Hong Kong protests demand face-saving solution

IN MANY ways, the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong has been on a collision course with China’s Communist Party ever since the British gave back the territory in 1997. China has been slowly expanding its control over the city, supplying more and more of the fresh water, electricity, and food that it needs to survive. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has been increasingly anxious about maintaining its way of life. China’s recent announcement that candidates in Hong Kong’s 2017 election for chief executive would be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee was just a trigger for deeper fears about China’s influence over the city. At issue is not just democracy, but economics: People in Hong Kong complain that too many good jobs are being given to graduates from Beijing, and too many middle-class people from Hong Kong are being priced out of the real estate market by moguls from Shanghai.
In the past, Beijing has been reluctant to upset the delicate relationship with Hong Kong, giving people in Hong Kong an opportunity to push back against the national government. They successfully resisted China’s attempts to impose a patriotic Chinese communist curriculum in Hong Kong’s schools, as well as a Draconian security law that Beijing hoped to impose. But today, the uneasy truce between Hong Kong and China — “one country, two systems” — looks more fragile than ever. Under these tense circumstances, prodemocracy protesters who crowded Hong Kong’s streets Tuesday should be seeking compromises that give Beijing a face-saving pretext to ease up.
China’s leaders have been anxiously witnessing the recent wave of protests around the world, from Egypt’s Tahrir Square to the Euromaidan rallies in Ukraine. Earlier this year, the People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, warned that those uprisings had only brought instability and insinuated that Western powers had been eager to “get into the act of chaos.” After two decades of civil war during the 20th century, Chinese leaders fear letting long-simmering internal conflicts get out of control in their country.
The Hong Kong protest is their worst nightmare. China’s president, Xi Jinping, will want to nip this habit in the bud before it reaches Beijing. So far, he’s been able to black out news of the protest in China’s media. But the more attention it gets in the rest of China, the more likely Chinese leaders will be to crack down on the protesters to prove that such activities gain nothing. A Tiananmen Square-style reaction is unlikely, but not impossible. If China lashes out violently, there is little the United States can do to a country that has become such an important investor and trade partner.
The good news is that China is not eager to be seen as an imperial ruler. That’s why there is a chance that a new agreement could be struck with Hong Kong in which each side could claim victory. China should remove Hong Kong’s current chief executive, who has become unpopular, and postpone questions about the 2017 election until an acceptable solution can be quietly negotiated. Meanwhile, protesters should be careful to give China a dignified way out of the crisis. If they overplay their hand, they could be dealing with the Chinese army, not just local authorities in Hong Kong. If China overreacts violently, Hong Kong residents could end up with fewer freedoms than they had before.