By Jianli Yang & Aaron Rhodes
China needs to solve the Hong Kong problem, and time is running out before the October 1 National Day celebration, an event crucial to reinforcing the power, authority, and prestige of President Xi Jinping and his regime. But the policies being deployed do not suggest the goal of a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Hong Kong’s government have escalated a conflict they need to end within a month, a move that appears to make no sense. The arrest of three moderate protest leaders on August 30, very predictably, energized, strengthened, and enlarged the movement, which already involves members of virtually every family in the territory. Refusing to issue permits for demonstrations paves the way for arrests of more organizers, more frustration, and more demonstrations.
Much of the violence in Hong Kong over the past months has been the work of criminal gangs that the authorities engaged, so it is reasonable to assume that more violence and violent police responses are seen as a tactical objective of the Beijing regime. Beijing officials have claimed they are pursuing a strategy of attrition, guiding the situation to a gradual reduction of conflict, but these claims lack credulity unless one is to believe the communist leadership is blind to the results of their actions.
The Hong Kong authorities’ steadfast and irrational refusal to address any of the movement’s concerns or demands has prolonged and intensified the civil conflict, and their tactics punish the territory’s entire population for the political disruptions. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has stonewalled requests to discuss the five main demands of the freedom and democracy movement, which has enraged and frustrated literally millions of her constituents by suggesting the demands have no legitimacy and that those making them do not even deserve an audience.
Lam’s recent announcement that she will establish a platform for “dialogue” with citizens is a clumsy and transparent effort to divide the restive population and deceive the international community. But while fooling no one, she has diminished her authority even further. It is unlikely she believed the futile symbolic gesture would tamp down the protests, and more likely she knew it would further inflame them. But she does as instructed. The government has clamped down on imports from the mainland and controlled the sale of helmets, masks, black t-shirts, umbrellas, and other protest paraphernalia, and restricted public transportation. No one, including Lam, can believe that a shortage of black t-shirts will end the protests or bring social peace to a community balking at the loss of their basic political rights and freedoms. On September 4, Lam announced that the proposed extradition bill, which sparked the current round of protests, would be withdrawn. But it was immediately clear this won’t stop broader demands for democracy and human rights. Pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong said it was “too little, too late … Carrie Lam’s response comes after 7 lives sacrificed, more than 1,200 protestors arrested, in which many are mistreated in police [custody].”
While authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong thus promote more and more violent protests, the prospect of such protests extending through September—and ruining a grandiose celebration of Chinese power, success, and sovereignty and President Xi’s leadership—is unacceptable. National Day on October 1 will be the first decennial anniversary for Xi. While including a massive military parade, Xi is intent on presenting to the world an image of a peaceful, harmonious, prosperous China under his leadership. This presentation of power has the added benefit of projecting Xi’s unchallenged position to the world, especially to his comrades in the Party. The event is essential to deter opposition from any side or direction as he seeks a third term.
Although he is taking pains not just to secure another term but to make himself “a president for life” as well, those things won’t happen if the event is clouded, and even made an object of ridicule, by the spectacle of young Hong Kongers defying not only the military might but also the CCP’s political-philosophical pretensions and the face Xi has tried to put on them. He cannot afford to have his “crowning ceremony” disturbed by Hong Kong as his numerous challengers and potential rivals would wish. To history’s great dictators, Xi included, uncontrolled, open challenges shake the legitimacy of their authority and often signal the beginning of the end of their power.
Xi knows that. To him, as well as to the entire regime, the forceful political resistance in Hong Kong has become increasingly subversive, potentially serving as a base for a feared “color revolution” not only there, but in the whole of China. It has brought the true nature of the communist dictatorship more clearly into focus for the international community, and especially in relations with the United States. Hong Kong has become more and more the frontline and symbol of a “new cold war” between China and America and the free world.
As the US-China trade war escalates and spills over to other fields such as security and fundamental values, the people of Hong Kong are more and more aligning with the United States and the free world on the ground of liberal principles based on universal human nature. And Xi’s diverse and extended family of opponents—including dissidents, Chinese human rights and democracy forces, “foreign hostile forces,” and his domestic rivals or potential challengers—have opportunistically extended their political and economic arms in Hong Kong.
From his point of view, Xi must bring Hong Kong to heel. He must ensure that Hong Kong won’t become a base opposing, openly challenging, humiliating, and disgracing him; it is the only space under his rule where that is a possibility. Hong Kong, furthermore, is destroying the “One Country, Two Systems” model for resolving the issue of Taiwan. If free space is secured in Hong Kong, replacing freedom in Taiwan with mainland communism will be impossible.
We are thus presented with what appear to be deep contradictions in how Beijing is responding to the massive freedom and democracy movement it faces in Hong Kong. If Xi, the CCP, and Carrie Lam want to diffuse the movement and prevent humiliation on October 1, why do they take steps that incite more anger, frustration, and protest? If they want to reduce violence, why do they promote it? The reason could well be that, with Hong Kong deemed a threat to the stability of China and to Xi’s leadership, he has decided to unscrupulously crush the movement in the coming month, taking the infamous Chinese “long view” that the regime should end the movement before it expands, use it to incite and exploit nationalism at home, and ride out international condemnation. The authorities want to incite more protests to provide a solid pretext for intervention, and a pretext for ending the autonomy of Hong Kong. The October 1 events will take place in the context of a demonstration of force and resolve.
There is substantial evidence to support this hypothesis. China has surprisingly softened its position in the escalating trade conflicts with the US by choosing not to raise tariffs, as it vowed to do, on $75 billion worth of American products, foregoing retaliation against new US tariffs on Chinese products. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both made statements suggesting a crackdown in Hong Kong would jeopardize a trade agreement. Xi’s softer stance could well indicate a strategy to soften Trump’s response, as Beijing prepares to go ahead with the action.
The mainland government could try to crush the movement without its direct involvement. Information leaking out of government circles alleges that Xi has ordered the Hong Kong government to minimize the impression of a Beijing-ordered and implemented intervention. There is talk of implementing the Hong Kong Emergency Regulation Ordinance, a law adopted by the British in 1922, instead of articles 14 and 18 of the Basic Law, which allow the People’s Liberation Army to restore order when necessary. It is tantamount to martial law. This may be Beijing’s and the Hong Kong authorities’ best choice.
Because it is a British law, it would be harder for the British and Americans to condemn such actions. But the top mainland authority responsible for Hong Kong affairs also asserted that Beijing has the authority to act unilaterally to restore order.
The common argument that Xi won’t end the One Country, Two Systems arrangement to preserve the benefits of Hong Kong’s autonomy does not hold up under scrutiny. The value of Hong Kong to China as an international finance center is still considerable, but rapidly diminishing, and that diminishing value is weighed against the political costs of Hong Kong’s resistance. When Beijing deems Hong Kong as directly threatening the regime’s stability, and to Xi’s own power, economic factors won’t stand in the way of ending its autonomy.
Over the decades, the CCP has accumulated “break and build” experience. It destroyed Shanghai when it was an international financial center of more importance than Hong Kong at that time; it then rebuilt Shanghai. More recently, the CCP gained even more relevant experience through Tiananmen and, subsequently, 30 years of beefing up its economic power. After only a few years, resulting international isolation and sanctions were broken, and Beijing not only got away with its atrocities but came back to be praised as a “human rights” champion in the UN for creating wealth and lifting millions out of poverty. Encouraged by these positive experiences and expertise in this strategy, the CCP is confident of its efficacy. If Xi found it necessary to break Hong Kong, economic considerations would not stop him.
All these factors point to a determination to heavy-handedly clear the Hong Kong mess before October 1, weathering international condemnation, and then buying off subdued Hong Kongers by pumping money into the economy, as happened with success after the Tiananmen massacre.
But what Xi and his followers fail to understand is that police violence, persecution, incarceration, torture, or even death, the weapons in Beijing’s arsenal of repression, won’t end the crusade for freedom in Hong Kong. They won’t break the solidarity of the community, its attachment to the principle of freedom, and its readiness to sacrifice for these goods, which the communist authorities do not understand or appreciate.
Perhaps Xi’s crackdown will come after October 1; he and Lam could orchestrate concessions aimed at trying to appease Hong Kong citizens until after the festivities. But it will never succeed. In this respect, the faith and courage of the young people should be an inspiration for us all, and for governments that claim to be part of the Free World. These Hong Kongers refuse to be afraid of the consequences of claiming their birthright to freedom. Neither should we.
This article first appeared in Providence on September 4, 2019