Xi Jinping may come to rue his strong-arm tactics

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam after the inaugural ceremony in Hong Kong, on July 1. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)

July 2, 2017 4:08 am JST
TETSUSHI TAKAHASHI, Head of Nikkei's China Headquarters

HONG KONG -- Chinese President Xi Jinping never cracked a smile during his speech here on Saturday, the 20th anniversary of the city's handover.

Since being passed from British to Chinese rule, Hong Kong -- like Taiwan, Tibet, and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region -- has proven to be rather disputatious.

On Friday, when Xi inspected the Chinese People's Liberation Army Hong Kong troops here, I was surprised at seeing a list of items banned from the venue. The list, put together by Chinese authorities, mentioned pens, tablet devices, even rain umbrellas.

The humble umbrella has become something of an icon in Hong Kong. In the fall of 2014, when students and other citizens filled the streets to demand fully democratic elections, they used umbrellas to defend themselves from tear gas. Many of these makeshift shields were yellow. Thus was born a symbol of resistance to high-handed Chinese rule.

The PLA Hong Kong troops can be seen as symbolic in their own right, representing Chinese sovereignty. And despite the ban on rain umbrellas, apparently sun umbrellas were OK. In fact, I was handed a red one as I entered.

Perhaps Beijing feared a mass opening of yellow umbrellas during the ceremony. Perhaps it feared Hong Kong's symbol would overtake its own.

And maybe there was a similar reason for Xi's stern expression the following day -- a sense of distrust. Might a city, despite being in the grip of Beijing, give rise to a full-throttled pro-independence movement?

China has promised to stick with the so-called "one country, two systems" model that was meant to grant Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy for the first 50 years after the handover.

That autonomy stuff is so 1997, though. Since Xi first gained a hold over the country in 2012, China has been all about "one country."

This has forced many Hong Kongers to shrink their expectations of Beijing; it has also fostered a pro-independence movement.

So why does Xi keep drawing such a hard line?

Kazuo Yukawa, a professor of international relations at Asia University who is well-versed in Hong Kong affairs, said Xi cannot show leniency while tightening his political grip on the mainland. Especially not now, in the lead-up to the Communist Party's twice-a-decade National Congress, where Xi is expected to tighten that grip of his even further.

The congress is scheduled for the fall.

But Xi is not only trying to ensure that the country's politicians remain in lockstep behind him; he also needs to remind Chinese who rules them.

Beijing and Shanghai have surpassed Hong Kong in terms of gross regional product -- an achievement that has emboldened those cities' denizens and instilled in them a growing sense of discontent with the "one country, two systems" special treatment lavished on Hong Kong.

Xi's speech, then, was meant as much for Hong Kong ears as it was for those in the mainland.

But as the past few years show -- even in Taiwan, where voters recently kicked out a pro-Beijing president for an independence-minded leader -- strong-arm tactics are more likely to repel than convince.

So Xi's rhetoric risks stirring the pot -- and creating an even more disputatious country.

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