Years ago, I began posting pieces on the struggle over the future of Hong Kong. The struggle between Hong Kongers on the one side, and the Chinese authorities on the other.
This essay is, then, an update. A systemic update that posits leadership is a system consisting of three parts: 1) leaders; 2) followers; and 3) contexts. Each is of equal importance. Each is independent of the other. Each is dependent on the other. And each is necessary to understanding what is happening in Hong Kong and why.
Apart from a brief period of Japanese occupation, Hong Kong was a British colony for well over a century, from 1841 to 1997. Though it was situated in the East, the many decades during which Hong Kong was governed by the West left their mark. In part for this reason, when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, China’s top leader, at the time Deng Xiaoping, guaranteed that Hong Kong would remain essentially in tact, autonomous, separate from the mainland, for another fifty years. Deng was, in other words, the architect of what came to be known as “one country, two systems.” While Hong Kong would from then on belong to China, it would be permitted for the next half century to govern itself. This meant was that for the next half century Hong Kong would be more democratic than autocratic, and more capitalist than socialist, not to speak of communist.
This was not mere magnanimity on Deng’s part. While the people of Hong Kong would benefit from being allowed to self-determine, China had its own reasons for keeping hands off. Under British rule Hong Kong had achieved a high level not only of autonomy, but of prosperity. Thus, this bastion of capitalism on the doorstep of the communist mainland was regarded, rightly, as important to China’s future economic development. This during a time when China remained largely undeveloped and desperately poor.
But within approximately one year after Xi Jinping came to power – he became President of the People’s Republic of China in 2013 – China’s attitude toward Hong Kong became notably more assertive. China began gradually to erode the liberties that Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people had previously enjoyed, and so, in 2014, they started to protest under the banner, “Umbrella Revolution.” The Umbrella Revolution – so-called because the peaceful protesters carried umbrellas – consisted of large numbers of pro-democracy demonstrators taking to the streets to vent their growing suspicion of Beijing.
Between approximately 2014 and 2019 was something of a standoff between the people of Hong Kong and the government of China. But because of Xi’s increasingly heavy hand, in 2019 Hong Kong’s anti-government protests – anti the Chinese government and anti their proxies in Hong Kong – escalated. They increased greatly in size and in the level of their anger, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators taking repeatedly to the streets, sometimes in response to something specific, sometimes just to register their outrage at the eroding of their autonomy. Notwithstanding the constant provocations, during this entire time the authorities in China mostly kept their powder dry. While there were sporadic efforts at clamping down, Xi was not prepared, then, to provoke a showdown. During all of last year he mostly refrained from intervening in Hong Kong with a heavy hand.
But, in 2020, things changed. The context changed – the context now was a virus crisis. Unlike Americans, Hong Kongers were familiar with this sort of threat; in 2003 they went through the SARS epidemic. But Covid-19 required that they no longer hold the enormous mass gatherings that just a few months earlier had characterized their political protests.
Xi seized the day. Last month, Beijing effectively dismantled decades of legal precedence by declaring it had full authority to intervene in Hong Kong. Last month, Beijing’s Hong Kong proxies arrested 15 veteran leaders of the protest movements. And, last month, Hong Kong’s government – which is allied with China – issued a series of statements condemning every member of the opposition. As Mary Hui put it Quartz, in the month of April, “the rules of engagement between Beijing and Hong Kong – ostensibly a city with a high degree of autonomy over its own affairs – were completely rewritten.” In May the battle lines were drawn still further. Though their numbers now were significantly smaller, members of Hong Kong’s opposition movement again took to the streets. This time the police promptly clamped downed – their had less patience and used more increased force. Hong Kong’s government meantime made clear that it would move forward with promptly enacting and then rigidly enforcing laws intended to take aim at anyone in Hong Kong who dared to dissent.
Covid gave Xi cover. Turned out that in 2019 he was just biding his time. Once the time was right – the virus crisis was all-consuming, the ultimate distraction – he pounced.
Xi Jinping is not the only leader in this drama. There are leaders of the opposition within Hong Kong. There are political leaders within Hong Kong who reliably represent the Chinese authorities. There are business leaders in Hong Kong – corporate titans who, not incidentally, supported the protesters in the past, but in the present want nothing so much as peace in their streets to be restored. And there are leaders in China who are other than Xi. But he, Xi, is the supreme leader. The leader whose word is law. The leader with the power and authority to enforce the law. The leader who bridges no dissent. The leader who in recent years metamorphosed from authoritarian to totalitarian.
Todd Pittinsky and I wrote a book titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. (The book is being published by Cambridge University Press; it will be available in September.) Xi is one of our exemplars: a leader who lusts – in his case for power.
Our definition of lust is simple. We define lust as a psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain an object or to secure a circumstance. When the object has been obtained, or the circumstance secured, there is relief, but only briefly, temporarily. Xi is a leader who lusts by every measure. All the evidence supports the proposition that he has a desperate want, or need to accumulate power, and then to accumulate more power. There is no evidence to the contrary, or even to suggest that when he accrues more power than he had previously, he will be satisfied, satiated. As Churchill said of Hitler, Xi’s appetite grows with his eating.
Xi’s tenure as all-powerful leader has not been without incident. In fact, early this year, when the corona virus started to spread in Wuhan, rapidly to become a significant threat, Xi disappeared from the political stage, presumably to decipher what was happening and to determine what to do about it. But, overall, his trajectory from being successful politician to being supreme leader who I should add, has now been given constitutional permission to stay supreme leader for life, has been near seamless.
So far, Xi, who is leader not only of the Chinese government but also, importantly, of the Chinese Communist Party, has spent most of his time in office consolidating his power within his own country. However, in the last few of years this started to change. Xi is no longer satisfied to control only his own people. He now wants other domains to dominate. It is not that his expansionist impulse is entirely new. China’s Belt and Road Initiative – which invests heavily in 70 countries around the world – began soon after he came into power. But Xi’s drive for power drove him more recently to lust after other juicy morsels, Hong Kong among them. Hong Kong has, of course, beckoned all along. But Xi seems to believe that now, finally, is the time to grab what rightfully is his. Beijing’s use of force, especially by the military, violently to suppress dissent in Hong Kong could still become a major political, economic, or even military problem. But Xi seems to be calculating that a likely win is worth the risk. Among its other virtues, it raises this question: if Hong Kong ends in China’s tent, how far behind can be Taiwan?
I define followers by rank. Which in this case means followers are the many millions who comprise President Xi Jinping’s subordinates. Defining followers by rank – as opposed to behavior – has the virtue of signaling that while most followers follow most of the time, not all followers follow all of the time. Some followers, in other words, do not follow. Some, in fact, deliberately, willfully, refuse to follow.
Like most prominent, especially dominant leaders, Xi has so
many followers that they best are grouped. Followers can be grouped in different
ways, for example, by type, or style. Previously (especially in my earlier book,
Followership) I divided followers by their level of engagement. “Isolates”
were, then, at the one end of the continuum. They were the least engaged. “Diehards,”
in contrast, were at the other end of the continuum, they were the most
For the purposes of this post the followers who have mattered most are the people of Hong Kong – in particular the enormous numbers of protesters, who ranged from being occasional Participants to being willing, if not even eager, to put their lives on the line for their cause. (I call these sorts of followers, “Diehards.”) Their cause is freedom. Freedom to govern themselves as they decide. Freedom above all from the iron fist that is the despot’s in Beijing.
In 2019 were times when over a million denizens of Hong Kong took to the streets to protest. While in the main the demonstrations were peaceful, as the year went on, they became increasingly vicious, clashes with the authorities growing both in their numbers and in their levels of violence. By early 2020, when Covid-19 became a real and present danger, they had already dwindled, the protesters as much disheartened as frightened.
But a poll of Hong Kongers conducted in March of this year showed that 58% of respondents remained still in favor of resistance, while only 28% came out against. Among other things, this signaled what seems to have become an indefinite schism between the majority of the people of Hong Kong and the government of Hong Kong, which is widely seen now as acting in the interests of Beijing, not in the interests of its own people. As I write, on May 27th, the tensions in Hong Kong are escalating still. Police brutality is one of the protesters’ biggest grievances. Nevertheless, not a single member of the police has at any point been charged for excessive use of force, from body-slamming to tear-gassing to pepper-spraying. In the last 24 hours alone some 360 people have been arrested for the approximate equivalent of disorderly conduct.
We cannot know, of course, how this will end. This though we do know. First, that Xi’s decision to brook no further dissent in Hong Kong likely is non-negotiable and non-retractable. Second, that from here on in those who violate his edicts likely are at significant personal risk. And third, that since in the last few hours Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U. S. would no longer consider Hong Kong is autonomous from China, the implications for relations between the U. S. and Hong Kong, and between the U. S. and China, likely are considerable. Given these contexts, then, and these leaders, and these followers, while other outcomes are possible, they are not probable.