The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ex-Obama adviser on Hong Kong: ‘We have to focus on reality’

HONG KONG -- While student-led protests continue to paralyze Hong Kong, many in Washington -- including President Obama, who brought the issue up with Chinese officials Wednesday -- are watching closely.

How the protests play out has implications not just for Hong Kong -- one of the world's largest financial hubs -- but for China, its opaque Communist leadership and the U.S.-China relationship.

As the Obama administration’s former top adviser on Asia, Jeff Bader is an expert on all three fronts. We asked him to unpack the implications of Hong Kong’s protests in an interview Thursday:

WorldViews: How are China’s leaders likely viewing these protests?

Jeff Bader: I have strong sympathy for the cause of the demonstrators, but I also think, when talking about where this is headed, we have to focus on reality, not purely idealism. The reality is Beijing is quite intractable.  They have a different sensibility and perspective.  It's an illusion to project Western wishful thinking onto how they approach this issue.  They see Chinese stability, as well as the leadership of the party, at stake. These are issues on which there is almost no room for compromise.

There is fragility in China and the belief among the leadership that if something happens in Hong Kong there will be a contagious effect on the mainland that might prove irresistible. This underlies what they do. Those of us who have been dealing with China for decades shouldn’t be surprised by that. So none of us should delude ourselves that there could be a change of heart or softness coming from China just around the corner. They're going to hold their line.

How long can these protests keep going on?

I have doubts about the sustainability about protests. Not because the cause isn't an admirable one. But let's compare with Tahrir Square [in Cairo, where demonstrations erupted in 2011] or Tiananmen in 1989. Those were places where people felt they had nothing to lose. That's why you had millions turning out. People were aligning their aspirations with them.

Hong Kong could not be more different. Hong Kong is one of the most successful cities on the earth. People have very good lives. They don't see democratic development as the key to a good life, which they already have. They would like it, but they have other objectives, which the current economic and social system in Hong Kong effectively promote and ensure.

So it's unrealistic to think that millions of Hong Kongers are going to remain supportive or even tolerant over weeks as the city grinds to halt. The sympathies are going to shift if this continues. I don't doubt that. People may be sympathetic, but reality and the needs of daily life intrude. And they're not going to put their lives on hold for a pipe dream. So [Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying's] strategy so far of watching and waiting is not stupid.

Is there a constructive way out, or is there just an ending where one side wins and one side loses?

Beijing is not going to lose. They're just not willing to, and they have the power to make that will stick. So what's the off-ramp? You need demonstrators and sensible leaders among the democrats to say, "This election China’s promised is better than what Hong Kong had before." It's universal suffrage; it's the first time Hong Kong will ever have a competitive election for chief executive. It falls short of a free, open competitive election. But it is at least a competitive election, where candidates have to appeal to the public to win.

The real objective should be getting some promise of change on the percentage of people on the election commission required to nominate a candidate, in order to ensure that the candidates truly represent the entire electorate. If everyone just ends up going home and protests fade, and the 50 percent threshold [meaning Beijing’s absolute control over the nomination process] stays the same without a commitment to revisit the threshold in the future, Beijing will conclude that intransigence has won, and the demonstrators will have nothing to show for their effort.

Long-term, do you think these protests will change how China’s leaders think about Hong Kong or uprisings?

For the party, these events probably makes them more determined to assert and maintain control. It shows them the risk of relaxing control. A small handful may say we're playing with fire by going harder, but the more common reaction is this is Tiananmen all over. You show lack of resolve, and this is what we get. It could in many ways give ammunition to hardliners within the party.

Does it change how Hong Kong thinks about itself?

For Hong Kong, the generational aspect of these protests matters. Depending how this ends, for a lot of young Hong Kongers, it could mean they're going to move. They may get a bit of a brain drain like during the 1997 handover [when the British returned Hong Kong to China].

Jeff Bader served as deputy consul general for the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong. He attended Hong Kong's 1997 handover to China as a top U.S. diplomat with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and most recently was the White House’s top official for East Asia at the National Security Council.