In the old days, no problem. When a dictator wanted to eliminate his enemies, he simply went ahead and did it. Arranged for them to disappear or, maybe, not disappear. Maybe to be found dead on the street or in the bush, to serve as a warning to anyone who would cross him.
Even today by and large that’s what happens. When dictators want to erase their opposition, they do so, without apparent compunction or contrition. Anything to preserve their power. Meantime we, we Americans, generally pay them no mind, even when they kill with apparent abandon. Mostly we are too busy or too oblivious or too distracted or too uninformed or too indifferent or too pitiless even to pay attention, not to speak of care.
But every now and then a dictator comes along who is impossible to ignore – who for various reasons matters even to Americans. Such a leader is Xi Jinping. Why does Xi matter? The list is long – but close to the top of the list is his most obvious opposition. Which is not, of course, in mainland China, but in Hong Kong. His opponents in Hong Kong are so large in their numbers, so persistent in their protests, and so skilled at attracting global attention that for now at least they symbolize the struggle between autocracy and democracy. This struggle is not new; it’s been going on in Hong Kong for five years. But in the last two months it’s been relentless, so ceaseless that the Chinese authorities have had no choice but to address it.
Here’s the tricky part. Xi Jinping does not have the luxury of his predecessors or even of most of his dictatorial contemporaries. Should he decide to use force, to bring in the army to subdue the people, the price he will pay is certain to be high. The world is watching. Hong Kong is center stage and there’s no bloodying anyone, least of all a young protester, without incurring global outrage.
Which is why at least up now the Communist Party of China – read Xi Jinping – has exercised unaccustomed restraint. To be sure, the Chinese authorities have done something. They have tried to crush the opposition by hiding their iron fist in a velvet glove. Tried to outmaneuver their Hong Kong opponents by, for example, manipulating social media, putting the squeeze on business, and limiting access to the mainland. So far though nothing has worked. Maybe nothing will work – short of using violence to force the people of Hong Kong to toe China’s line. How risky a tactic would that be? Clearly so risky that Xi himself is reluctant to use it. What an irony – a near all-powerful leader on the horns of a most difficult and possibly dangerous dilemma.