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Hong Kong protests

Xi's Hong Kong strategy backfires, from election results to Trump

Mainland leadership misjudges local and global reaction to protests

A poster in Hong Kong thanks U.S. President Donald Trump for signing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.   © AP

BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping suffered twin blows to his approach to Hong Kong this week: first on Sunday when democrats dominated local elections, and then a few days later when U.S. President Donald Trump signed legislation on human rights in the city.

China banked on Trump not signing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act -- which, among other things, imposes sanctions on Chinese officials found to violate Hong Kongers' human rights -- in order to move trade negotiations forward. But this was not Beijing's first big miscalculation.

Right until Hong Kong's district council elections Sunday, state broadcaster China Central Television quoted locals on the importance of elections and urged voters to help end the violence.

Xi's socialism with Chinese characteristics, which grants the Communist Party leadership above all, does not allow for competitive elections on the mainland. But state media aggressively urged Hong Kongers to vote, likely because Xi was told the pro-Beijing camp would win.

Chinese leaders championed the very concept of elections they reject at home in hopes of showing the world that most in Hong Kong stand with Beijing. Instead, pro-democracy candidates took more than 80% of the elected seats.

State media quickly fell silent once the results came out and still have not reported them on the mainland.

Trump's signing of the Hong Kong bill was another major miscalculation. The American leader said in August that it would be very hard to keep dealing with China "if it's another Tiananmen Square." Xi took this as a sign that Trump would prioritize trade negotiations unless Beijing sent the military or armed police into Hong Kong.

Yet Trump picked up his pen, unable to defy the American public's ballooning concern over the situation in Hong Kong. China grossly underestimated public sentiment in the U.S. and the global community as a whole.

Still, Beijing is unlikely to heed the voices in Hong Kong and the rest of the world. The Communist Party views public opinion as something fallible that must be molded. Its grip on power would also crumble if it starts deferring to the public in its decision-making.

The correct path for China "is socialism with Chinese characteristics," Xi said here Nov. 22 at an event attended by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

With full confidence, the Chinese people will unswervingly follow this path, Xi added. The comment was likely a message to the U.S. that regardless of how the Hong Kong elections turned out, China would brook no opposition to Communist Party rule.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly slammed Trump's signing of the bill, saying Thursday that the Chinese government and people "firmly oppose such stark hegemonic acts" and vowing retaliation if the U.S. continues "going down the wrong path." The Xi administration is expected to pull no punches against what it considers a challenge to its inalienable beliefs.

Hong Kong has become the front lines in the battle between democracy and China's one-party rule. Xi has no room for compromise as the Sino-American rivalry spreads from largely trade and technology to fundamental values.

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