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Opinion For Xi Jinping, Hong Kong represents a crossroads between power and legitimacy

In the end, Xi will have to endure a minor exception to his absolute power — or a major blow to his legitimacy.

MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images

Doug Saunders, the Globe’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

The mass protests that led to the end of Europe’s communist regimes 30 years ago are a subject of obsessive interest to Xi Jinping. According to his biographers, the Chinese president has required Communist Party officials to watch documentaries that blame the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states on the infiltration of “subversive Western values,” and has often told people that the 1989 democratic revolutions only succeeded because Moscow was too weak, impoverished and disorganized to put a stop to them.

So the past several weeks have sent Mr. Xi into something of a time warp. As governments here in Europe prepare to mark the anniversaries of those decisions, he has found his commitment to respond with force to any 1989-style democracy movement sorely tested by the presence of hundreds of thousands of unhappy people in Hong Kong.

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This is not the protest movement he had prepared his party, his army and his loyal officials to confront.

It is not a Tiananmen Square – a student movement in multiple cities, in a poor country, demanding changes to the way national government works. He has made it very clear that he would crush any such movement with at least as much force as Deng Xiaoping did in 1989. Nor is it a local, singe-issue protest. Such protests had become very commonplace in China by the time Mr. Xi came to power in 2012, and he has also cracked down on these.

Hong Kong is something much more difficult. It is the reasonable manifestation of a middle class – exactly the sort of middle class Mr. Xi knows he needs to build and cultivate in the cities of mainland China if he is to maintain his party’s legitimacy.

The students and businesspeople of Hong Kong aren’t demanding multiparty rule in Beijing; they don’t have power-seeking leaders, they aren’t separatist-minded members of an ethnic group and they aren’t agents of some foreign power. They’re simply ordinary citizens trying to maintain the things an educated middle class needs to thrive: The rule of law, a stable economic environment and some control over local conditions. Hong Kong has always had these things, and is constitutionally guaranteed them – and they are what people seek once they attain a moderate level of financial security.

Here, Mr. Xi faces a dilemma. His claim to power has been built on centralizing all authority around his party and his personality, and he’s done this by eliminating any competing sources of power – factions and individuals within the party, local governments doing things their own way, people expressing dissent on social media or minorities wanting their own customs.

But his claim to legitimacy – that is, to be accepted by one and a half billion people as their rightful ruler – is built on giving people a better life than they had before. When annual growth rates of 10 per cent were the norm, that was a given. Now it requires smart policies and a plausible vision of the future. As Mr. Xi himself once told a U.S. audience: “If we cannot solve problems and let them get worse, the people will not trust and support us."

If he accedes to the Hong Kong protesters or lets the uprising continue, Mr. Xi could lose the source of his power, especially if middle-class residents of Guangzhou and Shanghai are inspired by Hong Kong.

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If he crushes them or otherwise wishes them away, though, he could lose his source of legitimacy. The vision of a better future for the Chinese people would lose its most prominent example, and the idea of a competing “China model” would lose some of its global appeal.

“Beijing has a nationalistic stake to show the world that Chinese people can run Hong Kong as well as the British colonialists,” writes Ching Kwan Lee, a professor of sociology who has been documenting the Hong Kong protests. She adds: “And sending in the tanks will irreparably ruin the prospect of peaceful reunification with Taiwan and President Xi’s legacy and honour.”

Instead, he and his party are trying to recast the protests as something else. State media has tried to portray Cantonese-speaking Chinese as a troublesome independence-seeking ethnic group, like Tibetans and Uyghurs who have been subjected to mass imprisonment.

And there have been repeated efforts to suggest that the protests are a foreign plot or influence – efforts that now include an unprecedented mass-media denunciation of Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland for having uttered mild criticisms of Hong Kong police violence.

Those moves might buy Mr. Xi some time. But in the end, he will have to come down on one side or another. He will have to endure a minor exception to his absolute power – or a major blow to his legitimacy.

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