President Barack Obama has frequently predicted that the aggressive policies of Russia and China in places such as Ukraine and the South China Sea are destined to be self- defeating, because of the blowback they generate. It has been, at times, an all-too-convenient theory for a president reluctant to embrace robust counteraction by the United States. But an election in Hong Kong last weekend provided strong evidence that, in the case of that quasi-autonomous Chinese territory, Beijing’s growing repression and nationalism under President Xi Jinping have backfired.
Two years ago, the Communist regime touched off mass protests in Hong Kong by refusing to allow fully democratic elections for the city’s chief executive. It then refused to compromise with students and other pro-democracy activists who peacefully occupied major streets in the city for 79 days, and instead brought criminal charges against some of them. Since then, Beijing has further eroded the independence of Hong Kong media and universities and launched an extralegal campaign against a critical book publisher, abducting its principals and confining them in China.
The response of Hong Kong’s electorate was to turn out Sunday in record numbers to hand pro- democracy forces a decisive victory in elections for the Legislative Council. Most important, six candidates favoring consideration of independence from Beijing swept to victory. None were older than 40, and several were leaders of the 2014 “Umbrella” protest movement. Because most of the council’s members are not chosen by popular election, the opposition will not have a majority, and real power still lies with the pro-Beijing chief executive. Nevertheless, the opposition’s ability to frustrate legislation with vetoes and filibusters has been strengthened.
Moreover, the cause of Hong Kong independence — a direct response to Beijing’s past repression — has been legitimized for the first time. The regime tried to squelch that, too, requiring legislative candidates to sign pledges supporting Hong Kong’s incorporation in China and banning six who either refused to sign or were regarded as insincere. A student-founded party called Demosisto, which calls for a referendum on Hong Kong’s future status, was denied a bank account and permission to distribute its election materials; two of its leaders were sentenced to community service last month for their actions in 2014. No matter: One of them, 23-year-old Nathan Law, won election.
The rebuff confronts Xi with a dilemma: conciliate with the opposition, including those who still favor Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, or crack down still harder. There is a deal to be made with the moderates, who seek only to compel China to fulfill its own promises about democracy in Hong Kong. But the four-year record of the Xi regime strongly suggests it will double down on repression, especially on the new pro-independence crowd. That would risk engendering a still greater backlash: According to one recent poll, 40 percent of Hong Kong youths between ages 15 and 24 support eventual independence. As Obama might observe, the arc of history in Hong Kong is not bending toward China’s Communists.