BEIJING — Days after he pushed through a measure that would grant him lifetime rule, Chinese President Xi Jinping closed the Communist Party’s 19th Congress in 2017 with a sweeping address that touched on the thorniest issues of all: Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In semiautonomous Hong Kong and practically independent Taiwan, Beijing would “develop and strengthen the ranks of patriots who love our country,” Xi promised the gathered party elite, to thunderous applause.
“Blood,” Xi added, “is thicker than water.”
Historic numbers of protesters in Hong Kong’s streets and a political crisis engulfing its leader, Carrie Lam, in the past week have highlighted an enduring conundrum faced by Xi: For decades, Beijing has asked the former British colony for loyalty, if not love. Time and again, its people have responded with distrust, if not loathing.
Twenty-two years after regaining control over Hong Kong following more than 150 years of British rule, the Beijing government’s efforts to win over residents’ hearts and minds appear to be stumbling, raising doubts about not only Xi’s long-term strategy for Hong Kong but also his overtures to Taiwan, the island he seeks to absorb.
Since 2017, Xi has made similar pitches to encourage both populations — one under Chinese rule, one defiantly self-ruled — to embrace the Communist Party. He has guaranteed political semiautonomy, promised economic prosperity and appealed to shared Chinese ancestry.
He has failed to convince.
“Beijing has misinterpreted Hong Kong’s culture, psyche and feelings,” said Anson Chan, the former No. 2 official in Hong Kong. “Hong Kong people will not bend to the will of the communist totalitarian state. If only Beijing would understand what makes Hong Kong tick, what are the values we hold dear, then they can use that energy to benefit both China and Hong Kong.
“Instead, they have this mentality of control.”
As many as 2 million people took to Hong Kong’s streets Sunday, protest organizers said. They emerged in record numbers even after Lam, the Hong Kong chief executive backed by Beijing, suspended an extradition proposal that she said was not foisted on her by mainland China.
The demonstrators’ complaints centered on Lam’s perceived intransigence and the deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets earlier in the week by riot police. But a sea of placards and banners connecting Lam — a lifelong Hong Kong civil servant — to the Communist Party conveyed a far deeper suspicion of the Chinese government that has been bubbling since 2014.
That year, Beijing issued documents that outlined its supreme control over Hong Kong’s courts and elections. In recent years, the reins have been further tightened on Hong Kong’s freewheeling politics and media.
“The extradition amendment was just the last straw on the camel’s back,” said Alan Leong, a former legislator and chairman of the opposition Civic Party.
With its authority unquestioned at home, the Communist Party struggles to deal with a territory with a mature and rambunctious civil society, Leong added. “You talk reason with Hong Kong,” he said. “You don’t rule Hong Kong.”
A decades-long tracking poll by Hong Kong University shows that about 38 percent of Hong Kong citizens feel “proud to be a citizen of China,” compared with 47 percent in 1997, when excitement was high over the handover from Britain. Today, 55 percent of young people between 18 and 29 have a negative view of the central Chinese government, compared with 13 percent who see Beijing positively.
Chinese leaders have pondered for years how to reverse those trends.
Beijing is accelerating an infrastructure and investment plan dubbed the “Greater Bay Area” that would open up jobs in dynamic technology hubs such as Shenzhen to residents of Hong Kong, a declining financial nexus with a gaping income gap. Earlier this year, pro-Beijing officials in Hong Kong reiterated the perennial suggestion of introducing more Chinese history classes in Hong Kong classrooms and promoting cultural exchanges with the mainland.
But attempts to ignite a “love of country, love of Hong Kong,” as the catchphrase goes, have often fizzled.
An effort in 2012 to introduce patriotic education was greeted with street protests and shelved. In 2014, a Chinese cabinet white paper requiring Hong Kong judges to “love the country” was denounced by the local legal community, including a former chief justice. Months after that, Hong Kong was rocked by a 79-day street occupation by young protesters demanding universal suffrage and by others who sought something more radical: independence.
In response to Hong Kong's defiance, the Chinese leadership appears likely to double down on patriotic education and hasten mainland investment and immigration into Hong Kong, said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong University.
It’s a familiar playbook, Lam said. One extreme example is the restive region of Xinjiang, where the party has sought to instill patriotism in ethnic Uighurs through forced indoctrination on a massive scale, while promoting intermarriage and migration of Han, China’s main ethnic group.
“Xi has realized the long-term solution is: Sinicize Hong Kong in much the same way as Tibet and Xinjiang,” Lam said. “Changing the makeup of the population will be the most effective.”
But the city poses a particular conundrum for a Communist Party that has staked its legitimacy on a narrative of defending ethnic Chinese against Western and Japanese colonial powers. The party believed it would be “historical destiny, a historical inevitability,” that Hong Kong would fall into its embrace after more than a century of British rule, said Maura Cunningham, a historian and co-author of “China in the 21st Century.”
“The problem is, Hong Kong has not gone willingly,” Cunningham said. “Instead we see the opposite happening.”
This week, the central government and its allies in Hong Kong downplayed the possibility that a genuine antipathy toward Beijing was on display on the city’s broiling streets.
A day after organizers said 1 million people took to the streets on June 9 chanting “No China extradition,” the state-run China Daily newspaper described the opposite, reporting that 800,000 people were supporting the bill.
Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Ministry and pro-Beijing legislators repeatedly described the uprising as fanned or engineered by Washington and London. On Monday, Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper backed by the Communist Party, blasted the U.S. consul general for meeting with activists and warned readers that “citizens suspect U.S. intelligence agents to be involved in the riots.”
Yet even as Beijing’s proxies heaped blame on foreign meddlers, its official voice in Hong Kong has recently turned conciliatory with the public. The liaison office said Friday that the central government paid “great attention” to the marches and rallies and “supports, respects and understands” Carrie Lam’s decision to suspend the extradition bill “to listen to more views from all sectors of society.”
On Monday, a young activist who rose to prominence as the face of the 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong was released from jail. Upon his release, Joshua Wong, 22, immediately called for Lam to resign.
The setback suffered this week by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp is reverberating in Taiwan, where President Tsai Ing-wen has seized the opportunity to warn about the dangers of engaging with Beijing. Taiwan’s voters are mulling a choice between Tsai, who is bitterly opposed by China and leans toward declaring formal independence, and candidates who advocate rapprochement with their giant neighbor — and talking up the expected economic fruits.
In a landmark January speech aimed at Taiwan, Xi promised the island’s population the same political freedoms as Hong Kong if the Taiwanese joined in unification talks. Otherwise, all options were on the table, Xi warned, including a military takeover.
That offer seemed hollow to hundreds of protesters who gathered Sunday outside the Taiwanese legislature, chanting, “Today’s Hong Kong is tomorrow’s Taiwan.”
“More and more people are aware of the situation in Hong Kong,” said Lin Fei-fan, an activist who organized the Taipei rally. “Once Taiwan falls into Chinese hands, this will probably be our future.”
Nick Aspinwall in Taipei and Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong contributed to this report.