Hong Kong protests could threaten Communist Party rule in China, Diamond says

rtr48f93 Paul Zimmerman, a district councillor, raises a yellow umbrella as Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (5th R) and other officials make a toast to guests at a reception following a flag raising ceremony in Hong Kong October 1, 2014. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong reflect a direct challenge to the Chinese government, according to Stanford professor Larry Diamond. The younger Hong Kong generation has greater expectations of democratic freedoms, and Communist Party rule in China may be in its final decade, he said.

The street demonstrators in Hong Kong could have serious implications for political stability in China and the future of its Communist Party, a Stanford scholar says.

In an interview with Stanford News Service, Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute, discussed the Hong Kong situation.

In 2007, China promised that Hong Kong residents could vote for the chief executive of Hong Kong in a 2017 popular vote. However, on Aug. 31, China's legislature proposed changes that in effect closed the voting process – igniting widespread protests in the streets of Hong Kong. A former British colony of 7.2 million people, Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997.

What rights do Hong Kong citizens have that are different from people on mainland China?

Under the principle of "one country, two systems" – known as the Basic Law – Hong Kong was promised the right to keep its capitalist way of life and its political autonomy, with civil freedoms and a rule of law, at least through 2047, 50 years after the handover of power in 1997.

But under pressure from Beijing, there has been gradual subtle erosion of academic freedom and press freedom, and increasing political control from Beijing. Still, as of today, Hong Kong has a level of civil freedom – freedom of speech, press and association – that people in mainland China can only dream of, and it has democratic elections for about half of its legislative seats.

How do you describe the Chinese government's reaction to the protests?

I think the Beijing authorities have been stunned by the intensity and scope of the protests, and quite unprepared. They are in a dilemma. They do not want to perpetrate another bloodbath like the crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Yet neither do they want to allow the protests to just continue to occupy large parts of central Hong Kong and press democratic demands.

Finally, they do not want to do what they should have done months ago – negotiate on some compromise formula to at least allow "gradual and orderly progress," as envisioned in the Basic Law, toward democracy in Hong Kong. They are in a bind, which could have serious implications ultimately for political stability in China itself.

Are the Chinese authorities surprised at the magnitude of the protests, and if so, why?

Yes, they thought that the people of Hong Kong would just swallow hard and surrender their dreams of democratic self-governance, just as they have accepted previous impositions by Beijing essentially blocking or deferring democratic progress. But Hong Kongers are fed up by now; they have been waiting for 17 years for China to deliver on the implicit promise in the Basic Law for democratic elections through universal suffrage to choose their chief executive.

And this is a new, more tech-savvy and democratically self-conscious generation of young Hong Kongers who have higher expectations, worse job prospects and more social media tools at their disposal. This emerging generation in Hong Kong is mad as hell, and they are not going to take it anymore.

Will this challenge Beijing's typical strategy for dealing with dissent and protests?

I think the Beijing authorities are really in a serious bind. Their frequent strategy in dealing with local-level protests is to try to grant some specific demands to mollify protestors and then isolate and arrest some of the harder-line protest elements. But the Hong Kong protests are so big and so visible, and the demands of the protestors – essentially, for democratic elections in Hong Kong – so risk the democratic "virus" spreading to the rest of China that the Beijing authorities do not feel they can make significant concessions.

If they crack down with brutal force, it will be Tiananmen all over again, and their international reputation will be badly damaged, along with any prospect of closer integration with Taiwan. If they negotiate under pressure, they fear setting a dangerous and highly visible precedent. If they do nothing, they may hope it just blows over as demonstrators get tired. I think that will be their initial strategy. If it does not work, they may dump Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung to serve up a sacrificial lamb. Then, if that does not work, they are really in trouble.

What do you envision as the likely outcome of the protests?

I really do not know. They could gradually subside from exhaustion, but I think this is a new generation of Hong Kongers that is not going to simply melt away into passivity again. They could recur periodically, or just keep growing, while paralyzing normal business and governance in Hong Kong. If the latter happens, Beijing may decide it has to use force. I hope they don't do that. If the Beijing leadership was smart, they would negotiate a compromise agreement to allow gradual progress toward democratic self-governance. But I think they are too gripped with political fear of the future to risk that.

This could well mutate into a larger if more incremental challenge to the overall legitimacy of Communist Party rule. And if the increasingly vulnerable Chinese economy should slip into crisis before stability is returned to Hong Kong, then all bets are off. I think the profundity of this crisis in Hong Kong and the blunt and clumsy intransigence of China's leadership in responding to it are two more signs that Communist Party rule in China may be in its final decade.

The system is too politically rigid and the leadership is too conservative to respond creatively to a fundamental political crisis. I hope I am wrong about that, because it would be much better for China and the world if political change were to happen there through incremental reform rather than another massive societal upheaval.

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, those who make peaceful reform impossible make sudden revolutionary change inevitable.

Media Mentions

Larry Diamond writes in Time, "Xi Jinping Could Be China's Last Communist Ruler" -Time (Oct. 1, 2014)

Larry Diamond in an interview with Fox Business News, "Why Xi Jinping won't repeat the Tiananmen Square incident in Hong Kong" (Oct. 1, 2014)

Larry Diamond mentioned in The New York Times for China, "Limited Tools to Quell Unrest in Hong Kong" -The New York Times (China) (Sept. 30, 2014)