Pictured: Riot police detain a pro-democracy protester on August 24, 2019 in Hong Kong. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
Protests in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (SAR) — which began in early June with demonstrators denouncing a proposed law to permit the extradition of SAR residents to the mainland to be tried in Chinese Communist courts — have entered their 12th week and show no signs of abating. If anything, they are becoming increasingly strident, with calls for the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration, among other broadening demands . The unfolding events present the Communist Party leadership in Beijing with a serious dilemma: to quell the protests with military force or wait until they die down.
According to a recent analysis in Bloomberg:
“In theory, [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] could quickly do away with Hong Kong’s autonomy and activate the city’s garrison overnight. But the likelihood of mobilizing troops remains low and the fallout from doing so — for both China and Xi personally — is potentially much higher than dealing with the political and economic repercussions of the protests, not least because he’s already engaged in a damaging trade war with U.S. President Donald Trump.”
The Hong Kong protests reportedly were a topic of debate at this year’s annual meeting of current and former Communist Chinese leaders, which was held in Beidaihe in early August. The discussions likely included possible courses of action that the Xi government could take, such as encouraging Hong Kong’s business community to call for an end to the demonstrations, for the purpose of restoring economic stability by reversing recent negative trends in retail sales, tourist-generated income and nervousness among foreign investors.
Beijing is currently exercising some version of this option, but by depicting protesters in a poor light — accusing them of being “terrorists” manipulated by “foreign forces” bent on harming China — and warning them to stop “playing with fire.”
China’s state media accused the demonstrators of conducting a “color revolution.” The name reflects Beijing’s sensitivity to how many of the former satellites of the USSR successfully seceded from the Soviet Empire, employing different colors of the rainbow as a symbol of their revolutionary intent.
Beijing also attempted to discredit the protesters through hundreds of fake accounts on social media. To their credit, Facebook and Twitter discontinued the Chinese government’s access to those accounts.
A more forceful option that the Xi government may decide to pursue involves the infiltration of Hong Kong’s local police force with the People’s Liberation Army Garrison. Beijing cannot count on the loyalty of the Hong Kong police force, many of whose members are close relatives of the protesters.
Moreover, the Hong Kong police have proven unable to control, much less terminate, the protests. Acknowledging this reality, Carrie Lam could request the intervention of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), a paramilitary force stationed in the nearby town of Shenzen in mainland China’s Guangdong Province.
It may be, however, that Lam, a Catholic, would be loath to make such a request — formally — as a heavy-handed Chinese intervention could endanger the independence of Hong Kong’s economic, political and religious institutions.
Alternatively, the People’s Republic of China Liaison Office might bypass Lam’s local administration and order the deployment of the PAP, China’s most effective arm against domestic strife. If this option is exercised, Hong Kong would be completely bypassed by the Chinese Defense Ministry.
Any move by Beijing aggressively to suppress the people of Hong Kong’s demand for the full implementation of their democratic rights would further hobble foreign investment, thereby seriously eroding the economic blueprint of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. A military solution would render meaningless Xi’s flowery rhetoric of a “win-win” international system, and reveal it as part of its scheme to fulfill its global hegemonic ambitions. Mainland and archipelago Southeast Asian nations would likely seek alternatives to Chinese regional leadership. One such alternative might be a U.S. Indo-Pacific community of nations.
In addition, any crackdown on the protesters in Hong Kong would likely dissuade Taiwan, and likely everyone else, from considering support for Beijing’s “one country, two systems” policy to solve the island’s standoff with the mainland’s People’s Republic.
China’s ruling Communist Party might decide , therefore, that an armed suppression of the Hong Kong demonstrations would be too costly, economically, politically and in terms of public relations. If so, the Xi administration may decide, instead, to tamp down the spiraling crisis, by ordering Lam to meet with protest leaders and agree to shelve extradition legislation and to establish a commission to investigate local police brutality — both original demands of the protestors.
Although such a maneuver could benefit Xi’s reputation internationally, his rivals within the Communist Party might criticize him for what they would consider to be acts of weakness and capitulation to the protesters, possibly encouraging what Xi might consider the greatest threat: opposition from his own 1.5 billion people on the mainland, who might also secretly be wishing for more freedom in their lives. China is a totalitarian power that cannot brook any source of independent thinking. Fearing that the Hong Kong protests could prove contagious, Beijing is more likely to crush, rather than cede, to the protesters.
Xi may assess that any opprobrium endured by Beijing if it used force against the protesters would dissipate, just as it did 30 years ago when former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the 1989 massacre of student protesters in Tiananmen Square.
As China continues ostensibly to weigh its options, then, any optimism on the part of the protesters and the West appears to be premature.
The real “elephant in the room” not being addressed, however, is what the Hong Kong protests are really about: 2047, when Hong Kong is supposed to be handed over to China without any “one country, two systems” protection. What then?
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.