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How China Sees the Hong Kong Crisis

The Real Reasons Behind Beijing’s Restraint

Riot police during a protest in Hong Kong, September 2019 Susana Vera / Reuters

Massive and sometimes violent protests have rocked Hong Kong for over 100 days. Demonstrators have put forward five demands, of which the most radical is a call for free, direct elections of Hong Kong’s chief executive and all members of the territory’s legislature: in other words, a fully democratic system of local rule, one not controlled by Beijing. As this brazen challenge to Chinese sovereignty has played out, Beijing has made a show of amassing paramilitary forces just across the border in Shenzhen. So far, however, China has not deployed force to quell the unrest and top Chinese leaders have refrained from making public threats to do so.

Western observers who remember the violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago have been puzzled by Beijing’s forbearance. Some have attributed Beijing’s restraint to a fear of Western condemnation if China uses force. Others have pointed to Beijing’s concern that a crackdown would damage Hong Kong’s role as a financial center for China.

But according to two Chinese scholars who have connections to regime insiders and who requested anonymity to discuss the thinking of policymakers in Beijing, China’s response has been rooted not in anxiety but in confidence. Beijing is convinced that Hong Kong’s elites and a substantial part of the public do not support the demonstrators and that what truly ails the territory are economic problems rather than political ones—in particular, a combination of stagnant incomes and rising rents. Beijing also believes that, despite the appearance of disorder, its grip on Hong Kong society remains firm. The Chinese Communist Party has long cultivated the territory’s business elites (the so-called tycoons) by offering them favorable economic access to the mainland. The party also maintains a long-standing loyal cadre of underground members in the territory. And China has forged ties with the Hong Kong labor movement and some sections of its criminal underground. Finally, Beijing believes that many ordinary citizens are fearful

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