protests will continue. The administration of Hong Kong is also their goal, and they hope the protestors’ umbrellas defeat it. They think that a negotiated solution might be possible and, therefore, that the students, Occupy Central, and the Catholic religious authorities be not only agreements but also represent the majority of the population. They think that in the end Beijing will have to come to terms and save the ex-colony’s diversity, that China cannot intervene because it can’t afford a repeat of Tian An Men while the world is watching. These assessments are nobler, but they probably confuse dreams with reality.
One has to look at Beijing to understand what will happen in Hong Kong. It’s unlikely that China will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. The city is still a first-rate financial center, a destination for tens of thousands of tourists, and a target for the Mainland’s investments and IPOs. It’s useful, realistically accepted, and in the process of being duplicated in other Chinese cities along the coast. In 1997, when its colonial period came to an end, Hong Kong was worth 16% of China’s GDP, but today it has fallen to 3%. For the protestors, the stakes are maintaining Hong Kong’s diversity, but for China it’s progressively trivializing the province. Therefore, they’re living in an unbalanced relationship: they put up with each other, but they surely don’t love each other, also for cultural reasons. Hongkongers see the Mainland Chinese as “locusts” that ransack their grocery stores and don’t respect their civil laws; according to the Mainlanders, the residents of the special administrative region are “servants of imperial Britain.”
What will Beijing do? Most likely, it will let C.Y. Leung disentangle the situation. This is also his job. The question of Hong Kong cannot be handled by the central government because it’s not a matter of national interest. Democracy is not in discussion, only public order. If this were not the case, if the local police was insufficient to repress the protests, completely new scenarios would unfold leading to unpredictable outcomes. Hong Kong cannot and should not become a political case. During the national holiday on October 1st, Secretary Xi Jinping imposed unity among the communist party. In other times, it would have been the prelude to tanks. Now, it serves to hold the line after huge anti-corruption purges.
China needs a stong leader that knows how to demonstrate unified leadership and how to resolve problems. If his authority grows, he will tend toward neglecting Hong Kong. The strong he is, the better he will proceed to modernization. Instead, if he proves weak, he will need to flex his muscles. In that case, Hong Kong will return to being an example and the military will be asked to move the heavy machinery.