As the conflict between the Hong Kong Police Force and protesters continues to escalate, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rotated troops stationed at its garrison in the territory. Meanwhile, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) has not ruled out dusting off colonial-era emergency laws as a means to quash the protest. The situation is worsening by the day.
On Aug. 30, police conducted a dragnet operation, arresting eight prominent protest leaders, including three sitting legislators and a district councilor. It is becoming increasingly clear that Beijing intends to use whatever means it has at its disposal to comprehensively crush Hong Kong’s resistance movement.
In reality, due to the large numbers of Hong Kongers participating in the democracy movement, new individuals constantly pop up to fill the ranks. This is because the movement is no freak accident and was never just about China’s proposed extradition bill: It is a broad-based social movement concerned about protecting Hong Kong’s liberal values, basic rights and unique lifestyle.
It is also a strong questioning of and pushback against Beijing’s handling of the “one country, two systems” model of governance, in effect since the former colony’s handover from Britain to China in 1997.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law explicitly states that Beijing will uphold Hong Kong’s capitalist system — thus “one country, two systems” — for a period of 50 years following the handover in 1997.
However, images of tanks rolling on to Tiananmen Square in 1989 to bloodily suppress the democracy movement lingers on in the memories of Hong Kongers: It has become a recurring nightmare and psychological trauma for many of the territory’s residents.
Over the 22 years since the handover, a seemingly endless number of marches, protests, demonstrations and political meetings has snowballed into a fully-fledged social movement. The majority of Hong Kongers no longer believe that the “one country, two systems” formula will bring a better tomorrow.
During protests in years gone by, the erosion of judicial independence, individual liberties and political rights, all guaranteed in the Basic Law, were the main reasons behind Hong Kong’s political and social unrest.
China’s leaders, of course, are used to rule by autocracy. As such, when considering how to deal with the chaos in Hong Kong, they might believe that they can ignore public opinion and employ similar methods to those used when dealing with the 1989 democracy movement, dispatching the PLA and the People’s Armed Police to put it down.
However, the consequences of such a decision would be disastrous for China.
First of all, a crackdown would attract international sanctions, which, similar to the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre, would further harm the US-China trade relationship and scupper trade talks.
Second, using force to quell the protests would simply be applying a temporary sticker plaster without solving the root of the problem. It would also eviscerate any remaining trust Hong Kongers have in Beijing and possibly precipitate a withdrawal of foreign investment from China.
Furthermore, it would force the protest movement underground and provide irrefutable proof of the complete failure of the “one country, two systems” model. Hong Kong’s previously prosperous and stable society would be thrown into perpetual turmoil.
Third, if Beijing were to use force, it would deliver a powerful gift to President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) ahead of next year’s presidential and legislative elections.
As Taiwan and Hong Kong are closely connected, and there is much sympathy for the plight of Hong Kongers in Taiwan, it would provide further legitimacy to Tsai’s tough stance against China and give her a landslide election victory.
Fourth, Taiwan and the US are cooperating ever more closely to ward off the threat from a rampant red China. The bilateral relationship between the two countries has never been stronger in recent memory.
Beijing will not want to see the Taiwan Strait become permanently divided, with an increasingly liberal democracy in Taiwan, supported by the US, on the one side, and its own communist, autocratic system of government on the other.
Of course, if China’s leaders were to pursue a strategy of making concessions to Hong Kong’s protest movement, the Chinese Communist Party would come under internal pressure. There would likely be an attempt by PLA generals and hawks within the party to oust the current leadership, while Hong Kongers’ demands for democracy could precipitate a domino effect that spreads to mainland China.
The combined force of independence movements in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet would pose a significant challenge to Beijing’s rule.
Faced with this dilemma, party leaders must put personal and party loyalties to one side and make coolheaded decisions that address a rapidly evolving environment both at home and abroad. They will have to make some choices.
As for the five demands issued by Hong Kong’s protesters, Beijing should adopt a “non- zero-sum,” strategic approach. The demand to implement universal suffrage for both the legislature and chief executive in Hong Kong would be the acid test of the long-term viability of the “one country, two systems” model.
The cost of accommodating Hong Kong’s protest movement would be far lower than the price Beijing would pay if it were to use force to suppress it. China’s leadership must act with restraint and moderation, and do all it can to avoid using state violence to resolve the issue.
Thomas Ho is professor and director of the Department of Future Studies and LOHAS Industry at Fo Guang University.
Translated by Edward Jones
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