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What the protests mean for the future of a democratic Hong Kong

- September 30, 2014

Hong Kong has been rocked by street protests that may fundamentally reshape its relationship with China. Party-run newspapers in China have blamed foreign “anti-China forces” for aiding and abetting the pro-democracy activists. Whether or not authorities in Beijing buy their own propaganda, the gulf between Western and Chinese depictions of the demonstrations may inflame Chinese nationalism and dim the prospects for meaningful compromise over Hong Kong’s future.

Photos of the “umbrella” revolution (used to ward off tear gas and pepper spray) and memes like “I can’t keep calm because Hong Kong is dying” have lit up Twitter and Instagram. The bravery and civility of the protesters has inspired even those who fear that their hopes will soon be dashed. In China, however, these images and stories have been largely repressed, and censors are furiously scrubbing the Internet. (Instagram has just been blocked in China).

What should foreign observers and officials do? The Chinese government insists that “Hong Kong is purely our internal affair,” warning against “any foreign country using any method to interfere.” Despite calls to hold Beijing to account for promises made before the reversion of Hong Kong in 1997, British officials have largely kept quiet. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg tweeted his sympathy for the “brave pro-democracy demonstrators,” but official U.K. statements have remained circumspect, calling for constructive discussion toward “a meaningful advance for democracy in Hong Kong.”

The British government may be drawing lessons from France’s run-in with the “feelings of the Chinese people” a few years ago. As I note in “Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations,” France bore the brunt of nationalist anger after China’s harsh response to riots in Tibet prompted President Nicolas Sarkozy to entertain the idea of boycotting the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After anti-French protests spread to several Chinese cities, Sarkozy relented and ultimately attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. While calling the situation in Tibet “not acceptable,” Sarkozy noted that “we absolutely must not push a population of 1.3 billion people into wounded nationalism.” Although the parallels between unrest in Tibet and Hong Kong should not be overdrawn, the Chinese government has again blamed foreign scapegoats for inflaming domestic unrest rather than address its grass-roots origins.

Even if foreign governments stay out of the public fracas, it is unclear whether peaceful demonstrations will compel Beijing to do more to abide by past promises to grant “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures,” as stated in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. Indeed, China has offered Hong Kong more than any other city under its jurisdiction: universal suffrage. But protesters in Hong Kong have rejected what they see as an ultimatum from Beijing, demanding a more democratic nomination process.

Whose move is next? Commentators have painted Xi Jinping into a corner: Back down and be seen as weak, or stand firm and be seen as reneging on “one country, two systems.” With Hong Kong protesters depicting Chief Executive C. Y. Leung as a vampire with fangs, and pro-Beijing media smearing Hong Kong activists as U.S. and British accomplices, the outlook for “gradual and orderly progress” toward a more democratic Hong Kong appears bleak.

Jessica Chen Weiss is an assistant professor of political science at Yale University. Among others, she is the author of  “Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations.