What Could Prompt Chinese Intervention in Hong Kong?

Cipher Brief Expert View

Protestors in Hong Kong are sticking by their demands which include a formal withdrawal of an extradition bill that launched protestors onto the streets earlier this summer; the release of protestors arrested by police and some reassurance of a move toward a more democratic society.

In a high-profile move, Cathay Pacific’s CEO is reportedly stepping down “in view of recent events’ after reports that a pilot from the airline took part in ongoing protests.  

Rupert Hogg’s resignation, believed to be fueled by pressure from Beijing, is not likely to be the last professional casualty after weeks of protests, the latest round taking place at the airport, which led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights on Monday. 

Besides the professional toll, there is an economic one as well.  The Hong Kong index has fallen more than 2,000 points since early June, and now some economists are predicting a recession later this year. 

The political question remains whether or not China will step in to bring protests to an end and what threshold would have to be crossed in order for that to happen.

The Cipher Brief spoke with expert and former senior CIA analyst, Rodney Faraon, who served in East Asia and is a partner with the business strategy firm Crumpton Group. We asked Faraon what he thinks it will take for China to intervene.

The probability that China will interfere in Hong Kong, given the recent protests and escalation in tensions, is higher than ever. There are still many negative incentives that Zhongnanhai undoubtedly is weighing, and as of now the cons weigh heavily against the pros. Still, a prolonged state of unrest inside Hong Kong, one that might eventually trigger intervention, is likely. Here’s why.

If Beijing disperses its garrison or sends in the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) from Shenzhen, the international reaction would be at least as bad as it was after the deadly crackdown against the 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square. International reaction was universally harsh and ended the burgeoning Cold War alliance between the United States and China. Any kind of violent crackdown on protesters today would influence the decisions of Western businesses that operate there; already, firms I know are looking to relocate to Singapore or, ironically, Shenzhen. Beijing is aware of all of these factors.

Still, even a nonviolent deployment of the Army or PAP in Hong Kong would create severe international repercussions, and Beijing knows it.

Arguing against intervention in the near term is the fact that the current protests are high profile and so far, unremittent, but not yet as persistent as Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Hong Kong. There is nothing quasi-permanent, no static protest camp, for Chinese forces to clear. On the demonstrators’ side, to date no leaders have emerged to centralize, galvanize, concentrate, and apply the demonstrators’ anger into a coherent set of demands that would also guarantee compliance on the demonstrators’ behalf. There is no one to negotiate with. That’s part of the problem. It’s a paradox because while it reduces risk of Chinese intervention, it also prolongs the disruption because pop-up protests by decentralized leaders are inevitable.

The Hong Kong Police Force are still capable of peacefully containing big demonstrations without intervention from the Chinese military. The police have been more aggressive than at any time since reversion, and it is costing them trust with the populace—perhaps irrevocably—but they could be even more assertive and violent if needed. They have the training and the equipment to do so. At the same time, we already see fraying in the training. The modern force does not have the experience of its colonial predecessors, and the longer the protests continue the higher the risk of an accidental injury or death.

Remember what happened in 1967, ironically by Chinese-sponsored leftists against the British colonial government. Those riots were as severe, if not more so. Except in isolated circumstances, today’s protests are not riots, they are marches or sit-ins. To the extent that they have resulted in violence, much was incited by the demonstrators themselves by choosing to demonstrate in North Point or Yuen Long, where triad members’ families reside. These groups frankly don’t want any part of this political mess; it’s bad for business as usual, and troublemakers in their neighborhoods invite more official scrutiny than they want.

The onus is on the Hong Kong Government. To date, its actions have been clumsy, unsympathetic, and characteristic of a lack of emotional intelligence about how competitive politics works. It needs to show Beijing that it is doing what it needs to do to contain the demonstrations to Hong Kong, eventually disperse them, and prevent them from becoming a well-organized political movement. They are hoping that the people get tired of the protests. There already are signs of it among ordinary residents who are tired of violence that leads nowhere and inconveniences everyone. At the same time, these ordinary people are sympathetic to the bottom line: there is no meaningful way for the average Hong Kong resident to express opinions peacefully and create motivation for political change. They understand now that it will take more and more violent action to make even small political changes.

Signs of escalation to watch for that could trigger a response ordered by Beijing:

1) Semi-permanent demonstrators’ camp near government, military, police, or party facilities

2) Emergence of organized political leadership and spokespeople

3) Sympathetic protests on the mainland

4) Violence leading to the death of police, undercover mainland agents, or even civilian protestors

5) Clear evidence of foreign interference, especially by Taiwan intelligence

6) A declaration of independence

A solution is possible, but to date, the Hong Kong Government has not shown the creativity or courage to seek it. Its fear of Beijing’s reprisal and reprimand has paralyzed thinking of effective solutions except an insistence that the bill causing all of this is “dead,” at least in English. They hope that stonewalling the young protestors will result in them going away, and they are probably waiting for the start of university classes in early September. Ultimately, until Hong Kong and Beijing can agree between themselves on new institutions that can be an outlet for input from popular opposition, this situation will only repeat itself.

Sadly, that’s bound to happen because the people who run Hong Kong’s government are smart, superbly effective technocrats—only when it comes to executing the orders or commander’s intent of whichever colonial overseers they answer to. They do not know any different and were never taught any different until a few years before reversion in 1997. And when higher-ups in Beijing or London have no flexibility in their own views, we cannot expect Hong Kong to do any better.

Read also Where Will Protests Lead Hong Kong, only in The Cipher Brief

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