The Hong Kong protests are at a turning point. The government is apparently gaining the upper hand and could be about to transform the movement into a huge publicity win for Beijing.

Protests over the weekend drew some 200,000 participants, a far cry from the two million estimated at one early march. Violence is growing and police are taking the gloves off in handling demonstrators. With police torture allegations circulating, protesters are radicalizing by attacking police and smashing property.

The shift in the protest movement is apparently pushing more people away. In the beginning, most Hong Kongers were firmly behind the movement and even tolerated occasional violence. Now many are less enthusiastic, afraid of being caught between the violence of the police and radicals.

The movement appears rudderless and not simply because there is no leadership. Even sympathizers and supporters are failing to provide a clear political message for the protests. Why are the protests continuing? What is the goal and how can it be achieved?

The protests started over a proposed extradition bill that would allow Beijing to arrest people in Hong Kong and bring them back to China. Beijing wanted the law to prevent the territory from turning into a potential springboard for revolution on the Mainland. The bill was first suspended and then yesterday struck down – so the movement won. The movement should have then stopped or at least paused to regroup and rethink. It didn’t, and that could be the problem.

Perhaps it didn’t stop because Hong Kong’s anger at how the Mainland has been running the territory for decades was like a genie emerging from a bottle. It would be very hard to put back in.

Genie is out of the bottle

This anger is also directed at local tycoons who have been in bed with Beijing’s public and private interests for their own profit while remaining oblivious to the welfare of Hong Kong people. These are massive interest groups, intimately interconnected with Beijing’s open and hidden power structure. It is very difficult to reform them without also deeply altering China’s political and economic organization. And even if that did happen, the change would take a long time, as the structure has been working effectively for some 40 years. These interests smother any social mobility for young people who remain at the lowest rung of the social ladder.

The other issue is democracy. Hong Kong is a relatively free society but without democracy. This can work only if social and economic issues are in sync. But when there are problems, if this freedom is not channeled into political outlets that can shape them in a constructive way, then it all falls apart. It is a structural problem: either Hong Kong loses its freedom, and thus its status as an important stock exchange, where freedom is necessary for it to function, or the city becomes reasonably democratic.

China may not want to lose the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, an important safety valve between the closed Chinese economy and the open global economy. Protesters should, therefore, negotiate for a democratic structure in Hong Kong that is acceptable to both Beijing and the external world – otherwise, the territory would lose its economic significance.

The leaders of the protests apparently are not talking about this, but are more concentrated on accusations and counter-accusations of violence between police and protesters. But perhaps these are just details.

Without a broad political consensus from the protesters, Beijing is gaining the political upper hand. Ongoing demonstrations and relatively restrained use of force by the police is proving a few points to the domestic Chinese audience and to many Asian onlookers, traditionally not great fans of “Western democracy.” Beijing can argue that these protests are going nowhere, and only create havoc and destruction of wealth in return for pipedreams of democracy.

This line of argument, which may not find a lot of traction in the West, can build growing support in Hong Kong, China, and Asia for Beijing’s handling of the crisis, and it also delegitimizes the protests. Perhaps Xi Jinping, who found a way to tackle the issue, may have already struck a huge victory.

This doesn’t rule out alternative problems in the future. The movement could turn completely violent, and Beijing could crackdown with even more force, leaving Hong Kong smoldering. But for the moment, this is not happening and arguably it would not be in anyone’s interest, at least in the next few weeks or months.

Medium-term issues

This still leaves to Beijing the issue of tackling the complicated interest groups in Hong Kong and channeling the local freedom into a viable democracy, which can be only Western, as the economic system of the rest of the globe.

After the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, Beijing offered a long-term political solution to the protesters’ concerns. The younger generation, who had nothing and wanted political participation, were given the chance to make money by any means and to have social and sexual freedom in exchange for keeping away from politics. It was a new social pact, and it worked – those revolutionary energies fueled growth in China for three decades.

Now the Tiananmen pact has been broken thanks to an anti-corruption campaign opposed to the idea of “becoming rich by any means.” Beijing should offer a new political pact to the growing middle class who feel uneasy now that the old way of doing business is disappearing and the new one not yet manifest. But China is a very big animal; it can wait a few years. Hong Kong, however, is much smaller and the situation more explosive. Something must be done soon.

What is the new social pact Beijing could offer Hong Kong? As the city is a bridge between China and the global economy, the offer should be a new political pact, satisfying the new world situation (where the US trade war is only the tip of the iceberg of growing discontent) and China’s new situation (where the post-Tiananmen pact broke down).

These are issues for the next few months.

In the very short term, Xi’s victory opens a massive political opportunity for him. It proves the feasibility of the “Qiao Shi solution” proposed for the Tiananmen movement in 1989. Qiao was a top leader of the Chinese Communist Party during the Tiananmen incident. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was allegedly on Qiao’s side. If that solution had been followed, the history of the past 30 years could have taken a different route. This would have massive repercussions today.

This is the context that the Hong Kong movement perhaps should not ignore and it should be able to contribute at this level. At stake is not only the future of Hong Kong but the fate of China and of the world.

Originally published on Settimana News.