CHINA’S COMMUNIST authorities are nothing if not predictable. With a high-profile international summit hosted by President Xi Jinping this month behind them, they are ready for authorities in Hong Kong to crack down on a pro-democracy protest movement. On Tuesday and Wednesday, thousands of police wielding batons and pepper gas began clearing one of three sit-in sites, arresting hundreds of people — including two of the movement’s top leaders.
The regime calculates that President Obama, who struck deals with Mr. Xi on climate change, trade and military exchanges at the summit, won’t react to the crushing of what has been a remarkably determined, two-month-long demonstration in favor of democratic elections by thousands of students and other Hong Kong citizens. Since late September, they have peacefully occupied streets to protest Beijing’s plan to gut the promised election by universal suffrage of Hong Kong’s next chief executive by controlling the nomination of candidates.
To residents of the territory, local authorities are pitching the claim that they are actually defending Hong Kong’s vaunted rule of law. The attack on the Mong Kok protest site came after a court was prompted to issue an order on behalf of a group of taxi drivers protesting the obstruction of streets. “Tuesday’s police action demonstrated the rule of law in action,” crowed the Hong Kong edition of the official organ China Daily.
It won’t be surprising if the regime’s tactical maneuvering succeeds in the short term. Though Mr. Obama spoke up for the cause of Hong Kong democracy while in Beijing, the administration has been at pains to avoid conflict over the issue. The U.S. consulate in Hong Kong went so far as to issue a statement saying “we do not take sides in the discussion of Hong Kong’s political development.” Absent U.S. leadership, other Western governments have been equally timorous.
Similarly, polls show that while the protest movement is popular, a majority of Hong Kong’s residents want the street closures and traffic headaches to end. The chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who has ignored demands for his own resignation, cynically issued a statement urging the public to celebrate the forcible clearance by going shopping.
Still, even if its clearing operations go smoothly, China is losing the larger contest over Hong Kong. By moving to stifle the democracy movement without making any concessions, it is ensuring that embitterment with Beijing will become more deeply rooted in the territory, especially among the rising generation that has driven the protests. Political unrest is likely to become a chronic condition in a place that until now had mostly accepted the authority of the Communist regime since 1997. China’s apparent ban on travel to the mainland by participants in the protests will only exacerbate the disaffection.
In short, China’s inflexible response to the democracy movement may yield exactly the results it wishes to avoid: an unmanageable political situation in Hong Kong and the spread of the demand for political freedom.