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Pro-democracy protesters gather outside the campus of the Hong Kong Baptist University Pro-democracy protesters gather outside the campus of the Hong Kong Baptist University in Hong Kong, Nov. 13, 2019 (AP photo by Vincent Yu).

China’s Leaders and Hong Kong’s Protesters Are on a Collision Course

Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019

Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, WPR Newsletter and Engagement Editor Benjamin Wilhelm curates the week’s top news and expert analysis on China.

“Our society has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown,” Hong Kong’s senior police superintendent, Kong Wing-cheung, told reporters Tuesday, amid a week of citywide paralysis due to strikes and heightened violence. Street clashes between police and protesters turned deadly last week, when a student protester died after falling from a parking garage amid a standoff with police. But the death, the first of a protester after months of antigovernment demonstrations, has only further inspired the pro-democracy movement.

Chinese authorities aren’t budging, though, as the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday restated its refusal to compromise with demonstrators. Hong Kong’s protesters are on a collision course with Beijing, and there’s no off-ramp in sight.

Once a refuge for student protesters, university campuses in Hong Kong became battlegrounds Tuesday. The most intense clashes took place at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where police tried to storm the campus but were pushed back by student protesters armed with bricks, gasoline bombs and flaming arrows. Tensions were compounded Monday when a police officer shot a 21-year-old protester from point-blank range. The same day, protesters set a 57-year-old man ablaze, apparently over an argument about China. Both men remain hospitalized.

The escalation in violence has been accompanied by a general strike, which shut down public transportation and major roads across Hong Kong on Wednesday. The streets of the central business district rang out with chants of “save our students!” as office workers protested during their lunch breaks. Schools suspended classes for Thursday, and some universities, including the Chinese University of Hong Kong, have called off classes for the remainder of the fall semester. Amid intense anti-China sentiment in the semiautonomous territory, Hong Kong police said that dozens of mainland Chinese students, fearing for their safety, have been evacuated across the border to Shenzhen.

“Hong Kong’s problem is not about human rights or democracy,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang said at a news briefing Wednesday. “Rather, it’s about stopping violence and chaos, restoring order.”

Following the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee meetings last month, the Chinese government published a resolution that, though short on details, indicates how it might go about restoring order in Hong Kong. The resolution “intends to change the process for appointing Hong Kong’s chief executive and key officials, and reform the system governing how the Chinese National People’s Congress Standing Committee interprets the Basic Law,” according to Minxin Pei, a China scholar at Claremont McKenna College, in a column for Project Syndicate. The Basic Law is Hong Kong’s de facto constitution. The authorities in Beijing, Pei argued, “have decided effectively to abandon the ‘one country, two systems’ model” that has governed Hong Kong since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.

In the short term, Hong Kong’s government may impose a curfew using the same colonial-era ordinance it invoked last month to ban face masks at public gatherings. But protesters have largely ignored that order, and it’s unclear how the curfew would be enforced.

Beijing likely remains reluctant to deploy security forces to stamp out the protests, given the memory of the 1989 military crackdown in Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong’s importance as a global financial center. As Howard French put it recently in his WPR column, with a crackdown in Hong Kong, “China’s golden backdoor will be bolted shut.” But with neither China’s leaders nor Hong Kong’s protesters willing to budge, the situation could only get worse. More “violence and chaos,” as China’s Foreign Ministry put it, could play into Beijing’s hands. And according to Pei, “that may well be what China’s leaders want: an excuse to deploy security forces and impose direct control over the city.”

Top Reads on China

Why China-Brazil ties will withstand Bolsonaro’s presidency: When Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, many observers worried that his harsh criticisms of China would damage the two countries’ trade and commercial ties. Instead, as Bolsonaro prepares to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Brazil this week, the relationship remains strong, writes Oliver Stuenkel, who teaches international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo, in Americas Quarterly. Stuenkel explains that is partly due to the work of pragmatists within Bolsonaro’s administration, but it is also because neither side can afford to alienate the other:

“In the grand scheme of things, Bolsonaro doesn’t matter much to Chinese policymakers, who think about the relationship on a 20-30 year horizon, and who are aware not only that Brazil depends on China, but that China will always depend on Brazilian commodities.”

The U.S. is squandering leverage in its competition with China: In his book, “The Hundred-Year Marathon,” the Hudson Institute’s Michael Pillsbury warns that China has a plan to supplant the U.S. as a global hegemon by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf finds this scenario “plausible, though not inevitable,” given the possibility that China’s own blunders could still stymie its ascent. But in the likely event that China does succeed in its drive to dominate the global economy, the U.S. would still have several important advantages over its rival—if it doesn’t throw them away first:


“China is likely to become the world’s greatest economic power because it is both big and competent. Yet even if the U.S. does not remain the world’s largest economy over the decades ahead, it should retain three significant assets: a law-governed democracy; a free-market economy; and economically powerful allies. These are sources, respectively, of admiration, dynamism and strength. Unfortunately, the U.S. is trashing them all.”


In the News This Week

U.S.-China relations: President Donald Trump on Friday contradicted China’s earlier statement that both countries had agreed to roll back tariffs as part of a “phase one” trade agreement (Wall Street Journal).

Foreign policy: Xi inked a number of deals during a three-day visit this week to Greece, including a memorandum of understanding to proceed with a Chinese state-owned company’s $660 million investment in the Piraeus port (Reuters).

Crime: China sentenced one man to death and handed harsh sentences to eight others for being part of a fentanyl production ring. The unusually publicized sentencing was seen as a “show of commitment” toward addressing one of Trump’s main criticisms of China (Washington Post). … More than 50 children and teachers were hospitalized Tuesday after a chemical attack at a kindergarten in southwest China (Washington Post). … China on Friday sentenced a former Japanese politician to life in prison for smuggling drugs (Associated Press).

Business and economics: Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba tallied $38.4 billion in Singles’ Day sales Tuesday, a new record for the 24-hour shopping bonanza that is the world’s largest shopping event, surpassing Black Friday in the United States (South China Morning Post).

Xinjiang: The World Bank on Monday said it was ending a project to fund vocational schools in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region after allegations that they were linked to the detention camps holding Uighur Muslims (AFP).

Huawei: Huawei is paying its employees double this month and offering bonuses totaling $285 million in light of the “extraordinary external challenges” of the U.S. pressure campaign against the tech giant (Washington Post).

Benjamin Wilhelm is WPR’s newsletter and engagement editor.

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