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Hong Kong protests

Xi brings in 'firefighter' Wang Qishan in bid to calm Hong Kong

Protesters say Beijing concession on extradition bill is too little, too late

TOKYO -- China's Vice President Wang Qishan, a close aide to President Xi Jinping and the former enforcer of the president's anti-corruption campaign, is believed to have played a key role in the recent developments in Hong Kong.

Wang was in the southern province of Guangdong from Aug. 29 to 31. Officially, the vice president was there to make an inspection tour related to the protection of cultural assets.

But few believe that Wang would spend three days looking at calligraphy and paintings when, just across the waters, tensions were rising in Hong Kong.

After all, Wang has demonstrated a knack for bringing crises under control. In the months after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Wang oversaw the bankruptcy of state owned Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corp, the biggest such collapse in China. When the Sars virus broke out in Beijing in 2003, Wang was tapped as mayor to contain it.

The handling of these issues earned him the nickname "fire brigade chief."

In late August, a message presumably from Beijing spread among the Chinese diaspora. It went like this: The Chinese government will resolve the Hong Kong problem by the Sept. 13 Mid-Autumn Festival, the most important family gathering on the Chinese calendar.

The message began reaching its intended recipients about 10 days after a secretive annual gathering of current Chinese Communist Party leaders and retired elders concluded in the seaside town of Beidaihe, Hebei Province.

From the message, Hong Kongers presumed that the central government wanted to resolve their uprising before Oct. 1, when a ceremony and military parade in Beijing will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

But how, they wondered, did the central government intend to resolve the matter?

One video foreshadowed an ominous response. It showed units of the People's Armed Police, or PAP, in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. In the video, the special forces were conducting a large-scale anti-demonstration exercise. The footage would go on to air intermittently.

The PAP units, under the command of the Central Military Commission and already right across the border from Hong Kong, appeared to be awaiting a decision from Beijing.

The protests began in early June with a single demand, that an extradition bill be withdrawn. The legislation would allow criminal suspects and people passing through Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China. Over time, the protesters added four more demands concerning the fate of those arrested in clashes with police and the state of Hong Kong's democracy.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the bill would be officially withdrawn.

Beijing had made its decision. But it must have been difficult for the central government to acquiesce on a demand made by citizens, especially when the concession would prove street demonstrations to be effective.

Before Wednesday, mainland authorities had tried all manner of options to quell the protests. All proved to be ineffective. The unusual call to pull the extradition bill must have had its origin in Beidaihei and come at the request of the party elders.

Jiang Zemin, the 93-year-old former president, arrived at the conclave after attending the funeral of Li Peng, a former premier who died in July at the age of 90. Former President Hu Jintao as well as former premiers Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao also are thought to have been on hand for the seaside meeting, where resolving the Hong Kong unrest was a pressing issue.

Jiang Zemin, a heavyweight among Chinese Communist Party elders, makes a rare public appearance at the funeral of former Premier Li Peng in July 2019. (CCTV/Kyodo)

Although Beijing has People's Liberation Army troops stationed in Hong Kong -- as well as the PAP forces lurking right across the border from Hong Kong -- it would pay a high economic price if it were to send in the military.

This becomes less of an option when considering China's economic growth is already losing steam due to the effects of the country's trade war with the U.S. A military answer to Hong Kong would play into the hands of China's rival hegemon.

The move taken by Xi's administration this week was a piecemeal concession. Ahead of the big 70th anniversary celebration, it chose substance over appearance, even if it meant losing face.

Since June, when the first massive demonstration took place in Hong Kong, Vice Premier Han Zheng, the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of Hong Kong, has visited Shenzhen multiple times to convey the central government's wishes to Hong Kong leader Lam.

The chief executive gradually softened her stance on the controversial extradition bill. She initially said that she would indefinitely postpone the bill. She later declared the bill to be "dead." Her remarks reflected the political winds in Beijing.

But the protests did not end. Each time, Lam had stopped short of withdrawing the bill. The clashes between protesters and police escalated. On some days, protesters affected operations at Hong Kong International Airport, resulting in flight cancellations.

It was against this backdrop that the "fire brigade chief" Wang Qishan headed south. It is unclear whether he met with Lam during his Guangdong stay. But he is seen to have conveyed Xi's thoughts to the Hong Kong government.

Vice President Wang Qishan has become President Xi Jinping's firefighter.   © Reuters

The Beijing leadership believes it has taken a bold step. But some protesters have released a statement saying they will continue their fight. Others in the movement say they have no intention of backing down until all five demands are met. And many see the concession as too little too late.

The chasm between the officials of Beijing and the people of Hong Kong remains vast.

Xi has entrusted the Hong Kong issue to two political heavyweights. Vice Premier Han is one of seven Politburo Standing Committee members, and Wang carried out Xi's unrelenting anti-corruption crackdown against political foes during Xi's first term as president.

One would presume that with his core aides handling the matter, Xi has a thought-out game plan going forward. If Xi's team has already played all its cards, it will face problems controlling the situation.

Hong Kong voters have long demanded universal suffrage. Currently, a 1,200-person committee of Hong Kong business executives and community leaders thought to be sympathetic to Beijing elect the chief executive, choosing from among three candidates essentially approved by Beijing.

Fresh from their first victory, it would not be a surprise if the protesters surmise they can win substantial concessions by pushing further.

The universal suffrage demand, which has remained unchanged since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, is something that should be put directly to the central government, which has ultimate authority in interpreting Hong Kong's fundamental law.

But just like it does not want to play into the U.S.'s hands, the Xi administration also does not want to make a decision that could spark a "color revolution," one which ripples out from Hong Kong and generates a mainland fervor to peacefully overthrow the government. As such, the policy of eliminating candidates who are not obedient to the central government appears unlikely to change.

Hong Kongers' dissatisfaction has been directed at Lam and Hong Kong police. Lam has said she must serve "two masters," the central government and Hong Kong citizens. So where do the players involved go from here? The protest movement has expanded to include a wider spectrum of Hong Kongers. Will their faceoff with Beijing's proxy escalate into a hard landing? With three weeks remaining until Oct. 1, the situation remains terribly unpredictable.

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