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For China’s Xi, the Hong Kong Crisis Is Personal


For China’s Xi, the Hong Kong Crisis Is Personal

BEIJING—Four months before

Xi Jinping

became China’s leader in late 2012, he issued a Communist Party edict on Hong Kong that reverberates today.

As head of a party committee overseeing the former British colony, Mr. Xi ordered officials to wage combat against what he saw as a growing separatist movement, according to a retired senior official responsible for Hong Kong affairs. “We must dare to struggle and be good at fighting,” the retired official said in describing Mr. Xi’s approach.

Only a few Hong Kongers advocated independence back then, and they’re still a tiny minority today. The kind of protests that have racked the city this year seemed unthinkable.

Mr. Xi’s edict, though, was symptomatic of his intolerance of dissent and an imperious approach to government, which many political insiders and analysts say is now jeopardizing his most treasured ambition: a unified Chinese nation.

While unifying China has preoccupied its leaders for centuries, Mr. Xi has made closer integration with Hong Kong and unity with Taiwan—a self-governed island Beijing sees as its territory—defining priorities of his leadership and key tenets of his “China Dream” of national rejuvenation. His edict was one of several steps Mr. Xi has taken to tighten Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong, an effort that intensified after he became China’s leader.

Underpinning the approach were Mr. Xi’s desires to forge a more centralized leadership and to build on the legacy of his late father, who decades earlier played a key role in reintegrating Hong Kong with the mainland. Mr. Xi also increasingly relies on stirring nationalistic fervor to bolster his legitimacy, as a persistent economic slowdown erodes the promise of ever-rising living standards that sustains public support for the party.

Chinese officials publicly blame the turmoil in Hong Kong on foreign meddling and economic frustration. Privately, some admit they failed to appreciate public anger over the sense of gradual erosion, under Mr. Xi, of the city’s relative political freedom. Even some of Beijing’s champions in Hong Kong cite a failure of internal communication and decision-making within the central and local governments.

Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Tiananmen, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, in Beijing on Oct. 1, 1949.


Associated Press

“Everybody speaks the way that they think the top would like to hear,” said

Michael Tien,

a pro-Beijing member of Hong Kong’s legislature and China’s national parliament who joined an August meeting with mainland officials to discuss the unrest. “When the top hears the things that they would like to hear, they will further believe in the things that they believe in.”

Asked if young Hong Kongers’ desire to express themselves politically was compatible with Mr. Xi’s vision, Mr. Tien said: “No. So that’s a problem.”

The crisis looks certain to take the sheen off celebrations on Oct. 1 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Communist victory in 1949, which include a lavish military parade in Beijing and are aimed at showcasing the progress Mr. Xi has made towards his China Dream.

The unrest has divided Hong Kong’s seven million people and undermined its role as a politically stable international financial center and conduit for capital in and out of China. It has damaged the “one country, two systems” formula that allowed the city to retain many freedoms after Chinese rule was restored in 1997.

That formula is also one Beijing touts as a model for unifying Taiwan with the mainland. Hong Kong’s disarray has made such an arrangement less likely than ever in Taiwan, which has developed into a vibrant democracy over the past three decades.

The protests have boosted the electoral prospects of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, whose party has traditionally supported Taiwanese independence, ahead of a presidential vote in January. A vocal supporter of the Hong Kong protesters, she has seen her approval rating surge to 45% in late August from below 25% in December, according to one poll.

Even her main rival, Han Kuo-yu of the Nationalist Party, which has favored closer ties with Beijing, has pledged never to allow “one country, two systems” in Taiwan, and described Hong Kong protesters as shedding blood for freedom and democracy.

Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, in a faxed statement, said the island’s government had played a “disgraceful” role, “fanning the flames, and adding fuel to the fire” in Hong Kong to boost Ms. Tsai. China’s cabinet information office and the agency responsible for Hong Kong affairs didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The setbacks feed into broader criticism of Mr. Xi, whose self-styled image as a national savior was already in danger from the trade dispute with the U.S. and sluggish efforts to address an economic slowdown.

The Chinese flag flew and the Union Jack was lowered at a handover ceremony at the Hong Kong Convention Center on July 1, 1997.


Kimimasa Mayama/Associated Press

While China has enhanced its international clout under Mr. Xi, many of his signature policies have run into difficulties. A global infrastructure building spree has has run into resistance at home and abroad. His program to forcibly intern more than a million Chinese Muslims has become an international human-rights controversy. Little progress has been made on another signature project, the construction of a vast new city south of Beijing.

The Hong Kong crisis now is fueling criticism within China’s political, business and academic elite of Mr. Xi’s autocratic leadership style, which prizes loyalty and discipline over initiative and policy debate. One person who spoke recently with mainland officials said there is soul searching in Beijing over how they got things wrong in Hong Kong.

There are no signs of an organized challenge to Mr. Xi’s leadership within the elite, or of Hong Kong’s protests spreading to the mainland.

Riot police detained a woman in Hong Kong on Sept. 25 as protesters demonstrated against a railway operator they accused of helping the government.


tyrone siu/Reuters

Mr. Xi has guarded his flanks with appeals for patriotism, using state media to portray Hong Kong protesters as violent separatists and to accuse the U.S. of provoking unrest. Even liberal-leaning mainland Chinese often express similar views.

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In a recent meeting with a foreign leader, Mr. Xi indicated that Beijing prefers to allow the Hong Kong government to take the lead in resolving the crisis instead of intervening directly, according to people familiar with the matter. Yet those people say he is unwilling to let Hong Kong’s leadership reach a political accommodation with the protesters that involves any significant concession.

Some party insiders and observers see shades of the regime’s founder in Mr. Xi’s instinct to show strength rather than seek dialogue and compromise.

A fireman collected the remains of a burned Chinese flag during a protest in the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong on Sept. 15, 2019. Tens of thousands marched in defiance of a police ban.


Kyle Lam/Bloomberg News

Antigovernment protesters attended a demonstration at Causeway Bay in Hong Kong on Sept. 15.


athit perawongmetha/Reuters

“We can witness just today his belief that if you encounter problems, you have to escalate. And that is clear Mao,” said

Klaus Mühlhahn,

professor of Chinese history at the Free University of Berlin. “We see storm clouds: That means we mobilize our forces,” Mr. Mühlhahn said, quoting Mao. “We double and triple our efforts.”

Unifying China has been an obsession for many of its leaders since the first emperor,

Qin Shi Huang,

did so in 221 B.C.

Hong Kong is a vital piece in the Communist Party’s narrative of Chinese history, which portrays the 1839-1842 Opium War, after which the defeated Qing government ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain, as a key moment of national shame.

The party has sought to bring Taiwan under its control ever since Mao’s forces drove Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist government to the island during the Chinese civil war seven decades ago.

Unlike his recent predecessors, Mr. Xi has repeatedly expressed a need for urgency in the China unification project, saying it shouldn’t just be handed down unfinished from generation to generation.

For Mr. Xi, Hong Kong is also personal.

Xi Zhongxun, a Chinese revolutionary who became a high-ranking Communist Party official, and was the father of President Xi Jinping, seen in November 1979.


Julian Kevin Zakaras/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Xi Zhongxun, Mr. Xi’s father, was a prominent revolutionary who, as a top party official in the southern province of Guangdong from 1978 to 1980, confronted an exodus of mainlanders fleeing to Hong Kong as economic refugees, when the city was still under British control.

Fearing that could undermine the party, he cultivated ties with Hong Kong officials and businessmen and tried to narrow the economic gap, including by setting up mainland China’s first “special economic zone” and encouraging investment from Hong Kong.

After leaving Guangdong, Mr. Xi’s father remained involved in Hong Kong affairs, meeting delegations from the city and helping pave the way for Sino-British talks on the territory’s future.

“Xi Zhongxun became the face of the People’s Republic to Hong Kong after the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution,” said

Joseph Torigian,

a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We know that Xi Jinping cares a lot about his father’s legacy.”

Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong several times as a local and regional official to drum up investment for the mainland. On a trip in 2005, he praised Hong Kong as a globally competitive commercial center that offered many lessons for Zhejiang province, where he was the top party official at the time.

Hong Kong demonstrators during one of the protests in 2003


South China Morning Post/Getty Images

By the early 2000s, however, Beijing was beginning to see the city less as worthy of emulation and more as a wellspring of trouble. 

In 2003, a deadly respiratory-disease outbreak in Hong Kong prompted Beijing to take steps to help its economy, including by allowing many more mainlanders to visit—moves that incentivized further intervention in the city’s governance.

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Later that year, protests in Hong Kong against a bill outlawing actions deemed subversive to Beijing forced the city’s government to withdraw the legislation. Beijing officials feared Hong Kongers had been imbued with Western political values during British rule.

Still, in the years leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, opinion polls showed Hong Kongers developing more confidence in the “one country, two systems” idea. Beijing decided in late 2007 that Hong Kong residents could start directly electing their leader in a decade’s time.

Confidence Crisis

Since 1997, China’s formula for once-British-ruled Hong Kong has been ‘one country, two systems.’ Hong Kong residents’ confidence in that setup has fallen in the past decade, as has their confidence in Hong Kong’s and China’s future.

Mr. Xi drew a warm welcome on a Hong Kong visit in July 2008, by which time he was a member of China’s top leadership body—the Politburo Standing Committee—and the head of the party’s coordination group for Hong Kong and Macau policy. But he ruffled feathers by appearing to admonish Hong Kong’s then leader and by urging the city’s executive, legislature and judiciary to cooperate with each other. It was an early sign of Beijing’s more interventionist approach.

“In the early years, Beijing was happy to leave Hong Kong alone,” said

Bernard Chan,

a member of China’s parliament and Hong Kong’s Executive Council. “From 2003 onward, we had massive economic and social integration” but no corresponding political integration. “The mistake that we made was that maybe we never found ways to deal with the effects of this integration.”

Beijing officials had the sense that Hong Kong people hadn’t quite come back to the fold emotionally, said

Christine Loh,

a former Hong Kong government official. Mr. Xi oversaw a drive to educate Hong Kongers about China’s achievements. In 2010, the city’s government said schools would introduce a new subject: Moral and National Education.

Many young Hong Kong residents and their parents denounced the effort as brainwashing. Opinion polls showed that a growing number of the city’s people began to identify as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese.

How They See Themselves

Hong Kong residents increasingly identify as Hong Kongers, while the percentage who think of themselves as Chinese is falling.

Among 18- to 29-year-olds

Among 18- to 29-year-olds

Among 18- to 29-year-olds

Among 18- to 29-year-olds

Mr. Xi sensed the rise of a separatist movement, according to Chen Zuo’er, a former deputy director of the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. In July 2012 Mr. Xi “issued the party center’s first combat order to purge Hong Kong independence elements,” Mr. Chen said, according to a transcript of a speech he gave in 2017.

Later in July 2012, a second surge of unrest forced Hong Kong’s government to shelve the Moral and National Education plan.

Mr. Xi became China’s leader that November and relinquished his role as head of the coordination group for Hong Kong and Macau. But he soon started to upend the Communist Party’s collective leadership system, eventually taking personal charge of all major decision-making.

Support for Xi

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s approval rating in Hong Kong

Is head of the

Communist Party

In a marked shift from his predecessors, Mr. Xi stressed that Beijing exercised “overall governance authority” over Hong Kong. The formulation first appeared in a June 2014 government white paper that warned against “confused or lopsided” perceptions of Hong Kong’s status and said its partial autonomy came “solely from the authorization by the central leadership.”

Following through on the earlier promise, Beijing offered a plan to let Hong Kongers vote on their next chief executive—so long as candidates were effectively screened by the central leadership. Mr. Xi and his advisers were taken aback when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in autumn 2014 to reject that plan, according to people involved in official discussions.

China’s leader now saw himself as being locked in a struggle for control of Hong Kong that he described as “long-term, complex and at times sharp,” according to the 2017 speech by Mr. Chen, the retired official.

“The trees want tranquility but the winds won’t stop,” he quoted Mr. Xi as saying.

Taking their cue from Beijing, Hong Kong’s authorities adopted a hard line against leaders of the 2014 protests, prosecuting several and barring others from the legislature. Chinese security agents abducted or detained five Hong Kong booksellers and held them in the mainland for investigation. Most have since been released but remain monitored.

Armored vehicles and troop trucks were parked by Shenzhen Bay Stadium in mainland China on Aug. 17, prompting speculation they could be sent in to suppress the Hong Kong protests.


Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

Agents also abducted billionaire Xiao Jianhua from a Hong Kong hotel in 2017 and took him to the mainland to facilitate investigations into alleged financial crimes. Chinese officials haven’t publicly accused him of wrongdoing or accounted for his whereabouts.

By the time Mr. Xi visited Hong Kong in mid-2017 to mark the 20th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule, it looked as though his strategy was working. “Hong Kong has joined the remarkable journey toward the great renewal of the Chinese nation,” he proclaimed.

Then came a warning: Challenging Beijing’s power, Mr. Xi said, “is an act that crosses the red line.”

“As President Xi says, one country is one country,” said

Ip Kwok-him,

a nonofficial member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council and deputy to China’s parliament. “It’s no longer about accommodating Hong Kong’s needs.”

For almost two years afterward, Hong Kong’s democracy movement languished. Then, after the city’s government this February proposed a bill allowing extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland, opposition began to swell.

While some political figures in Hong Kong accuse its government of emulating Mr. Xi’s intolerance of dissent, others blame Beijing’s representatives in the city for overreaching in an attempt to please the Chinese leader.

“President Xi of course has a more serious manner when looking at the Hong Kong issues,” said

Ma Fung-kwok,

a pro-Beijing member of Hong Kong’s legislature and China’s national parliament. “He has been quite demanding on many aspects, so you can see that the liaison office here is more proactive.”

Maybe Beijing’s representatives in Hong Kong “are pushing too hard,” Mr. Ma said.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in October 2018 at a ceremony to open a sea bridge connecting Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China, at a time when Beijing was tightening its grip on its semiautonomous territories.


fred dufour/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Mr. Xi has largely stayed silent on the Hong Kong protests. In a Sept. 3 speech at Beijing’s Central Party School, he identified Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan affairs as among the major challenges to his China Dream.

A critical question now is whether he would use force to protect his vision of a unified China.

Hong Kong Chief Executive

Carrie Lam

told business leaders in Hong Kong last month that Beijing didn’t have plans for a military crackdown, according to a leaked recording published by Reuters.

With thousands of paramilitary police still massed on the border, others aren’t so sure. “I do know that it is a last resort,” said Mr. Tien, the pro-Beijing Hong Kong legislator. “In the end, it’s up to the decision of one person.”

Write to Chun Han Wong at and Jeremy Page at

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