China’s powerful President Xi Jinping has been dealt a rare setback with the suspension of unpopular legislation in Hong Kong following massive protests, but Beijing could bite back by tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous city, according to analysts.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters returned to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday, calling for the resignation of the territory’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam — even after she suspended a deeply unpopular bill that would have allowed extraditions to the mainland.
Xi is not used to such challenges, having consolidated his power and tightened his grip on civil society on the mainland since taking office in 2012.
But Hong Kongers defiantly demonstrated en masse in the past week against a bill that was seen as another sign of the Chinese Communist Party’s growing influence in the city, which should enjoy its own laws and certain liberties such as freedom of speech until 2047 under the terms of its handover from Britain to China in 1997.
“It’s a massive repudiation of the idea that Hong Kong will be effectively, over time, fully absorbed into mainland China,” said Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism China Newsletter.
“The party under Xi has become more worrisome and that’s certainly a rejection of not just Xi but the party overall,” Bishop said.
Beijing has sought to distance itself from the unrest, saying the bill was the brainchild of the Hong Kong government and portraying the violent demonstrations last week as a “riot” backed by foreign forces, while censors have worked to block discussion on social media.
Experts say Lam would not have pushed the legislation without guidance from her backers on the mainland, and on Monday Beijing said it will “continue to firmly support” the beleaguered chief executive.
But Xi himself has been physically distant: Away on a visit to Central Asia as protests turned violent on Wednesday, and returning on Sunday evening when hundreds of thousands flooded the streets again.
“This is a defeat for Xi Jinping,” said Victoria Hui, a native Hong Konger and associate professor in political science at the University of Notre Dame in the United States.
“People don’t believe that Carrie Lam would on her own accord try to rush through something that is not even in the Basic Law,” Hui said.
Avoid harsh crackdown
The state-run China Daily said in an editorial that the bill was put on hold “so as to remove the excuse for the violence being instigated by those who do not have (Hong Kong’s) best interests at heart.”
Xi cemented his status as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong when the rubber-stamp parliament abolished presidential term limits last year.
But he has encountered a series of challenges since then, with analysts saying he is under pressure over the bruising trade war with the United States and a slowing economy.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the extradition bill’s suspension showed that Communist leaders “got scared” about the protest movement’s potential repercussions for the mainland.
While Beijing will avoid an obvious harsh crackdown so as to not inflame tensions, it will still apply pressure in more subtle ways, according to analysts.
“You will see a redoubling of efforts by the party to squeeze Hong Kong in ways that are not necessarily going to be totally obvious,” publisher Bishop said.
The role of the Communist Party and its organisations will likely intensify in Hong Kong, he added.
Authorities will likely adopt the same tactic used following the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement that shook the city in 2014 by arresting protest leaders, analysts said.
“Xi must be very tough. He won’t give in easily,” said Beijing-based political analyst Hua Po, noting that the extradition bill was merely suspended, not dropped.
Xi will “wait for the mood of Hong Kong citizens to gradually calm down and then punish a very small number of die-hards”, Hua said.
The die-hards have proved resilient, however. One of the ringleaders of the Umbrella Movement, Joshua Wong, was released from prison Monday after serving a short sentence for his role — and immediately vowed to rejoin the new protest wave.
Finally, Lam’s decision to suspend the legislation could also have been a tactical retreat, as Beijing prepares to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of People’s Republic of China on October 1, Bishop said.
“A big mess in Hong Kong would really mar that celebration,” he said.
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