The burst of communications was unusual. While Chinese diplomats have spoken publicly before on big issues such as the China-US trade war and the Belt and Road Initiative, it had not been on such a scale. Observers said the effort was an attempt to shape international opinion about the unrest in Hong Kong, but no matter how united the approach, the campaign was unlikely to be effective.
Just what form “struggle” will take in Hong Kong remains uncertain. In the end, Xi must make the difficult choice between his political instincts: crack down on Hong Kong’s unruly dissenters and bring them to heel or tolerate an uncomfortable degree of continued autonomy as the price of preserving the city’s important role in the Chinese economy—especially regarding financial links to the outside world. He can’t have both.
As Hong Kong’s streets were choked with tear gas, petrol bombs and water cannons in a dramatic escalation of clashes over the weekend, just an hour’s ferry ride away in Macau all was going to Beijing’s plan. On Sunday, 400 members of the gambling hub’s pro-Beijing elite went ahead as expected and “elected” former legislature head Ho Iat-seng, the only candidate on the ballot, as the city’s next leader.
The key to winning a game of chicken is to convince your opponent that you’re willing to crash. Whether you project recklessness, suicidal tendencies, or confidence that you would survive a collision, you need your opponent to believe that swerving is simply not an option for you. And, if you’re bluffing, you’d better know whether you’ve succeeded in making them believe it. What’s happening in Hong Kong is a game of chicken with very high stakes — higher than the fate of the enclave itself. And what makes the stakes so high is the other players watching from the sidelines and preparing their own next moves.
As the world watches in amazement while the Asian financial centre is wracked by increasingly violent confrontations, and rocked by calls for greater democracy, it is clear that Beijing has been caught badly by surprise.
In the early 1980s, there was, of course, no internet, no e-mail, no cell phones (much less smartphones), and not even many fax machines. Rebellions against dictatorship depended on age-old mechanisms to communicate the word of the opposition: leaflets, word of mouth, and secret meetings in cellars.
When there are no good options, leaders must choose the least bad one. China’s government may loathe the idea of making concessions to the Hong Kong protesters, but considering the catastrophic consequences of a military crackdown, that is what it must do.
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