The Cost of China's Determination in Hong Kong

Beijing's refusal to make concessions to demonstrating students may stem the protests, but could also permanently alienate the next generation.

Hong Kong's protests have hardened youthful distrust of Beijing. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying struck a conciliatory tone during a press conference on Thursday, announcing that his government was willing to meet with student protest leaders to resolve the territory's political crisis.

"Politics is the art of the possible," Leung said.

Leung, though, was careful to stress that what was possible was only so much. Hong Kong, under pressure from Beijing, remains unwilling to rescind a new law that limits eligibility for the territory's 2017 chief-executive elections to candidates pre-approved by China. Leung pointed out that the chief demands of student protest leaders—that Hong Kong grant its population "universal suffrage" and that Leung step down—are out of the question, and that his patience with the demonstrations has worn out.

"We cannot allow the situation to continue to have an adverse effect on Hong Kong society," he said. China was far more blunt. An editorial published Wednesday in the People's Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, said simply that "the protests are doomed to fail."

Even if, as likely, the protesters eventually give up without obtaining meaningful concessions, the events in Hong Kong over the last month reveal an ominous trend for China.

Consider demographics. Although the protests encompassed a broad swathe of Hong Kong society, students—epitomized by the precocious 17-year-old Joshua Wong—served as the movement's organizational leadership. This was no accident: The first generation in Hong Kong to come of age after China assumed sovereignty of the territory in 1997 looks upon the mainland least favorably. A Hong Kong University poll conducted in September found that 75 percent of residents aged 18 to 29 distrust the Chinese government, while 85 percent express little or no confidence in "one country, two systems," Hong Kong's post-colonial arrangement to maintain separate legal and economic institutions from China through 2047.

"'One country, two systems' was actually a compromise between China and Hong Kong's business elite, as it allowed this elite to continue operating for 50 years," said Joseph Lee, a professor of history at Pace University in New York. "But the compromise reflected short-term thinking, and paid no attention to the needs of the newer generation."

For China, the Hong Kong protests also have implications beyond the territory's borders. The mainland's cultural and trade links with Taiwan, an island Beijing considers to be a renegade province, have grown considerably closer in the past decade. But Taiwan's President Ma Yingjeo—whose Kuomintang Party has traditionally favored eventual reunification with the mainland—recently said the situation in Hong Kong "worried him" and that he felt the "one country, two systems" template was unsuitable for Taiwan. Earlier this year, students opposed to closer ties with China occupied Taiwan's legislative chamber, and most recently demonstrated in solidarity with their Hong Kong counterparts.

Students on the mainland, however, have shown less sympathy toward Hong Kong's protesters, inasmuch as they've paid much attention to them at all. China has pointed out that they never promised universal suffrage, and that, in any case, Hong Kong residents enjoy more political freedoms now than they ever did under British rule.

But China's goal to fold Hong Kong and Taiwan into a single Chinese identity remains elusive. "Beijing's obsession with centralization and control has put them at odds with the younger generation in Hong Kong and Taiwan," said Lee.