Xi Jinping embraces old guard as Hong Kong challenges party rule

Sean Gallup | Getty Images

The day after police fired tear gas and pepper spray into crowds of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, China's main state media mouthpiece Xinhua had just one headline on its homepage mentioning the territory by name.

"Hong Kong has already completed its preparations to welcome mainland tourists for the golden week national holiday," the headline read, even as global news organisations beamed live pictures of tens of thousands of protesters paralyzing the center of the city.

Beijing is so afraid its citizens might see images of civil disobedience on Chinese soil it has blocked popular image-sharing site Instagram, adding it to a very long blacklist that includes Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Google.

Outside the country, many commentators and media reports have portrayed this as a stand-off between Hong Kong student demonstrators and the hard-line Communist regime in Beijing.

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But that is not how Beijing sees it.

If past examples are anything to go by, the beleaguered Hong Kong chief executive, CY Leung, will be left to solve the problem by masters in Beijing who may not even be answering his calls.

For even the lowliest county-level Communist party cadre in China, their first and most important responsibility is to keep their jurisdiction stable and "harmonious". If they fail at this, they are usually given a chance to clean up their mess before their superiors decide what to do with them.

Those superiors have very little incentive to take command in the midst of a rebellion and risk being blamed if the situation spirals further out of control.

HK politician calls for international involvement
HK politician calls for international involvement   

That is pretty much the situation Mr Leung finds himself in now.

Given Hong Kong's importance as China's premier financial center and as a symbol of national rejuvenation, the only person in the mainland with the authority to make decisions on its fate is President Xi Jinping himself.

Mr Leung is almost certainly not speaking to the president directly but liaising through much lower level officials who do not have the power (or the inclination) to tell him how to handle the demonstrators.

They will be telling him to solve it – or else – but they are unlikely to be giving him direct operational orders.

The same situation applies in other restive regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet, where local officials are often left to themselves to deal with rebellions and usually opt for the most violent and repressive option.

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While Mr Xi will be receiving real time reports on the situation in Hong Kong (probably at least partly supplied by international broadcasters such as CNN and the BBC) even he will not want to step in and give direct orders to the embattled Mr Leung.

Nearly two years into a ferocious anti-corruption campaign, Mr Xi has made many powerful enemies among the party elite who see their networks and fortunes under attack.

There are even some at senior levels within the power structure who are quietly supporting the demonstrations, not because they are democrats but because they hope to see Mr Xi undermined by the turmoil.

By taking command at this stage Mr Xi would make himself vulnerable to blame for whatever comes next.

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He is clearly aware of history and of the dangers that come from splits in the leadership in times of crisis.

That is almost certainly why Chinese state media were filled on Tuesday with pictures of the president at the theater in Beijing flanked by former president Jiang Zemin and most of his old political allies.

The photo showed a veritable who's who of former Communist leaders(such as Li Peng, He Guoqiang and Zeng Qinghong) rumoured or reported to have been investigated, targeted or detained in recent months in the anti-corruption campaign.

As Hong Kong erupts, Mr Xi is trying to head off dissent within his own ranks by pulling back the attack dogs and reassuring the old guard, many of whom have been shaken by his assaults on their networks and families.

He is unlikely to get directly involved in Hong Kong and Mr Leung will be left to handle the situation alone in the knowledge that he has already failed the first and most important test of a regional Chinese leader.