Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivers a speech, outside the offices of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in Hong Kong early October 3, 2014. Hong Kong's leader Leung told pro-democracy protesters late on Thursday that he had no intention of stepping down, and warned them that the consequences of occupying government buildings would be serious. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivers a speech outside the offices of Hong Kong's chief executive Leung Chun-ying in Hong Kong on Friday © Reuters

When Joshua Wong made his way through crowds of protesters outside Hong Kong’s government offices on Thursday night, the unimposing 17-year-old in jeans and a black T-shirt received a rock star’s welcome.

“I just want to reach out and touch him,” shouted one high school student, referring to the person who has become the face of the Umbrella Revolution that has paralysed Hong Kong and created a big dilemma for Beijing.

Chinese media have accused Mr Wong of being a pawn of the US Central Intelligence Agency. But to many of the tens of thousands who have taken to the streets in the past week he is the closest thing the protest has to a leader and as such has become the focus of Beijing’s ire.

The Chinese Communist party has previously shown a determination to strike hard against any form of dissent, whether the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the Falungong spiritual movement or Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Prize- winning author. But the Hong Kong protests have created a conundrum for Beijing because they are playing out on the patch of Chinese soil where the Communist party has the least control.

Under the one country, two systems formula devised by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese government has responsibility for national security in Hong Kong. That means Beijing could at any point deploy soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army – an eventuality that has weighed on the minds of the protesters.

Allan Zeman, a Hong Kong businessman, says a PLA intervention is unlikely.

“As long as it stays the way it is, they will let Hong Kong authorities . . . deal with it on its own,” he says. “No country likes to see troops having to come in to settle problems . . . it would be a disaster for Hong Kong.”

But some of the students who had vowed to storm the government offices unless CY Leung, the pro-Beijing chief executive, resigned, got cold feet on Thursday when the People’s Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece, gave the official its backing for the first time. Mr Leung also gave ground by authorising his top aide to talk with the students.

Willy Lam, a China expert, says Xi Jinping, China’s president, appears to support the move as a delaying tactic that will ease tensions amid the hope the protests will fade of their own accord. But he says Mr Xi wants images of people blocking roads in the commercial centre to disappear before Beijing hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November.

“His hands are tied,” says Mr Lam. “If he moves to send the PLA in, it is possible that [Barack] Obama and other people might not show up at Apec.”

International reaction to the protests has broadly called for restraint from Beijing although some, including Russian media, have suggested that the US and outside elements were responsible for the unrest.

Mr Lam says Mr Xi faces additional pressure because some senior party figures unhappy about his anti-corruption campaign would use a failure to quell the protests in Hong Kong against him.

On Friday the People’s Daily, warned that “the illegal gatherings …are aimed at challenging both China’s supreme power organ and Hong Kong citizens’ democratic rights, and are doomed to fail”. It echoed comments from Chinese officials.

Such rhetoric, which routinely blames “bad elements” and “foreign forces” for stirring up trouble, is similar to that which preceded the Tiananmen Square massacre 25 years ago.

“The central government’s bottom line will not change,” says Wu Qiang, a political-science professor at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University. “If the occupation continues, the central government will consider all sorts of measures to reinstate order. That includes the possibility of intervention by PLA troops stationed in Hong Kong.”

The fact that people are speculating about Chinese military intervention is one measure of how badly Beijing and its local allies have misjudged public attitudes. The protests have shattered the assumption that Beijing’s timetable and conditions for political development in Hong Kong would not be challenged so long as the civil freedoms and basic way of life remained unchanged.

There were signs on Friday, however, that the movement was losing steam. Heavy rain reduced numbers on the streets and clashes between campaigners and those opposed to the continuing protest took some of the shine off the demonstrations.

Mr Leung earlier this week conceded that the protests may continue for “quite a long period”. But few people believe Beijing will make sufficient concessions over the electoral reform plan to satisfy the protesters.

China last month followed through on a promise to introduce universal suffrage – one person, one vote – for Hong Kong’s next chief executive election in 2017. But it included tough conditions that preclude the public from having a role in nominating candidates. Instead they must gain support from a majority of the members on a 1,200-strong committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

“We want the right not to have a set meal – A, B, C or D,” says one protester. “We want to be able to order a la carte.”

Before the student-led protest began on September 26, pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong were trying to broker a deal with the opposition pan-Democrats who had vowed to block the current plan in the legislative council. Two people familiar with the talks say one idea was to create a mechanism to produce a broader slate of candidates to be whittled down eventually to two or three under Beijing’s criteria.

It is unclear whether Beijing would have backed such a framework, but one person says that the talks have been derailed by the protests that coincided with China’s October 1 National Day holiday, adding to the anger in the capital.

“On National Day we want to show a confident, prosperous and of course stable China,” says Zhao Lei, head of the Hong Kong research centre at Beijing’s Central Party School, a training ground for Communist party cadres. “We didn’t want anything unexpected to happen on this special occasion.”

In the years leading up to the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997, the territory’s residents reassured themselves that Beijing would “never kill the golden goose” – a reference to the city’s importance as an international centre of finance and trade.

While Hong Kong’s share of China’s gross domestic product has shrunk from almost 20 per cent to less than 3 per cent over the past two decades, Beijing has other reasons for wanting to safeguard the territory’s development.

“The percentage of China’s trade that goes through here has dropped a lot over the last 20 years but of course the volume is still very high,” says David Webb, an activist investor and former director of the city’s stock exchange. “But we’re also important in terms of access to international capital through the Hong Kong stock market.”

In addition, Mr Webb points to the wealth stashed in Hong Kong by corrupt Chinese officials and the country’s well-connected “princeling class” – the sons and daughters of senior government officials and state-owned enterprise executives, many of whom have been recruited to work at international investment banks. “China’s leaders and their relatives have a strong interest in maintaining Hong Kong’s financial success, its private banking capacity and its status as the Monaco of China,” he says.

Despite its many incentives to maintain the status quo in Hong Kong, concerns are rising in Beijing about the territory becoming a base for what it sees as subversion.

More dangerous is the potential impact of the deep differences between China and Hong Kong’s judicial systems.

Some mainland residents marvelled at a Hong Kong judge’s decision to order the release of Mr Wong less than 48 hours after the student leader was detained by police on September 26. “The separation of powers left behind by the British means that when the police catch someone, the courts do not automatically buy it,” says one. “Here the police cook the food, the prosecutors serve it and the courts eat it.”

In China, the person adds, Mr Wong would face up to five years in prison for “causing a disturbance”.

But plenty of other mainland Chinese see developments in Hong Kong through a more chauvinistic lens, jealous of the special treatment the territory has received and bitter at the students’ apparent ingratitude for Beijing’s favours.

“Why should this news be blocked?” one person asked in a typical comment on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent. “Every Chinese person should know what kind of contemptuous wolf has been raised in Hong Kong.”

Twitter: @AsiaNewsDemetri

Additional reporting by David Pilling, Julie Zhu, Wan Li and Zhang Yan

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