BEIJING — China’s leaders were battered by a typhoon over the weekend during their annual Communist Party retreat at Beidaihe, a coastal resort where senior officials have gathered each August for more than six decades.
But President Xi Jinping and his comrades have also been weathering a political storm, with the growing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong adding to pressure on a regime already locked in a damaging trade war with the United States.
“Xi Jinping and the rest of the Chinese leadership are under siege,” said Elizabeth Economy, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The Chinese economy is slowing significantly, exacerbated by the trade war; and the ‘China model’ is cracking under the weight of Xinjiang, Taiwan, Belt and Road messes and, most significantly, the massive protests in Hong Kong,” she said, referring to China’s efforts at control and influence within its borders and beyond.
The protests in Hong Kong, which have intensified over the summer as demonstrators clamor for greater freedoms and rights, show no sign of petering out. In fact, Hong Kong students are making plans to demonstrate when universities resume classes next month.
That would take the protests uncomfortably close to celebrations planned on Oct. 1 to mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, which was established with the goal of unifying greater China under the leadership of the Communist Party.
To have a quasi-secessionist movement in one territory — Hong Kong — inspiring young people in what Beijing considers a renegade province — Taiwan — on such an important anniversary would be too much for Xi to bear, analysts say.
That concern, combined with increasingly strident rhetoric from Chinese officials, has raised fears about the possibility of military intervention in Hong Kong.
This week, state-affiliated media outlets tweeted ominous videos of Chinese tanks carrying out exercises in Shenzhen, the southern Chinese city that borders Hong Kong, while authorities in Beijing portrayed the protests as “terrorism.”
“Hong Kong will slide into a bottomless abyss if the terror atrocities are allowed to continue,” China’s liaison office responsible for Hong Kong affairs said Monday, according to state news agency Xinhua.
“By calling what is going on ‘terrorism,’ it seems they’re paving the way to intervene,” said Victoria Tin-bor Hui, an expert on Hong Kong pro-democracy movements at the University of Notre Dame. “That’s making everyone very worried.”
China already stands accused of sending in thugs from local gangs to try to deter the protesters in Hong Kong, and there are growing concerns that it will send in the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force responsible for internal security and “stability maintenance.” Or perhaps even the People’s Liberation Army.
But most analysts think that Beijing will stop short of sending in troops.
“From Beijing’s perspective, they don’t have a lot of good options here. That’s why they are using the most stringent language possible, so they don’t need to actually use force and violence to unravel the protests,” said Jude Blanchette, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The calculation from Beijing is pretty dire despite all the levers that they can potentially pull,” he said.
Those levers could include sending in soldiers or police forces in plain clothes, relying on gang members to rough up demonstrators, or launching patriotic counterprotests.
Beijing is also trying to pressure commercial interests to stop the protests. In recent days, Chinese authorities have suggested that Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong-based airline, is unsafe to fly because some of its employees have joined the demonstrations.
Xi’s reticence to resort to military force is partly because the party wants to avoid a repeat of 1989, when it sent tanks into Tiananmen Square in Beijing to break up pro-democracy protests, and partly because it doesn’t want to shoulder the blame for any violence.
Hong Kong has enjoyed special international status since its return to Chinese control in 1997, recognized by countries including the United States and agencies such as the World Trade Organization as a separate entity for economic and trade purposes.
That has enabled the territory to remain a global financial center, but it has also benefited China.
Mainland companies registered in Hong Kong are able to get around the Trump administration’s tariffs imposed over the past year, and Hong Kong entities can continue to import sensitive technology that might be banned for mainland firms.
That’s a strong deterrent to using military force, said Ho-fung Hung, a specialist on Chinese protests at Johns Hopkins University.
“Military intervention is still out of the question unless Xi Jinping is very unwise,” he said. “If they use the PLA or the PAP, then Xi and the Central Military Commission will be taking responsibility for what happens next. If they use the Hong Kong police forces, then they can blame those authorities for anything that happens.”
More likely, said Clayton Dube, head of the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, is that Beijing will try to wait it out.
“I think that, as in 2014, the demonstrators will be worn out and some of them will be arrested and jailed,” said Dube, referring to the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement that lasted for a little more than 11 weeks. The current protests have reached that mark already.
But waiting out the unrest risks failing to resolve longer-term issues concerning Hong Kong’s governance.
“It doesn’t mean that the issues go away and it doesn’t mean that the hostility, the anger and the frustration are dissipated,” Dube said. “In fact, that’s one reason why the crowds are even bigger in 2019 than they were in 2014.”
Still, the Hong Kong protests do not pose an existential threat to Xi, analysts say, in part because the territory is contained and distant from Beijing.
For the Chinese leader, the biggest challenge remains the domestic economy. Growth has slowed to its weakest in almost 30 years, meaning that many young Chinese — the age of those protesting in Hong Kong — are experiencing their first real worsening of economic prospects.
This slowdown is exacerbated by the trade war with the United States, which is affecting China’s huge manufacturing industry and shaking confidence.
Ironically, the trade war could help Xi to undercut the Hong Kong protests.
Authorities in Beijing have repeatedly accused “hostile foreign forces,” especially the United States, of fomenting unrest and trying to foster a “color revolution” inside China’s borders — a reference to the uprisings that have toppled regimes in the Middle East and Eastern Europe this century.
“As the possibility of a deal with the U.S. becomes more remote, it opens up avenues to blame ‘shadowy forces’ orchestrated and organized by the U.S.,” Blanchette said. “If things were going well in the trade talks, it would have made it more difficult to play that card.”
Indeed, Chinese state media had a field day with photographs showing an American diplomat in Hong Kong meeting with pro-democracy activists.
But at their core, the Hong Kong demonstrations are not just about pushing back against Beijing’s increasing efforts to control the semiautonomous territory, but about economic concerns such as unfathomable housing prices and diminishing job opportunities.
There is no sign of protests spilling over into the mainland, but these are concerns that Xi knows he needs to address, said Yu Jie, senior research fellow on China at Chatham House in London.
At the most recent Politburo meeting, Xi listed three domestic priorities: Stabilizing employment, boosting household consumption and mitigating major risks.
“As the People’s Republic’s 70th birthday approaches, the world’s largest political party must tell a convincing story that its policies will work for everyone in China,” Yu said. “That story is not about a victorious conclusion for President Xi in dealing with external pressures but rather a story that continues to legitimize the party’s rule by providing jobs and domestic social stability.”