China’s communist leadership is struggling over how to respond to Hong Kong’s swelling protests. Giving in to protesters’ demands for democracy or allowing unrest to spread is out of the question. Yet armed intervention will have its price.
On April 15, 1989, students marched from Beijing University to Tiananmen Square, ostensibly mourning the death of Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party general-secretary purged by party hardliners in 1987 for his liberal views. It was the first demonstration in what grew into the huge pro-democracy protest movement that rocked Beijing and China that spring. Reporting from the square, I ended the story that night by asking, “How long will the government wait to crush this challenge to its authority?”
In 1989, it took six weeks before the Communist Party sent in the army, bringing the movement to a bloody end. In Hong Kong, the wait has been almost three months.
On two occasions, more than a million people have marched peacefully through the city’s streets, with more radical activists at times paralyzing the city’s airport and clashing with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets. A grim outcome may be hard to avoid.
The Hong Kong protests began with calls for the administration to withdraw an ill-considered bill that would have allowed people in the territory to be extradited to face trial in mainland China, where the Communist Party controls the judicial system and the notion of Western-style legal protections does not exist. That demand, backed by many local and international businesses, was spurned, and Chief Executive Carrie Lam instead tried to rush the bill through the Hong Kong legislature, ignoring normal procedures. The protests escalated, with radicals occupying the Legislative Council in July and 2 million people staging a peaceful march. Lam grudgingly announced on July 9 that the bill was “dead,” but refused to formally withdraw it.
Her inflexible attitude combined with police excesses transformed a one-issue concern into a broader movement that now focuses on five demands: the bill’s withdrawal, overturning the designation of arrested protestors as rioters, creation of an independent commission to investigate police behavior, Lam’s resignation and implementation of genuine democratic reforms.
Throughout, the government has remained unyielding. In the meantime, the language from Beijing, Hong Kong’s ultimate master, has gotten harsher. China describes the protests as a “color revolution” intended to overthrow the Communist Party, blaming the United Kingdom, the United States and other alleged foreign “black hands.” China calls the demonstrators “terrorists” and uses language from China’s Cultural Revolution, denouncing long-time democracy campaigners, none of whom have played a leading role in the current movement, as an evil “gang of four.”
The tougher line is the result of what diplomatic sources describe as instructions from Beijing to Lam that there can be no compromise, no negotiations and no political solution. To Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping, ruler of a single-party state that has staked its reputation on stoking Chinese nationalism and increasing the Communist Party’s domination of all walks of life, the idea of the government in Hong Kong giving in to a popular protest is unthinkable, not least because of the precedent it might set for the mainland. Instead, Beijing has ordered the Hong Kong authorities to handle the crisis by restoring law and order rather than respond to widespread popular discontent.
This approach has been complicated by the disorganization and lack of leadership within the Hong Kong police. Once regarded as “Asia’s finest,” the force has in recent years become increasingly dominated by senior officers who received training in the mainland, reinforced by mainland Chinese who acquired Hong Kong residency and then joined the force. Between the Beijing loyalists and others aware career prospects depend on toeing the line, the erosion of professional standards – in Maoist days, referred to as “red” rather than “expert” – has resulted in weak leadership and incoherent strategy. Critical operational decisions are made by exhausted officers deployed night after night on the streets, leading to rounds of teargas used in densely populated neighborhoods or subway stations and rubber bullets or bean bag rounds fired at close range – actions that have fueled popular outrage.
So far, despite the harsh language and highly visible displays of Chinese soldiers and People’s Armed Police drilling in Shenzhen, just across the border, there has been general consensus that Xi would like to avoid deploying Chinese forces in Hong Kong if possible. The downsides are obvious – massive damage both to China’s international reputation and Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s premier financial center, the flight of capital and people, and exacerbation of tensions with the United States in the midst of a trade war. Of even greater significance would be the impact on Taiwan, where Beijing has long touted the Hong Kong formula of “one country two systems” as the road to reunification with the self-governing island. Use of force would almost certainly ensure reelection of Taiwan’s independence-leading President Tsai Ing-wen in January and could well leave the military option as Xi’s only choice to resolve the Taiwan question.
But with no prospect of dialogue, more protests planned for the coming weeks, and the Hong Kong police seen as both heavy-handed and ineffectual, the prospect of robust Chinese action appears to be growing.
Apart from the threats and posturing, there has already been an increase in crude intimidation, including in just one week, the targeted beating of one prominent critic of China and several stabbings of people standing watch at a wall lined with pro-democracy messages. The thuggish activities, perhaps associated with Triad gangs, are likely to intensify, along with the use of agents-provocateurs within protesters’ ranks to start or escalate clashes with the police.
Such actions are unlikely to deter the activists or dent the broad support they enjoy. “The Chinese are flummoxed,” noted one long-time former US State Department Asia expert. “They have not been able to intimidate Hong Kong in their usual way.” And yet for the Chinese Communist Party to tolerate a Hong Kong that remains in the grip of such a large, popular, broad-based and yet unintimidated protest movement, seems inconceivable. That was the case in 1989, and especially true now – with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1st..Xi, whose trademark has been tighter party control, heightened repression and an unwillingness to be seen showing weakness, will seek to trumpet his rule and highlight the party’s triumphs.
Whether a crackdown takes the form of heightened police activity with more arrests and trials along with intensified pressure on local companies and universities to punish staff or students who support the protests, or more overt Chinese military intervention, will depend on how events play out in the coming days.
Despite all the threats, it may still require further dramatic deterioration – multiple violent protests in a series of locations that the police cannot manage, protestors occupying a major police station or Beijing’s central office, or increased attacks on Chinese citizens – before China orders force.
In any case, the long-term prognosis for Hong Kong appears bleak. Indeed, diplomatic sources report that a deeper rethink is underway within the Chinese Communist Party about how to handle the territory. According to one analyst, a number of Chinese think tanks have begun to explore the concept of a “second handover,” acknowledging that, from Beijing’s perspective, the first two decades of post-colonial rule have been a failure. China could seek a new formulation under which Hong Kong would be thoroughly absorbed into the mainland, suggests one well-informed Western observer, “although precisely what Hong Kong will look like afterwards remains to be worked out.”
In the meantime, the question from China’s the 1989 democracy movement remains: How much longer will China’s communist rulers let this continue?
This column was first published in Yale Global Online, a publication of the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.