President Donald Trump floated a potential “personal meeting” with chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping on Wednesday to discuss ongoing protests in Hong Kong. The president highlighted Xi’s public absence in the struggle as China’s only capitalist city pushes Beijing away.
Xi has made many public appearances since the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement took off in early June – in nursing homes, middle schools, North Korea – but state propaganda outlets have had to dig into their 2017 archives to find anything Xi has said relevant to the current unrest in Hong Kong. Tangential statements about economic development in the “Shenzhen area” (Shenzhen shares its southern border with Hong Kong) are the closest anyone present at an event with Xi has gotten to mentioning the city in government reports, according to the state archives of China’s four major English-language government publications: Xinhua, the Global Times, the People’s Daily, and China Daily.
For a head of state so obsessed with his own cult of personality that he enshrined his name in the country’s Constitution and forced government agents to make Christians and Buddhists hang pictures of his face in their private homes, his lack of a role in the nation’s biggest crisis indicates Xi believes he has too much to lose attempting to take command on Hong Kong’s calls for democracy.
Xi spent much of 2018 crushing dissent within China itself: parents outraged his government allowed pharmaceutical companies to use expired vaccines on their children, war veterans demanding their rightful pensions, Muslims fighting their families’ disappearances into concentration camps, laborers demanding basic workers’ rights from a Marxist state, and Maoist college students urging disentanglement with multinational corporations, among others.
Adding millions in Hong Kong to his list of enemies may finally force the Politburo to replace Xi or face the potential of a nationwide insurrection against communism.
To a Chinese observer, it may appear that Xi has spent the summer trying to fix all the world’s problems except those of the people he is tasked to lead. Xi traveled to Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, North Korea, and Japan. He promised to boost the economies of Colombia, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Uganda, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.
Report’s of Xi’s meetings in Osaka, Japan, with Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe indicated that the latter both brought up the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, but Xi made no public statements, and the Chinese government did not offer any hints as to how Xi responded. Beijing had declared talk of Hong Kong off-limits during the Osaka G-20 Summit, a mandate the heads of two of the nation’s wealthiest country’s clearly ignored.
Since the protests erupted in June, the closest Xi has gotten to a statement on Hong Kong is a discussion of economic development in the “Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area” at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in late July. A statement released after that meeting, but not attributed to Xi, read in part, according to Xinhua:
In the development of the Shenzhen pilot demonstration area, the statement said it is imperative to unswervingly follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, adhere to the reform and opening-up, fulfill the requirements of high-quality development, implement the innovation-driven development strategy, seize the important opportunities in the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, and strive to create a model city for a great modern socialist country, the statement said.
The “Greater Bay Area” technology industry development project is Beijing’s main ploy to make Hong Kong’s economy dependent on China’s. Once enough people in Hong Kong rely on territory controlled by Beijing for their livelihoods, they will find it too difficult to protest against the regime’s attempts at imposing its draconian limitation on expression and individual freedom on the city.
While Xi has been busy “consolidating the achievements in the reform of Party and state institutions and modernizing China’s system and capacity for governance” and urging Chinese people “to cultivate the good habit of garbage classification,” the party has relied on its women to subdue Hong Kong. Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying have fought the majority of the regime’s public relations battle, often alone on the main stage, save for the daily broadsides against the United States from state media publications.
Lam has made periodic public appearances, often to jeers, and most recently left near tears at a press conference where reporters asked when she was planning to die. Hua, an experienced communist mouthpiece and one of the fiercest on the Foreign Ministry bench, has appeared before reporters nearly every day, accusing Washington of directly orchestrating the Hong Kong protests.
America “has turned a blind eye to the power abuse and violent law enforcement of police at home,” Hua said in a typical attack last week. “But at the same time, it blatantly criticized and even tried to smear the professional, civilized and constrained law enforcement of Hong Kong police. This will only help the world to see how arrogant, biased, hypocritical, ruthless, selfish and bossy the US is.”
“I hope the U.S. will answer this question honestly and clearly: what role did the U.S. play in the recent incidents in Hong Kong and what is your purpose behind it?” Hua advised in July. “We advise the U.S. to withdraw its dirty hands from Hong Kong as soon as possible.”
The people of Hong Kong have taken to the streets by the millions against a proposed law that would have allowed China to abduct anyone in Hong Kong guilty of running afoul of the Communist Party, a violation of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy China agreed to in 1997 when the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong over. The protesters are also demanding freedom for their political prisoners, an apology from their government for calling one of the peaceful protests a “riot,” an independent inquiry into the rampant brutality of the Hong Kong police, and the right to elect all of their lawmakers directly, not just half, as the current system allows.
None of these demands has anything to do with the United States; Hua has notably not asked what role Xi Jinping should have in addressing them.
In his tweet, Trump exposed Xi’s absence to the American public and, by forcing reporters to cover it – all Trump tweets demand wall-to-wall coverage in what Xi would call the “new era” – is forcing the Chinese people to confront it, as well.
“I know President Xi of China very well,” Trump said, adding his usual meaningless flattery. “He is a great leader who very much as the respect of his people … if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?”
American media’s instinct will be to attack Trump for claiming Xi has the “respect of his people.” Their deeper reaction should be to ask why, if Chinese people truly respect Xi, the Communist Party chief appears to fear them so much.