BEIJING—As China marked its National Day Wednesday, a defiant gathering of thousands of people in Hong Kong demanding deeper electoral reforms for the port city cast a shadow over Beijing’s celebration.
At a flag-raising ceremony to mark the holiday in Hong Kong, protesters booed and made a “thumbs down” sign as helicopters flew overhead. There were also shouts for Hong Kong’s leader Leung Chun-ying, who was in attendance, to step down.
For now, China is largely taking a hands-off approach to the protests that would be unthinkable in the mainland. But as the demonstrations drag on they are likely to become an even bigger challenge for Beijing, leaving authorities with few options to respond.
Some have raised concerns that Hong Kong officials might turn to Beijing for support in curbing the protests, possibly using force. While fears of a Tiananmen-like crackdown have circulated, China’s Communist Party-backed newspaper the Global Times tried to quell concerns over the possible heavy-handed response.
In an editorial this week that focused on how – as it put it – radical activists were threatening Hong Kong’s image and economy, the newspaper argued that China is no longer the same country it was 25 years ago when the Tiananmen incident occurred.
The editorial said that China has much more experience now in handling social disorder and that it has learned lessons from others.
Bill Bishop, a China analyst and publisher of the influential Sinocism China newsletter says it is still too early to tell just how Beijing will respond.
Bishop Tweeted on Wednesday that while he felt it was unlikely that there would be a repeat of the events of 1989, dismissing the possibility would be a mistake.
One country, two systems
When Britain handed over Hong Kong from colonial rule in 1997 a form of government known as “one country, two systems” was set up to ensure that basic freedoms were upheld.
Public rallies are common in the port city, but the protests Hong Kong is now experiencing are the largest and most confrontational since it was returned to China and set up as a special administrative region.
China chafes at any attempts to challenge its authority, but one reason it may be taking a hands off approach for now, some analysts say, is because the basic demands of the protesters are for universal suffrage and not an attempt to challenge the form of rule that is in place in Hong Kong.
Su Hao, a professor from Beijing Foreign Affairs College says it is because of the “one country, two systems” model that China is showing some restraint and not intervening.
“It would be inappropriate for the central government to interfere directly, because after all, it is Hong Kong’s internal affairs,” Su said.
Beijing has repeatedly stressed its confidence this week in Hong Kong authorities and their ability to handle the protests. But, reporting in China on the topic has focused less on why the demonstrators’ are making their demands and more on how their activities are illegal and threatening the economic and social stability of Hong Kong.
Threatening economic stability
The Asian financial hub has long been known as place that puts business and commerce ahead of politics, but in recent years concerns have been growing, particularly among the younger generation, about low paying jobs and a steady influx of mainland Chinese competing for opportunities.
For now, there are few signs that the protests are sparking calls for political change on the mainland.
China has blocked discussion of the protests online and the only comments that are allowed to remain posted are ones voicing support of the government’s position and criticizing protesters.
Rights group Amnesty International says at least 20 people have been detained in the past two days for posting pictures online with messages of support for the protesters. In a statement released Wednesday, Amnesty called for their immediate and unconditional release. It also noted that another 60 had been called in for questioning by authorities.
Just how big an impact the protests could have on Hong Kong’s economy remains unclear. And although some in China have predicted massive losses from the demonstrations, the economy in Hong Kong much like the rest of Asia is already struggling to deal with the impact of a slowing Chinese economy.
In an editorial on National Day, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, argued that improving the quality of living and developing the economy are the most important issues for Hong Kong.
The opinion piece urged Hong Kongers to cherish what they have and focus on stability.
The editorial also stated that anyone in Hong Kong is free to offer up differing views regarding the ruling on electoral reform using appropriate channels, but not by taking what it called the extremist approach of some protest groups.
That position is unlikely to gain any traction with protesters who are all too familiar with how China handles dissent or differing views in the mainland.