Hong Kong Creates Dilemma for China’s President

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Beijing Wary of Conjuring Memories of Tiananmen Square.

Massive democracy rallies in Hong Kong have offered Chinese President Xi Jinping stark choices between concession and crackdown, either of which poses problems for his government—and his own political standing.

Throughout the weekend and into Monday, protesters, mostly students, confronted police and halted business activity in parts of Hong Kong. Crowds thinned in the early morning hours Tuesday but were expected to grow again during the day.

Police fired tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the thousands of students gathered outside government headquarters on Sunday, but the protesters regrouped and re-emerged in greater numbers, choking off roadways in the heart of the city.

As the protests swelled, Mr. Xi stayed in Beijing and made no public comments on the events. Instead, lower-level government spokesmen called the unrest illegal and warned foreigners not to get involved in a domestic issue.

The Hong Kong demonstrations—in which protesters are resisting Beijing’s proposed limitations on how the city’s leader is elected—bring to the fore sensitive issues for the Chinese government.

The leadership is always concerned that protests in one part of China, if left unchallenged, might encourage people in other parts to rise up. Hong Kong, which was given limited autonomy and freedoms upon its return to China from British colonial rule 17 years ago, was supposed to be a showcase for Beijing’s ability to manage a cosmopolitan financial hub with a minimum of intervention.

Now, President Xi faces tough choices: Modify the proposed formula for Hong Kong’s election system and appear weak, or dislodge the protesters with force and risk conjuring memories of Beijing’s bloody 1989 pro-democracy crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Hong Kong’s civil disobedience campaign is roiling public opinion in Taiwan, the democratic island that Beijing has long sought to win over. In meeting last week with a delegation from the island, Mr. Xi mentioned Hong Kong’s semiautonomy as a model for reintegrating Taiwan. But many there expressed sympathy for Hong Kong’s protesters as footage of students overcome by tear gas and the city’s financial district shrouded in white smoke played repeatedly on Taiwan television.

“If Beijing has any intention of creating a kind or nice image in the hearts of Taiwan people, what happened over the weekend in Hong Kong is extremely unhelpful,” said Alex Huang, a political-science professor at Tamkang University.

Beijing appeared on high alert to ensure copycat action doesn’t appear elsewhere in the country, such as the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. News from Hong Kong was heavily censored in mainland China’s press and on social media; the photo-sharing app Instagram experienced outages Monday, according to several Internet-tracking organizations.

A further problem, Mr. [Dingding Chen, an assistant professor of government and public administration at the University of Macau,] said, is that compromise will become tougher the more the Hong Kong protests appear to challenge national sovereignty or are seen as a model for other movements, rather than a reflection of the city’s unique standing within China.

Should events spin beyond the control of Hong Kong’s police forces, the People’s Liberation Army maintains a garrison in Hong Kong, and a retired official said earlier this year that the forces might be called upon to suppress a riot. A contingent of China’s paramilitary police, trained in quelling civil unrest, is deployed in Guangdong province, adjacent to Hong Kong.

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