10/02/2014 02:01 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

Why Xi Should Give In (But Probably Won't)


It's not too late for Xi Jinping to change course.

So far, he is addressing the Occupy movement in Hong Kong with a predictable Party recipe for containing political movements. Step 1: Arrest and intimidate movement leaders and sympathizers. Step 2: Slander the protestors as foreign-backed extremists in official media outlets. Step 3: Warn of consequences to come. Step 4: Wait it out.

This particular protest has an air of inevitability. Before the island's return to mainland control in 1997, former leader Deng Xiaoping promised Hong Kong citizens they would retain a degree of political autonomy, and that the principle of "One Country, Two Systems" would govern the relationship. Now, in advance of the 2017 election for chief executive, Beijing has offered a deal that would allow universal suffrage, but maintains the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) right to control nomination procedures via a Party-dominated committee. This would effectively ensure the election of a pro-regime candidate.

In response, the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement has combined with a student-led class boycott to create the greatest popular challenge to the CCP regime since 1989. The protestors demand the resignation of current Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, and the removal of Beijing's meddling hand from the nomination process. They have bravely weathered violent storms of rain and briefly, tear gas. Their symbol is the umbrella. Their ranks and confidence grow by the day.

From Xi's perspective, the argument for playing the waiting game is relatively straightforward. If the regime acquiesces to movement demands, the direct loss will be the risk of a reformist candidate gaining the city's highest office. Hong Kong may enjoy a degree of autonomy, but pro-regime leadership helps keep the territory in line. CCP officials penetrate every level of the Chinese government, in every single province. There is no reason why Hong Kong should be different, or so the argument goes.

More broadly, giving in to protestor demands is risky business for any authoritarian regime. If the CCP gives in to the Hong Kong movement, other would-be discontents may take this as a signal that protest works. It would be a huge loss of face for the regime, and would be taken as a sign of weakness. This could then beget more protests, possibly in the mainland, that could further undermine the one-party system. A quick, unified and decisive repressive stance can nip any movement before it really gets moving.

So this is probably Xi Jinping's logic to date. But there are good reasons for Xi to stop now and give in, beyond being on the right side of history.

For starters, this mix of waiting and subtle intimidation might not work. Xi's hope is that the protestors grow bored, lose the war of public opinion, and decide to go home. But what if this continues for weeks, or even months? With each passing day, more and more repressive images leak through domestic censors in the mainland. The police have wisely retreated after their initial volley of tear gas, but each passing day also brings the possibility of additional missteps and violence. Recent accounts suggest that both sides are growing impatient. Tiananmen II seems unlikely, but even a single death would go viral, and could be enough to tip public opinion decisively against the regime. Ignoring the protesters might do more damage than simply appeasing them.

Second, the regime's current tactic of subtly eroding Hong Kong's freedoms isn't exactly working as intended. Hong Kong is different, and should be governed differently. Hong Kong citizens have never directly elected the city's leadership, but many harbor more liberal political and cultural identities, distinct from the authoritarian mainland. Maintaining control of the nomination procedures for the 2017 elections may help the CCP secure a crony in Hong Kong, but would that outcome ever be considered legitimate? And how has that method, to date, exactly ensured the stability of Hong Kong? If anything, repression now simply guarantees a predictable cycle of protests occurring in every election for the foreseeable future. Allowing Hong Kong citizens to freely choose their own leadership could engender sincere support for the mainland regime, something that appears to be in short supply.

And finally, allowing fully democratic elections in Hong Kong sends a positive signal of another sort-- that the regime truly honors the notion of "One Country, Two Systems." This is the model that the Xi was peddling in Taiwan, as recently as last week, to attempt to lure the island back to the mainland. If repression in Hong Kong continues, the concept of an autonomous Taiwan will be exposed as an empty promise, and sour the already-remote possibility of peaceful reintegration.

At about two years into his tenure, Xi Jinping confronts his legacy-defining moment. He faces the choice between acquiescing to pro-democracy forces in reformist Hong Kong, or quelling those forces with continued intimidation and indifference. So far, it seems that Xi is following the same old Party recipe, but here's hoping he tears it up.

Rory Truex is a professor in Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His research focuses on politics and public opinion in China.