The choice for China in Hong Kong

Rather than suppress it, China should use the uprising there to create a more open and tolerant society

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The unprecedented protests in Hong Kong suggest tensions between (theoretically) socialist China and its vibrant, Westernised former British colony may be close to breaking point – with repercussions that would affect not just China, but the world economy, while adding to global instabilities that already stretch from Ukraine to the Middle East.

The unrest stems from the refusal of Beijing to permit genuinely democratic elections, a breach of its commitment under the 1984 Sino-British agreement. On the opposite side stand students and, it would seem, most Hong Kongers, determined to see no erosion of their special status. For the Chinese authorities, the crisis represents the biggest challenge since Tiananmen Square in 1989, when hundreds of protesters were killed. Ominously, there are signs this confrontation could result in a similar crackdown, with a similarly tragic outcome.

Neither side has given indications of backing down. Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has told the crowds to go home, adamant that there will be no concessions from Beijing. The protesters, however, have remained on the streets, ahead of Wednesday’s National Day celebrations in the People’s Republic, which could provide further symbolic fuel for trouble.

The one bright spot is that after the weekend foray of anti-riot police, using tear gas and pepper spray against the protesters, the authorities have refrained from further direct action.

However that caution probably reflects no change of heart in Beijing, but rather the dilemma facing China’s president, Xi Jinping. Seen from his perspective, the choice is bleak. He can either allow Hong Kong the democracy it demands, and risk encouraging similar action on the mainland, that could strike directly at one-party rule. Hardliners, moreover, would probably see concessions as an indication of “weakness” – a loss of face that could undermine Xi’s own position.

Or, if the protesters stand their ground, he risks a bloody showdown in Hong Kong ahead of November’s scheduled APEC summit in Beijing, that would hit world markets and deal a massive blow to the island’s lucrative role as a financial hub of the East. China’s relations with the West would suffer grievously and so too whatever chances remain of luring Taiwan peaceably back into Beijing’s fold would be destroyed.

Alas, Xi’s record thus far appears to make the second option more likely. He has come down hard on the separatist Uighurs in Chinese central Asia, and on activists in Tibet. In the South China Sea he has pursued a nakedly expansionist policy, rattling China’s neighbours and creating fresh strains with the US and Japan, the region’s other major regional economic power and China’s historic rival. A tough line over Hong Kong would fit into this pattern of behaviour.

Ideally, a compromise will be struck. If not, we must support the protesters in their demands for the system they want. Not just Britain’s historical ties with Hong Kong, but basic human rights, demand no less.