Hong Kong’s Retreat Chips Away at Xi Jinping’s Iron Image

BEIJING — China’s leader, Xi Jinping, was in Tajikistan on Saturday, celebrating his 66th birthday with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, when the political crisis in Hong Kong took a dramatic turn with an unexpected retreat in the face of mass protests.

Mr. Xi’s trip fortuitously gave him some distance from the events in Hong Kong, where the leadership on Saturday suspended a Beijing-backed extradition measure, but there was no mistaking that it was a stinging setback for him.

The move, the single biggest political reversal during Mr. Xi’s nearly seven years as China’s paramount leader, suggests that there are still limits to his power, especially involving events outside the mainland, even as he has governed with an increasingly authoritarian grip.

“This is a defeat for Xi, even if Beijing frames this as a tactical retreat,” said Jude Blanchette, a consultant and the author of a new book on the revival of revolutionary ideology in the country, “China’s New Red Guards.”

The Hong Kong police used tear gas against protesters on Wednesday.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The extraordinary events — street protests, which continued on Sunday, have been some of the largest since the British handover of the territory in 1997 — could even inspire Mr. Xi’s beleaguered critics at home, who, despite vigorous censorship, managed to follow what unfolded over the last week.

[Protesters in Hong Kong once again took to the streets on Sunday.]

“This further chips away at the image of Xi as an all-powerful, omnicompetent and visionary leader,” Mr. Blanchette added.

The demonstrations also made clear that after 22 years, Beijing has had minimal success in weaving Hong Kong into the country’s central political, economic and security systems, all dominated by the Communist Party. This could motivate Mr. Xi and his cadres to proceed more forcefully than before, although that could invite new waves of protest.

The controversy over the legislation has also hardened views toward Mr. Xi’s China abroad, particularly regarding the lack of judicial independence or basic rights for defendants plunged into the Chinese judicial system.

The idea of a law that would allow transfers of criminal suspects into the Communist Party-controlled system provoked fear among Hong Kong’s seven million residents, including business executives, consultants and investors who have made the city a global hub of finance, trade and transportation.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, announcing the shelving of an extradition bill on Saturday.CreditAnthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The proposed law, the protests and the Hong Kong government’s response has heightened international awareness of the repressive policies of the Xi era,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, adding that China was not living up to its pledge to honor Hong Kong’s autonomy for 50 years after the 1997 takeover.

During Mr. Xi’s four-day trip for previously scheduled summit meetings in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the events in Hong Kong were portrayed in China’s state media not as a retreat but as a well-considered move receiving Beijing’s full support.

“Sometimes we have to be on duty on our birthday,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Xi in a carefully choreographed exchange at a hotel in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, even as Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, prepared to announce the suspension of the legislation.

Mr. Putin presented the man he has taken to calling a dear friend with a decorative vase, a cake and an entire box of ice cream that Mr. Xi had previously pronounced as the most delicious in the world.

Mr. Putin’s party for Mr. Xi was broadcast on China’s state television network, which had not even mentioned the protests in Hong Kong until Friday night — and only then to describe them as riots sponsored by foreign actors.

Mass protests continued in Hong Kong on Sunday.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Both men are of similar age and temperament, sharing an abiding fear of foreign efforts to undermine their rule. Both have experienced the simmering fury of constituents nonetheless, suggesting that popular sentiment still plays a role in the era of strongman leaders. Mr. Putin, too, had to bow to public pressure last week following protests over a false arrest of a prominent investigative journalist, Ivan Golunov.

“This is an important time to see whether Xi is a rigid ideologue like Mao or the pragmatist that previous Chinese leaders like Deng, Jiang and Hu were,” said Susan L. Shirk, the chairwoman of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California, San Diego, referring to Mr. Xi’s predecessors.

As evidence of a pragmatic tinge, she cited recent adjustments that Mr. Xi made — at least cosmetically — to his signature “One Belt, One Road” international infrastructure initiative following criticism that it was ensnaring countries in indebtedness to Beijing.

“Pragmatic leaders adjust their policies when they become too costly,” she said.

As for the Hong Kong debacle, from the beginning the government in Beijing tried to keep a distance from the controversy over the extradition legislation, which Mrs. Lam was pushing through with unusual speed. She has said that she did so on her own initiative, though it remains unknown what role exactly Mr. Xi and his deputies played.

Beijing and Hong Kong had decided that they already faced enough challenges with the economic headwinds and trade tensions with the United States heading into the Group of 20 summit meeting in Japan this month, according to a person in Hong Kong with a detailed knowledge of local policymaking, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities inflamed by the protests.

Mr. Putin presented Mr. Xi with a cake on Friday, a day before the Chinese leader’s birthday.CreditPool photo by Alexei Druzhinin

President Trump and Mr. Xi are expected to meet in less than two weeks at the summit, in Osaka, although formal trade talks between them have not yet been confirmed.

Mr. Xi has never publicly commented on the Hong Kong matter, but two of the seven members of the governing Politburo Standing Committee that he presides over — Wang Yang and Han Zheng — expressed their support for the legislation.

On Friday, a vice foreign minister in Beijing summoned the deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy to complain about a congressional bill, drawn up in support of the protesters, that called for a broad review of Washington’s relationship with Hong Kong.

The suspension of the legislation — which stopped short of dropping it altogether — has fueled concerns that Mrs. Lam’s retreat was a tactical one, probably endorsed at least tacitly by Beijing. She met with senior Chinese officials on Friday before announcing her decision the following day, a person with knowledge of the government’s policymaking said. She declined to comment on Saturday on any private meetings she might have had.

Mr. Xi is not prone to concession or compromise, especially when under threat, as Mr. Trump has learned during his public efforts to negotiate an end to the trade war. This latest setback, analysts said, could be merely temporary.

“Postponement is not withdrawal,” Ryan Hass, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as the director for China at the National Security Council during the Obama administration, wrote in an email. “Beijing likely will be willing to let Lam take heat for mismanaging the process of securing passage of the bill, bide its time, and wait for the next opportunity to advance the legislation.”

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