The anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong continue to escalate. Initially focused on opposition to legal amendments that would allow suspects to be extradited to China, they have broadened to encompass overall dissatisfaction about the way that China is ruling Hong Kong.
As the Hong Kong government has been unable to resolve the situation, Yang Guang (楊光), spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), on Monday last week held a news conference about the crisis, not ruling out military action, but reaffirming support for the territory’s government and police force.
On July 24, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense said in a media briefing that the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Garrisoning the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region gives the central government the right to dispatch troops to maintain public order in the territory if the Hong Kong Legislative Council requests it to.
When a reporter asked whether the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would intervene, Yang avoided the question, but the Chinese government insists that Hong Kong must be administered in accordance with the law, that Hong Kong police must enforce the law, that acts of violence must be severely punished and that actions taken by “patriotic” Hong Kongers must be supported.
If China insists on these points, and the protesters are unwilling to make concessions, the PLA is likely to intervene.
The context is similar to that of the 228 Incident in 1947, when Taiwanese were dissatisfied about rule imposed from outside, but the provincial government failed to meet their demands and had no choice but to ask the central government to send reinforcements.
A more profound reason in both cases — the sense of relative economic deprivation — is also similar.
Taiwan and Hong Kong were both colonized, by Japan and the UK respectively. As the colonies’ economies, culture and rule of law matured under colonial rule, their subjective self-awareness also gradually took form.
“Returning” to Chinese rule, Taiwan found itself governed by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist Party. In both cases, there was discord between the ex-colonies and the new authorities. Some people even suffered reversals of fortune, so it is no surprise that they feel resentful.
If the Chinese government wants to avoid repeating the mistakes that the KMT has made, it should avoid dispatching troops.
In peacetime, the armed forces are like a caged tiger, but once released, they can easily end up doing things other than what was intended, unfurling unforeseen consequences.
With the Chinese defense ministry saying that the PLA might intervene and the HKMAO coming out less strongly on the issue, it looks as though a struggle might be building between two forces within the Chinese government, with hardliners favoring a military solution that would produce immediate results and moderates sticking to a wait-and-see approach, less willing to talk about a military option.
How this situation differs from the Incident is the amount of international attention, which has to do with the two colonizing nations. Having been defeated in World War II, Japan was in no position to speak out for its former colony.
By contrast, although the UK is nowhere near as powerful as it used to be, it still has a significant position in the world and has close relations with the US, so China must pay attention to whatever the UK says about Hong Kong.
In view of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s outspoken support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing should think hard about where its interests lie.
Letting the protesters off lightly would bring world opinion around to Beijing’s side, while punishing them harshly might deter separatist movements in other parts of China. Each option has its advantages.
Apart from practical considerations, the choice that China makes will also take into account the demands of various forces within the nation.
Yang Chung-hsin is a researcher specializing in China.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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