In a front page commentary today, the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper sent one of its strongest signals yet that the leadership is not prepared to acknowledge the demands of Hong Kong protesters, or to reach any sort of compromise. [Featured image by Studio Incendo under CC license.]

“On this question concerning national sovereignty, concerning the fate of Hong Kong,” says the editorial, “there is no middle ground, there is not the least bit of margin for compromise.”

The piece, attributed to “a commentator from this paper,” or benbao pinglunyuan (本报评论员), marking it as executed by top staff representing views at senior levels of the Party, referred to a “struggle” between the protection and destruction of “one country, two systems.” The word “struggle,” a legacy of China’s pre-reform era, has become a prominent feature of Xi Jinping’s more hardline political language.

The commentary mentions the “constant enriching” of “one country, two systems” as an “integral part of the Chinese dream” — a reference to Xi Jinping’s vision of national rejuvenation. It also suggests that the development of the “one country, two systems” formula is “a necessary condition of the refinement and development of the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the promotion of the modernization of the national governance system and governing capacity.”

What can this thick crust of discourse possibly mean? What is intended by this talk of “constant enriching” of the arrangement for relative political autonomy and rule of law under which Hong Kong has abided for more than 20 years? If enrichment, that is, does not mean direct election of the SAR’s chief executive?

The crux may lie in this phrase about the “promotion of the modernization of the national governance system and governing capacity.” Proposed changes to national governance were the key focus of the recent Fourth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee of the CCP. As our brief analysis of the bulletin stressed, this is essentially about reform as anti-liberalization — the need for the Party to re-double and consolidate its control over society.

In light of the Fourth Plenum bulletin and the clear hardline turn in Chinese politics under Xi Jinping, we must seriously consider what the improvement of “one country, two systems” means in practical terms in the context of “the promotion of the modernization of the national governance system and governing capacity.”

The most ominous signal comes in the fourth paragraph of the commentary: This storm over the amendment has exposed deep contradictions and problems in Hong Kong’s politics, economy, society and other areas, and has further magnified the necessity and urgency of improving Hong Kong’s governance system.

The current trajectory of Chinese politics suggests that Party leaders understand the improvement of governance only as the consolidation of Party power, which would suggest a difficult road ahead for Hong Kong. We should remember, however, that the signs we see in the Fourth Plenum also point to internal weakness in the Party, and the likelihood that Xi Jinping faces substantial headwinds. As we have previously written, the Party is “struggling,” and this volatility is another variable for Hong Kong.

A partial translation of the People’s Daily commentary follows:

The realization of the constant enriching and development of “one country, two systems” in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the preservation of Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability, is an integral part of the Chinese dream, and also a necessary condition of the refinement and development of the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the promotion of the modernization of the national governance system and governing capacity.

At the 11th BRICS summit of leaders in Brazil, Chairman Xi Jinping gave a speech on recent developments in Hong Kong, pointing out that extreme violent criminal activities seriously challenge the bottom-line principles of “one country, two systems.” We will absolutely not tolerate any behavior that challenges the bottom-line principles of “one country, two systems,” and all criminal activities that openly challenge the bottom-line principles of “one country, two systems” must be resolutely punished according to the law.

For more than five months, under the misguided instigation of interference by the opposition faction (反对派) and interference from external forces, continued violent street activities have occurred in Hong Kong [Note: The “opposition faction” is how the CCP refers to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, the word pro-democracy being unsayable]. Certain [people] who even openly advocate “Hong Kong independence,” and shout “Liberate Hong Kong, the Revolution of Our Times,” wantonly dishonor the national flag, the national emblem and the regional [Hong Kong] emblem, surround and attacked the office of the Central Government in Hong Kong and the Legislative Council, the government headquarters, the goal being to sow chaos in Hong Kong and paralyze the SAR government, and in this way to capture the authority to govern in the SAR, turning Hong Kong into an independent or half-independent political entity — with the ultimate result that “one country, two systems” exists only in name.

Today, right before us, is a struggle (斗争) between the protection of “one country, two systems” and the destruction of “one country, two systems.” On this question concerning national sovereignty, concerning the fate of Hong Kong, there is no middle ground (中间地带), there is not the least bit of margin for compromise.

“One country, two systems” is an innovative undertaking, and for the Central Committee  it is a major issue for the governance of the country. For Hong Kong and our brethren in Hong Kong, [“one country, two systems”] is an important historical turning point. The facts have shown that “one country, two systems” is the best plan for resolving the historical legacy of the Hong Kong question, and also the best system for preserving prosperity and stability following Hong Kong’s return . . . . At the same time, “one country, two systems” as a system innovation, must, like all new things, be constantly improved in light of practice and experience. This storm over the amendment has exposed deep contradictions and problems in Hong Kong’s politics, economy, society and other areas, and has further magnified the necessity and urgency of improving Hong Kong’s governance system.