The Hong Kong Protests: Five Questions with Political Scientist Andrew Nathan

October 08, 2014

Andrew Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, is an expert on Chinese politics and foreign policy, even though he hasn’t been to the country since 2001. That’s when the government of China banned him after the publication of The Tiananmen Papers, a cache of secret official documents about the 1989 demonstrations that he translated and co-edited. Nathan has, however, been to Hong Kong often and is in frequent touch with his contacts in China. Columbia News asked Nathan for his views on the protests there.

Q: What is at the root of the Occupy Central demonstrations?

When China took over Hong Kong in 1997, it agreed that Hong Kong could preserve its way of life for 50 years. The Chinese government also agreed to provide universal suffrage for the election of the Hong Kong chief executive at some point. China recently announced that in the next election, which will take place in 2017, all eligible voters will be able to vote. But it turns out that the nominees for the post will be chosen by an election committee appointed by the Chinese government. The people in Hong Kong had expected real democracy. The Occupy Central protests are the result.

Q: Is there any chance the demonstrators will prevail?

Most of us have long believed that most of the Hong Kong population is pragmatic and passive, because they know what they’re up against with China and they can’t afford to be terribly political. As soon as the Chinese government decision was announced the students—many in high school—jumped in and they were ahead of the adult leadership who had been planning a protest. But it’s very unlikely Beijing will yield on the core question. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has an image of being tough and inflexible. And China has a lot at stake in keeping control of the situation in Hong Kong. The more they sense opposition there, the less they are likely to allow democracy.

Q: Is it surprising how involved the youth of Hong Kong have been?

The protests reveal that Hong Kong young people are much more pro-democracy than we had any way of knowing. It’s fascinating to see the youth, who have grown up under this system, demonstrate how little they believe in the Chinese government. Beijing thinks these Hong Kong people are not patriotic, and says that its nominating committee will make sure to select candidates who “love Hong Kong and love China.”

Q: Does this protest have legs?

I’m reading a lot of emails from friends and acquaintances over there who speculate that leaderless students can't stay out there forever, that they’ll eventually get tired and the government will just wait them out—a good thing considering the alternative. This has started to happen. One reason is that many people believed that if the demonstrations persisted, within a week or so there would have been an order for the non-lethal use of force by Hong Kong police, and that if the Hong Kong police couldn’t scatter the demonstrators, the Chinese government would send in paramilitary police or even military forces to do so.

Q: Wouldn’t there be a cost to that approach, such as sanctions or global condemnation?

For sure. But China is a proudly authoritarian system, and it likes to send signals of toughness even if doing so exacts a price. Indeed, Beijing policy makers believe that the West is out to get them, and wants to topple them. They have put out propaganda that protesters are being misled by the West. They want to let the world know that they will push back. They also don’t want to let Hong Kong set an example for other parts of the country. But in my view, they fear Hong Kong democracy more than they need to. If Hong Kong did have the free elections people are protesting for, it would be no big deal. I cannot imagine anyone running for office in Hong Kong on a platform of sticking a nail in the eye of Beijing every day, or damaging economic ties. Nobody like that would be elected. It would have to be someone who could get along with mainland China.

— Interviewed by Bridget O'Brian