December 16, 2019


Xi Jinping's Annus Horribilis (MINXIN PEI, 12/16/19, Project Syndicate)

Further risks arise from Hong Kong, which is engulfed in its worst political crisis since its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. It all started when Hong Kong's China-backed chief executive proposed a bill that would make it easier to extradite criminal suspects from the city to the mainland. Viewing this as part of a broader central-government campaign to assert tighter control over the special administrative region, people poured into the streets to protest.

The government refused to budge, so the protesters became angrier, and their numbers grew. Asia's commercial hub quickly became a battle zone, with riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at black-clad protesters, who responded with Molotov cocktails and bricks. By the time the bill was formally withdrawn, months had passed, and it was too late to return the genie to the bottle. Despite thousands of arrests, the protesters have shown no signs of backing down.

In late November, after more than six months of unrest, China's government suffered the ultimate indignity, when nearly three million voters turned out to hand an overwhelming victory to pro-democracy forces in local district-council elections (which won 388 of the 452 contested seats). At this point, a crackdown reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre would be likely to backfire, leaving Xi with few options.1

Xi suffered another serious blow in November, when The New York Times obtained more than 400 pages of internal Chinese documents concerning the mass incarceration of ethnic minorities - particularly Muslim Uighurs - in the Xinjiang region. Only Chinese government insiders had access to such sensitive materials, suggesting that Xi's political enemies may have deliberately leaked them to the Western press in order to undermine his international standing.

Xi is also losing his grip in Taiwan. At the end of last year, Taiwan's ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, led by President Tsai Ing-wen, was dealt a painful general election defeat. But, since the protests erupted in Hong Kong, Tsai has portrayed herself as defending Taiwan from a Chinese-government stooge who would accept a "one country, two systems" model. Tsai now seems set to secure a landslide victory in next month's presidential election.

Xi can blame only himself - or, more specifically, his excessive centralization of power - for the challenges of the last year.

Posted by at December 16, 2019 7:34 PM