Beijing walks a thin line as Hong Kong erupts at the worst possible time

Hong Kong CNN  — 

This week’s violent protests in Hong Kong against a controversial extradition bill couldn’t come at a worse time for China’s stability-obsessed Communist Party and its leader, President Xi Jinping.

Facing a weakening economy, and with trade tensions with the United States at an all-time high, experts say Xi is under pressure to deliver on the enormous power he’s amassed since coming to power in late 2012.

Tens of thousands of mostly young protestors took to the streets again on Wednesday, temporarily shutting down Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and surrounding streets, and forcing a delay in the proposed reading of the bill.

At least 81 people were injured throughout the day, as an estimated 5,000 riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters.

Experts say Beijing doesn’t want to be seen to back down on the extradition law but can’t afford to inflame matters with a serious crackdown. The dilemma has left the normally blunt Xi administration with a narrow line to walk to avoid escalating the Hong Kong crisis.

The Chinese government response Wednesday was defiant in both state media and official government statements.

“It is lawlessness that will hurt Hong Kong, not the proposed amendments to its fugitive law,” an editorial in the state-run China Daily said.

But Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a longtime analyst of Chinese politics, said the extradition crisis has no clear or easy solution for Beijing.

“A ferocious confrontation is shaping up between the will of the Hong Kong people and the Xi Jinping administration, (which is) determined to be the arbiter of things in Hong Kong,” he said.