September 30, 2014

CNAS Press Note: Protests in Hong Kong

By Ely Ratner

Washington, September 30 - Center for a New American Security Senior Fellow and Asia-Pacific Security Program Deputy Director Ely Ratner has written a new Press Note explaining the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the challenges the situation presents Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Press Note is below:

Pro-democracy demonstrators have shut down key arteries of Hong Kong’s bustling downtown demanding the reversal of a recent decision by Beijing to maintain strict limits on how Hong Kong’s leaders are chosen.

It is anyone’s guess where things go from here. Both sides are digging in their heels ahead of a two-day holiday in Hong Kong that could attract much larger crowds. The size and nature of the protests, as well as the response by authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing, will shape the protestors’ demands and the prospects for a peaceful and near-term resolution.

Beyond the immediate question of Hong Kong’s political future, however, Chinese President Xi Jinping will have to weigh at least three factors as he calibrates his response. First, even though Beijing is doing all it can to suppress reporting and images of the protests on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong will no doubt serve as a test case of his tolerance for public dissent. Too soft an approach might inspire similar protests elsewhere. Such are the demands of authoritarianism.

At the same time, a heavy-handed or violent approach to dismantling the demonstrations would have serious consequences as well. In the short-term, Xi is preparing to host an upcoming leaders meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organization in November, to be followed by a summit with President Obama. Poor handling of the protests would produce international consternation and embarrassment for Xi on his home turf, right at a time when he is carefully building his image as a great leader.

More fundamentally, a violent crackdown in Hong Kong could have significant implications for Taiwan. The reintegration of Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China is one of Beijing’s leading foreign policy priorities (if not its leading priority period). If events in Hong Kong prove that Beijing cannot be trusted to retain its promises of a hands-off approach to political partnership, it will sharply reduce the attractiveness of a potential form of rapprochement between Beijing and Taipei that many viewed as at least possible in the coming decades. How Beijing would otherwise seduce Taipei peacefully is unclear.

If the protests continue and escalate in the days ahead, Xi will therefore be left with no good options in what is gearing up as the largest test of his tenure as president to date.

Dr. Ratner is available for interviews on the situation in Hong Kong. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org, or call 202-457-9409.

  • Ely Ratner