It is becoming clearer that something has shifted in Beijing’s approach to governing Hong Kong. We pointed out the beginnings of this shift last week, after CE Carrie Lam’s visit to Shanghai and Beijing, where she met President Xi Jinping and her direct report, Vice Premier Han Zheng. She came back more confident, less inclined to give middle-ground statements on the protests. We speculated that it was because the central government had reached a new consensus on Hong Kong, and a change of direction was needed: restrained passive-aggressive interventionism was out; active, overt policy guidance was in.
However, until late yesterday, it hadn’t seemed like the new approach was being timed on a stopwatch. The central government was upping the pressure to introduce national-security legislation, but no deadline had been hinted at.
Then President Xi Jinping interrupted a busy schedule on his overseas trip to comment on the situation in Hong Kong. He reiterated that he wants to see the Hong Kong government and police do whatever is necessary to put an end to the protests. It was no longer just the Hong Kong government’s most important task; it was now its most “urgent,” too.
In Chinese politics, words in official statements are not easily interchanged. This president doesn’t do policymaking via Weibo. Rather, his statement was splashed across the front page of state-owned propaganda organs, the first time his Hong Kong commentary has ended up there. This suggests his comments were not exclusively intended for a Hong Kong audience. Moreover, the president shouldn’t have to repeat himself on any topic within a week.
What could be going on?
Putting aside speculation about factional infighting over Hong Kong policymaking in Beijing, it is hard to see what could have got the president so upset that he felt he needed to make his statement in Brasilia. Tai Po traffic jams? An elderly man killed by a brick to the head? Sad and tragic though that was, it wouldn’t normally be expected for inclusion in the president’s daily intelligence briefings.
More likely is that Xi was anticipating changes in Hong Kong’s situation requiring urgent pre-emptive action. But what could that be? A falloff in fund flows doesn’t appear imminent. The country is producing some worrying economic data, and yet the global investment community is still piling into China, mostly via Hong Kong. As Bloomberg reports today, “Multinationals are still pouring cash into China.” So, too, is Bridgewater. Alibaba is going ahead with its US$13 billion IPO, to everyone’s delight.
So … if Jack Ma and Ray Dalio aren’t worried about Hong Kong, why is the senior leadership?
Perhaps attention should be focused across the Pacific Ocean. Was it the release of an asinine report in Washington about the United States’ “economic security”, choc-full of Cold War-era language? Could it have been US Senator Marco Rubio’s latest tirade? Those seem to be laying the groundwork for the US to take more substantive action against Hong Kong.
It still doesn’t seem likely to have been the trigger for Xi’s statement. A change in Hong Kong’s trading status remains predicated on whether the central government would send in the military to quell the protests. And so far, it has shown no inclination toward that option.
Unless, of course, there is disagreement over this issue, which requires the president’s personal intervention. Is someone in the Hong Kong policymaking apparatus feeling pressure to get the protests under control using all existing means, otherwise the military may be forced to intervene? It can only be hoped not. A military intervention would be disastrous for Hong Kong, and for China. It is hard to imagine how it would not escalate tensions between the superpowers to the point where conflict became inevitable. Henry Kissinger believes a conflict between the US and China would be catastrophic.
Is this the kind of messaging that has made its way through to the president on his world tour? Either the Hong Kong police take charge, or your supposedly loyal troops will? That is the stuff of fantastical speculation, and we are not going to give it the credit of endorsement. Not today.
But it does raise a vital question, one that cannot be answered here. What is the Hong Kong government, and its police force, NOT doing more of to bring these protests to an end? The coming days will likely provide a clue. Stay tuned.