Until the escalation in the past couple of weeks of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protest, the Chinese government seemed to be winning. Beijing’s strategy, apparent since the street demonstrations and sit-ins began at the end of September, was to wait and let the protest movement die of its own exhaustion.

Chinese leaders believed the largely spontaneous movement lacked the staying power for a prolonged contest of political will. Students would be pressed by their families to return to their studies. The hardships of occupying open streets would force many to quit. Disruption to business and traffic would undermine public support.

Under these circumstances, the best course of action for Beijing was to do nothing: No real negotiations, no concessions on the central issue of the direct election of the city’s chief executive in 2017 and no use of force. Events unfolded largely as Beijing intended — except for one crucial detail. While most spontaneous protest movements lose steam and fold without accomplishing their goals, these movements, including the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, are also are vulnerable to radicalisation. As more moderate protesters peel off, radical elements begin to dominate, agitating for more confrontational tactics. The authorities’ refusal to engage, as in Hong Kong, typically strengthens the radicals’ case for escalation.

This was the dynamic that revived a sagging protest movement in Beijing in May 1989. After their moderate actions produced no results, students decided to stage a mass hunger strike at Tiananmen Square, ultimately leading to a bloody denouement on June 4 1989.

In Hong Kong, the miscalculation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has been further compounded by the irrelevance of the territory’s government in handling the two-month stand-off. As it has openly admitted, only Beijing has the power to revise election rules. According to a report in the New York Times in October, representatives of the Chinese government are, in fact, calling the shots in managing the crisis. Consequently, the fight for democracy is no longer a struggle between the city’s disenfranchised citizens and its unelected government, but a test of will between the CCP and the people of Hong Kong.

Now that the protesters appear determined to test the limits of Beijing’s tolerance, the stakes are even higher. Facing increasingly radicalised demonstrators, Beijing’s strategy of “waiting out the protest” may no longer be tenable. It must either make concessions or take decisive action to end the protests.

Neither will be simple. Real concessions will not only require Beijing to allow more democracy, but also set a historic precedent: A pro-democracy movement forcing the CCP into retreat. But if Beijing opts for a harsh crackdown, such repression — as it has before — will almost certainly revive public support for the demonstrators, leading to more protest and public outcry against the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Also at stake are Chinese President Xi Jinping’s political fortunes. This crisis is the first real test of his leadership. Thanks to weak and corrupt rivals, and his control of the formal levers of the authority of the party-state, he has consolidated power with ease. But Hong Kong is different. Shielded by the legal protections afforded by “one country, two systems”, the determined and idealistic young protesters cannot be easily intimidated into submission.

The conventional wisdom is that Xi, who has publicly endorsed a hardline position on Hong Kong, cannot afford to retreat because that could undermine his image as China’s new strongman. But staying the course and making Hong Kong ungovernable will be an equally disastrous stumble — one for which Xi’s political enemies in Beijing, especially those resentful of his success in amassing power, must be secretly wishing.

— Financial Times

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.