BEIJING — As protests in Hong Kong subsided Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping left the country to visit Central Asia. Now all eyes are on how he will respond when he returns.
The Hong Kong uprising, sparked by a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China, comes at a particularly sensitive time for Xi, who already is fighting a tense trade war with the United States.
Beijing’s reaction to the Hong Kong protests has been muted, with state-controlled media and the foreign ministry generally blaming the unrest on foreign interference and bad elements in Hong Kong.
After largely suppressing information about the protests earlier this week, mainland China’s state-controlled media started reporting some details Thursday, although they distorted some facts and cast the participants as troublemakers bent on using violence to damage Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong legislature’s decision to postpone discussion of the bill for a second time Thursday helped calm tensions on the streets, but the reprieve is probably temporary. Hong Kong’s administration is packed with pro-Beijing officials who appear intent on pushing through the measure.
A new flare-up of street clashes could prompt more intervention from Beijing, analysts said.
“Under the ‘one country, two systems’ paradigm, Hong Kong is guaranteed certain autonomy. However, if events in Hong Kong have the potential to have a broader impact, it would be necessary and appropriate for the Chinese government to step in,” said Andy Mok, a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing.
Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, said that according to Chinese law, Beijing “has the right to restore order under certain circumstances.”
Xi arrived in Kyrgyzstan on Thursday for the start of a Central Asia tour and is expected to be gone through the end of the week. Beijing is unlikely to make any bold moves during his absence.
Xi is also preparing for a Group of 20 summit in Japan later this month, during which President Trump has said the two leaders will discuss trade tensions that have escalated sharply in recent weeks. China’s foreign ministry has declined to confirm any plans for a one-on-one meeting.
Asked at a briefing Thursday what had motivated the protests in Hong Kong, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang referred the question to Hong Kong officials. He condemned the demonstrations and endorsed previous statements by Hong Kong’s government calling the demonstrations a “blatant riot” that was not supported by the mainstream of society.
People rushing to and fro on a busy Beijing sidewalk Thursday afternoon told The Washington Post they were unaware of the events in Hong Kong — a result of strong censorship of the news.
Yet state media started reporting some details of the protests, and many social media users spread the news on Weibo and other sites.
Weibo users sharing a report by state-run news agency Xinhua expressed a mix of opposition and support for the Hong Kong protesters, who fear the extradition law will further erode their independence from Beijing.
“This is not ‘gathering to create troubles’ but reasonably expressing appeals to keep the promise of judicial independence,” one Weibo user wrote.
“Police are there to protect the people, not to suppress them, isn’t that right? The situation still needs a peaceful resolution,” wrote another.
A female blogger on the liberal social networking site Douban.com posted a supportive comment next to a photo of a teenage girl trying to block riot police in Hong Kong. “It’s acceptable if you want to shut up and keep yourself safe, but contemptible to side with the dark just because you are used to the night,” she wrote Thursday.
Others were more critical of the demonstrations. “The outside media are all saying police are using tear gas and water guns, but barely mentioning what the protesters have been throwing at the police,” one Weibo user wrote. Said another: “HK separatists are truly rampant, it’s not easy for HK police.”
A 32-year-old Beijing resident interviewed by The Post said she learned about the protests from Western media sources, which she accessed through a virtual private network, or VPN, that allowed her to visit sites normally blocked by government censors. She also received reports via text from friends in Hong Kong.
“I don’t agree with or oppose the protest,” said the woman, who studied for her PhD in Hong Kong before moving back to Beijing. “All I want to say is: No more violent clashes,” she said on the condition of anonymity, for fear of being tracked down by authorities.