Since the UK handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, mainland China has struggled to popularise its notion of 'one country, two systems' in the former colony. Earlier this week, Hong Kong delivered a strong message to the mainland government about how it sees its future – and it bears little resemblance to Beijing's vision.
On 4 September, Hong Kong held its Legislative Council election, with record voter turnout (albeit only 58%), and results that won't please Beijing. The 'one country, two systems' vision is losing out to self-determination and even independence. Beijing is no doubt aware of these sentiments, but finds itself in a difficult position. Its efforts so far at enveloping Hong Kong into the mainland's embrace have not succeeded, but losing the city is absolutely unthinkable.
Over the past years, Hong Kongers' feelings about China have become increasingly ambivalent. Things came to a head during the 'Umbrella Movement' of 2014; however, tensions appear to have calmed since then. Under the surface, resentment against the mainland (and mainlanders) has been simmering. While many Hong Kong people still consider themselves ethnically Chinese, they often go to great pains to distance themselves from the People's Republic. They identify as Hong Kongers, not Chinese. In some instances, the British flag has been seen again. Racism against mainlanders is on the rise.
The Hong Kong election results are not likely to result in a real shift in policy regarding Hong Kong's relationship with the mainland any time soon. However, they certainly send a powerful indication to Beijing that a significant minority of the Hong Kong population is not satisfied with the 'one country two systems' model, as it currently stands.
For officials in Beijing, self-determination or independence for Hong Kong is politically impossible. Territorial integrity (particularly regarding Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong) is a fundamental element of the Chinese national identity and of the Communist Party's legitimacy. Hong Kong is an existential issue.
So, how will Beijing respond to these challenges to its vision? Its ability to 'do things with words' for political purposes, as Michael Schoenhals explains in his excellent monograph, is sophisticated and largely successful – at least, on the mainland. However, its record of successfully swaying public opinion in its direction in other social and political contexts is far patchier. Despite putting considerable resources into international soft power projection in recent years, the government has tended to assume that societies elsewhere function largely like China's. In particular, it has not allowed for variations in power relations between people and the state, and in how people view themselves in relation to state power.
For most Chinese people, state power has come to be perceived as an immovable inevitability – it is how it is, it cannot be changed, and there's no point in trying. This is not the case for many Hong Kongers, including the new, young voices in politics. For them, the very idea that the mainland Chinese government sees itself as an immutable truth in Hong Kong life is uncomfortable.
At the time of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, some observers feared that the protests could trigger 'another Tiananmen', where Beijing would unleash the full force of its hard power on the people. As I argued then, this scenario was not likely. Things have changed in China since then, with Xi's increased control over corruption and dissent. Xi is no longer testing out the waters; he is comfortable exercising his authority.
Nonetheless, he is still operating in a panopticon – the rest of the world is watching, particularly when China has just hosted the G20, where it worked hard to send a message to the world that it is a mature and capable global actor. That the mainland Chinese population perceives the Communist Party as steering China 'back to its rightful place' (as a dignified and highly-respected international actor) is critical to Beijing. It is one of the key pillars of Communist Party legitimacy. However, it is not necessarily more important than territorial integrity; that is, keeping Hong Kong as part of China.
Unless Beijing quickly and radically changes its approach to winning over Hong Kong hearts and minds, it will be an enormous challenge for the government to convince the population that its interests are best served by being part of China, while at the same time demonstrating to the world that it is a responsible global actor. It will require the kind of sophisticated understanding of how others think that the Chinese government has so far rarely demonstrated.